One of Rajinder Goel's burning desires was to lift the Ranji Trophy for Haryana. For 12 seasons between 1973 and 1985, he toiled hard - first on his own, then with the support of Kapil Dev, Chetan Sharma and Sarkar Talwar - but the goal proved elusive.
So when in the 1991 Ranji final, Kapil led Haryana to a shock victory over Bombay at the Wankhede Stadium, Goel, then the chairman of the Haryana selection committee, shed tears of joy in his house in the small town of Rohtak in Haryana.
When the young Bishan Singh Bedi was making his mark in the mid-1960s, the question that was asked was, "Is he as good as Goel?" It is ironic then that it was Bedi's presence in the side that prevented Goel from making an international foray. Not that it fazed Goel, whose implacable resolve would keep him strong against all disappointments. By the time he played his last Ranji Trophy game, against Mumbai in 1985, he had taken 640 wickets at 17.14 in 122 games. That included 53 five-fors and at least 10 wickets in a match 17 times, he points out with pride.
Goel is possibly the only bowler in history to have played against three father-and-son combinations: the Jaisimhas (ML and Vivek), the Roys (Pankaj and Pranab), and the Amarnaths (Lala and Surinder and Mohinder). He was 30 when he first played for Haryana in 1973. By then he had already played for Patiala and had had a couple of seasons at Southern Punjab before representing Delhi for a decade.
It was around then that he began to be disillusioned with the national selectors, who offered him no chance despite his consistent performances. Playing in the unofficial Test against Ceylon in 1964-65 was the closest he had got till then. In 1974-75 came another chance: against Clive Lloyd's West Indies, when Bedi was dropped for disciplinary reasons. "On the eve of the Test one of the selectors informed me that I was playing," Goel remembers, "but when the team was announced after dinner, I wasn't in. I thought, this was the only chance and it has gone." A brief moment of silence and then he adds, "Hum to aapni kismat ko hi dosh denge (I will just blame my fate)."
Despite the disappointments, Goel stayed focused. "After 30 I enjoyed taking wickets more. With every wicket the interest would build up and I would prepare myself to bowl the next ball. I never thought I would break VV Kumar's record of 417 wickets. Then I reached 500, and then 600. The season I didn't take close to 40 wickets, I used to feel that I had to work much harder next time," he says. Fittingly, the last 11 seasons of his career fetched him a remarkable 424 wickets from 78 matches. In 1979, he was one of Indian Cricket's Cricketers of the Year.
Fitness was a crucial aspect of Goel's longevity. Even at 43, when he played his last season, his training sessions would involve 3500 skips of a rope and a long run, followed by bowling to at least 10 batsmen in the nets. Thus he nurtured the stamina he needed for his long spells. "I always had the desire to bowl to the first batsman and to continue bowling till the last wicket," he says.
Batsmen dreaded facing Goel on wet and turning tracks because of his flat trajectory which would restrict them from playing their drives. "I have never been able to feel comfortable against his left-hand spinners," wrote Sunil Gavaskar in Idols. "Although he is not a Test cricketer, to me he is one of the greatest I have played against and it has been a privilege."
Even if with age Goel lost his sharp turn and the nip that nailed many a batsman, his accuracy never failed. "Age cannot be regarded as a constraint", he says. And he doesn't buy the argument that prolonging one's career keeps youngsters out of the team. "Do you want a good performance or do you want to play a youngster just because of his age?" he reasons.
Be that as it may, in 1984-85, after having taken 39 wickets in the season, Goel realised it was over for him. "I didn't want people asking me why I did not make room for someone else if I failed to bag wickets, and that is why I decided to give up even if I was still fit."
Warhorses like Goel don't come along too often. Shy by nature - many considered his inability to mix socially a deterrent to his career - Goel will never admit that it was utterly frustrating to not play for India. "It was an honour to represent my state," he says. "It was an honour just to play the game."