In his very first test, he managed what few batsmen get to list on their resume in a career span – be at the crease in the fourth innings of a test match in a winning cause. In his next six innings he scored two doubles, two centuries and one half century.
As seventh grade students, our most enduring memory of that dream run used to be that while we never knew what the day’s score was till we got home, we used to invariably find Vinod Kambli batting on one end. This began in his very third test when he ended the second day at 20 not out and was still batting at the end of the third day on 164 not out. The run-fest continued for a few more tests.
Meanwhile in school, if anyone batted well those days, we would call him Kambli regardless of whether the batsman was right or left-handed. We also stopped asking or caring how much Sachin scored. The question was more on the lines of “Is Kambli around?”, “How much did he score?”, “How did he get out?” To put in perspective, in the last twenty years such a phase has occurred only one other time – when a certain Virendra Sehwag relegated Sachin briefly to the status of an afterthought of a second question. The new question in mid-2000’s was “How much has Sehwag scored? And Sachin? ” I suspect that will remain the case for sometime now but nevertheless coming back to seventh grade.
Ah ! The summer of ’93! We had a new spin trio already being compared to the spin quartet, our captain was again beginning to flick the deliveries from outside off-stump to the square leg boundary, Sachin kept reminding us of his greatness every other test and just then, we thought, we had also unearthed our Bradman.
But the start was too good to true. Barely two years down the line, we saw the man weeping in front of a packed house in Eden Gardens. We felt for him but we didn’t know what was happening. It was beginning to sink in that unlike what we would’ve wished, the man had delivered his best so early in his career that he was struggling to cope with expectations, form, media and luck, all at the same time. His leg stump would go flying now more often than Batmobile. We started seeing what seemed odd to us first- him ducking awkwardly and scooping tame catches. And then we realized we had never seen him deal with bouncers before Walsh and company came to India. Reports of him being wayward with his after-cricket hours weren’t helping his case either. To top it off, he ran himself into what effectively was the worst ankle twist ever seen on television. Not to forget that he was the 12th man in that match and it took an entire year for him to get back to normal. No wonder, they say sometimes luck can be cruel but more importantly the cookie had crumbled sooner that we would’ve liked.
We can’t look back and find out if he really deserved another shot in the test side after nine comebacks to the ODI team. For a man who played his last test at 24, he probably did. We’ll also never know if he could’ve been more disciplined and would that have helped him prolong his career. We also don’t know whether his temperament itself was just not good enough for the highest levels. But what we do know that at one point of time, he was our childhood hero.
That’s why it hurts sometimes to know the man we loved seeing at the crease at one time, has been reduced to a contestant on reality shows. But what we still see in him is his zest for life and maybe if he is happy doing all that he is doing now, we just ought to be happy for him.