'I speak from the heart, not the head'
How differently do you see this game at 60 from the way you saw it at 20?
It is different in the sense that there is a much wider following than in the 1960s, when I was growing up. Then it was a majority male following, but now I think it's fairly mixed. You've got women of all ages interested in the game, thanks to the Twenty20 mainly.
Would you have been happier playing today than when you played? With far more money, and fame.
Maybe not, for the simple reason that there was an innocence about the game when I was kid, which is perhaps not quite there now. I think I would prefer the innocence of the game that was there when I was a teenager.
Earlier, cricket was not just a sport. It was also about the great qualities of life it represented. Has there been a fundamental shift in the way people approach the game today?
Not to a great extent. But for instance, when people didn't do the right thing, the saying used was "That's not cricket". Now that does not hold as much water as it did then. Mainly because, I think, the game has become commercial and therefore some of the old values have gone out of it. But it's still a fantastic game. I think it is a far more attractive game to watch from a spectator's point of view.
Has the romance of cricket fallen victim to money?
Well, I guess it's now a win-at-all-cost system. The unpleasant things that happen in the game have come to the fore, so therefore I think in a sense the romance is gone. The appreciation of the game, whether it was by your own team or by the opposition, is not quite so much. You rarely see fielders go up to applaud somebody getting a half-century any more. Players are aware that the TV cameras are on them. So they might have just one clap and that's it - almost as if to say that if you have more than two or three claps for the opposition, then it's a kind of weakness. I don't think that's a correct thing.
Has technique become redundant or superfluous? Look at Virender Sehwag and Adam Gilchrist and the kind of success they have enjoyed. Do you think this is the modern approach to cricket?
I have always believed that technique has never been a huge part of sport. Temperament is your No. 1 thing. You could have the best technique in the world, but if your temperament is bad, you'll be nowhere. While if the temperament is good and you don't have great technique, you will be able to do well. You have the ability inside you which makes you hang in there, makes you go on. That's what separates the men from the boys.
So does approach, upbringing and the attitude towards the game. The difference in the style that you see from the 1950s, 60s or 70s is the upbringing. In those days [you were told] not to hit the ball in the air, not to take risks. Coaches today encourage youngsters to play aerial shots or unorthodox shots, try different things. That is what has made the game so attractive.
What is the biggest issue confronting the game today?
The gap that is developing between some of the Test-playing countries and the others. A few Test-playing countries have developed fantastic cricket, while others have stagnated or gone down. Now that is the biggest challenge - to be able to make all the 10 Test-playing countries into pretty much equal cricketing powers. That is never going to happen. But even if you have six countries, that will be a big step forward.
In recent times you have been a vehement critic of on-field sledging.
I have never been against banter. But sledging is nothing really but abuse of the opposition. Sometimes players get away saying things to the opposition on the field that they would never get away with saying to anybody off the field. One day this might lead to a physical confrontation on the field. Why do you want get to that stage?
Are you trying to tell me the Bradmans, the Benauds, the Cowdreys, the Soberses did that? They didn't. There might be a joke or two, where even the butt of the joke laughs. A little gamesmanship did not affect us either. Today it is not that.
I don't mind the four-letter word thrown into a sentence. That's not a problem at all. It's when the "you so and so" gets in there that it becomes personal. That is what I feel is an absolutely unnecessary part of the game. We never heard the Merchants, Hazares, Amarnaths ever say anything abusive to their mates, so why should it happen here?
You were like a one-man spearhead, especially against England and Australia, in several matters, as player and even later. Was this part of some deep-seated anti-colonialism in you?
Not at all. I have been vocal about it because I have seen it happening. It was happening increasingly, so I've spoken about it. Those who say that this is a part of the game are talking nonsense. Banter yes, abuse no.
Do you sense some kind of resentment to India's rise to power, at least financial power?
No, I don't think so. That's not a factor at all. You just want the game to be a good sport at the end of it without people abusing each other.
Let me explain. The Roger Federer versus Andy Roddick 2009 Wimbledon final was an epic game. If Roddick serves at 120 miles per hour, Federer trying to hit a backhand gets the top edge of the racket and the ball lands on the baseline, allowing Federer to get an absolutely fluky lucky point. Would Roddick abuse Federer because of the luck that he has? Then why should a bowler stand at his end and abuse a batsman who got an inside edge that went to the boundary, or who played and missed half a dozen times? Federer and Roddick are playing for a major title and for millions of pounds, for rankings and stuff like that. Why should it be different in cricket? Why go for wild abuse in a match? That's wrong. The game will be better off without all this. It's also a bad influence on young, upcoming players watching on television.
Did something early in your career provoke these sentiments against sledging?
It happened to me only once. I was staggered that a player who was making his debut in Tests - and I was well past 100 Tests at the time - stood at the end of his follow-through after I had cut him over slips for a boundary and swore at me. I couldn't believe it. That was probably the only occasion.
What do you think about the Twenty20-versus-Tests debate? Is Test cricket under threat?
I don't think Test cricket is under threat. It has been there for more than 100 years. Test cricket will become far more attractive as it became after the advent of one-day cricket. We saw more results, less dot-balls, and it became far more result-oriented. The same thing will happen with the influence of Twenty20. There will be a lot more runs scored in a day than earlier, which means plenty of results and more excitement for viewers at the ground and on television.
You don't see the demise of bowlers, as some players predict?
Look at the way the bowlers have come back in the Twenty20 game. They have learnt how to bowl, what fields to set, and suddenly they have got clobbered less. They will get occasionally clobbered by good batsmen, but they are also striking back. In the ICC World Twenty20, bowlers probably got as many players-of-the-match awards as batsmen or allrounders.
