Official announcements are sometimes so useless. Vinod Kambli announced his retirement from cricket, almost a decade after last playing for India. His last First-class game was five years ago. If he hadn’t said it in a press conference, ever in his life, nobody would have bothered anyway. For a man who takes with him a Test average of 54+, many should have bothered.
The start was what ended his future. In those times when a home Test series against Zimbabwe demanded anticipation, Kambli went through a phase in cricket which Bradman had gone through almost all his life. It was also the time when Brian Lara had just gone past Keith Arthurton in the West Indian pecking order and wasn’t yet a contender for the world’s best batsman title. The world was wide open for Kambli. Even when Sachin was around, it was the left-hander’s autograph my friend craved for (and got on a small piece of paper) at the Nehru Stadium in Pune. All he needed to do after scoring two double hundreds and a hundred within days was to keep going back in the crease and punch it past cover. He just had to look at his best mate to see how short balls were played. And when he still couldn’t handle bouncers as against the West Indians at Mohali, he could have glanced over at his captain to see how one came back from depressing failures.
He almost did come back, in that 1997 Independence Cup game against Pakistan, when chasing a then impossible 300+ total, he made 65. Chases going wrong weren’t new to him after all, but Kambli was never going to be accepted as a side show. He not only got out long before the target, he also saw Rahul Dravid score a maiden hundred, sadly in a lost cause. Remember, it was a time when One-day wins mattered; like in the day Kambli scored a perfect 100 against England in Jaipur. One-dayers did matter even when he got out like 9 others for a single-digit score against Sri Lanka in 2000: his last game for India.
It is hard to think of a promising cricketer losing his way for pure, cricketing reasons. The examples of Sadanand Vishwanath, Maninder Singh and L Siva are all of people who lost it by going away from cricket. The technical problem Kambli faced in handling bouncers was not new to Indian batsmen and will never be old enough to be forgotten.That he kept away from the game, mentally, is what rot his career. Should others around him be blamed? Well, not sure. Tendulkar had his own career to look after, and he had of course, the entire batting order, team and cricket-watching nation to look after. Kambli slid on the home front, which hurt him the most. Could the BCCI have done something? Why? They lost one Kambli, but won a Ganguly and a Dravid. The conveyor belt kept working and there were new players willing to take the chance. He would have even won his comeback had the battle against these up-and-comers been talent vs talent. The criteria had changed. Dravid did not have the flamboyance, but he was only seeing, and going, one way. Ganguly had bigger problems than Kambli with the short ball. He had it till his last innings at Nagpur in 2008 and it is a bloody good character endorsement that he left on his terms.
Kambli’s repeated failures and shenanigans outside cricket have left a blurred picture of what his projected career was when he scored those runs in 1993. His splendid start lasted an year when he scored most of his Test runs. Then, the dreaded second-season took its toll. You could, with help from statistics, say he was better than Tendulkar during a certain period. That certain period was primarily played against weak opposition. Kambli could not touch Tendulkar’s class, nor Azhar’s, but he had more bases covered than Ganguly. Where India missed Kambli the most was during the period between 1996 and 1999 when there had to be someone to give Tendulkar support as Dravid and Ganguly eased into their respective roles. Azhar was becoming more and more aloof, Dravid booked a permanent ODI place only in a temporarily-blanked out Taupo game in 1999 and Ganguly wasn’t much of a Test player overseas.
The world was still wide open. I suspect he always felt inferior to his school mate and it didn’t go down well with his desire to be the frontman. He also had a reputation to grow and keep, of being some sort of a style icon. His resultant self-pity was deserved as he failed in all these intentions. Just how sad is that! If I have enough teeth to be a very fearsome shark but I choose to become a goldfish, I should at least be noticed in an aquarium. Though cricket academies are not on my favorites list, I hope, for Kambli’s sake, that a tiny shark comes out of it.
It was a deeply disappointing international career on final count. Before we could recognise the true potential of his ability, we were forced to conjure ways to save what was left of it. The elevator worked fine for Tendulkar as it did till the first floor for Ganguly. Dravid never needed it. Kambli ran up the stairs alright, but when he did pick an elevator it was on its way down, rapidly.