April 4, 2001

Madan Lal: We are not here to destroy anybody's career

Madan Lal is a man of many avatars. He's been a player, a coach and is now one of the more powerful men in Indian cricket today as a national selector. People say ultimately he is the one who tilts the scales either for or against a player. Known to be a straight talking cricketer all his life, Madan Lal is no different today. Not one to run away from controversy of hard talking (some say short pitched fast bowling is the only fear the man had), Madan Lal took time off to talk to this correspondent about the long past that brought him where he is. From 1971 as a successful Vizzy Trophy cricketer to 2001 as a selector, Madan Lal shares his thoughts on how cricket has treated him.

AV: Lets start by talking about your beginnings, the Vizzy Trophy in 1970-71 where you first attracted attention...

ML: That was a long time ago. I remember playing in the Vizzy Trophy in Chennai. I got 22 wickets in two matches! I still remember it vaguely. I think the ball was moving a lot on that occasion. In the first match itself I had a few wickets. In the second match my captain told me not to bowl because I had enough wickets. I insisted and asked for the ball and got some more wickets. My captain was Ashwini Marwa from Delhi University. He helped me a lot by giving me enough opportunity to bowl. The 22 wickets I took in total was a record for the Vizzy Trophy. I still remember that day actually. There were no stands behind the bowler at the end from which I was bowling. There was a strong breeze blowing from the far end too. Even today I can still visualise the ball moving.

AV: Then there was the tour of Sri Lanka in 1973-74 where you combined so well with Pandurang Salgaonkar.

ML: I think pace bowling for India really started from there. Both of us finished the unofficial Test match in about four days. We got 17 wickets between us. I remember clearly that we won the match for the team. It was a very good Test match for me as I picked up 10 wickets. It was only after that match that people started talking about me.

AV: Your official Test debut of course was against England at Old Trafford in 1974. You dismissed Tony Greig and Alan Knott in quick succession...

ML: I still remember that very clearly. I think I was wearing three pullovers, it was that cold. The wind was so hard that it made bowling very difficult. I bowled a couple of overs against the wind and that was particularly hard. Then I changed ends, bowled with the wind on my back and that's when I picked up those two wickets. It was really a new experience for me back in 1974, bowling on green wickets. It's always good to get a few wickets in your first Test match.

AV: You didn't have a particularly good time with the bat though.

ML: That's right. Before the series started I was the top man in both the batting and bowling averages. I was really doing well. But then again I was a raw young Punjabi. I was really never bothered about anything. I simply wanted to hit every ball out of the ground. Even if people bowled bouncers I went for the hook shot at will. I never realised that this might pose a problem for me later on. I was a passionate player who wanted to do everything himself. The wind was so hard, the ball was moving, it was so difficult to bat. It was so cold that it was difficult to even open your eyes! I had a rough game batting wise. Mind you, I was picked as a bowler. I was supposed to get a few runs and chip in because my first class record says that I can bat a bit. (laughs)

AV: After that tour you were dropped. And then you came back against the West Indies in the third Test at Calcutta in 1974-75. That must have been your first taste of really quick bowling.

ML:You're right there. I was dropped because I didn't have a good series with the bat. Those days you had to contribute with the bat as well. We had four spinners at the end of the line up and I used to bat at number six or seven. I was supposed to get runs. But I didn't do justice to my batting.

AV: In 1975 there was the World Cup in England, where India lost to England, New Zealand and where Sunil Gavaskar made his infamous 36 not out of 60 overs. What are your memories of that?

ML: I still have very strong memories. At that time One-Day cricket was not played as it is today. We were all just beginners in 1975. We had no experience of One-Day games. I don't blame anyone during those games. We had some rough times with One-Day games back then.

AV: You got your first five wicket haul against New Zealand in Christchurch in 1976, when India made twin tours of New Zealand and West Indies. That must have been a special moment.

