Waiting for a turning point
Who is Pritam Gandhe? To people who follow domestic cricket - especially the Plate League - through scorecards (there's no other way really), he is a Vidarbha offspinner and one of only three bowlers to have taken more than one hat-trick in the Ranji Trophy. The others are Anil Kumble, who took two, and Services' Joginder Rao, who took three in the 60s, including two in the same innings against Northern Punjab.
Gandhe is also the only Vidarbha player to have played 100 first-class games, a milestone he reached against Assam this season.
To those who have never seen him bowl, the veteran of 20 seasons is a faceless trier, playing for a backwater team since 1987-88 without any bigger incentives to look forward to.
However, to his peers Gandhe is a respected opponent who fell just short of playing for India in the mid-90s. Ask Narendra Hirwani, his Central Zone opponent and Air India team-mate and now a national selector. "Forget the wickets, his action was a beauty. He had everything right as an offspinner: the run-up, the head position, the arm coming down, the follow-through."
Hirwani's fellow selector Surendra Bhave, who played a lot against Gandhe as a prolific Maharashtra batsman, concurs. "He is one of the most skillful offspinners I have seen. His bowling is an art form."
A local journalist recalls an incident from 2006, when India played England in Nagpur. Gandhe had gone to meet Anil Kumble and was introduced by him to a friend as the man who was unlucky to have missed out on an India cap. After the day's play, Praveen Kumar went up to wish Gandhe.
Gandhe is an unassuming man with no bitterness over a career that didn't go beyond a couple of India A games. He remembers his hat-tricks - 15 years apart - well. The first one came in Alwar, in 1993-94 against Rajasthan. The first victim was Gagan Khoda, followed by Pravin Amre, both bowled; the third, Sanjiv Mudkavi, was lbw. The second occasion, against Services this season,included two lbws and one caught-behind. "So all have been close-in dismissals," he noted.
His other big moment came in the semi-final of the 1992-93 Duleep Trophy, against West Zone, when he took the wickets of Sanjay Manjrekar, Sachin Tendulkar, Ravi Shastri, Kiran More, Bhavin Radia and Salil Ankola in an eight-over spell in the second innings to seal the game for Central Zone.
In the first innings, though, Rajesh Chauhan too had taken six and a definitive moment followed at the awards ceremony. "When the prize distribution was done, Chauhan got the Man-of-the-Match award," he says. "Ravi Shastri came up to me and said in front of everybody, 'Bad luck, you should have got it.' That was good motivation." That was also the time when Gandhe could have pushed for higher things, but Chauhan got the nod.
Is he sour about not getting more chances? "Had I got a chance, I would have tried hard. I was confident, but no problems," he says.
How, then, has he kept himself motivated for 20 years, knowing all along that there is no higher goal for him? "If you can perform well, and get wickets, if I know I can take wickets whenever I bowl, that is the biggest motivation. I know there might be no bigger goals for me, but the team needs me. Anyway what will I do if I don't play cricket?" he says.
Doing well for the team is one big reason why he is still continuing at the age of 37. "We have been missing the knockout stages by one or two points for the last four-five years," he said. "If we push more, you never know when we might make it to Super League."
From 2002-03 on, when the teams were divided into Elite and Plate leagues, whatever chances he used to get to play against big opposition, went away.
So who is Pritam Gandhe? An offspinner who plays in a territory with no cricketing history, no local role-models, no one to guide him, no success to feed off. An offspinner who has gone out to play lots of club cricket in Mumbai, learned a lot there, and come back and tried to take Vidarbha to a higher level of competition. Whether he deserved to play at a higher level is immaterial.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo