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A what-could-have-been story

KP Bhaskar effortlessly switches between Hindi, Punjabi and Tamil as he handles congratulatory calls on two cell phones, and signs an autograph for a young fan, after Rajasthan's first draw of the Ranji season, following three consecutive losses. "Crazy man, these calls, but it feels good to have finally gotten points on the table. It's very important for the boys, and their morale. We need to go forward on this."
Everything appears so simple, the way he handles the local media after his side unexpectedly - again, to the locals, at least - gave Karnataka a run for their money, the way how, at 44, he can kick a mean football and matches step with his young Rajasthan players during post-match cool down, and the way he cracks jokes with his assistants, ground officials, and a photographer clicking a shot of his enthusiastic side.

During an 11-year first-class career, Bhaskar earned a reputation as a hungry man known for his smooth, old-school batting and effortless approach at the crease. Having been a former Delhi captain, with more than 5000 runs at an average of 52.84 in 95 matches, and being the Indian Cricketer of the Year in 1989, Bhaskar's was a name constantly mentioned in hushed tones during the 80s, whenever it came time to announce the Indian squad. So how come he never made the grade?

"Bas, I don't think I was destined to play for India," he says, matter-of-factly. "Every time I came close to being selected, something happened. I just didn't score when I really needed to make an impression. Call it destiny, external factors, whatever. There were times when I was supposed to be close to selection, ahead of a big game, and something would happen. I'd get ill, or it would rain, a game would get abandoned, something or the other. Or I wouldn't score runs in a game."

Thus Bhaskar has been grouped into the "what-could-have-been" category of Indian cricket, with the likes of Rajinder Goel and Amarjeet Kaypee. Between 1983 and 1989, Bhaskar averaged close to 70, with 13 centuries. He churned out runs for a Delhi team full of talent. "I developed a reputation for being a crisis man. If Delhi needed me, I'd deliver. It's something that stuck." Two innings that stand out are: 135 against Services in 1984, where, after a collapse from 7 for 3 to 55 for 6, Bhaskar bailed Delhi out to 233 in a hard-fought draw and an unbeaten 160 against Karnataka amid another collapse. The list goes on, but the call-up never did come.

"You know, there was a myth," he continues, before pausing and smiling, his eyes fleetingly scanning his wards practising behind us. "Well, I suppose it wasn't really a myth. But it was said that if I needed to score runs for myself, where national selection was concerned, I wouldn't deliver. But when Delhi needed runs, if we were in trouble, I'd score."

"I came close. I was put on stand-by for India's tour of Sri Lanka in 1985. And though I didn't go on that tour, I remained as something of a stand-by until 1991. Constantly I was told 'you'll be picked'. I'd score runs, lots of them, but come that game where I needed to score a century, I'd fail. And someone else would score a hundred and go on."

The topic invariably turns to that 1985 Irani Trophy, back when it was a way for fringe players to get a chance to be selected for India. Picked for Rest of India against Bombay in Nagpur, Bhaskar was out for a duck, having walked in at No. 3 with his side at 0 for 1. As fate would have it, the team to Australia was announced during the match and Bhaskar's unbeaten 103 came a day too late.

"Destiny, like I said. That was a big game, with big players but again, I failed when the time came. There's nothing more to it."

Another example is the warm-up match against a touring New Zealand side in 1988, which was abandoned due to rain. "If I'd scored there, who knows? It was a big opportunity, but see what happened. I really wasn't supposed to play for India."

But there's not a trace of bitterness in his voice. "I was so fortunate to play with great players. For years we had such a strong Delhi side. There was Raman Lamba, Ajay Sharma, who was a few seasons junior to me, Jimmy paaji [Mohinder Amarnath], Madan Lal, Kirti Azad, Rajinder Singh, Surinder Khanna, who was a damn fine player, and so many more. We were a solid unit. What I learned from Test greats like paaji I wouldn't give up for anything."

Momentarily, the topic switches to his current avatar. "That's what's lacking with Rajasthan, not having any Test players. This is a young side and you need seniors to guide them. As a former player I try to tell the boys that. There's so much to learn from playing with Test players, those who've played international cricket. Jimmy paaji, Madan Lal, Kirti Azad all passed on so much advice and experience to us back in the Delhi days. It was just something I'll always cherish.

"When we were playing the focus was on three things - talent, attitude, and fitness, in that order. Now it's completely reversed. You've got so many theories and exercises for players, some of which are fine but in the end, what's happened to the skill? Yes, the game will change but I think not all of what's happening is good for the youngsters. It may confuse some."

For someone known for his repertoire of shots, did he model himself on anyone? "I always loved Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Vishwanath. What players! They were my heroes, and it was amazing to finally get to play against and with them. It was really memorable. "

I was so fortunate to play with great players. For years we had such a strong Delhi side. There was Raman Lamba, Ajay Sharma, who was a few seasons junior to me, Jimmy paaji, Madan Lal, Kirti Azad, Rajinder Singh, Surinder Khanna. We were a solid unit. What I learned from Test greats, I wouldn't give up for anything

RK Narayan, the famous Indian novelist, studied at the University of Mysore and his Malgudi Days, was believed to be a composite of the author's time spent here. Many of Narayan's works were rooted in everyday life and seeing and meeting Bhaskar - an everyday man during his playing years whose achievements, like Narayan's stories, assumed and secured the interest of many - on those same university grounds, was far from formulaic.

Bhaskar may not have played for India, but his experience as domestic player, captain, and match referee on the domestic circuit is invaluable to an inexperienced Rajasthan side. "If I can pass on some of what I learnt playing for a fantastic Delhi side, with such great names, then that's one step towards achieving our goals. I'm glad to be in this role now."

Simple. The ball crosses the boundary-line underneath the sight- screen. Like it would have during a Delhi v Jammu & Kashmir match at the Feroz Shah Kotla, circa 1986.