January 13, 2011

India's lost boys

Is there something in the national character that makes young talents taper away unfulfilled? That ensures brilliance is too easily satisfied?

A chilly London summer evening in 1967 during the tour of the Indian Schoolboys' team: three balls left, 11 runs needed for victory. The first delivery, fast and swinging, uproots a stump. In strides a cocky southpaw, unfazed by the odds. He smites the first ball he receives for six. Five needed in the gathering gloom. The fast bowler pounds in. The callow left-hander dances down the pitch, converts the intended yorker into a full toss, and heaves it over the boundary. Match won. Cricketing India wakes up to the most exciting schoolboy batsman of his generation, 18-year-old Surinder Amarnath.

The magic doesn't last. Several similar episodes dot a maddening career that epitomises the most Indian of cricketing phenomena: that of the brilliant but erratic and ultimately unfulfilled genius. His century on his belated Test debut, aged 27, in Auckland, hard on the heels of one in his first "unofficial Test", against Sri Lanka, a few months earlier. Topping the batting averages against the touring Englishmen in 1976-77. And hitting 60 against Imran and Sarfraz in their pomp, in a losing cause, in what would prove to be his final Test series. His 235 not out against a star-studded Rest of India side in 1980-81, after which he was inexplicably omitted from the Indian side touring Australia, was an injustice he underscored with a silken 140 against a near-Test-level English side for the Cricket Association of Bengal's Jubilee XI. Surinder Amarnath, a batsman so naturally gifted that his friends sometimes forced this natural right-hander to adopt the handicap of batting left-handed, ended his first-class career with just 16 centuries in 145 matches at an average of 40, and a modest Test record, cut short by selectoral caprice, of 550 runs at 30 in just 10 matches. What potential, what results, what a pity.

And yet Surinder has a rival for the distinction of being the poster child for wasted genius. Friends, I present to you Vinod Kambli: sharer of the world-record schoolboy partnership of 664 (unbroken) with Sachin Tendulkar, a batsman who hit his first delivery ever in the Ranji Trophy for six, and who took Shane Warne for 22 in an over, the first Indian to score two Test double-centuries in a row against two different opponents, a man with four Test centuries to his name in his first seven Tests, who ended his career at the sadly young age of 24 with a Test batting average of 54.20 (not to mention a first-class average of nearly 60, including 35 hundreds and 44 fifties in just 129 matches). How could India afford to omit a player of this quality? Dark whispers speak of issues of temperament, of a fatal fondness for alcohol, of players' sleep being disturbed by a raucous Kambli's carousing after dark during matches. Whatever the truth, there is no question in anyone's mind that Kambli had potential comparable only to Tendulkar's. What one made of it through diligence and application, the other frittered away.

In 1982, when Kambli and Tendulkar were barely a gleam in a cricket coach's eye, I wrote a lament in The Cricketer International about the transformation of Indian batsmanship from the ethos of the flamboyant entertainer to "the Gavaskar-Shastri-Vengsarkar school of cricket as an exercise in attrition". Accepting the article for publication, the then editor, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, wrote back asking, "Sandeep Patil a bit of an exception?" I certainly hoped so, having caught glimpses on TV of his epochal 174 against Lillee and Pascoe in Adelaide in 1980-81 (an innings after having been knocked out by a bouncer in the previous Test). Indeed, CMJ was briefly vindicated when, in that 1982 summer, Patil creamed 129 not out off the Ashes-winning English attack, including taking 24 off a Bob Willis over. But the rest of his career echoed Amarnath's and Kambli's: inconsistent enough to be dropped more often than he was picked, with personal problems even causing him to pull out of a tour of the West Indies, Patil's Test average of 36.93 in 29 matches did scant justice to his prodigious talent. He played his last Test at 28, even though he had another eight seasons of first-class cricket left in him.

But what can you say about a player who played his last Test at 20? Laxman Sivaramakrishnan took 7 for 28 on his Ranji Trophy debut at the age of 16, and that too against formidable Delhi, followed it up by becoming the youngest Indian Test cricketer (before Tendulkar), and was still only 18 when he took six wickets in each innings to bowl India to a Test win against England in Mumbai in 1984, a match I was thrilled to watch. He had another six-for in the next Test and was adjudged Man of the Series while still a boy, then bamboozled Javed Miandad in the final of the World Championship of Cricket later that season in Australia. Yet no sooner had he attained voting age than he lost his bowling ability. Rare are the cases of such prodigious talent simply disappearing with adulthood, but in Siva's case things reached a pretty pass when he was reduced to fighting for his Tamil Nadu Ranji place as a batsman.

Maninder Singh's rise and fall almost paralleled Siva's - briefly hailed as the heir-apparent to Bishan Singh Bedi as a loopy left-arm spinner in a patka, match-winning turns against England in the victorious summer of 1986 and against Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the series that followed at home, and then a dreadful case of the yips. Two abortive comebacks later, he ended his 35-Test career at the age of 27 with 88 wickets at over 37, a far cry from the hopes he had roused as a 17-year-old.

Of contemporary cricketers, at least two seem in danger of adding their names to this tragically distinguished list. No one who saw Irfan Pathan swinging India to victory in the one-day series in Pakistan in 2003-04, or taking a hat-trick against the same team two years later, or scoring a century against them the year after that, or winning the Man of the Match in a Test in Australia and in the final of the inaugural World Twenty20 tournament in South Africa, would imagine that he could be washed up at 25. And yet he is deemed to have lost his mojo to the point where he is not even in the frame for selection for the 2011 World Cup.

