Dilip Vengsarkar, born April 6, 1956, remains one of the best Indian batsmen of all time. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the career of the man who, during a phenomenal purple patch between 1983 and 1987, was one of the very best in the world.
An unusual World No. 1
In 1987, former England great Ted Dextercollaborated with statisticians Gordon Vince and Rob Eastaway to produce the first ranking system for cricket. Launching the Deloittes Ratings, Dexter observed, “It is my greatest contribution to the game, far more important than a couple of extra-cover drives.”
When the rankings were released for the first time, the game on the crest of supreme popularity in India. The frenzy was at fever-pitch ever since the fairytale triumph of the 1983 World Cup. Surprisingly, however, the response to the ratings was lukewarm in the country — doubly strange given that the batsman ranked No. 1 one was a stalwart of their own.
People on the streets, the media and former cricketers scoffed at the rankings, with marked distrust for those things called ‘computers’. And of course, there was the traditional dislike for numbers in a nation used to myths, legends and magnified, manufactured attributes of accepted heroes.
Dilip Vengsarkar, the man whose willow topped the world according to the ‘computer’, did not fit the Indian perception of a cricketing hero.
No one doubted his utility in the middle-order, few lacked respect for his unstoppable drives in front of the wicket. But, he was way too professional for Indian consumption. He did not strut about larger than life, neither did he enthral the media with his views. After a game, no matter how exhilarating his performance, he wanted to be left alone — often afflicted by a tongue-tied bout of stammering when catapulted into the limelight.
The grandmaster of Indian batting was Sunil Gavaskar, whose exploits had reached legendary proportions — and whose wit, charm and penchant for controversy always kept him ensconced at the top of public imagination. Vengsarkar merely seemed to wander in his august shadow. When Kapil Dev paid him a glittering tribute, the all-rounder called him ‘chhote nawab’ with obvious deference to the bigger royalty [Sunil Gavaskar] among batsmen.
Additionally, the world was full of high and mighty batsmen of captivating style and a clutch of hundreds like Viv Richards, undoubtedly the greatest of the world, Javed Miandad, Allan Border, Gordon Greenidge, David Gower, Martin Crowe and India’s own Mohammad Azharuddin. How could someone, overshadowed by his own teammates, suddenly end up as the best in the world? The ‘computer’ was surely nuts.
The Deloitte’s rankings have since been refined, and have come to be known as ICC Ratings. Dilip Vengsarkar still stands tall as the best batsman of the world when the numbers are regenerated for late 1987.
Yes, the world was teeming with supreme batsmen. Vengsarkar had outperformed them all. From the summer of 1983 till the end of 1987, he had outscored the likes of Gavaskar, Viv Richards and Javed Miandad by a comfortable 15-20 runs per innings!
In the eighties, he was indisputably the premier batsman of India, more prolific and consistent than Gavaskar, Azhar and Mohinder Amarnath. Yet, more often than not, fans showered far more adulation on far lesser players.
It has been said that if David Gower been born Indian and Vengsarkar an Englishman, they would have been national symbols. Gower’s frivolous artistry made him enormously popular in India, but the English viewed him with suspicion. Vengsarkar’s low-key professionalism and ‘introvert’ tag jarred with the Indian image of the superstar, but was the blueprint for English acceptance.
His claims to captaincy were also ignored for many a year before an amazing run with the bat left the selectors little choice.
Somehow, even fate conspired to keep him away from focus. Vengsarkar was a regular in the side for 16 years. Two of the very few matches that he missed turned out to be monumental — the triumphant World Cup final of 1983 and the Tied Test of 1986-87.
The Irani Trophy entry
There was no reason why Vengsarkar should not have kindled the cricketing fancies. He had the game for it.
He entered the scene as a one-match-old teenager in the 1975 Irani Trophy at Nagpur. Bishan Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna were spinning a web around Ranji champions Bombay on a turning wicket. In response to 210, Bombay were 98 for three when the tall, 19-year-old joined Ashok Mankad at the crease. When stumps were drawn about 100 minutes later, Bombay stood at 230 for three. Mankad was on 30. The youngster had sent several balls into the orbit on his way to 101. The following morning, Vengsarkar was out for 110, made in 113 minutes, with 11 fours and seven sixes struck off the legendary spinners.
