“At the school level, Vinod Kambli’s performances were on par with Tendulkar’s,” recalls Manjrekar. “They would get big scores in big games. That’s where the comparisons began and people started mentioning them in the same breath. But I’ll tell you one thing. Mumbai cricket’s custodians knew who was the better of the two, because Tendulkar got his break much earlier. There was absolutely no doubting his ability. Kambli was a talented left-handed batsmen, but there was a bit of a question mark about his ability to play fast bowling. In Mumbai, you’ve got to be a good player of seam bowling to get the respect of the senior players. They were a little sceptical about Kambli.”
Having announced his arrival in such emphatic fashion, Kambli’s career essentially unravelled in less than a session on home turf. Back in 1994-95, the West Indies were a fading force, but their pace arsenal, like sharks scenting blood in water, had spotted a chink or two in the Kambli armour. He played only four more Tests after that roughing up. Not even 24, he could never have imagined that it was the end of the yellow-brick road. But within a year, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman had all entered the picture. And as they, along with Tendulkar, built a matchless legacy over the coming decade, Kambli gradually faded from view. Like a high-school sweetheart, he became a vague memory.
In Romeo and Juliet, Dire Straits sing: “It was just that the time was wrong.” Put that to Kambli though, and he’s not sure. “I don’t know if it was just timing,” he says. “After I was dropped, I was given no more chances [in the Test side]. My dream was to play for India as long as possible. I played around 104 ODIs and only 17 Tests. Even after Rahul, Sourav and Laxman came into the team, I was getting runs in the Ranji Trophy, but the selectors kept picking me only for the one-day games. They said I was good only for one-dayers. How can you judge a cricketer like that?
“I’ll give you the example of Dravid. When he came on the scene, they labelled him and said he can’t play the one-day game. But he improved. I saw him bat, and I saw him grow. He’s got so many one-day runs now. You can’t label people. I wanted to be known as a Test player. But I never had the chance.”
That he even got to play for India is a story in itself. “Everyone knew about my background,” he says. “I came from a very poor family. Perhaps people didn’t see how hard I worked, or the effort I put in. Even in schools cricket, I played my heart out. I got a lot of runs in schools cricket, then in the Under-15s and Under-19s. Then, the Ranji Trophy. Whenever I was dropped, I made a lot of runs in domestic cricket.
“People said I was lacking in discipline, attitude and determination. How would I have made double-hundreds without those qualities? I couldn’t even afford a bat. There was no money to travel to play cricket. Whatever I achieved, I owe it to my coach, Ramakant Achrekar. He used to give me money, even bought my train pass. The travel was the worst part. I used to go from my place in Kanjurmarg to Shivaji Park or wherever in such crowded trains. I used to leave home at 5 in the morning and get back home at 1am.
“I used to get the last train, come home, rest a couple of hours and then leave for school and cricket. The journey was very difficult. It was just my love of the game and wanting to do something that kept me going. My dream came true when I had that world-record partnership [of 664] with Sachin. That was the time when I thought I’d definitely play for the country. That was the turning point.”
Just as the story of Odysseus is forever entertwined with that of Paris, so there can be no telling of the Kambli story without references to Tendulkar. “I first met him when we were both called for the selection trials at Shivaji Park,” says Kambli. “We joined Shardashram School together. I said hello to him, and watched him play. The first day, he was under a lot of pressure and couldn’t play his natural game. Achrekar Sir just told him to go back and study, and not play cricket. When I went to the nets, I got selected. You know what happened next? His brother came and requested our coach for another chance. That’s how he was selected the next day.”
Less than a decade later, they were batting together for India. Maybe some will remember a one-day match at Jaipur in January 1993, when the Shardashram boys put on 164 in a game that India lost on the last ball. “I was injured played for the Board President’s XI in a side game,” says Kambli. “I played that innings with plaster on my hand. When Sachin came in to bat, we just played our natural game. We had a long partnership and I went on to get a hundred. He didn’t have time to get his. But I did eventually witness his first century, in Sri Lanka.”
For once, Kambli had stolen a march on Tendulkar. In later years, he would say, a statement heavily tinged with irony, that “Sachin took the elevator, and I took the stairs”. How many remember though that Kambli made a one-day hundred and a Test double before Tendulkar did? If such things matter to him, he doesn’t say it. What he does say is how much he loved batting with his school chum. “I think of the understanding that we had. From our school days to playing for the country, we must have had only three run-outs. Right from school, we had this habit of looking into each other’s eyes and just taking a quick single. Whenever we tried calling, there were run-outs. Twice, he was run out, and once it was me.”
But while Tendulkar was the purists’ delight, Kambli was the laughing cavalier. Once he had the India cap, it was followed by other trappings of success, including enough bling to make a rap star sit up and take notice. “My idol was Vivian Richards, and Sunil Gavaskar as well,” says Kambli. “I never copied any West Indians. I never got to watch any matches live. I know a lot of people thought I was trying to imitate them, with my gold chains and earrings. I jokingly used to tell people that they were copying me!”