Parthiv Patel became India's youngest-ever Test wicketkeeper at 17 and was dropped when barely 21; despite brief appearances since, he has fallen behind in the wicketkeeping pecking order, unsure whether to make his mark as a battling one-day opener, a sturdy Test gloveman or a utility player, and so far failing to establish himself as the best in the country in any of those roles.

There's nothing uniquely Indian about unfulfilled potential, of course, and yet India seems to offer more egregious examples of it than most cricketing countries. The first seven Indian batsmen to score a century on Test debut never made another: it was almost as if ambition was satisfied at the first triumph. Is there something in our national character that ensures brilliance is too easily satisfied? Or is it the huge pressure of the expectations of the cricket-obsessed millions that many believe they can never meet? Is it, conversely, the huge rewards the game offers in India that distract the gifted young man before he can rise to the full heights of which he is capable? Whatever it is, to paraphrase the poet Whittier, of all the sad words about the cricketing scene, the saddest are these: "it might have been".

Shashi Tharoor is an Indian MP and a former United Nations Under-Secretary General

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Android on February 20, 2014, 18:15 GMT

    how can anyone forget the mercurial sadanand vishwanath behind stumps in the champions trophy India won in Australia

  • Raghvender on January 16, 2011, 16:19 GMT

    I don't think, it is money or fame that destroys the cricketer, Actually it is like a smart student does'nt take his studies seriously because he knew he'll pass even if he studies night before the exam..... It never occur to him that he can top the class or university if he puts little bit of hard work.....it is similar with a cricketer, because of their talent they rose to fame but the problem is they stop learning and then their slide begins.... their r many cricketers on this list some of them r:- 1. Narendra Hirwani 2. laxman Siva rama krishnan 3. Vinod Kamli 4. Maninder Singh 5. Hanumant Singh 6. Mohd Kaif 7. Surendra Amarnath some of the non- indians r:- 1. Wajah tulah wasti 2. Mohd Ashraful 3. Lou Vincient 4. Jacques Rudolph 5. Abdul razzaq(he has decent career but this guy had the ablity to be one of the greatest player pakistan ever produced) these r some of the few

    And if yuvraj does'nt play test match for india in future, he will also be termed as a under achiever

  • Dummy4 on January 16, 2011, 5:38 GMT

    A couple of names i thought were worth a mention were the TN opener S. Ramesh and probably a more notable name missing is Mohd. Kaif. In my opinion these are two players we've lost due to mismanagement and lack of communication by the selectors and the Board.

  • Dummy4 on January 15, 2011, 16:25 GMT

    i think this is a good one as most of the players leave the team without being given a chance to showthemselves.

  • Nelson on January 15, 2011, 1:03 GMT

    What about Rajinder Goel from Haryana?

    Goel appeared for India against Ceylon in an unofficial Test at Ahmedabad in 1964-65 where he took 4 for 33 in the second innings. Thereafter, the presence of the "Indian spin quartet", especially Bishen Bedi who bowled similar style, restricted his appearances for India

  • Ajay on January 15, 2011, 0:35 GMT

    There is no dearth of talent in cricket or for that matter, any other sport. What differentiates the achievers from those that lost out, is sheer hard work. In one of the interviews on here with Sadagopan Ramesh (one of those that lost out), he indicates that he was amazed with the hard work that Rahul Dravid put in. Paul Colingwood is a great example of hard work with not much talent. We will continue to see talented players on the horizon and only those that sweat it out will make it to the zenith - India or any other country

  • Rileen on January 14, 2011, 21:59 GMT

    Well written, but weird over-generalizations involving "national character".

    Let us not forget that the "huge rewards" are a relatively recent thing, be it IPL or post-1983. Certainly you can't apply that reasoning to the first 7 centurions-on-debut not going on to score another.

    I think the likeliest explanation is simply that one is more familiar with cases of unfulfilled potential when they're from one's own country, since we follow the buzz from the time they make a mark in first-class cricket, and are more involved. So we remember people like Vivek Razdan, but not similar cases from other countries. I'm pretty sure few non-Indians will remember him, and so on.

  • Dummy4 on January 14, 2011, 20:16 GMT

    I would like to add Vijay Bharadwaj from Bangalore. He was such a good player. Dinesh Mongia, Murali Karthik join the brigade

  • Dummy4 on January 14, 2011, 18:46 GMT

    Other players whose dreams have been dashed by selectors include: Sandeep Patil, Wasim Jaffer, Sairaj Bahutule, Jatin Paranjpe, Amol Muzumdar, Abey Kuruvilla and now Robin Uthappa

    I think these were extremely talented players who had a lot to offer to Indian cricket

  • Dummy4 on January 14, 2011, 14:15 GMT

    I'm from Bangladesh , I think though I agree with all you said , there is something I want to add. Mohammad Ashraful , former Bangladesh captain will be best known for the youngest person to score Test century on debut , that was in 2001 against SriLanka . He has still manged to get a recall and even been selected for WC 2011 after 10 years . His stats are 22 in Test and 23 in ODI's . Chaminda Vaas of SriLanka has a better Test average 24 in Test. The persistence of BCB with Ahraful was spectacular . Even with consistent scores of 10's and 20's , he for a moment was thought to have obtained a eternal immunity from not being dropped from Bangladesh cricket team .

    He is a classic example of being a prodigy with a score 100 run in his 1st test match . I wish he had not done that . BD might have seen something better of him if he hadn't score those runs . He could have been even out for 99 . But there was something very special in his 100.

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