Once touted as a future great, Vinod Kambli took all of his prodigious talents and laid them to waste.
November 16th, 2013. That was Sachin Tendulkar’s last day as a cricketer. The whole of India it seemed had come to a standstill to pay their respects to the god of Indian cricket who had straddled different generations in his career. His overblown farewell included a heartwarming speech that paid tribute to almost everyone who helped in his 24 year magnum opus. The test match was supposed to last 5 days but playing a West Indies side years removed from their prime, the match, like the first one in Kolkata, was done and dusted in 3 days.
Tendulkar’s speech was the longest he probably ever spoke in front of his fans and just like his career, didn’t seek to raise a hornet’s nest with his words.
A couple of days later, a voice synonymous with idiocy and one that came into public consciousness only when it made mindless statements, spoke.
Vinod Kambli, one of Indian cricket’s lost causes wept about how he was never acknowledged in the speech. He claimed he was integral to Tendulkar’s rise and everything that he accomplished began with that part-of-cricketing-folklore 664 run partnership in a Harris Shield match back in 1988. By now, his crocodile tears were part and parcel of media fodder, a cricketer who had passed his blink-and-miss prime years and believed that the only way to wiggle back into public consciousness was by making some statement that if dissected, was usually bereft of any logic. He wasn’t on the invitee list in the star studded dinner that Sachin Tendulkar threw and one forgot that when Tendulkar threw a party after crossing Sunil Gavaskar’s record of 34 centuries a few years back, Vinod Kambli came with 34 vada pavs to the party. It was what they gobbled after they finished practice in the years before they became the wonder boys of Indian cricket. Obviously, the intervening years had driven some sort of a wedge between them.
A week later, he pulled up while driving and suffered a heart attack. A quick thinking policewoman spotted him in distress and rushed him to a hospital, giving him a second lease of life.
Just look at the contrast – his estranged best friend retired a legend in front of an adoring crowd who had come to see him from all over the world in his manicured farewell series and he was fighting for life in a hospital bed, saved by a surgery at the age of 41.
For someone who shot to fame with a double century in the third test match that he played, his test career met with a premature end in 1994. A naturally flamboyant batsman unafraid to play shots and who incurred his captain’s wrath when he struck the first ever ball he faced in the Ranji Trophy for a six, he played his last ODI in 2000, the his last of 9 comebacks ending in all too familiar disappointment.
It should be easy to decipher a tragic tale.
What isn’t always easy is deciphering a tragic tale that lacks the ominous signs. Sreesanth was temperamental beyond control but he crossed the sacred line when he accepted money in exchange for information, making analysis of his dysfunctional career that much more easy.
The thing with Vinod Kambli is that no one really knows how he lost his way as everything that we have been privy to is hearsay. Stories abound of how he got drafted by the wrong company, lost his head to fame, fell of out favour with the administrators for his flamboyant lifestyle. In today’s team, half the side sports tattoos and are coached by the unapologetic lover of the life in the fast lane, Ravi Shastri. In Kambli’s time, earrings were frowned upon, let alone tattoos. While key members were probably involved in match-fixing, a crime far worse than being plastered with tattoos, the 90s weren’t a time of extravagance. Vinod Kambli probably chose the wrong decade to throw caution to the wind with his lifestyle, but irresponsible choices are only a part of the story.
Someone once told me that he used 9 grips for his bat. If I recall correctly, his bat was sponsored by a cigarette brand Four Square and for a brief time, he made playing left handed cool. Life is replete with one-hit wonders and in sports terms, Kambli was a one-hit wonder. Remember Vanilla Ice who shot to fame with his single Ice Ice Baby and then fell off a precipice? Kambli was like that. He scored a double century against England in his third test, the icing on the cake being that it was scored in front of his adoring home crowd. Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli walking back to the dressing room was a picture straight out of album of nostalgia. He then went onto score another double century against Zimbabwe and two centuries against Sri Lanka.
And then came the beginning to a very swift end.
The short ball. Even the greatest of them have been confounded and brought to their knees by it. Sourav Ganguly and Steve Waugh were like deer in the headlight when the short stuff was hurled at them. Michael Clarke too was never comfortable with the short ball in his playing days, Suresh Raina never mastered it and his test career is a mirror of that shortcoming. But Steve Waugh, Sourav Ganguly and Michale Clarke didn’t lack in tenacity and weren’t overawed by the flaw. In his speech at IIM years back, Harsha Bhogle, one of the most astute commentators on the game, gave us some clue as to what ailed Vinod Kambli. No doubt he was one of the most gifted batsmen the world had ever seen he said. But he was largely fueled on the natural talent that he had been bestowed with. In other words, he depended on talent to solve all his problems for him. At that point, most of his runs came on flat tracks that were made for batting records to fall like nine pins. When the chink in his armour became apparent, he came across the worst opponent to destroy his self-belief.
It was 1994 and the great West Indies era was drawing to a close but they still possessed in their armour Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Kenneth Benjamin. In their tour to India, they ruthlessly bounced Vinod Kambli and in the three test matches that he played, he barely troubled the scorers, a far cry from his storied initial burst. To learn grit and facing up to the short ball even when it doesn’t come naturally to you, he should have studied Steve Waugh and how he faced up to the menacing Curtly Ambrose when it looked like they would get into a street brawl. Waugh just stood his ground in the face of one of the world’s most intimidating pace bowlers breathing fire and brimstone on him. It isn’t as if Steve Waugh ever mastered the short ball. What he mastered was standing his ground in the face of adversity, not letting it define him and dent his self-confidence. Not all great players iron out their flaws in the course of the career.
