December 3, 2013

'You remember winning, not doing well in a losing cause'

Ajit Agarkar looks back at the high point of his career, Adelaide 2003, and talks of his disappointment at not playing more one-dayers for India

Excerpts from the show

Subash Jayaraman: You didn't have the prototypical body type to be a fast bowler, and yet you were one. Where did the pace come from?

Ajit Agarkar: I had to work pretty hard off the field to maintain my fitness. The speed generally came from a fast arm action. But it was also a combination of all the fitness work that I did off the field. I had to push myself that much harder to have the fitness to last while bowling the way I did. It took a lot out of my body.

SJ: You were actually a batsman growing up and you were an accidental bowler. Correct?

AA: Yes. Sort of. I mean, I always loved bowling, but I never bowled with any sort of pace when I was growing up. I swung the ball, but getting older, I suddenly realised I could bowl some bumpers. Once you realise you can bowl bouncers, it is always exciting. And then it just happened - as you said, accidental, but a good accident.

SJ: I saw this interview from 2000 in which you said that you were a confidence bowler. What gave you confidence and what were the things that eroded your confidence as a bowler?

AA: It's a difficult question to answer. It's just a feeling. I've not had any formal training where bowling is concerned. I've just learned [it by] bowling more than anything else. Okay, you get advice from various players or various coaches as you go along, but I've never had a bowling coach as such. My coach, Ramakant Achrekar, was there. I was growing up as a batsman and he taught me batting but never really bowling.

I suppose that's where the confidence came from. I was always pretty sure about what I could do with my bowling. It wasn't too complicated. Luckily I had some speed, I had an outswinger. So it was just a feeling. I was always happier with the ball in my hand.

Of course, you go through patches where you are having a tough time and the ball isn't coming out right. But as I said, because I wasn't cluttered with my bowling, I hadn't learnt a million different things growing up, I had learnt what I did through bowling. In that sense it helped knowing my game very well.

SJ: A question from a listener, Kartikeya Date: Could you tell when you were in complete control of what you were doing, what the ball was doing from your hand, and where it was landing, and did you know when things were not in your control? Could you tell that difference when it was happening?

AA: Oh, always. Sometimes when you bowl the first two or three balls, you know it is coming out right. It might not end up in wickets on the day, but there are so many occasions when you know you've bowled well. And there are other occasions when you are bowling poorly and you still end up getting wickets. But generally, if you ask most bowlers, it's not that you can't improve during a game. Of course, if you are not bowling well you've got to get that right as soon as you can. Not just bowling, this is the case in every part of the game. But you've got to sort that out in the middle. And that's the toughest part, because you are bowling to some of the top batsmen in the world who are unrelenting, basically. So you've got to think on your feet a little bit. Yeah, but you know what it feels like when you bowl the first two or three balls. Over the years you try to follow the kind of routines that you did on a particular day, and it generally works.

For me, if the outswing started going early on, I was very happy. It was the inswinger to the left hander, which I always liked bowling, because I knew if I got it right I had a chance early on with most left-hand batsmen. And even for a right-hander, with the new ball you have slips in place even if it's a one-day game. If you get the outswinger right, you always have a chance.

SJ: Speaking of confidence, a lot of listeners have sent in this question about your infamous series of ducks, in Australia in 1999-2000. Did that affect your bowling?

AA: No, not at all, that's the best I've bowled in my life. I've been trying to get some videos of my bowling in that series. I think I picked up about 11 wickets in the first two Tests. I didn't pick up a wicket in the third Test. Unfortunately everything got overshadowed by my batting.

I wasn't supposed to go and get runs there. I was supposed to get wickets. I bowled at a decent pace and I swung the ball. It was tough. That was the best team that I have played against in my career. That Australian team dominated the game for what, 10, 12, 14 years. So to do well against them was always satisfactory.

SJ: You burst onto the international scene getting 50 ODI wickets in 20 games and you broke Dennis Lillee's record and you played a couple of blistering innings as well. Talk was that you were the next Kapil Dev. How did you view that assessment of you back then and has your perspective changed looking back at it today?

AA: It was a bit harsh to blame me for not getting runs. Okay, I had ability with the bat, but my priority was always bowling. No one was going to pick me for my batting alone in the Indian team, so I had to focus all my energies on bowling well.

When you are a bowler in India, you ask any fast bowler, it is hard work. It takes a lot out of you, and it is not easy to focus on both. You are talking about Kapil Dev - he's a once in a generation player, and to compare anyone with him is actually a bit foolish. Everyone wants another Kapil Dev, but it is not going to happen. It would be fair to say that I could have done a bit more with the bat. There is no doubt about it. But the bowling took so much out of me that it wasn't always easy to put the same sort of energies into batting.

I was pretty clear in my head that my first job is to bowl well. Whatever runs I can contribute with the bat are always a bonus for the team. Sometimes I got unfairly blamed for not getting runs, but it wasn't due to lack of trying. But I said no one was going to pick me on batting. If I didn't bowl well, I was out of the team, so to blame me for not getting enough runs is also unfair. I would have expected more out of me batting-wise, but bowling always came first.