The style wasn’t a substitute for substance though. After a flamboyant 59 in his second Test, he went on the sort of hot streak that few can dream of. A dazzling 224 against England, in front of his home crowd, was followed by 227 against Zimbabwe, and centuries in consecutive Tests in Colombo. Understandably, Kambli looks back on those halcyon days with much fondness. “I was on the ninth cloud after that,” he says. “I was very confident too. Those two innings game me my name. They gave me fame. After that, I didn’t stop. I got two more hundreds. The hunger for runs was there.”
In a society still coming to grips with the idea of cricket celebrity, those innings also transformed his life. “When I made my debut, I had never seen the Taj Mahal hotel,” he says. “I’d never been inside a five-star. Those were happy times. People were very approachable. They loved me. They gave me respect. That love is still there. It gave me tremendous happiness.
“I still remember when I was batting on 164 overnight at the Wankhede. When people learnt that I was batting, they turned out to see the Mumbai boy make a double-hundred. Life changed because people knew about you. They’d come and take your autograph. I feel I’ve still maintained that relationship with people.”
Tendulkar, pitchforked into the limelight at the age of 16, dealt with fame his way. Kambli, more of an extrovert, coped in his own fashion. And that’s when the trouble began. Did he and Tendulkar ever swap notes on life in the fishbowl? “We never talked of what was going on around us,” says Kambli disarmingly. “We always talked cricket, about how we got out, how we were going to play the next game. We used to discuss our mistakes. When visiting other countries, we use to enjoy the sightseeing part. Other than that, we just talked cricket.”
In a country that was still coming to grips with The Bold and the Beautiful, Kambli’s taste for the high life made him a marked man. “I must have made mistakes unknowingly,” he says. “I will not hurt or disrespect anyone on purpose. I was a happy-go-lucky guy off the field. I was enjoying myself. I’m a straightforward guy and it was never my intention to hurt anyone. I’ve never been told why I was dropped. I heard the word ‘indiscipline’ a lot. But what did I do? Did anybody come and tell me that I shouldn’t be doing this or that?
“I’m a self-made man. I left home at an early age. I was on my own. There was no guidance at all. That’s why I always say that I wish I had a brother like Ajit Tendulkar. I really mean that. Ajit really guided and looked after Sachin. He was a mentor as well as a brother. I really missed somebody like that.”
These days, the new generation of Indian cricketers are perfectly happy being seen at movie premieres, on reality-TV shows and even in swank nightclubs. “If they’d played at that time, they would have been dropped,” says Kambli with a laugh. “I can guarantee that. I used to enjoy my cricket from 9 to 5. After that, whatever I did was my personal life. There was a code of conduct which we normally didn’t breach. Most cricketers know what they have to do the next day. But back then, nobody was ready to accept such a lifestyle.”
Those that followed his career though have a different story to tell. “The company that he kept, especially once he moved to Pune, was terrible,” says a senior journalist who didn’t wish to be quoted. “You can choose the company you keep, and in his case a lot of them were bakwaas [rubbish] people.”
Apart from bad company, there was also a marriage that splintered on the rocks within no time. “My personal life certainly affected my career,” he says. “It was a disaster at the time. When your family life is not stable, it preys on your mind. I tried not to allow it to affect my cricket, but maybe it did.”
There was little solace on the cricket field either. Each abortive comeback meant a spell back in domestic cricket. At least there, he had some true friends. “Whenever they dropped me, the Mumbai team players were very supportive,” he says. “They’d say: ‘Vinod, we don’t want to see you playing with us. We want you in the Indian team.’”
Having played his final Test in 1995, Kambli refused to countenance quitting. Like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, he lived with the belief that ‘hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies’. “That’s why I made nine comebacks,” he says. “For the Tests, I was pushing myself. For about eight or nine years after my last, I thought I might get another chance, but it never came.
“Even in one-day games, I played so many matches away from the No.3 spot where I got most of my runs. I sometimes batted at No.5, sometimes at 7. Often, you got only one or two overs. How can you perform in that situation?”
Looking back, the last hurrah came at the 1996 World Cup, but as with his career as a whole, there was no Cinderella ending. “When we started the World Cup journey, we were playing like champions,” he says. “We had a winning streak going back to the Hero Cup in 1993. We won so much before the World Cup, home and away. We did really well as a team to get to the semis, because it was such a tough competition. Then, to suddenly collapse in the semi-finals, that really hurt me.
“We had played so well, and yet we lost so badly. We didn’t even lose. The match was given away, a forfeit. I was the second-highest scorer for India in that World Cup [after Tendulkar] and I was hopeful that we would make the final. I think we would have won it too. That hurt the most, and will always haunt me. The other horrible memory I have is of my ankle injury in 1997. These two incidents are the hardest to forget.”
