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December 22, 2004
That Nayan Mongia retired with just 44 Tests to his name would suggest that all wasn't well with Indian cricket. After all, he was, by some distance, the best wicketkeeper in the land, even at the age of 35. That, though, was one side of the story. The other, with its twists and turns, could easily be adapted into a Bollywood script, with allegations of skulduggery, tiffs with team-mates, and alleged involvement in the match-fixing scandal.
From the time he succeeded Kiran More, it was assumed that Mongia would go on to be the next in a fine tradition of Indian keepers, upholding the standards set by men like Naren Tamhane, Farokh Engineer and Syed Kirmani. Mongia's glovework to both spin and pace was superb, and he was also a doughty batsman when the challenge appealed to him.
After an epic 152 that defied Glenn McGrath, Paul Reiffel and Peter McIntyre for over eight hours at New Delhi in October 1996 - he had been promoted to open - the job should have been his for as long as he wanted. But by then, the first whispers were doing the rounds about his supposed activities off the field. At Green Park in Kanpur in October 1994, he had batted 21 balls for just 4 as Manoj Prabhakar crawled to a century at the other end, in a match where India made conspicuously little effort to overhaul the West Indies total of 257.
When the match-fixing scandal broke half a decade later, and Mongia's name got the odd mention, there were few gasps of indignation from supporters. Though he was never convicted of any offence, the establishment seemed to have lost faith in the man, despite his undoubted talent.
His fate was sealed against Australia a year later, with two reckless innings at the Wankhede Stadium, where all that was missing was a bloodstained head-band and cries of "Banzai". He was persisted with for the historic Kolkata Test which India won after following on, but after there was a heated altercation about his selection in front of the Chepauk dressing-rooms, Sameer Dighe took Mongia's place for the decisive Chennai Test.
Thereafter, although certain sections of the media would periodically bring up his name whenever India's keeping conundrum came up for discussion, there was a notable lack of enthusiasm from former team-mates, none of whom lobbied actively for his inclusion ahead of greenhorns like Deep Dasgupta and Parthiv Patel. Until the final slight from Baroda that has now ended his career, Mongia maintained that he had been unfairly victimised, but his peers remained tight-lipped.
When the history of Indian cricket in the modern era is written, Nayan Mongia's name seems certain to go into the what-might-have-been list, alongside others who couldn't quite do justice to precious reserves of talent.
Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Cricinfo.
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