The 1995 series between Australia and West Indies signalled the end of the West Indies era in world cricket. At around the same time, Kambli’s star too was on a rapid decline.
For someone with a happy disposition, it is sad that Kambli’s name is now synonymous with one of Indian cricket’s most heartbreaking moments – Kolkata 1996 when the crowd at Eden Gardens roared and raged and made play impossible in the World Cup semi-final against eventual champions, Sri Lanka. The side was in embers at 120/8. If they had continued, the other two wickets would have fallen quickly anyway.
Did Vinod Kambli run off the field, thinking he could save the match for his country? Or was he just crying like the rest of us?
After that, his career went into free fall.
With the ascent of Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly in 1996, the blueprint for one of the greatest batting line ups in modern cricket was being drawn. He played his last test match when he was 24 and by 2000, his ODI career, plagued by injury and missed chances, came to a grinding halt. It’s tough to recall his innings because there were hardly any significant ones. He was accused of being able to make that many comebacks because his best buddy Sachin Tendulkar was at the captain. Even if it were true, he didn’t make those chances count.
There were murmurs of indiscipline and developing a too close to comfort relationship with the bottle. He accused the board of targeting him because of his caste, but his off field behaviour made him an easy target.
The advent of reality television opened up the gate for gullible people looking for their 15 seconds of fame. Kambli was a willing candidate for such morbidity. In one such cheap show, he was asked if Tendulkar could have done more to help him. He replied in the affirmative. He grew up in a chawl with some 20 people in a room and used his hard upbringing as a reason for his unrestrained lifestyle. Come to think of it, what could Tendulkar or anyone else have done to help him? Chained him to his room so that the temptations of the world couldn’t reach him? No doubt his struggles were far greater than many others and his story would have been an aspirational one if only he had learned to keep his head on his shoulders. Though Tendulkar has never publicly spoken about Kambli and his unfulfilled potential, he has made a few comments that give us an insight as to why he was able to accomplish what he did and why Kambli lost his way. In an interview to The Telegraph he said “I wouldn’t want to talk about talent, because that’s not for me to judge. But if we have to talk about differences, then I would say that his lifestyle was different. We were both individuals with different natures, and we responded differently to various situations. In my case, my family was always there to keep an eye and keep me grounded at all times. I can’t speak for Vinod.”
Cricket writers have said that Kambli’s unfulfilled potential was one of Tendulkar’s biggest regrets. I managed to read a few pages of Rajdeep Sardesai’s new book ‘Democracy XI’ which traces the journeys of 11 of India’s greatest cricketers. In his piece on Tendulkar, he writes about going to meet Vinod Kambli as a part of the piece and says that when he went to meet him, he smelled alcohol on his breath. So many years, so many demons yet unconquered. He claims to have changed his ways but with Kambli, everything has to be taken with a pinch of salt.
While cricket had moved beyond Vinod Kambli, the need for the spotlight has never quite left him. He acted in a movie but never took off as an actor. He stood as a candidate in the local assembly elections and lost. He made the startling revelation that the ’96 World Cup semi-final was fixed. Former players quashed his claims and even if there was an outside chance that he was telling the truth, his non-existent credibility belied any chance of his claim being investigated. He converted to Christianity, hoping that a different god could provide him salvation and lift his numerous burdens. By the time he announced his retirement in 2011, years after wearing an India cap, he was a mere footnote.
A couple of years back, I made my maiden visit to Shivaji Park. In my mind’s eye, I saw a young Sachin Tendulkar, a young Vinod Kambli, a young Sunil Gavaskar, who were once like any of the boys playing on that ground. I began to ponder about a parallel universe, one in which Kambli actually fulfilled his potential. If he had, would there have been place for another left-handed batsman in the side? Would Sourav Ganguly have been picked, made his chances count and go onto become one of the greatest capatains of all time? Would Kambli have crafted many more memorable partnerships with Tendulkar and retired a great? He would never have been as great as a Sachin Tendulkar but he surely wouldn’t have fallen to the depths that he did. While Tendulkar tailored his image to that of a middle-class boy untouched by the ravages of incomprehensible success, Kambli tailored his to that of an unrepentant sinner. Just as he couldn’t navigate the short ball, he struggled to navigate the blind alleys of fame as well.
In modern cricket, many things are no longer anathema. Why, the BCCI even blessed the lifestyle that Kambli once espoused with the after parties at the IPL that were banned after the spot-fixing fiasco of 2013.
Why Vinod Kambli lost his way and could anything have been done to help him is a discussion that every fan will have till the cows come home. That does little to buttress the reality.
Lorenzo Carcaterra’s book Sleepers is a story about friendships that are thicker than bloos. It ends thus:
“The night and the streets were ours and the future lay sparkling ahead.
And we thought we would know each other forever.”
That’s how Kambli and Tendulkar would have felt back in the day.
This much we know; in 1988, two boys from Sharadashram Vidya Mandir conjured up a record 664 run partnership and announced their arrival on the big stage.
One went onto become a god to his fans, an impenetrable colollus of runs, fame and blind devotion, whose legend will forever be told and retold till the end of time.
People are still searching for the other person.
What is even sadder is, he is still searching for himself.