'You're the angel we all strive to be'

Murali Kartik writes to his Lachhi mama

Murali Kartik
"You have been my best friend in Indian cricket"  •  AFP

"You have been my best friend in Indian cricket"  •  AFP

Dear Lacchi mama,
Where do I begin to sum up the times we have shared? Let me start with an incident. As you know I have bowled to you many, many times in the nets. But on the eve of the Ahmedabad Test against Sri Lanka in 2005, you charged and hit an uncharacteristic drive early on in the nets. Even before I could react you were so apologetic. In that lovely Dakhni, which we call Hyderabadi Hindi, you said: "Jaan boojh ke nahin mara. Hona bol ke mara. Practice kar ne ke liye hona bol ke mara (I did not hit you on purpose. But since this is practice, I had to hit you). What an endearing statement. How could anyone not have liked you?
If you do not mind me saying this, I think of myself as lucky to have become a close friend. In this dog-eat-dog-world, you were always comforting to have around. Right from my international debut against South Africa in 2000, you always made time for me. I played against you for the first time at the Pachaiyappas College ground in Chennai in a practice match and incredibly, from that day till today, you have remained the same man.
You have been my best friend in Indian cricket. I was honoured when I was the only cricketer to have been invited to your wedding ceremony in 2004. If you remember, there was a ritual where the priest hands over two wooden artifacts, of a boy and a girl, representing the family that the marriage will create. Traditionally they are given to the groom's sister. You gave it to my wife Shweta, and when your children were born, you came over to our house in Gurgaon to pick them up.
If I think of when we became close pals, one incident does come to mind. It goes back to 2003 and it makes me laugh. I am sure you already know what I am referring to. Prior to the 2003 World Cup, I was picked for the away tour of New Zealand after I had a good home ODI series against West Indies. I did not play in New Zealand, but was surprisingly - okay, I was surprised - dropped from the one-day leg of the tour.
You were the only one who comforted me, saying things like this happen. New Zealand was not a spinner's territory anyway. There was not much I could have done as Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh were the senior spinners in the side then. I had been looking forward to the ODI series, especially as the World Cup squad was going to be announced soon.
But when the World Cup squad was announced, shockingly, your name was not to be found in the side. Ironically, both of us found ourselves playing against the other in a Ranji Trophy match in Hyderabad and a month later, we were off to the Caribbean as part of the India A tour. When we thought of New Zealand, we would laugh. Needless to say, neither of us were not present mentally on that A-team trip, especially you, considering you had registered four consecutive ducks in the first two matches. You said at the time: "From now on Kartik, I am never going to advise you because the same thing happens to me as well." To be your friend is a much bigger reward from cricket than any other award I will ever get.
I was also lucky to have played under you as captain. Including you, I have played under three very good captains: VB Chandrashekar at India Cements followed by Azzu bhai (Mohammad Azharuddin) at the international level. You were one of the best leaders I have played under. Your style was very much from the Azharuddin school of thought: the bowler is his own captain to a certain extent. For me, that was brilliant because I knew what I was trying to do and if my captain was backing me, what more could I expect? You never tried to impose or intrude on me. You were positive, set attacking fields and made me, the bowler, feel like a champion.
I clearly remember the Mumbai Test against Australia in 2004 when you played a match-winning hand with 69 in the second innings (highest by any batsman on both sides) on one of the trickiest pitches. Despite that you were so generous in complimenting me after I won the Man-of-the-Match award for my seven-wicket haul. On the big plastic cheque that came with the award, you were the first to write: "Absolute matchwinner. Always believe many, many more to come."
But mama we know that the true matchwinner was you. On so many occasions, especially in the second Test against Australia in Adelaide in 2003. It was 45 degrees, but you and Rahul Dravid batted amazingly to grind out a quality opposition in a 303-run stand after India were on the mat at 85 for 4. People will continue to talk about your 281, but I enjoyed your 148, which played such an influential hand in taming the Aussies and help India win a Test abroad. That victory played such a big role in India's transformation in the years to come as we went on to become the No. 1 Test team.
I know you would have thought you were not doing the right thing if you carried on playing. How many people think about Indian cricket and about the fact that a young cricketer needs to break in to the team for him to be groomed? You could have easily added more to your 134 Test caps
Personally I have always been surprised about how you never said anything bad about anyone - your critics, even people who have harmed you. Not many remain silent.
Remember when you decided to divest the icon status at Deccan Chargers in the inaugural season of the IPL? I knew you never had any fascination for money; what you were eager for was to make sure Hyderabad had a strong team. You always strived to make an honest attempt to make your team perform. When I suggested the name of a senior player in the Indian domestic circuit, who was ignored earlier during first IPL, you went out of your way to get him into the team.
We saw your your selflessness on Saturday again, when you said goodbye to international cricket. When you came into the Indian team you had played overseas in the first few years. But with India having not performed well abroad in the recent past, it became important for a young batsman to play well at home first and establish himself. I know you would have thought you were not doing the right thing if you carried on playing. How many people think about Indian cricket and about the fact that a young cricketer needs to break in to the team for him to be groomed? You could have easily added more to your 134 Test caps.
I have always believed in the saying the right thing and not the nice thing. You were very soft-spoken and at the same time very idealistic. Your attitude taught me to be the way I am. You always have maintained there are certain things you can't change about destiny. That has helped me to remain inspired, motivated and not get disgruntled about cricket despite being left out of the team so many times.
I really can't believe you will not play international cricket anymore. When I heard about your retirement, I was in tears. You have, and will remain, a calming influence in my life. If Sachin is called the god of cricket, then you, VVS, are the angel we all strive to be.
Yours truly,

The author is an India international currently playing in England