SJ: A question from a listener, Balaji: Which accomplishment made you feel more proud, the Adelaide six-for or the hundred at Lord's?

AA: No-brainer! Adelaide. I was on that 1999-2000 tour, and we didn't stand a chance against the Australian team, and to go back and to actually win a Test match - obviously when you contribute it makes you that much happier, but a win, no doubt about it. Every time you win, those are the things you remember more. Even if you've done well in a losing cause, it doesn't matter. It's not an individual sport, it's a team sport.

Especially for some of us, I think four or five of us who were on that 1999-2000 tour, someone like a Sachin or a Rahul, Sourav, Anil and Laxman. And it was Steve Waugh's farewell series. He's been one of my heroes. So to actually create an upset there was a fun thing to do. They were the best team of that time and to go to Australia and beat them, there's no doubt about it.

SJ: The Adelaide Test is undeniably one of the high points of India's Test history. You guys draw the Test at Brisbane, go to Adelaide, and Ricky Ponting comes in and scores this mind-boggling double-hundred. What was the thinking within the team at the close of play on day one, when Australia were 400 for 5?

AA: Oh, not good! When you concede 400 runs, you know you are in trouble. Ricky Ponting is one of the greats to have played the game, and he was in superb form in that series.

We tried. It was a flat wicket. To lose the toss in Adelaide is always hard. The first three days are really good to bat on, and that wicket didn't crumble on the fourth and fifth day, as Adelaide normally does. In that case we were lucky to be chasing on the last day and the wicket had not gone completely difficult to bat.

I think they got 550. Anil got a five-fer, so we kind of limited the damage, because Gilly was still batting at the end of the first day, and he could have easily [taken them past] 650, and then I don't think we could have won the game.

SJ: And then Rahul Dravid plays the innings of a lifetime, drags India back into the game along with VVS. What was Ganguly saying as you guys stepped onto the field 20-30 runs behind? What was the talk he gave you guys before you started bowling in the second innings?

AA: Not a lot, because at that point it didn't look like there was a lot of time left. We came in to bowl just before lunch. Rahul and Laxman basically got us back into the game, otherwise 550 in Australia, then they put enough pressure on the opposition team and you know, that's generally a winning score in Australia, so to get that close was a phenomenal effort. We were struggling at the start, we were a few wickets down. To get that partnership... they've always liked batting with each other.

There was not a lot of talk. We said we'll try and get some early wickets with the new ball and see where we are because getting so close to the score obviously put them… I don't know if it put them under pressure, because the wicket was still good, but I'm sure they must have known that they can't lose too many wickets upfront. Because if that happened there was still enough time and they didn't have a big lead.

And then to pick two wickets before lunch, and then we picked up Hayden just after lunch - to Ashish [Nehra], I think. And we knew that we had the upper hand and they couldn't run away from the game there on.

SJ: And then Sachin comes on and gets those two wickets - one was an absolute ripper of a catch by Dravid. But still Gilly tees off and then Kumble gets him and then finally you're brought back into the attack. So what is going on in your mind, with Simon Katich there and then rest of the tail?

AA: Oh, not much really. I mean, the ball was old by then. Sachin's two wickets were the turning point of the game, especially because Damien Martyn and Waugh were batting well at that time. It was still a good wicket. There was a little bit of reverse swing happening, but not a lot. I mean, I thought I'll bowl a little conservatively, and then Gilly got out to Anil, because Gilly as you said was teeing off. He could have scored a hundred in no time. I just decided to bowl a bit steady to him more than try to get him out at that point. And then once he was out, I think Katich hooked me, and then luckily, since the Adelaide straight boundaries are so long, you have to have the fielder in the right place, otherwise the ball might not reach the fielder. Fortunately Ashish was in the right place. Gillespie had got about fifty in the first innings, and he poked one outside off stump and got out and then MacGill.

You always hope that things go your way, but you don't hope to bowl out Australia in a session and a bit. And to have a chance with a whole day and a bit - I think we had about seven overs or nine overs that evening, if I am not wrong. So almost 100 overs to get 230-odd runs. We knew we had a serious chance of going one-up in the series. We had enough batting and enough experience in the batting at that point. Viru was already an established player. Sachin, Laxman, Rahul and Sourav - we had a massively experienced batting line-up more than anything else, which we didn't on the previous tour when we went to Australia. They are a tough team anywhere but they are a tough team in Australia.

Viru, I remember clearly, wanted to get as many as we could that evening to reduce the pressure the next day. And all of us inside were thinking: we should just take it easy. And he wanted to hit boundaries. So those 30 runs or whatever we got that evening helped so much the next day, because you suddenly have under 200 to get. Psychologically it was a massive 30 runs.

SJ: And the next morning with less than 200 to get, all ten wickets in hand, were you guys pretty confident that it was pretty much a done deal, even though this was Australia in Australia?

