Sunil Gavaskar has listed 31 idols in his book of the same name published in 1983. Left arm spinner Rajinder Goel figures in the elite group. Goel who took a record 640 wickets in the Ranji Trophy, India's national competition, never had the opportunity to play for the country, apart from one unofficial Test against Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1964-65. Had he been born in any other era, he would almost certainly have got a break at the highest level, but Bishen Bedi's presence put paid to his aspirations. As he says, it was a game that fate played on him ("yeh sab kismat ka khel hai"). Despite the heartache, Goel's simplicity and good manners endeared him to one and all, from a dreaded dacoit imprisoned in Gwalior jail to Gavaskar. Goel was born in United Punjab's Narwana town in 1940 and played his first Ranji Trophy game for South Punjab in 1958-59. He later also represented Delhi and Haryana. Goel's bag of 640 wickets in 123 games at 17.15 is a record unlikely to be broken. In a recent interview to CricInfo, Goel bared his thoughts.
When did you first begin playing cricket and when did you first establish yourself as a player to reckon with?
I used to play right from my childhood. I was in Vaish High School where one of my teachers, Lala Krishan Dayal, who was a good player himself, taught me the rudiments of the game. After that I was selected for Punjab and subsequently North Zone. My performance was good and I was chosen for the All India camp in Chail under the supervision of Lala Amarnath. So that's how I came up.
You took 640 wickets in the Ranji Trophy but were still confined to domestic cricket. What was the reason?
Yes, I played well in domestic cricket but at that time every zone in the country had great bowlers. Bishen Bedi established himself in the Indian team and performed very well, taking 266 Test wickets. So I had few chances to play at the highest level. But he was a great bowler, so I have no regrets about it.
But when you look back on your career, in some corner of your heart there must be a tinge of regret that you didn't play for India?
It was not written in my fate to play Test cricket. I used to play for my own pleasure and when I got wickets it used to feel good. Haryana won many matches and the state grew from strength to strength. There were so many spinners but only one left armer could play for India and Bishen Bedi was the man. So I didn't really feel cut up about it.
But being such a consistent wicket taker every season, did you ever feel any injustice?
You should ask the selectors. My job is to play cricket and perform well. The rest is upto the selectors to choose me or not. Maybe they thought I was not good enough. In my opinion as long as Bishen Bedi continued to play, other left armers like Shivalkar, Hyder Ali, Dilip Doshi, Dhiraj Parsana, none of them got a chance.
So do you blame it on luck, selectors or the players who came into the team before you?
I think I was born at the wrong time. In my days all the left armers who played from different zones were good. Some of the blame can also be laid at fate. I was called for the Bangalore Test against Clive Lloyd's team in 1974/75 when I was in form and bowling very well. Bedi was not there for that match; he was removed from the team for some reason. I was sure that I would play but the evening before the Test when the team was announced, my name was missing. It's all a game fate has played on me.
You did play a lot of games against visiting sides. Were there any memorable moments among them?
When Kim Hughes' Auatralian team came to India (in 1979/80) I took nine wickets including 6/103 in the first innings, bowling Hughes. Bishen Bedi had left the game, so I was hopeful that I might be selected at least this time but it was not to be and I felt a little sad.
You had a very long career. Was there any time when you felt that you were not fit to continue?
I never thought about it. I always used to tell everyone that the day I realised the truth that my fitness wasn't upto the mark, I would quit then and there. When I finally left the game in 1984/85, even during that season I had 39 wickets in six matches which I think was the highest in the country. So at no time did I feel I was unfit to continue.
I have heard that a dacoit once wrote a letter to you. Could you tell us what it was about?
It gives me great pleasure to relate this incident and I have done so many times before. There was this dacoit Bukha Singh Yadav who was lodged in Gwalior jail. I got a letter from him after playing a match and everyone at home was a bit apprehensive. But as soon as I read it, I felt very happy and even replied to him. He had congratulated me for taking 600 wickets in the Ranji Trophy. I'm probably the only cricketer in India whose performance was recognised even by a dacoit.
The game has changed a lot since your days. What changes do you comprehend?
Yes, there is a lot of difference in the way the game was played those days. Today there is more of quantity but less of quality. These days the facilities are very good. Where did we have such good grounds in our time? If you made one dive, there would be bruises on our hands and feet. There weren't such good bats either.
Do you fear that ODIs are becoming a threat to Test cricket, especially to cricket as an art form?
These days, people are so busy, they don't have the time, and prefer to watch ODIs. In ODIs if you play a cover drive and the ball goes to fine leg for four, then it's a good shot. It doesn't matter how it comes, runs are the bottomline. Having played so many one-days, the players are beginning to play the same way in Test cricket too. If it's just a matter of making Test cricket as popular, why don't you make the first and second innings of limited overs duration. You must have seen that when the Australian team visited here, the grounds were full for all three Test matches and there was a lot of public interest.
In your days there were a lot of great spinners, not just in India but outside as well, like Underwood and Gibbs. What was so special about these guys?
That was the era of spinners and all of them used to work hard. Bowlers these days have begun to give greater emphasis to batting and fielding. But we gave bowling the most attention and in practice we used to relentlessly iron out our weaknesses. You don't find such devotion in the kids these days. They take net practice as a formality and bowl to two or three batsmen in the nets and leave. When there are so many facilities, you have Academies opening all over the place and so many senior players ready to guide them. I saw all three Tests against Australia. Harbhajan Singh was the only bowler who looked like taking a wicket. All the other bowlers I saw had no nip or speed off the wicket and they did not turn the ball significantly either. Even though we got turning tracks in one or two games, only Harbhajan could make effective use of it.
As chairman of the national junior committee, how would you evaluate the progress of the junior players?
We've been fortunate with the 3-4 teams sent out in the last couple of years. In 2000, the Under-19 boys won the World Cup in Sri Lanka, then the Under-15 team lifted the Asia Cup in Malaysia and finally we had the Under-17 team winning the Asia Cup in Bangladesh earlier this year. The junior selection committee watches all the domestic matches and we've chosen very balanced sides and earned the rewards for it.
What are your future plans?
I'm the head coach of the Satpriya Cricket Academy in Rohtak and I would just like to transfer all my knowledge to the boys here. Ask me after 2-3 years and I can show you some of the fruits of my work.