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A versatile left arm spinner who broke onto the international circuit at the tender age of 17 and was hailed as the successor to the great Bishen Singh Bedi, he never made it to the heights that were expected of him. Discarded from the Test side way before his time, the love of cricket made him qualify as a first class umpire and later a TV commentator so that he could continue to be part of the game.
We all know him as Maninder Singh. Years after he played his last Test for India, he feels the comparison made early in his career affected the scope of development for him. Incidentally, Maninder was the last batsman to be dismissed in the historic tied Test match against Australia at Madras. He was present at the VCA ground in Nagpur for the first warm-up game of the Australia tour where Cricinfo caught up with him and he relived some moments in his playing career:
Q: You made your international debut at the age of 17 and were hailed as the successor to Bishen Singh Bedi. How did it feel?
A: Well it was a great feeling because that is what I was working out for when I started playing cricket. My theme was to play for the country and when I got selected to play it was a joyous moment. But being hailed as the next Bishen Bedi took a heavy toll on my career and on me. How can you suddenly start comparing somebody who is new to someone who has taken 266 wickets in Test matches. Whenever I played, everyone expected me to turn the match all by myself. I was young and learning all the time. So having that tag on me was more of a disadvantage to my playing career than an advantage. It was a great compliment but it was unfair to expect too much too soon.
Q: Do you think that was the reason you ended up with 88 wickets from 35 Tests at an average of 37?
A: Because of the pressure, I tried too hard to get wickets. I realise now when I am doing commentary that if you run after wickets, they run further away from you. These things you learn with time and experience, but probably I was too late to learn them. Another thing is that I played most of my Test cricket against Pakistan. In fact, I played 15 of those 35 Tests against Pakistan and eight of them in Pakistan. It is very difficult to get wickets as a spinner in Pakistan with no support at all, everyone knows the conditions there. As a spinner you need to be patient and draw the batsman out, outthink him, experiment with a plan, plot against each batsman. But I never had the time to do that because I was always expected to get wickets the moment I came onto bowl.
Q: Do you think you were pushed into the international circuit a bit too early in your career?
A: Yes, it was. I feel a spinner should play at least two to three first class seasons and experience the ups and downs in first class cricket before he is thrown into the sea of international cricket. If you have always had a good day in the field, then suddenly one day things don't go your way and you don't know how to overcome it. A batsman should also have at least two to three years of experience at the domestic level. It is only the fast bowlers who can be thrown into the international team immediately. Or you have to be a genius like Sachin Tendulkar. At international level, you need to be able to adapt and also possess a level of maturity that can only come when you have bad days in domestic cricket and learn from them because you have a chance to comeback in the next match. In international cricket there is no second chance.
Q: When you were discarded from the Test side, do you feel you had a good amount of cricket left in you?
A: Yes, the confidence was always there. The feeling was always there that if I work hard I can come back. I kept working hard but there were so many suggestions coming in at that time that I got confused in the end. I would say I believe in destiny, so I think it was destined to be like this.
Q: Can you relive that Madras Test? What was that moment like? What were you feeling?
A: Actually, I will honestly say I was absolutely numb at that time because we were in such a good winning position then. We had five wickets and just 40 runs to score. I felt we had made it, we had made a great victory, but suddenly we lost three four quick wickets and when I went into bat, we needed four to win and Ravi Shastri took two of the first ball, then one off the second. I had to make the winning run and Ravi came up to me and showed me the gaps. He said if you could get a run, get it, otherwise give it a smack. So that is what I was trying to do. There were three balls to face and I thought I would try to take a single without any kind of risk. If I can't get it through the fielders, then I might as well give it a heave. But it was not to be that way and the game went down in history.
Q: You kept insisting that it hit your bat first, then the pad. You have been an umpire yourself. Tell us what must have been going on in the umpire's head when he adjudged you leg before?
A: I am sure the umpire was nervous. I am sure he was very nervous. I was surprised because before I even played the ball, I could see his finger going up. I mean almost before playing the ball. That shows he was nervous but that's part of the game. At that time I lost my head, Ravi lost his head but if it was destined to be like that, then it had to happen. I look at it now and realise how much pressure was on the umpire. The nervousness showed on him when he hastened in giving that decision.
Q: Do you think having a regular physio or a doctor to be part of the team would have helped you at that time to recover?
A: Yeah I think it would have helped very much at that time and maybe it would have been a different story. Had I been able to talk to some doctor or sports psychologist at that time he would have helped me get over my action and I would have improved. That's the reason why I keep insisting on having a sports psychologist. So many times in your playing career you lose your concentration or your form for some reason and these are the people that can get you back. So like the Indian team has now, if we had someone then it would have helped a lot. I needed a lot of talking to. I was a guy who needed to practice everyday, I needed a proper program and that would have helped.