Unfortunately, this unbridled attacking form of Vengsarkar was seldom witnessed in international cricket. It resurfaced years later, in the course of some games played for the seniors after his retirement — when he walked down the wicket to hammer Ezra Mosley and hit Viv Richards for three sixes off consecutive balls. It was as if after a long career of curbing his impulses, he had again started to give vent to the full expression of his batting. In between, he remained elegant, correct, classy — but rarely that destroyer one had seen in that Nagpur match.
The Irani knock reminded many of the great six-hitting CK Nayudu, thereby earning Vengsarkar the nickname Colonel, a sobriquet he hated. It also obtained him a place in the side for the twin tours of New Zealand and West Indies.
Up and down the order
Indian cricket being what it is, the immense talent was soon riddled with self-doubt. On the seaming surfaces of New Zealand, the youngster accustomed to the middle-order was sent out to open the innings. The journey at the highest form of cricket began with a string of low scores, the attacking instincts were blunted by demands. Only once during the initial tours did Vengsarkar’s willow briefly roar in glory. With Michael Holding resorting to near Bodyline hostilities, forcing Bishan Bedi to declare with just five wickets down, Vengsarkar counter attacked fearlessly for 39 at Kingston. Otherwise, his initiation was a disaster.
It was during the tour of Australia in 1977-78 that Vengsarkar was pushed down the order, and responded by maturing into a sound, capable batsman. A sequence of useful scores culminated in a hard-fought 78 as India tried to chase down 493 in the final Test.
He finally found his groove against Alvin Kallicharran’s West Indians in 1978-79. Promoted to No. 3, Vengsarkar entered a purple patch, and pinned down that position for years to come. At the Eden Gardens, he scored his maiden century, a mammoth 157 not out, famously adding 344 unbeaten runs with Gavaskar.
Another century followed in the series at Delhi. When India toured England, Vengsarkar commenced his love affair with the headquarters of the game. At Lord’s, he rescued India from the jaws of defeat with an impeccable 103, adding 210 with Gundappa Viswanath. In the final Test at The Oval, he played an important hand in India’s famous unfulfilled chase of 438, dispatching Bob Willis back over his head when quick runs were required.
Back home, tall scores continued against visiting Australians, including a hundred at Bangalore. And when Asif Iqbal’s Pakistanis visited, Vengsarkar warded off a definite defeat with an unbeaten 146 at Delhi, almost chasing down an impossible 390 in the process. He had completed 1000 runs in the calendar year and was being touted as one of the talented young batsmen of the world.
The batting bulwark
There were some isolated gems during the next few years. In 1982, he blazed away at Lord’s yet again, hitting a spellbinding 157 — an effort akin to that of the boy on the burning deck. At St Johns, Antigua, he hammered Malcolm Marshall, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Winston Davis to score 94 from just 103 balls. But, till the winter of 1983, sustained consistency was lacking. Mohinder Amarnath, with his amazing 1982-83 season, displaced him from the No 3 position for a while.
Things started to change when Clive Lloyd’s West Indians travelled to India, ruthless in their quest of wiping out the embarrassment of the World Cup final. Vengsarkar had been struck by a Marshall bouncer during the second group match against West Indies, and had missed the later matches of that epochal tournament. Now, as Marshall tore in and terrorised the Indian batsmen, Holding, Davis and Wayne Daniel in tow, Vengsarkar’s broad blade flashed in defiance. Two hundreds and two fifties resulted as he topped the averages, the superb 159 and 63 at Delhi bettered by a glittering 100 from 135 balls at Bombay. By the end of the series, Clive Lloyd hailed him as one of the best players of pace bowling. Michael Holding remembered him as the most difficult batsman to bowl to. Vengsarkar was re-established as the Indian No 3.
In 1984-85, David Gower’s Englishmen visited India, and Azhar zoomed into the cricketing horizons in the wake of a blazing trail of runs. Vengsarkar suffered a few low scores, before coming good with 137 at Kanpur, guiding the young man to his record third hundred on the trot.
Vengsarkar was one of the pillars of the triumph in the Benson Hedges Mini World Cup of 1985, his collaboration with Kapil Dev pulling India out of their most perilous corner against New Zealand in the semi-finals.
With the riches in the middle in the form of Amarnath, Azhar and Vengsarkar, the team looked for an optimal batting order. Vengsarkar volunteered for No. 4, where he stayed till the end of his career. He had been successful at one drop, but as he moved one place down the order his sequence of scores took off in almost Bradmanesque fashion. There were useful knocks in Sri Lana and Australia, but the amazing run started when India toured England in 1986.
