It's taken six wicketkeepers in one year to establish that Nayan Mongia is still the best. Sure, skillful, street-smart, sturdy, gutsy, full of shabashes, defiant down the order and not outrageously old. Also (said to be) insolent, po-faced, standoffish, selfish, unpopular, even unwanted. "When I see him, I get irritated," Ravi Shastri snapped on the Tehelka tapes.
He is a man of contradictions. For example, he told us that Kanpur in 1994, when he and Manoj Prabhakar blocked 16 runs when there were 63 to be got from 43 balls, was a match he wouldn't have dreamed of tanking - it was, after all, only the "first or second time" he had batted for India. It wasn't - it was his 10th time in 20 one-dayers, 15th if you include Tests. Mongia's story has always been that the dressing room was noisy and overcrowded; that the `general consensus' as he went to bat was that wickets mustn't be lost to keep the "quotient" up; and that no message to the contrary was sent out to the middle.
Interpreting Kanpur is depressing and futile. But before you burn Mongia, absorb this: "I hold that Ajit Wadekar and Mohammad Azharuddin were remiss in this regard (not having sent a message to Prabhakar and Mongia to speed up and try to win the game)." - Madhavan Report. And this: "There is no direct evidence of any player/bookie having paid Mongia money to underperform." - CBI.
But pardon in India has been hard to find. If Mongia was a South African opener, he'd be swaggering his way to hundred after hundred; if he was an Australian middle-order stylist, he'd have bagged the world record for the most Test catches.
He does things that are designed to rile. In a Test against Australia, he wore a yellow helmet, a colour barely less baggy than their glorious green. In the same match he came on as night watchman, took a hit on the hand and left the field five balls before stumps so Sachin Tendulkar had to come out. When he returned the next day, he plunged into a bizarre (innovative?) innings that combined leg-side withdrawals with almighty flails, finally walking even though no one had appealed. It all added up in our minds and we were left wondering - furiously - which team he played for.
But get Mongia to talk you through them and the plot thins. "As far as I'm concerned I was correct. I had two blue helmets but they were too big for me; John Wright knew about it and suggested I carry on with the yellow one for the time being." About leaving the field: "Andrew Leipus had a look and said that it (the hand) might be broken and I should come out for an x-ray." Was Sourav annoyed? "No, absolutely not." Was Sachin upset that he had to bat those five balls? "No, not at all." Did Wright say anything? "No, not at all." It was not, perhaps, that sinister.
It wrenches him to learn the public perception that he doesn't play for the team. "How do they know? Have they stayed with me and seen me practice?" He remains bitter that nobody from the team called him during the CBI days. "You live, you learn. I have seen life to the closest. At least you know who your friends are," he says, eyes welling up.
He denies that he has ever been made to feel unwanted by any team at any level; vehemently denies that the entire team boycotted him when he was flown to Australia and back in the middle of the Carlton and United Series in January, 2000.
Yet, read what he says on Tehelka about Tendulkar during that Australian outing: "I was told to go by selectors. I was there 21 days, in Australia. I didn't play a single game there. They said, `No, Prasad (MSK) is fit he'll be keeping for all the matches. You can call back Nayan Mongia.' I came back to India. After two days, Sameer Dighe was in. On what basis was he in? See, likes and dislikes don't come into the picture, when you are playing for India ... Bade logon ke likes dislikes bhi bahut hote hain, na?"
Something is horribly amiss. Unearthing exactly what is like trying to fix a Rubik's Cube with your head screwed on backwards. Chandu Borde, in a minute of myth-shattering insight, confirmed to this magazine six times over that Mongia's omission is, indeed, a "committee decision". Yes, it was, but couldn't we have been told - like the Australian selectors did when they dropped Michael Slater - whether it was for cricketing reasons or any other?
Are we picking Fumbling Matildas just because they sing along with the lads at night? Bitterness did not stop Wasim and Waqar from reverse-swinging their way to 1500 international wickets. Or Don Bradman and Keith Miller ("we were never great cobbers") from playing alongside one another.
What's the real story? We should be trusted to understand.
Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan and the novel The Sly Company of People Who Care