Q: Who has been the best batsman you have seen and bowled to?
A: The best batsman that I have seen till date is Sachin Tendulkar. I think he is god's gift to mankind. And as far as bowling goes, Gordon Greenidge was the hardest to bowl to. He waited for the bad balls and then punished them. He never played rash shots, his game plan was very simple, he played straight to most deliveries and pounced on anything short or outside the offstump. He was very difficult to dismiss. Vivian Richards was also a very good player but for him it was a prestige issue because I was being compared and talked about as the best left arm spinner around in those days. So he made it a point to go after me. After all he was Viv Richards and he always wanted to go after the best. He would hit me for a few boundaries and sixes, sometimes out of the park but then I could get him out also when he played like that. Javed Miandad was again a very tough customer to tackle. He is one of those players who plays with the psyche of the bowlers. He would do certain things to get you angry and once you're angry you lose your rhythm and do wild things. You cannot focus on your bowling if you're angry. He did that to me when he realised that I was going to be hard to score off, so he went after me a few times and I retaliated as well.
Q: What do you think of umpiring standards these days? Are the commentators right in criticizing them so much?
A: You will always have a conflict while umpiring. This is because each umpire is a different person and everyone has a different opinion on similar issues. There are so many decisions that could go either way and that is all due to the human factor. There will always be this issue about decisions being wrong or right, it will always be controversial. Every umpire in each country thinks differently. If it is an Indian umpire he knows the conditions in India, he sees flat wickets and he knows that the ball here does not rise much whereas in Australia the conditions are different. The ball takes off from the wicket and it has good bounce, so an Australian umpire will know that the ball is going to bounce higher when it hits the wicket. Even umpires in England have different ideas in their mind. They know the grounds will be wet with dew and the moist conditions will favour swing mostly. The ball does not spin much either in English conditions. So when we go about with neutral umpiring, it is helpful in one way that the touring team does not complain about biased umpiring of the local umpires but in the bargain cricket suffers. If I go to Australia today as a neutral umpire, I will have no idea of the wickets there because I have only seen it on television. So I will be in no position to judge if the ball is going to hit the stumps or will bounce over it. The same rule applies to commentators as well.
Q: In the Bangalore Test you picked up seven in the first innings but were ineffective in the second innings. What happened there?
A: I was very confused in that second innings. There were a lot of suggestions, to bowl with flight, bowl flatter, bowl faster. There were a lot of ideas and there was no time to think and correct myself. So I think that is where I went wrong. Another thing was that there was not much support from the other end. Ravi was there, Shivlal was there but none were able to bowl as well as I did. If even one of them had bowled well enough I think we would have done better there.
Q: What do you think of the wickets in India? How can we get sporting wickets?
A: It is the Board who has to start. They have to wake up and take notice. It is a pity to see that there are still such dead wickets in India. I mean how do you expect these boys to play on bouncy tracks if you don't have them at home. For the last four years there has been the system of the match referee submitting a pitch report and till date there has never been a report of a bad wicket. If it is reported there is a certain amount of fine imposed on the Association. I haven't heard of any Association that has been fined for a bad pitch. We have so many talented cricketers here in India but it's sad to see them struggle when they go out to play on bouncy tracks. I think there is nothing wrong with the talent in India. We have a lot of talented players like Zaheer Khan and even Ashish Nehra is bowling beautifully.
Q: Do you think the selectors are struggling to find a suitable replacement for Anil Kumble?
A: I think they are going to struggle. If they think they will be able to replace a bowler like Anil Kumble, they are wrong. Kumble is a match winner and not an ordinary bowler. You cannot find a replacement for him overnight. If there was a suitable replacement he would have played for at least two or three years for India by now. I am very impressed with Harbhajan and Sanghvi here in the first game but frankly it would be unfair on any bowler to compare him to Kumble. He is a class act and if you look at a new bowler as a comparison to Kumble you will never find anyone to replace him at all. Because match winners are not made they are born.
Q: Do you think cricketers like yourself can come forward and help the youngsters with their problems?
A: I am always there. Even when I am umpiring or doing commentary if someone comes up to me and asks for help, I am ready to correct him, and even show it to him. Bishen Bedi and Prasanna have been helping out the spinners at the Academy in Bangalore. I believe the NCA is doing a good job with the youngsters but I am disappointed at how they treated Gavaskar. I mean a man of Sunil Gavaskar's stature can do wonders for the talented boys but I feel very disheartened the way administrators have treated a cricketer like him. They have always tried to push cricketers out, it's a never-ending battle and I think only cricketers should be on the committee of the NCA.