The purple patch
A third consecutive hundred came at Lord’s, an unprecedented feat by a visiting batsman. It was a superb display of controlled aggression as India won in England for the first time in 15 years.
The next match was the famous Leeds affair, where every bowler turned a demon under the cloudy skies. The ball darted around, no one else managed more than 36. Vengsarkar scored 61 and 102*.
Back home, his prime form continued. The Australians were hammered for an unbeaten 164 at Bombay. The Sri Lankans were defeated at Nagpur and Cuttack, Vengsarkar hitting 157 and 166, the last knock his career-best — scored on the most treacherous of surfaces. When Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Abdul Qadir and Tauseef Ahmed came along, Vengsarkar scored fluently throughout the winter, starting with 96 at Madras, toting up 109 at Ahmedabad and ending with a fantastic 50 on a viciously underprepared track of Bangalore. Clive Lloyd had dubbed him as one of the best against pace. Now, Ashok Mankad, that most astute of cricketing minds, proclaimed him as the best player of spin.
By the time India co-hosted the Reliance Cup of 1987, Vengsarkar’s claims to captaincy could no longer be ignored. He was made the deputy of Kapil Dev for the tournament. Vengsarkar was in such imperious form that when he finished the championship with an average of 57 and strike rate of 89, some claimed he had been off colour. But, when India crashed out in the semi-finals, Kapil was removed as captain and Vengsarkar got the job.
The tale of Vengsarkar’s captaincy is chequered. Ostensibly the record is poor. If one looks closer, however, there are highs and lows. Seven of the 10 Tests he led were against the mighty West Indies.
When Viv Richards brought his men to India in 1987-88, Vengsarkar scored 102 in his first Test as captain, a tenacious innings in one of the most fascinating Test matches ever played. West Indies triumphed by five wickets, riding on a brilliant Richards ton.
Another century followed at the Eden Gardens before a Winston Davis delivery rose sharply to break his wrist and put him out of action for the rest of the season. By then he was the No 1 batsman in the world according to the Deloitte Ratings. He had pulled his average up from 38 to 46 within the course of 16 Test matches, scoring 1631 runs at 101.93 per innings with eight hundreds.
Having carried the team along through the first few Tests, he watched from the sidelines with his broken arm while Narendra Hirwani ran through the West Indians to square the series.
There had been growing feud with Board. Vengsarkar had written columns for English dailies during the Test matches, openly refusing to follow the ‘no press’ directive. Taking advantage of the injury to the captain, BCCI banned him for six months, working it out so that he missed just a low-key tournament in Sharjah.
Back in the helm at the start of the next season, Vengsarkar started strongly, clouting a superb 76 not out at Sharjah against the West Indian pace. Almost as a personal statement after the injury, he played Pat Patterson, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Winston Benjamin without a helmet. In Bangladesh, he led India to triumph in the Asia Cup. When John Wright’s New Zealanders visited in 1988-89, India won the series 2-1. The reversal, unfortunately, came in Vengsarkar’s 100th Test match, a nightmarish game for the batsman. On this rare occasion, he enjoyed undivided attention of the crowd and, perhaps overwhelmed, could managed just 25 and a duck.
This series was, however, the last triumph in his career. The West Indian tour that followed was catastrophic.
In the early eighties, Vengsarkar had used a lighter bat against the lightning quick Caribbean bowlers, employing the cut more often for his runs, not hesitating to pull when required. By now, he had achieved so much success with his impeccable front foot drives, he had resorted to biding his time till the fast men pitched up. He did make runs against Courtney Walsh, Pat Patterson and Winston Benjamin in India, but the knocks were much slower than the period of brilliance in 1983. When he travelled to West Indies, the strategy bombed. India lost the four match series 3-0. Vengsarkar failed with the bat, and found himself a lonely, bitter figure.
He attacked his batsmen furiously in interviews, not really helping his popularity. And a tour to United States of America, without the permission of BCCI, resulted in a ban of two years on him and five other cricketers. The injunction was later overturned, but Vengsarkar, never really the blue-eyed boy of the establishment, had placed his head on the block.
The last days
When the next season commenced, Srikkanth had taken over captaincy. Vengsarkar opted out of the Pakistan tour that followed, stating mental weariness.
Subsequently, as India toured New Zealand, he was overlooked for selection – and was flown in only when Navjot Sidhu succumbed to injury. He started with a duck in Napier, but followed it up with a patient 47 at Auckland, bailing out Raj Singh Dungarpur’s ‘Team of the 90s’ through a century stand with captain Azhar.
