“Vengsarkar never gave the indication of being more than an honest and hardworking batsman. An asset to the side, who stopped short of becoming a great”.
There are cricketers born to greatness. They step into the cricketing landscape and blaze through, creating a trail that had remained almost indecipherable to mortal eyes before their entry.
There could have been years spent in constructing the genius, but once unveiled to the world the product turns out finished and the sparkle is blinding.
Be it Don Bradman or Sachin Tendulkar, Sydney Barnes or Shane Warne, there are men made in that mould.
But there is a different sort of joy in witnessing a diligent man, by all indications mortal, with potential and shortcomings mixed in equal proportions … finding a way to rise to the same level of brilliance after years of toil. Yes, these are also men of obvious talent to pitchfork them to the highest level, but with enough palpable weaknesses that make one wonder whether they will remain among the rank and file. It is a different sort of joy witnessing such a servant of the game achieve satori through years of persevering industry.
Dilip Vengsarkar of 1986-1988 was one such stalwart who became a surprise-phenomenon.
Yes, he was already more than a force to reckon with. If we look keenly at the records since 1983, stripping the myths and memory glitches that occlude cricketing numbers, we will find he was already one of the leading batsmen of the 1980s even before the two years of a dream run.
Michael Holding named him as the best Indian batsman he had bowled to. And that was not without reason. Take the Test matches when the West Indies bowling was spearheaded by the famed four-pronged attack, and Vengsarkar’s record eclipses several others. Including Sunil Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath among others.
But something spectacular happened to him during the English tour of 1986, and it continued to the season of 1987-88. It was a rather late touch of genius.
In 16 Test matches during this period, he scored 1631 runs at a Bradmanesque 101.93, with 8 hundreds. It was during this phase that the cricket rankings were first introduced, and it was a surprise to all but the most statistically savvy followers of the game when Vengsarkar was discovered perched on the top of the world. Ahead of Viv Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Javed Miandad, Allan Border and the rest. And indeed, during the mid-1980s his record was superior to all these brilliant men.
This was special. Because Vengsarkar never gave the indication of being more than an honest and hardworking batsman. An asset to the side, who stopped short of becoming a great.
For a decade or so, he had been a consistent, and sometimes debatable, performer. But people would have not thought of the sobriquets like ‘great’ and ‘legend’ to describe him, adjectives freely used for men like Gavaskar and Viswanath.
Yet, from the moment he stepped out in Lord’s 1986 to stroke that magnificent 126 not out, his third century at the hallowed ground, and then followed it up with an unbeaten 102 in unplayable conditions at Headingley, it was evident that Vengsarkar was going through his phase of a miracle.
During this phase, no bowler in the world knew what to do about him. He got runs against them all, be it Imran Khan and Wasim Akram or Courtney Walsh and Patrick Patterson.
The straight drive
Yes, any Vengsarkar masterpiece was dotted with a superb array of drives, through the covers and past the mid-on.
The typical photograph was of him going almost down on his knee, head bent over the ball, the nose almost sniffing the leather, while a full swing of his arms dispatching it between cover point and extra cover. The flourishing follow through was one of the sights of the 1980s.
The beauty of the on drive was less amenable to being captured on still camera, but there remains plenty of video footage of some of the classic knocks to know why the English dubbed it ‘rifle shot’ during the summer of 1986.
There were some straight drives as well. One was hit off Patterson at the Wankhede, even as the rest of the batting was struggling around him. Audacity in the face of fire, much of the story of Vengsarkar’s solo knocks against the Windies.
Yet, when I look back at that period of purple patch of one of the most elegant stroke-players of India, I remember one moment that summarises the mastery that the stalwart had developed over all the bowlers.
It was at the Eden, in February 1987. The ball had started swinging appreciably, and the best Test match spell ever bowled by Roger Binny had given India a 174-run lead in the first innings against Pakistan.
On the fourth mid-morning, India had come out looking for quick runs, to declare with enough time left of those short sub-continental days to force a result. But, it had not been easy.
With conditions in favour of the bowlers, and Imran still very much at the top of his game, fast scoring was fraught with danger. And at the other end the young Wasim Akram had already shown signs of the deadly operator he was soon to become. Besides, when they rested, the spinners Abdul Qadir and Tauseef Ahmed formed a rather difficult duo to score off.
Krish Srikkanth, as so often happened, had been removed early. Mohinder Amarnath had laboured his way to 31 scratchy runs before being castled by Tauseef. Time was ticking and the declaration was some distance away.
At 100 for 2, the thousands thronging to Eden craned their necks and squinted at the steps leading from the pavilion, wondering if skipper Kapil Dev had promoted himself. But Kapil knew better.
The bowling was tough. The conditions were demanding. If there was a batsman who could score quickly in these conditions it was the best batsman of the world. Best batsman on form.
In walked the tall, lean form of Vengsarkar under his white helmet.
The innings he played that day is one of the masterpieces in miniature that have been criminally forgotten.
Arun Lal, filling in the large shoes of Sunil Gavaskar who had decided to opt out of the match rather controversially, was scoring runs but taking his time to do so. The principal problem was rotating the strike. India were extending the lead, but the scoring rate hovered just about 3 and over.
And now Vengsarkar began stroking the ball. No hurry, no slogs, no chasing wide deliveries. Delectable drives and deflections were the order of the day. If it was a touch short, he could cut and pull with élan as well. The runs began to flow. The lead began to build. Imran came on and was taken for a couple of boundaries.
From the High Court end, Akram started bowling round the wicket. The ball was swinging in, and he used the tactic he so often employed those days during the slog overs of One Day matches. Of cramping the batsmen for room, pitching almost constantly at yorker length, with the ball tailing in.
For a while, Arun Lal blocked ball after ball. Unable to get away. A maiden resulted.
And then Vengsarkar turned Tauseef into the outfield, the ends were changed and the Bombay bat stood ready to take on the young left-armer.
Then came the moment.
The long hair of Akram bounced on his forehead and neck as he steamed in. The ball tailed in, pitching on the middle stump line. Vengsarkar took a small step forward. The bat was held straight, as if just about extending his defensive stroke to a push. There was absolutely no follow-through. The crack was as sweet as can get. And it sped through the wicket and the non-striker, over the billiard-top outfield, scorching the velvety turf and came to a stop with a clank at the bottom of the sightscreen.
The stroke of a man who had, at least temporarily, achieved satori.
Kapil Dev declared the innings as soon as Arun Lal fell for 70. The score was 181 for 3 in 52.1 overs, not really a breakneck speed to closure. The other batsmen had struggled to put bat to ball, to find the gaps.
But Vengsarkar had played on a different planet. He walked back that day with a masterly unbeaten 41 from just 52 deliveries. Perhaps not fast if we try evaluating with the modern T20 standards. But in the context of the match, it was an amazing fluid innings.
India did not win. Roger Binny bowled his heart out, accounted for the second Pakistani wicket early on the fifth morning, with the score on 37. But, Javed Miandad batted four hours on the final day and Pakistan played out time with half the wickets in the bank. Even crackers burst with excellent timing did not distract the batsmen as they shaped to play the ball.
Yet, whenever I look back at the amazing run of Vengsarkar through those years of the 1980s, that straight drive off a menacing Akram is etched in my memory as the snapshot of his dominance.
A splendid batsman at the very height of his powers.