Curries in the coastal town of Malvan can be hot and spicy. Pandurang Mahadev Salgaonkar, who was born there 68 years ago, could breathe fire too, as a bowler and as a man.
Salgaonkar was quick; frighteningly quick. At his best, he would have been as fast as, if not faster than, Umesh Yadav. A snappy action after a long, rhythmic run up afforded him bounce from the most docile of Indian wickets. He was a rare commodity in Indian cricket when the likes of Abid Ali and Eknath Solkar — perhaps operating at 120 kmph — opened the bowling for India.
Salgaonkar was a ‘country bumpkin’ in his playing days. He remains so, 36 years after he wore his bowling spikes for the last time. His ‘foot-in-mouth disease’ perhaps sabotaged his promising cricket career in the 1970s and he seems to have had a relapse of that illness in the recent ‘pitch-fixing’ scandal.
When I last spoke to him in the early 1980s, he had lost a bit of pace but the fire in the belly — he had a huge midriff by then — was still there. One of my bouncers had hit a Pune batsman under the eye, in a match at Satara, and I had visited the opposition’s dressing room, after the match, to comfort the young man. Salgaonkar, who was close at hand — pouring a glass of water over his head and torso — said to me, in his typically Malvani Marathi, “Bah! I have hit (‘fodle’ to be precise) so many batsmen during my career. I never felt sorry for them!”
Eight years earlier, this attitude of his had got him in trouble with Sunil Gavaskar in a Ranji Trophy match in Nasik. Bowling on a bouncy — matting, if I can recall — track, Salgaonkar, it is said, was requested to spare Gavaskar from his short balls because of the impending series against the mighty West Indies. The fiery bowler went ahead and hit the diminutive opener on his gloves and Gavaskar had to sit out three of the five Tests.
Gavaskar never forgot the ‘favour’ and he made it known to the bowler in no uncertain terms whenever they faced each other.
I was witness to Gavaskar’s contempt for the big fast bowler in a Ranji Trophy match at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium in the early 1980s. Maharashtra, having been bundled out for a low score, an hour’s play was left on the first day, when Gavaskar walked out to face Salgaonkar.
In the couple of overs the pacer bowled with the new ball, the legendary opener stepped out and played lofted shots to far corners of the ground as if he was facing a spinner. What’s more, to rub salt into his antagonist’s wounds, he would walk down the pitch to the other end and tap the bowler’s footmarks. This in unspoken cricket parlance meant that the batsman was telling the bowler he was pitching too short. Salgaonkar, though, was perhaps too naïve to understand that the L’il Master was trying to needle him!
Salgaonkar had made a sensational debut for Maharashtra in the 1971-72 Ranji Trophy season. The next season, playing for West Zone in the Duleep Trophy, he picked 17 wickets in two matches and helped his side win. With 54 first-class wickets in the season, and picking Gavaskar’s wicket twice in a match, he was selected to play for India in an unofficial Test against Sri Lanka. Opening the bowling with Madan Lal, he bagged 5-42 and 2-79 in the two innings.
Despite the promise and of course, the dearth of fast bowlers in India in the 1970s, he was not selected for the disastrous 1974 tour of England. To make matters worse for him, he was sent to the Alf Gover’s School in England so that he could work on his action, and improve on his line and length. When he returned, disillusioned, Salgaonkar was only a pale shadow of the fiery bowler he was in the earlier season.
The story goes that Salgaonkar was struck with health problems during his stay at the Gover School. The food wasn’t to his liking and the weather a bit too harsh for someone who wasn’t too used to slipping on jumpers. He, therefore, flew back to India weaker and none the wiser.
On his return, he is said to have told a few of his teammates of how advanced Britain was. “Arre, you won’t believe it. Even little children speak English there!” This, in all probability, is an apocryphal tale but sums up the character and the simplicity of the big fast bowler.
The entire cricketing fraternity knows that Salgaonkar can be blockheaded and witless. He was, therefore, a soft target for the television channel that did a ‘sting operation’ on him and got him to ‘agree to pitch-fixing’, possibly for a consideration. The channel’s TRPs shot up for a day but, perhaps they have managed ruining the life and reputation of a man who has always found himself at the wrong end of the stick.
With the experience of having worked as consultant on several cricket tracks in the city of Mumbai, I can vouch for the fact that any last-minute changes carried out on a match wicket can be easily detected. Salgaonkar, in the sting operation, suggests that he could dig a hole and pour water into the pitch to change its nature, on match day. This was naivety on his part. A pitch that takes four or five days for final preparation cannot be ‘repaired’ in a few hours’ time. It is, therefore, clear that he had spoken out of his hat.
Indian cricket’s credibility has been hit by claims of match-fixing over the last few years. The Committee of Administrators (CoA), The BCCI officials and the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) were well aware of the various areas of the game which needed surveillance. In this regard, wouldn’t it be pertinent to find out how the television crew came in contact with Salgaonkar and how they managed to ‘take a walk’ on the sacred precincts of the MCA Stadium at Pune without the knowledge of the powers that be?
One official of BCCI has gone on record saying that the ACU can’t be expected to be ‘everywhere’. How could the Pune ground be termed as ‘everywhere’, when an ODI was to be played there a few days after the one at Mumbai? Can the members of the ACU place on record their whereabouts a couple of days before the Pune ODI?
‘Pandu’ Salgaonkar is small fry. He deserves exemplary punishment for letting the television crew trample the track and for ‘agreeing’ to tamper with the pitch. If that doesn’t teach him a lesson, nothing will.
I would, however, like to see heads to roll in the BCCI. It isn’t a curator’s job to keep India’s image spotlessly clean at the international level. It is for the ‘highly paid’ administrators to do so. Therefore, it is time somebody holding a responsible post in India’s cricket board owns up responsibility and puts in his/her papers.
The unscrupulous television channel has ‘fixed’ Pandu. Let’s see who fixes the high-flying BCCI officials. We’ll know very soon.
The author is a former fast bowler who was a Mumbai Ranji probable in the 1980s. He is also a sportswriter, caricaturist, coach and mental toughness trainer.