Vengsarkar returned to England for the summer of 1990, the land of happy memories and loads of runs. He played two glorious hands in the One-Day series, but disappointed in the Tests. During the fantastic run feast of Lord’s, he sought his fourth consecutive hundred on the ground, but fell for 52.
He was no longer a certain pick for the tour of Australia in 1991-92. The team was young, and he was struggling to fit in.
However, the sparks of old magic did fly in the final domestic encounter before selection. In that dramatic Ranji final against Haryana, Vengsarkar scored an electric unbeaten 139 on the final day, as Bombay almost achieved the impossible before falling short by a couple of runs. It was a gallant innings, one of the classic showdowns between Kapil Dev and Vengsarkar. The man from Bombay won this duel, clubbing the great all-rounder for two sixes, and hitting poor Yogendra Bhandari for 6, 4, 6, 6, 4 in five balls. When Abey Kuruvilla was run out with Bombay tantalisingly short of the target, Vengsarkar broke down in tears on the field. But, the innings did win him a ticket to Australia.
The last series of the great batsman was a sad one. He scored a couple of half centuries in the first three Tests. But, by then the Indian selectors had decided against playing him in the One Day matches. He was forced to sit idle through the three week gap between the third and fourth Tests as the Benson Hedges tri-series was played out. By the time the Tests resumed, Vengsarkar had lost touch, and bowed out with scores of one and four in the final Test.
The treatment meted out to him in the last few days was strikingly shoddy. While remaining a safe close-in catcher, he had slowed down in the field. But, would the gamble of including him in the World Cup campaign have ensured better results? Pakistan triumphed with Javed Miandad’s experience playing a pivotal part in the middle. One can only wonder.
Returning to India, he hit a majestic career-best 284 in the Ranji Trophy quarter-final against Madhya Pradesh, toying with the bowling of Narendra Hirwani and Rajesh Chauhan. But, when Bombay crashed out in the semi-final against Delhi, Vengsarkar announced his retirement from cricket.
At that time he had the second-highest collection of Tests (116), runs (6,868), and centuries (17) for India after Gavaskar. His runs came at 42.13, the last phase of his career pulling the average down several notches.
Style and the man
At the wicket, Vengsarkar was immediately recognisable. Not only was he the tallest of the great Indian batsmen, he had an established routine before facing each delivery.
The gloved hand would touch the pads and the peak of his cap or helmet. Looking around, he would take his stance, look down at his grip, up at the bowler, down again, up again — and continue till the ball was about to be delivered. More often than not, the front foot would be plonked forward even before the ball came along. He looked his best when essaying that imperious drive between the cover-point and extra-cover, at the fullest stretch, the head on top of the ball, the blade facing the bowler at the end of a flourishing follow through. His on-drives were strokes of untold elegance, threading the gap between the mid-on and the mid-wicket, aptly nicknamed rifle-shot by the long suffering English bowlers.
In his younger days he loved the hook, but could afford to eschew it in the period of his pomp, finding it too risky when weighed against the returns. When runs dried up late in his career, he unfurled the stroke yet again. He could pull handsomely as well, a short-armed version off Michael Holding at Delhi still sticks around in the recesses of memory three decades down the line.
Off the field, he was almost reclusive — considered introverted by most. However, close friends like Abdul Qadir were prone to disagree. He had his differences with one-time mentor Sunil Gavaskar, but lots of them did at that time. He did not often see eye to eye with the BCCI. However, no one questioned his commitment to the cause of the team and to cricket, even long after his playing days were over.
During his playing days, Vengsarkar had been outshone by much lesser luminaries. During his administrative career, he was defeated in the Mumbai Cricket Association elections by Vilasrao Deshmukh. One cannot cease to wonder at the vagaries of Indian cricket.
The late eighties advertisement of Srichakra Tyres was revealing. It was one of the few endorsement deals the incorrigibly reticent Vengsarkar ever accepted. As the ad-film ended, it showed him riding away on a motorcycle, perched as a passenger, with the dashing Indian opener Krishnamachari Srikkanth steering the vehicle. Vengsarkar the popular icon perennially preferred playing second fiddle, even though his accomplishments far outclassed more crowd-pulling peers.
He was much more at home at the crease, negotiating the fearsome pace bowlers of the eighties, engaged in his famed rivalry with Malcolm Marshall.