ML: In my time, most of the bowling used to be done by the spinners. Whether it was in India or outside that was the case as the spinners were our strength. We (the mediumpacers) used to get bowling only in breaks. First you got to bowl five overs, then come back before lunch, before tea and that sort of thing. We weren't even encouraged much in those days.

AV: With the bat however you had a pretty good series this time around.

ML: I always enjoyed my batting. I used to love to bat. I believed that in India you had to be able to bat as well if you wanted to survive as a mediumpacer. I worked very hard on my batting. I used to try and get at least 30-40 runs coming in at number six or seven. If you do that, you can put together a small partnership and add valuable runs. I remember getting runs in Barbados. It's more thrilling getting runs when you are a bowler. That way you are contributing more to the team.

AV: The next big game for you was the five wicket haul against Australia at Brisbane in 1977-78.

ML: I took nine wickets in two games and was promptly dropped! I was told that it was because I had not done well with the bat. Remember I was selected as a bowler, not as a batsman. People don't understand that. I know that I had serious problems against fast bowling. Whenever someone bowled a bouncer at me I used to close my eyes. That was a technical flaw. I did badly in the Tests but managed quite well in the four day game we played. Even against the quickies like Alan Hurst I made 88 at Melbourne. There was too much pressure on me to get runs in the Tests. I never relaxed when I was batting in a Test match and that did not help.

AV: You were out of the team for 35 Test matches. That must have been a hard time for you.

ML: Actually that was the best thing that could have happened to me. People say that it was terrible that I got dropped and things like that. But for me personally it was a good period because it gave me time to go back to the basics and work on my batting. I was living in Delhi then and I returned to my home in Amritsar to work on my batting. I concentrated on batting, particularly against short pitched stuff. I began with a tennis ball. Then I realised that a tennis ball doesn't hurt anyone and took to a leather ball! That really helped me overcome technical flaw against fast bowling.

AV: The biggest moment in your career must have been when India won the World Cup in 1983. In the final you played a key role, taking three crucial wickets.

ML: We had played against West Indies quite a few times before the final. Most of us knew what was needed when playing against them and that helped us. Let's be honest - no one gave us a chance in 1983. But we all were confident that we would do well. And in the end, we won and surprised everybody!

AV: 1042 runs from 39 Tests at an average of 22.65 and 71 wickets at 40 apiece. Compare this to a Ranji career where you had over 5000 runs and over 350 wickets. At the end of the day are you happy with that?

ML: No. I'm not at all happy with that. My Test career was a very rough ride. I wanted to make a mark at the international level and missed out. That's the way life goes. Sometimes it hurts when I look back at that. I really feel that I have not done justice to my talent at the international level.

AV: What about your experience as coach of the Indian team in 1997?

ML: It was a wonderful experience. I really learnt a lot. I wanted to be a successful coach. I had a very good stint with the United Arab Emirates team. I wanted to be very successful as coach of the Indian team as well, but there was a lot of pressure on me. I sometimes think I was too straightforward a person for the job. In that process I made a few mistakes. My record isn't that bad though. We won against South Africa, against Pakistan, then in the Titan Cup. The Barbados Test where we failed chasing 120 was very difficult for me personally. That really broke my back. I thought I had enough then. That was easily the biggest blow I got in my life. But you have to take it in your stride. I must say that I don't have anything against anybody though. I enjoyed myself with the team. I can still walk with my head held high. I did my best as a coach and people know that.

AV: You're still giving something back to the game as a national selector. What's that like?

ML: This is the toughest job I've ever done I think. It is very difficult to satisfy the public and the players. I'm not really answerable to anyone in particular. It's my conscience that guides me. If I am honest and believe in myself, I can convince people about my decisions. I can actually put it both ways - I can say I enjoy the job or that I don't. It's frustrating when things don't go right for you. It's such a big country. Only 14 or 15 can be selected. Someone is bound to be left out and annoyed. I believe that most players select themselves. They get dropped because of their own mistakes too. We are not here to destroy anybody's career. I enjoy the job, all things considered. When I pick a player I back him through and through. That helps me keep my conscience clear.