Consistent, elegant, majestic when in form, dependable even when not. When on song, well-nigh unstoppable. As he was during a period of 16 Test matches from 1986-88, when he scored 1631 runs at 101.93 per innings with eight hundreds.
Dilip Vengsarkar was a prolific and, often, a phenomenal batsman. In the 1980s he was the best in India by some distance. And for those couple of years in the middle of that decade he was without a peer in the world.
Yet, he was not someone who captured the imagination of the Indian public. Too aloof, too professional, too committed to his game to bother about media-savvy niceties, and too reluctant and shy to bask in the limelight that accompanies cricketing success. While flamboyance did occasionally touch his batting, if and when the situation demanded, it was conspicuous by its absence away from the pitch. He liked to be left alone with his cricketing thoughts.
Men with far less success on the pitch enjoyed far more air time and column space than this tongue-tied camera-shy maestro. In fact, when he finished on top of the Deloittes ranking of Test batsmen, the first time such world ranking was released, the Indian public scoffed at the results. After all no one could be better than Sunil Gavaskar, the record breaking phenomenon and the acknowledged demi-god of Indian cricket. How could someone inferior to his own illustrious teammate be the best in the world?
The cold facts were that from 1983 to 1987 Vengsarkar comfortably outperformed Gavaskar and the likes of other demi-gods such as Viv Richards by as much as 16 to 20 runs per innings.
It was the unprecedented feat of three consecutive hundreds at Lord’s that finally pitch-forked Vengsarkar into public consciousness as a batsman with an unusually rising career graph. Whenever he graced the Mecca of cricket, the middle-order man seemed to be touched by genius.
The 1979 innings, as a promising 23-year-old, saved India from the jaws of near-certain defeat. The 1982 effort was akin to the heroics of the boy on the burning deck. In the face of humiliating loss Vengsarkar’s 157 was struck with spellbinding brilliance, his counter-attack reducing the likes of Ian Botham and Bob Willis to the realms of the pedestrian. When he returned to the hallowed venue in 1986, the masterly unbeaten 126 was essayed with controlled aggression and guaranteed a first innings lead that went on to become match-winning. He single-handedly won the following Test at Leeds as well, with 61 and 102 not out in unplayable conditions.
Kapil Dev managed to win four Test matches as captain of India. Vengsarkar had a century in each of them. Kapil christened him chhote nawab. It was a misnomer. Vengsarkar had by then upstaged the bigger names for a while and my some miles.
There are legends around Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath and their deeds against West Indies. Yet, numbers reveal that when the dreaded four-pronged pace attack bowled at the Indians, it was Vengsarkar who fared the best. And if ever the team found themselves on a difficult wicket, no batsman could be more reassuring or effective.
He was much more, but the tag that has stuck to him, perhaps with some justification, is that of the Lord of Lord’s. Because of the three sparkling gems he etched at the headquarters of cricket.
Dilip Vengsarkar was born on April 6, 1956.
Text: Arunabha Sengupta