By 1998, Tendulkar was savaging Shane Warne and creating Desert Storms. Kambli, who had taken Warne apart in an over in Sharjah four years earlier, had fallen even further down the pecking order. “When I wasn’t playing, I didn’t like to watch,” he says. “When there was a Test at the Wankhede, I’d go on the fourth or fifth day to get a feel of it. But when I look back at the Sachin and Warne rivalry, I’m pleased that I was the first guy to hit him. I still remember how I got those runs against Warne. The next time we met, he knew who I was, and he started bowling bouncers and beamers at me. Then, Sachin took over.”
He never managed to play under the foreign coaches that transformed Indian cricket’s fortunes, and there’s a hint of what-might-have-been when he talks of the final years. “When I got my runs, Wadekar was the coach. He was the one who gave me the confidence. Coaches are always there, to stand by you and correct your mistakes. After Wadekar left, I played under many coaches. But I never got to play under a foreign one. I still remember John Wright coming up to me in one of the Irani Trophy matches and saying: ‘Vinod, I would like you to be in my team.’ But I never got the opportunity.
“In recent times, even those branded failures have been given chances because of the captain and coach. There was determination to give people a fair chance. Even in my day, the coaches tried to do that. But there was so much competition. If you failed a couple of matches, you were thrown out.Ultimately though, it’s not the coaches who score runs. It’s you.”
And what of the short-ball problem that was the albatross around the neck that he could never shake? “After the West Indies series, they said I couldn’t handle the short ball,” he says. “I didn’t get the chance to play Tests after that. I could have improved my technique. In cricket, you always learn. You’re never a complete cricketer. I never got the opportunity to correct my mistakes. When I went to play in South Africa in 2003, for Boland, I faced all the fast bowlers on bouncy tracks. I was the second-highest scorer for my team. I faced the best bowlers of the time, starting from Allan Donald. They were all trying to bounce me. I got runs against them. I wish I’d gone to South Africa earlier and improved my technique.”
Manjrekar sees it differently, especially when you mention how Steve Waugh and Sourav Ganguly also had their struggles with the short ball. “The guys you mention, Steve Waugh and Ganguly, had a technical flaw,” he says. “But they were mentally so strong. I don’t think Kambli was in that league. With him, it was not so much just a technical flaw. He didn’t like fast bowling. If you ask me, it was just that one spell from Courtney Walsh at the Wankhede Stadium which destroyed his confidence.
“In those 15 minutes when the ball was really seaming around and bouncing…two Tests later, Kambli was batting at No.6. Once you’re exposed, you have to go back out there and face the fire. Find a way to get out of trouble, and get back your confidence. Kambli never did that. Perhaps he never got the opportunity either.”
By December 2005, Kambli was nearing the end of his cricket road. Tendulkar was scoring his 35th Test century in Delhi. “I sent him 35 vada-pavs,” says Kambli with a laugh. “We go back a long way. Whenever we used to play, and I got a hundred, Sachin used to give me one vada-pav. When he made a century, I’d get him one. If he made a double-hundred, I’d give him two. That’s how we use to encourage each other. So, when he broke Gavaskar’s record, I thought I’d give him the best gift.”
He insists that he’s not surprised at what Tendulkar has gone on to achieve. “The way he’s dedicated his entire life, his approach, that’s why I call him the legend. Earlier, a lot of people would criticise him saying he’s not a matchwinner, or that he only plays for his records. I always told them that this is a guy who eats and sleeps cricket. He’s very much a team man. If he doesn’t do something with the bat, he will with the ball. Or take a fantastic catch, or a run out. I’ve never seen him talk about records or anything like that. He kept on playing, the runs kept coming, and the records were broken.”
They remain close friends – “Why would we not be?” – and Kambli treasures those boyhood memories. “I often look back at our childhood,” he says. “I miss those fun days the most. During that 664-run partnership, our bet was that we should make 500 each and have a 1000-run partnership.”
What can you say of this man who wears heart on sleeve, this maverick who became a case study of sorts? What would he himself say to someone like Rohit Sharma, who has already experienced incredible highs and mineshaft lows? “All I can say to any player that’s been dropped from the side is that they should come back with a bang. Nobody should point a finger at you and say that you’ve not scored enough in domestic cricket. Back then, we only had domestic cricket. Now, these guys have so many opportunities. They should score so heavily that they become an automatic choice. Don’t just score, but be outstanding.”
When he looks back on his 17 Tests and 104 one-day games, the predominant emotion is pride. “I’m very happy, first and foremost, that I could make it to the Indian side,” he says. “That was a dream I dreamt for so long that came true. I don’t see myself as a failure. It was lack of opportunity. I only played 17 Tests. I didn’t get a chance to play in the side after that. There have been regrets, and sorrows. But if you put everything together, I really enjoyed my cricket.”
Perhaps the last word should go to the man who replaced him at No.3 in the Test side, who went on to became one of the greatest of all Indian batsmen. “I don’t know why people keep talking of how he lost his way,” says Dravid. “To come from where he did, a very humble background, and to achieve what he did … he has a lot to be proud of. He scored two double-hundreds in Test cricket. That’s no joke.”
Amen to that.
This article first appeared in the November issue of Sports Illustrated (Indian edition).