He is an unlikely hero. There is nothing charismatic about him. He does not have the aura of a Tendulkar or a Dravid or a Ganguly. Quiet, rather shy and reserved, he is not known for dramatic achievements but goes about his work diligently. However, now and then Sunil Joshi comes up with the kind of performance that marks him out as not just another valuable team man, which has been his quintessential image.
Just over a year ago, Joshi had the mesmeric figures of 10-6-6-5 in the LG Cup tournament game against South Africa at Nairobi. Given the unusual analysis and the formidable opposition, Joshi's feat made people sit up and take notice. And they wondered why the 31-year-old left handed utility man from Karnataka had not played for the country more often. Even given his image of a one day cricketer - a description Joshi will no doubt staunchly disagree with - the fact that he has played only 65 ODI's over the last four years gives the distinct impression that his services have not been utilised to the full. On the face of it, Joshi should be one of the first choices in limited overs cricket. A left arm spinner, combining accuracy, turn and flight, a hard hitting middle order batsman and a safe field are the kind of credentials the ideal one day cricketer boasts of. Besides his dream figures in the LG Cup - which are obviously his best analysis in ODI's, Joshi also has a highest score of 61 not out. But the selectors and the team management on tour have not really been fair to Joshi. Either he has not been picked or when he finally does get a chance, more often than not, he has been underutilised.
While Joshi may disagree with his description as a one day cricketer there is no doubt that he wants to do well in Test cricket and would like to be recognized as an all rounder in the longer version of the game. The just concluded Test in Dhaka provided him the opportunity and how well he grabbed it! He came up with the kind of all round performance that has been beyond the capabilities of many more illustrious players. First, in the absence of Anil Kumble, he was suddenly elevated to the status of spin spearhead. He did his job commendably in the first innings taking five for 142 off 45.3 overs. True, these figures were achieved against a debutant Test nation but in his favour it must be said that the pitch was absolutely placid. The seamers struggled while the other left arm spin bowler in the side Kartik Murali finished wicketless after 24 overs. In the second innings, there was slight wear and tear on a fourth day surface and Joshi used the conditions well to take three for 27 off 18 overs.
In between Joshi top scored with 92 in the Indian innings. It was the kind of knock that brought out Joshi's character. He loves a challenge and meets it headlong. He came at a crucial juncture when India were 236 for six in reply to Bangladesh's 400. Despite the grim situation, Joshi boldly went for his strokes. He always loved to attack whether batting or bowling and his belligerence forced Bangladesh back on the defensive, helped India wrest the initiative and they never lost the grip thereafter. With Ganguly he added 121 runs for the seventh wicket off 32.3 overs outscoring his captain who is not exactly a novice in the art of bold, aggressive batsmanship.
The rare feat of a century and five wickets in an innings in a Test match has been performed only by two Indians - Vinoo Mankad at Lord's in 1952 and Polly Umrigar at Port of Spain in 1962 and Joshi came within an ace of joining the greats. At stumps on the third day, Joshi was on 71 and was aware of the rare nature of the feat. Perhaps he thought too much about it and this probably led to his dismissal at 92. It was a very untypical Joshi that one saw on the fourth morning. While he had compiled his 71 off 112 balls with eight boundaries on the third evening, he took another 68 balls to score only 21 runs with one boundary hit on the fourth morning and then holed out to mid off. But it was a performance to earn him the man of the match award and the 2000 US dollars that went with it.
Possibly to ensure that Joshi's feet stayed on the ground, Ganguly did not go overboard in his praise for him. Speaking to reporters at the end of the Test match, he said, ''Joshi has always been a top class performer for India but I am not taking his performance here as a yardstick because it was achieved against a weak side. But this will give him confidence and he will go to the next match a much more confident man. We expect better things from him against stronger sides.''
Ganguly might have been right in being guarded in his praise but then there is never any doubt of Joshi not having his feet firmly planted on mother earth. He is strong temperamentally and is down to earth in his attitude. He has been dropped so many times, has taken so many knocks along the way that he is aware that nothing should be taken for granted - not even a double of 92 and eight wickets in a Test. India has played 40 Tests since Joshi made his debut at Edgbaston in 1996, and the Dhaka game was only his 13th Test. He is a level headed cricketer who does not look beyond the horizon but takes it match by match. His immediate objective is to do well in the next Test against Zimbabwe at New Delhi where again, with Kumble still out of action, he will be the spin spearhead. Against stronger opposition, Joshi will not find it as easy to score runs or take wickets. But then he has always been a cricketer who has been judged by the sweat on his brow. And somehow one is sure that after his feat at Dhaka, Joshi will not be subjected to the yo-yo treatment again.