You first played Tests for India 40 years ago. Is there anything you would do differently now?
There are a couple things I would obviously want to do if given another chance. Like our World Cup match , where I got 36 not out. I would throw my wicket away now - which I wasn't brought up to do. Earlier on, the mindset was different. I think today I might feel a little more flexible as far as throwing-a-wicket-type situation is concerned.
Even in the Melbourne incident, where I was provoked into asking Chetan [Chauhan] to leave the field, let me clarify that this decision was not taken at first but when I was making my way back to the pavilion and was almost 10 yards down when I was abused by the Australians. That's when I came back and took Chetan away. I wouldn't come back to do this today, because as a captain, whatever the provocation, I should have kept my cool. Yes, these are the two things I would have definitely changed.
People feel that SMG is mellowing and then some new controversy comes up. Have you mellowed or not?
[Laughs] I don't know… If I feel strongly about something, I say it. The problem is I haven't learnt to use my head when I speak or I write, despite doing it for all these years. I still feel with my heart and say something and then a storm is created. Using words that cause little or no offence is a creative activity. But I write or speak from the heart and not the head.
But you can deal with criticism better now?
Because I no longer feel the pressures of performing.
When is the definitive autobiography coming?
Maybe I am writing too much. I have got columns and match reports, so maybe that's dulled the need to write. Besides, my first autobiography [Sunny Days] created a storm. Again I used my heart and not my head. Perhaps the usage of words could have conveyed the same meaning without causing offence. So if I have to write a definitive book, it would have to be honest. Some big reputations might get a bit of a dent once again. So why…
You have never pushed your son Rohan, but do you have any sense of disappointment that he could not go the distance with the India cap?
Look, I wanted him to be a good human being. For me that was the most important thing. Being a cricketer or a doctor, engineer, journalist was his choice. I just wanted him to be content with what he was. All the feedback that I get from all those who have interacted with him is nothing but positive, which pleases me no end. As far as his cricket is concerned, I keep teasing him all the time that his father used up all the luck and that's why he didn't have much left for him.
You batted perfectly in your career; you believe in structures and systems and temperament and in the hard logic of batting technique - everything to suggest that you are a very rational person. How do you explain your strong faith and trust in Sai Baba?
If I tried to go deep into that, I don't think people would understand. For me, he is everything. He is the ultimate. Just thinking of him gives me such a sense of completeness, such a sense of well-being. And the knowledge that he is looking after me is such a great sense of comfort, not just for me but also my whole family. It is hard to really describe it.
You have been pretty much identified as a loner, a man who lived in his own world as a player, even though cricket is a team game. But you do have a lot of friends.
If you meet my buddies or friends whom I hang out with, they'll give you a different picture. Even during my playing days. It is an image. if you play serious and risk-free cricket, the image you get is different. Even when I played, due to my prankster habits, I really got into trouble with some of my seniors. That's a part which wasn't seen by anybody. There was no media explosion like now. I thank God for it.
You have said in your book that the Indian dressing room wasn't the best place to be in.
Yes, maybe on an occasion or during an odd Test match or a series. But 99.9% of the time it was an absolute honour to share the room with my team-mates and play for the country. For all those guys who went out and gave it their best - it was a great honour to play with them. The happiest moments have been off the field. When I went to Hyderabad in the 1980s and saw Shivlal Yadav's house. To see Roger's [Binny] or Gundappa's [Viswanath] house gave me a lot of pleasure. They gave it everything, just like everyone else in the team, but they didn't get the endorsements or rewards that Kapil [Dev] or I got, or to an extent Ravi [Shastri] and Dilip [Vengsarkar] got. But believe you me, their contribution is no less than ours. If they hadn't been in the Indian dressing room and on the field then we wouldn't have been able to do half of what we did.
So when you look back at the 70s and 80s, some of the old enmities have been sandpapered and smoothed out?
Yes they are. To a great extent this was perception or speculation, not anything serious. People weren't that close to the scene and just got bits and pieces and jumped to their own conclusions. This doesn't happen only in cricket. We are all always waiting for a good story about something bad about others. I would look at it like that.
At one point of time you were considered to be a mercenary, yet you had the great ability to completely separate your mental processes when you went out to bat. Was this difficult?
I don't accept to being a mercenary. I didn't play for people simply because they paid me money. Yes, I spoke on behalf of the players, for what the players' body or the fraternity felt. For a better deal. I expressed myself maybe because they made me the spokesperson and then when I became the captain I was automatically the spokesperson of the team. I did take up their issues.
Even today, you speak to cricket officials and explain to them, you will be surprised how much they will do it for you. You have to be completely articulate. The administrators were happy to listen to us. We also learnt that having told them to do something, we had to be patient about it, so I don't think there was a too much of a problem.
Who would you pick as the all-time greats who came after your retirement who you would have loved to play against?
Tendulkar and Lara are the first who come to mind. Then of course Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, and Wasim Akram are some who also would be right up there. Another one would be Anil Kumble. He is such an unassuming player, with 600-plus wickets and the records that he has. He is a fantastic cricketer.
Once, you were seen as anti-establishment. Now you're on the governing council of the IPL and close to the BCCI, though now out of the ICC…
Cricket is my life. It is heaven, therefore, to be a part of it or do something for the game. [To be with the] ICC was a huge honour and privilege. Despite all that, if I do feel something strongly, I still say it. See, here I go again with my heart leading my head.
Ayaz Memon is editor at large with DNA, where this interview was first published