Vinod Kambli: The Other ProdigyDavid Mutton |
Mumbai, February 1993. England are two-nil down and enter the third and final test hoping only to rescue their dignity after a disastrous tour. Batting first, they scramble to 347 thanks to a break-out century from Graeme Hick, but their weak bowling attack poses few threats to the Indian batsmen. After a stolid century opening stand, the 21 year old Vinod Kambli strides to the crease. Although this is Kambli’s debut series his flamboyant reputation, both on and off the field, is already well known throughout the country.
He quickly gets the measure of England’s spinners, using his feet to drive Hick for three boundaries. Hick then adjusts his length but Kambli easily cuts him for another four. He moves on to 50 with ominous ease. Then, on 57, the lure of a big shot proves irresistible. Coming down the wicket he lofts John Emburey down the ground. Phil Defreitas runs back from mid-off, scrambling to reach the ball, but it bounces off his outstretched hands before bobbling to the boundary.
Lesson learned, Kambli knuckles down and bats England out of the game. He reaches his century with a late cut for four off the persevering but ineffective Hick. His childhood friend, Sachin Tendulkar, is batting with him and firmly shakes his hand. Surrounding them is an adoring home crowd, several of whom sprint onto the pitch to share his joy. Kambli, though, seems determined not to be waylaid even by this outpouring of emotion. England’s bowlers all but give up as he moves inexorably onwards, reaching 200 from 347 balls. By the time he is finally out, caught at gully from a tired drive off Chris Lewis, his score of 224 is the highest by an Indian against England.
That innings against a hapless English attack started a purple patch almost unmatched in international cricket. The following month India hosted Zimbabwe in a one-off test in Delhi. The home side batted first and Kambli was soon at the crease when opener Manoj Prabhakar was dismissed for three. The Zimbabweans found no way past Kambli’s bat and he dominated the first day, ending on 176. Play was delayed until 3pm the following day because of overnight rain and what Wisden termed “primitive covers.” Kambli appeared nervous and ran out his captain, Mohammad Azharuddin, but reached his second successive double century which allowed India to complete another innings victory. Usually an impetuous and aggressive batsman, Kambli had not hit a six in either of his epic innings.
India’s next engagement was a tour of Sri Lanka. Although Kambli failed in the warm-up games, and rain ruined the first test, his form returned when it mattered. In the second test Kambli scored yet another century that helped India to their first ever win in Sri Lanka and their first victory in an overseas test match in 27 attempts. Despite the hundred a hint of Kambli’s vulnerability was evident in the second innings. He was dubiously adjudged caught behind and, in Wisden’s words, demonstrated a “tearful reluctance to leave the crease.” This brought a reprimand from match referee Peter Burge but would not be the last time Kambli was seen crying while batting for India.
Another century in the third test match meant that Kambli had scored two double centuries and two centuries in five innings. He was the talk of the cricketing world. But attention was nothing new for Kambli, whose reputation was established while still a schoolboy. He was spotted playing in the nets by Ramakant Achrekar, a well known coach in Mumbai. Achrekar encouraged him to move to the cricket obsessed Sharadashram High School, where he met Tendulkar, another of Achrekar’s prodigies. The pair quickly became best friends and practised together for up to six hours each day.
It was the semi-final of the Harris Shield inter-school competition that first brought the two friends to wider attention. Sharadashram were hot favourites; Tendulkar had scored a double-century in the quarter-final and although their opponents, St. Xaviers, counted Sunil Gavaskar as an alumnus their reputation was more academic than sporting.
St. Xaviers started fairly well and reduced Sharadashram to 84 for 2. That, however, brought together the two friends. Tendulkar was dropped at slip in the 20s and Kambli survived a good shout for leg before wicket early in his innings, but after that the pair scored gracefully, methodically and quickly. By the end of the first day Tendulkar had reached 192 and Kambli 182. Achrekar demanded a declaration at the start of the second day but he was not at the ground and the two stars ignored his assistant’s protestations. Instead they sang Wham’s “Wake me up before you go go” between overs to drown out the assistant’s desperate shouts. It was only at lunch, and a telephone call with a horrified Achrekar, that St. Xaviers’ agony came to a close. Sharadashram had scored 748 for 2, with Tendulkar unbeaten on 326 and Kambli on 349. The partnership of 664 runs was the highest of all time. Unsurprisingly St. Xaviers crumbled to 154 all out.
