I was a raw, young fast bowler when Dilip Vengsarkar walked out to bat for Dadar Union in a local match at the Young Maharashtra ground, in Shivaji Park. The year was 1980 and the tall, elegant batsman already had three Test hundreds under his belt; two against the West Indies and one against England at Lord’s.
As the ‘Colonel’ took guard, our experienced skipper, Amar Vaidya ran in from slips and said, “Do whatever you want but don’t bowl him a bouncer.” With two scalps in my bag though, I fancied surprising him with a short ball. Vengsarkar reacted by hitting me for a flat six. As the ball rebounded off the garden wall, I could see from the corner of my eye that the skipper was glowering at me.
My ego was hurt and I let go another bouncer. The great batsman thumped the ball — and my ego — into a building a hundred yards away. And while the ball was being retrieved, I ran towards our tent under the pretext of having a sip of water, but more importantly to avoid the skipper’s ire.
Vengsarkar was always a shaky starter but once set, his bat turned into a magic wand as he played his cover drives, his square drives, his cuts and his breathtaking pulls. One shot of his that I admired through his long career was the on-drive, a difficult stroke to master, which he played with a fair bit of panache.
He embodied the typically ‘khadoos’ attitude of the Mumbai cricketer. In that sense, he had a lot in common with another of the city’s cricketing heroes — Dilip Sardesai. Vengsarkar doesn’t suffer fools gladly nor does he promote mediocre talent; it is Vengsarkar’s ‘faltu’ versus Sardesai’s ‘popatwadi’. He is also outspoken and doesn’t mince his words when it comes to criticising those who work against the interests of the game.
I have been an unabashed fan of his batting and my favourite Vengsarkar inning was the one he played against the West Indies at Wankhede Stadium in November 1983; I was fortunate to watch it from the pavilion. After a brilliant 159 at the Kotla in the second Test and having missed the Test at Ahmedabad, he walked in with the scoreboard reading 12 for 1 — Sunil Gavaskar lbw to Malcolm Marshall. He smashed 13 boundaries in a 135-ball stay at the wicket against an attack consisting of Marshall, Michael Holding, Winston Davis and Wayne Daniels. His square drives that day pierced the gap between gully and point with such precision that at one stage skipper Viv Richards had two gullies and two backward-points in place to try and stop him from scoring. When he departed, exactly on 100, caught by Richards off Davis, India’s score was 195-3.
When he made his Test debut against New Zealand, in 1976, Vengsarkar was still in his teens. He is fondly called the ‘Lord of Lord’s’ because he is one of the few batsmen to have scored three consecutive hundreds at the ‘Mecca of cricket’ between 1979 and 1986.
At Lord’s in 1979, in the second Test of India’s tour of England, the tourists had been shot out for 96 in the first innings. Ian Botham had picked 5-35 and Vengsarkar had scored a twelve-ball duck. In reply, England had declared at 419 for 9. With a huge lead, India had to bat out a day and a half to save the Test, which was made possible by a 210-run partnership between Vengsarkar (103) and GR Vishwanath (113).
In 1982, India was in England during the first part of the summer. In the first Test at Lord’s, from June 10 to 15, England had won the toss and had put up a formidable 433, helped along by a hundred from Derek Randall. Botham, Bob Willis and Derek Pringle had then combined to dismiss India for 128. Vengsarkar was once again out for a low score; lbw to Wills for 2. Following on, India scored 369, thanks to Vengsarkar’s 157 and Kapil Dev’s 89, down the order. Needing 65 runs to win, England scored 67 for 3 in 19 overs.
In 1986 too, India played the first Test at Lord’s in the first week of June. Sent in to bat, England was all out for 294, with Chetan Sharma and Roger Binny picking up five and three wickets respectively. In reply, India was 303 for 9, with Vengsarkar batting on 90 when last man Maninder Singh walked in. Reminded of the previous occasion on which the left-arm spinner had let him down by playing a cross-bat shot, Vengsarkar is said to have walked across to him and told him not to repeat that shot. Making use of some colourful language, he is said to have told Maninder Singh that he wouldn’t be alive to go home if he played a cross-bat shot again. The two stuck around, as Vengsarkar scored his third consecutive hundred at Lord’s. That Test match was won by India.
If Vengsarkar was passionate and ‘khadoos’ as a cricketer, he had a compassionate side to him too.
I was witness to the softer side of this hero when he cried inconsolably at the Wankhede Stadium after Mumbai had lost to Haryana by two runs in the Ranji Trophy final of 1990-91. Needing 354 runs to win in the fourth innings, Vengsarkar (139 not out) had run out of partners as last man Abey Kuruvilla was run out.
Like Sardesai, Vengsarkar too is quick-witted and has a great sense of humour. He is a mimic and a great story-teller. Many seasons ago, he saw an India pacer training at his Oval academy and walked up to greet him. That fast bowler had just returned from Down Under with a string of ducks to his credit. Seeing him hobble, Vengsarkar inquired, “What’s wrong? Why are you limping?” “I sprained my leg while taking a second run in Australia,” he replied. “Second run?” exclaimed the great batsman, “When did you score the first run?”
I had the honour of interviewing him for a sports magazine just before he left for B&H World Championship of Cricket in Australia, in 1985. He was very candid and gave me a lot of inside stories on Indian cricket. At the end of the interview, he cautioned me, “I have said a lot of stuff that shouldn’t be told. As a cricketer yourself, use your judgment and don’t write things that will get me into trouble.” I promised not to and I am sure he was pleased with the interview that finally appeared in print, for he has been a good friend ever since.
What he didn’t divulge in that tete-a-tete was what transpired in the dressing room when Gavaskar threatened to walk off — with Chetan Chauhan in tow — in the Test match at Melbourne in 1981. “I’m keeping that for my autobiography,” he told me. I am waiting eagerly for that book, for he will have a lot of stories to tell, many of them full of humour.
The last time I bowled to Vengsarkar was in a Kanga League match between Dadar Union and Karnatak Sports Association, in 1984. KSA had been shot out for 115 on a decent track at Cross Maidan and the star-studded Dadar Union side was expected to win easily. I had picked a couple of wickets when the great man walked in. He was beaten by my outswinger, first ball, and then dug out the inswinging yorker that followed. The third ball was short and rising. It took the splice of his bat as he got into a position to pull and was caught at mid-on. I am told that my Young Maharashtra skipper, Amar Vaidya, was watching that match from afar. I picked 6-40 as Dadar Union was beaten by one run. A story I can proudly tell my grandchildren!
Vengsarkar played 116 Tests, scoring 6,868 runs @ 42.13 with 17 hundreds and 35 fifties. In 129 ODIs, he scored 3,508 runs @ 34.73. For me, Vengsarkar will always be one of the greats of world cricket; a giant among Test batsmen and a legend.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a sought-after mental toughness trainer.