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".