AA:: Yeah, very confident. At least you always knew if you had took the pressure well, the score was very gettable. And I had said before: the wicket had not crumbled… Generally the Adelaide wicket on the fourth and the fifth day is a lot more up and down. The bounce is a lot more variable. But fortunately this wicket wasn't too bad. It spun - I think MacGill spun the ball a lot. But it wasn't a wicket where there were too many demons in it, which obviously helped. We were in a little bit of trouble, but again the great man Dravid played the innings of his life. I think he will probably classify that 72 not out better than the 200 in the first innings. We were under immense pressure.

SJ: I want to talk a little bit about your career after that series. You played a total of eight Tests after that Adelaide Test. You played your last Test two years from then - 2006 in Pakistan. What went wrong? Can you put a finger on what precipitated that quick fall from grace?

AA: Oh, I don't know. You've got to ask the captains and the coaches and the selectors. Obviously I should have done a lot better in Tests than I have in my career. There's no doubt about it. I would have loved to do a lot better. I think I got injured after the Australia series. At the end of the one-dayers I had a stress fracture which I was playing through. Then I didn't go to Pakistan for the one-dayers. And then to come back after the injury in Test matches is always going to be difficult. I think I played one Test [soon] after that series. And there was a break.

You just have to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes the form, fitness... maybe some other bowlers are doing well. Zak [Zaheer Khan] obviously was doing well - he's always done well in Test cricket. Irfan had made a huge impression early on and he was bowling well. A combination of things, but it's difficult to put a finger on one thing. I would have definitely liked to have played a bit more Test cricket but this is what it is, so I have to move on.

SJ: It is kind of unfortunate, in the sense that you debuted when you were 21 and even though you continued to play first-class, you basically played last for India when you were 30. Do you believe that you played for India as much as you could?

AA: No. I think at least in one-day cricket I always hoped that I got another opportunity. Again the Australian series - the next time when they went to Australia, when Anil was captain, I was always there and thereabouts to getting picked. My record in Australia was pretty good and I was still playing first-class cricket. My record in one-day cricket is pretty good, so you always hope at 29 or 30 that you get another opportunity. You don't think that you will never get an opportunity. Even my last series, in England, I played one-day cricket and I went for a few runs, but everyone did, and I think I picked up a few wickets in that series. So yeah, sometimes a little disappointing not to have another opportunity, but look, if you had told me at the start of my career that I would take 340-odd international wickets, I would've given you anything. I tried my best.

One of the things I always wanted to do for Mumbai was to try and help some of the young guys coming through. After that, I was finished playing for India, so I just wanted to pass on my experience more than anything else. We ended up winning last year's first-class. I'd have loved to have played a few more. I was very close to 300 wickets in one-dayers so it would have been nice to... but I am pretty happy with 288.

SJ: You continued playing Ranji for Mumbai, but then there was a bit of an issue in 2011 when you said you weren't treated correctly for the service you had given. Looking back on it, would you have handled it any differently?

AA: No. I don't think so. I came back knowing that that was probably the last time that I had played for Mumbai. I wasn't going to go back and play. Nobody wants to leave the team the way I did, but there were reasons for it. We sorted it out. They called me for a chat, which was very nice of them. They were nice enough to me after that. But I was clear in my head that that was it for me where Mumbai cricket was concerned. And I didn't play the rest of the season for Mumbai. It wasn't like I was holding a gun to their head.

I don't know whether to say I regret that or I don't regret that, but I think I was doing it for the right reasons and sometimes you can't discuss all the reasons. I came back and played the one-dayers at the end of the season and we reached the finals.

I didn't have an issue with getting dropped. I think people are getting it wrong. Nobody is bigger than the game. But if you are not going to pick me... I was injured till the earlier part of that season. I had played one game, against Karnataka, and suddenly I wasn't good enough to be in the Mumbai team, so that was a bit disappointing. But we sorted it out. I spoke to them and as I said, you can't discuss all the reasons, but fortunately I got another opportunity last year. I have to thank the [Mumbai Cricket] Association for it. They would have been completely justified if they didn't want to pick me again. I got an opportunity to play and we won last year.

SJ: I was interviewing Clayton Murzello of Mid-Day last week and he said there is a shortage of mentors in Mumbai cricket, and he was worried that the up-and-coming players in club cricket don't get to rub shoulders with the seniors who are playing first-class and playing for India from Mumbai, etc. So they don't understand what it is to play for Mumbai and what it takes to play for Mumbai. What is your take on the situation?

AA: It's probably true that not a lot of top players from Mumbai get to play club cricket. But there are reasons for it. The season's become so long now - the Ranji season - that we're practically playing every three days or four days. And there's hardly any time to go and play club cricket. It's very difficult.

You start in October and you finish just before the IPL, so that's a lot of cricket. And to expect players, sometimes when you have a week off, like when you have four or five days, to come and play club cricket is a little bit tough. So while it is a point, before, you played four Ranji games and then it was knockouts. So at the most you ended up playing seven games in a season. Now, to get to the finals it's ten games. Plus your Duleep Trophy and Deodhar Trophy and one-dayers and T20s, so there's hardly any time for the guys who are playing regularly for the state teams to go and play club cricket, which would help, but unfortunately that's going to be difficult now.