The record brought acclaim and with it money. A clothing company paid for the pair’s education and cricket expenses, which was especially important for Kambli. While Tendulkar was the son of a professor, Kambli’s father worked as a mechanic and the family struggled with the grim realities of life in the crowded tenements of South Mumbai. Food was often scarce and Achrekar paid for Kambli’s tuition and cricket kit. In return Kambli got up at 5am, returned home after midnight, and played dozens of matches every month.
The pair’s paths diverged after the St. Xavier’s match. Tendulkar continued his meteoric rise. After another triple century in the Harris Shield final (Kambli was caught and bowled for 18) he was selected for Mumbai’s Ranji Trophy team. Aged only sixteen he was also chosen for the Indian under-19 tour of Pakistan but dropped out so that he could take his school exams. Kambli was not part of either team, leading him to remark later that “Sachin took the lift to the top floor, I walked up the stairs.”
The selectors’ apprehension regarding Kambli was understandable. Even as a teenager Tendulkar focussed simply on scoring a vast number of runs. By contrast Kambli often played strokes for their sheer pleasure. He admitted that he hated “getting bogged down” and would often get caught in the deep to the frustration of his coach and mentor, Achrekar. His personality matched his batting. One day while batting with Tendulkar he noticed a kite in the air above the ground. Kambli stopped the bowler as he was about to deliver the ball, grabbed the dangling strings and flew the kite. The players were in hysterics; Achrekar was livid.
Kambli made his Ranji Trophy debut the following season. Although only 17 he was already suffering in comparison with his friend and fellow prodigy, and was only in the side because Tendulkar was playing in his first test match. Batting at number six, he struck his first ball for six runs and went on to score 72 runs off 65 balls. Despite this frenetic debut, competition for batting places was fierce with Tendulkar, Sanjay Manjrekar and Ravi Shastri regulars in the side, and Kambli only played one more match for Mumbai that year.
By 1991 he was a regular, with four centuries in eight matches in the Ranji Trophy and over 1,000 runs for Mumbai in all games. International recognition came in the form of a one day international triangular tournament with Pakistan and West Indies in Sharjah. Kambli underwhelmed. He managed to get a start in all three of his innings but could not score more than 40. Some of the blame belonged to the management, who made him open in his second international innings, but regardless he was dropped for the next two series against Australia and South Africa.
Kambli’s response to the selectors was to score more than 1,200 runs in the Ranji Trophy at an average of 110.27, for which he was rewarded with a place in India’s squad for the 1992 World Cup. Once again Kambli disappointed, reaching double figures only once in four innings as India crashed out in the group stage. Not only did he fail with the bat but Kambli was seen dancing with the cheerleaders during a washed out match with Sri Lanka. Although the Wisden report described it as “the aerobic dancing of the Indian players seeking exercise”, other opinions were less generous and Kambli was left out of the team.
A pattern had been established. Once again Kambli scored heavily in domestic cricket: first a big century against Baroda and then a double-century versus Maharashtra brought him back into the Indian team. This time, though, he seized his chance with a first international century in the first one-day international of England’s 1993 tour. Despite conditions approaching a riot, after many people purchased forged tickets and tried to climb the walls into the ground, Kambli calmly constructed his innings and anchored the Indian batting. On his 21st birthday he reached his century batting with Tendulkar, and afterwards thanked his childhood friend for helping him maintain his composure.
Kambli was awarded his test match cap on the back of this century, and from there began his purple patch. But even in this, the peak of his career, Kambli’s extravagant lifestyle prompted gossip and rumours. He was viewed as petulant and gaudy. There was his appearance, replete with gold chains, expensive watches and designer clothes. One pendant was reputed to bear the inscription “kiss me, I am the prince.” He was often seen drinking and dancing, while it was said that during the Chennai test against England he ran up a five figure telephone bill. His position in the team was not, therefore, guaranteed despite his seemingly impregnable statistics.
