Dilip Vengsarkar, the current chairman of selectors, has been in the news most recently on account of his public warning to India’s ‘seniors’ (read Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dravid) that they couldn’t take their places in the team for granted, that they needed to earn their keep. Vengsarkar has a habit of shooting his mouth off, but this statement was so unnecessary that it drew a double reproach: one from India’s cricket board, asking him to stop making public statements about the team, and another from the new captain of India’s ODI team, M.S. Dhoni, who went out of his way to praise the performance of India’s veterans, saying categorically that the team had no replacements for them.
And well he might, given that Ganguly’s and Tendulkar’s recent form has been outstanding in the one-day game. Dravid’s form in the four matches against Australia has been disappointing but he played a couple of outstanding innings against England in the limited overs series that followed the Tests, and given that he voluntarily gave up the captaincy in both forms of the game in the very recent past, he’s scarcely the sort of player who needs to be told not to be complacent.
This is unlikely to stop the chairman from offering his opinions to the press because indiscretion has been his watchword since he was appointed to his present office. After his retirement from the game, Vengsarkar wrote columns for a while, the copyright for which was vested with a company of his devising called Dilip Data Syndicate. Given his current rate of indiscretion, he could revive that company to sell his opinions to the newspapers, a sort of rent-a-quote service, so that the remainder of his tenure could be profitably used.
It’s not unusual for national selectors to behave oddly. For many, it is their return to the limelight from the shadows of retirement, their last reprieve from the obscurity into which all ex-cricketers disappear. Actually, that should read ‘used to disappear’. Now, thanks to sports channels and news channels on television, cricketers of all sorts remain in the public eye long after becoming has-beens in the game. Nikhil Chopra and Syed Saba Karim, two cricketers with very modest international careers, figure in a comic cricket show; Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Arun Lal have successful broadcasting careers; Ajay Jadeja overcame scandal and retirement to become a fixture on cricket shows and figure in celebrity dance competitions; and Navjot Singh Sidhu is more than a mere member of parliament, he’s a cult figure.
But perhaps it’s unfair to compare Vengsarkar to these men, who are, after all, much younger than him, players who were still playing at the highest level when the great tide of globalization came to lift cricketers to levels of fame and wealth unimaginable in the period in which Vengsarkar played his cricket. On the other hand, I can think of players of roughly his generation who remain more vivid in public memory than Vengsarkar. I’m not talking about Gavaskar, who, as India’s greatest batsman, is an immortal with whom comparisons are odious. Nor of Kapil Dev, for the same reason. Perhaps the best player to compare him to is Ravi Shastri.
Like Vengsarkar, Shastri played for Bombay. He was six years younger but he retired from international cricket around the same time as Vengsarkar did, in 1992. Like him, Shastri captained India occasionally without ever becoming captain of India in his own right. Vengsarkar led India for as many as ten Tests, played international cricket for India for sixteen years (as many years as Gavaskar did and five more years than Shastri) and was a part of the side through the glory years in the mid-Eighties when it won the World Cup in 1983, the so-called world championship of cricket in 1985 and the series against England in 1986, in which triumph Vengsarkar played a leading role.
And yet, the contrast between the current standing of the two couldn’t be more marked. Shastri is possibly the most successful cricket commentator India has produced, the Board was literally begging him to take over the team after the debacle in the World Cup, and he has just accepted, on his own terms, the headship of the Board’s cricket academy. Vengsarkar, on the other hand, vanished from the mind of the cricketing public for a dozen years and when he returned as chairman, he courted the attention of the media whereas someone like Shastri accepted fame as his due. And the cricket academy Vengsarkar runs is called, forlornly enough, the Elf Academy.
It isn’t just Shastri. Take Mohinder Amarnath. If Shastri is six years younger than Vengsarkar, Amarnath is six years older. Like Vengsarkar, he had a long career (nearly twenty years of Test cricket with gaps in between) and a Test average just above 42, which is better than good. But Amarnath pops up on television as an expert, as a commentator, as an actor in commercials: he is a figure in the world of cricket whereas Vengsarkar, before his elevation to the chairmanship, was not.
But perhaps the reason for all this is that Vengsarkar is a self-effacing sort of fellow, not the pushy sort who courts the media. This is hard to believe given how keen he is to supply sound bites to the press, but let’s give him the benefit of doubt. Even here, his post-retirement obscurity is puzzling. For Gundappa Viswanath, the most modest, retiring cricketer this country has ever had the good fortune to produce, remains a presence in the cricketing public’s mind despite his shyness in a way that Vengsarkar doesn’t. This might have something to do with the fact that he was a genius, but if you look at his figures, Viswanath has a lower batting average in Tests than Vengsarkar, and fewer centuries. He played his last ODI a year before India won the World Cup in 1983 and he never experienced the adulation and publicity that Vengsarkar and his team mates did after the coming of network television in 1982. And yet Viswanath has a hold on the affections of Indian cricket fans that Vengsarkar can only dream of.
Vengsarkar’s invisibility is puzzling because he was a first-rate cricketer. He scored seventeen Test centuries, many of them to win or save matches for India. He was, after Gavaskar, our finest player of fast-bowling in the Seventies and Eighties, he helped us win a Test series in the mid-Eighties which was our last win there for twenty years, and throughout his career he was an elegant, pivotal presence at number three in the batting order. He was affectionately called the ‘Colonel’ because of his organized, near-military bearing and he did score those three splendid centuries at Lord’s. He was an unlikely contender for obscurity when he retired, and yet that was his fate.
It may be that India’s cricket establishment took too long to call upon his services: the politics of the Indian cricket board is indecipherable to anyone outside its grubby structures. Or it might just be a function of personality: there are people who are instinctively liked and there are others who seem to have had a charm bypass. Whatever the cause of of Dilip Vengsarkar’s long years in the wilderness, he would do well to remember that he was a fine player in his time. His reputation would be better served if he used his past experience and his present eminence to pick the best teams he can instead of picking on great players and playing to the gallery. The regard of posterity should be a greater prize for a cricketer of his standing than fifteen minutes of ‘fame’.