India’s next match was a one-off test in New Zealand, the first Kambli had played outside the subcontinent. In cold, windy conditions Chris Pringle dismissed him cheaply in both innings as Kambli struggled with the green wicket and extravagant swing. Back in the dressing room he threw down his bat, cursed and exclaimed “how can a fast bowler bowl off-spin? Ask him to bowl quick to me if he has the guts”. Further failures followed in the accompanying four one day internationals.
A series of one day matches in Sharjah the following month appeared to revive Kambli’s form. He scored 56 in the final against Pakistan but, more memorably, dismantled Shane Warne’s bowling with 22 off one over to win the semi-final. The next test series was against a West Indian team possibly past it prime but still possessing bowling firepower. The first match exposed Kambli’s technique against the pace of Courtney Walsh, Winston Benjamin and Cameron Cuffy. He scored 40 in the first innings off only 39 balls, and in the process became the quickest Indian to 1,000 test match runs. But in the second innings Kambli suffered the first duck of his test career after failing to deal with a bouncer from Benjamin. In the second test he was caught in the deep trying to hit Carl Hooper for six off only his third ball. By the third and final test he dropped down to six in the batting order and was dismissed cheaply in both innings by Benjamin, again unable to play the short ball. He managed to keep his place in the side for New Zealand’s trip to India a few months later but only batted twice in a series ruined by the weather. Aged 23, his last test match was a rain-sodden draw where neither side batted twice.
Somewhat surprisingly Kambli was selected over Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly for India’s 1996 World Cup squad. He performed creditably, with a century against Zimbabwe and a gritty 33 not out against the West Indies. On home turf, India progressed out of the group stages, and beat Pakistan in a tense quarter-final in which Kambli contributed 24 runs. His iconic moment came in the semi-final. India needed 252 to win and at one stage were 92 for 1 but lost their next seven wickets for 22 runs. Kambli was India’s last realistic hope, but struggled to 10 runs from 29 deliveries on a difficult, turning wicket. Although he still thought that he could win the game for India, the Eden Gardens crowd thought otherwise. Their riot forced the game’s abandonment and people across the world watched Kambli leave the field in tears.
Although he was in an out of the Indian one day side for the next four years the World Cup was Kambli’s last meaningful contribution to international cricket. His 35 matches after the tearful exit netted an average under 20 and there was no place for him in the tour to England later in 1996, which launched the careers of Dravid and Ganguly. He was still a titan at the domestic level, with an average of more than 125 in the 1997/8 season and as late as 2001 he scored a quick century against the English tourists. However by this stage he was no longer a prodigy worthy of indulgence but a veteran with disciplinary problems on the fringes of the Indian one day side. The Mumbai team dropped him because he was regularly absent from practice sessions, and there were many stories of his drunken antics. Rather than knuckling down in the nets he adopted quackish solutions such as using nine grips, which often melted in the sun and meant he could not hold the bat properly.
Kambli’s final first class game was in 2004. Since then he has become almost a caricature of the washed up sportsman. There have been two Bollywood movies, a reality dance show and he was even coaxed into criticizing Tendulkar on another television show. He dabbled with politics, finishing fourth in a local election in 2009. Even the announcement of his retirement, years after he had finished playing for India and Mumbai, felt like an attempt to keep him in the public eye. Last year he made allegations about the 1996 World Cup semi-final, claiming that India intended to bat first. The claims, denied by his former teammates and the BCCI, confirmed his status as persona non grata within Indian cricket.
Through all of this his old school friend has played on and on at the highest level, his extraordinary success and longevity only amplifying Kambli’s spurned talent. Kambli’s star burned quickly while Tendulkar has dazzled international cricket for more than two decades. Now, as he enters the autumn of his cricketing career, the light is dimming. His batting average, once over 60, is now only a cheap dismissal away from falling under Kambli’s final mark of 54.20. Together they share the highest test batting averages of any Indians in the history of the game. Whoever finishes a shade above the other these two, who batted together for countless hours as children, will sit together for eternity in the statistical annals of the game.