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CRICKETING TALES FROM THE FIELD

Sanjay Manjrekar directs a retrospective gaze on his own life, offering insights into relationships, influences and moments that form part of his observations as a person, cricketer and commentator

There was a type of melancholic and underachieving Indian in the late 1980s and 90s who watched cricket with an empathy for the struggling career of a technique-obsessed Indian batsman. He wanted Sanjay Manjrekar to succeed but there was something strange that the Mumbai batsman’s invisible admirers wouldn’t like to admit.

Sanjay’s appeal was derived more from a languishing presence amid the emerging star cast of Indian cricket and felt in the brooding lament of unrealised potential. In a way, he was the cricketing face for a generation of unfulfilled lives — for one’s failures in coming anywhere close to an orderly and perfect trajectory of one’s craft, recognition (fame, if you are a public performer) and life, of course.

Luckily, unlike his more successful father from a different era of Indian cricket (the legendary Vijay Manjrekar), Sanjay has useful non-cricketing skills and advantage of hindsight to chronicle life at 52, an age beyond which his father didn’t live.

While his talent for perceptive and detached analysis of the game is evident in his post-retirement career as a broadcast professional and cricket columnist, you somehow always knew he would bring a degree of candour if he directs his retrospective gaze to his own life. His autobiographical account wasn’t going to be anything like the more guarded ones offered by Indian cricketers. And it isn’t, in a large measure.

In the quite aptly titled Imperfect, Sanjay looks back at his years of agonising struggles with perfecting batting technique, fleeting phases of success and finally making peace with career-breaking failures and crippled flight to cricketing fame. In doing that with lucidity of neatly accessible prose, he offers insights into key relationships, influences and moments that form part of his wide-ranging observations as a person, cricketer and commentator.

With 10 thematically arranged chapters, this autobiographical account swings between the cold logic of hindsight and warmth of uncertain emotions in recollecting a past which was neither fulfilling enough to be cherished nor mundane enough to be dismissed.

While remembering his “no relationship” with his father in the first chapter, Sanjay gives early hints that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill offering of sweet-nothings and carefully curated memories which Indian cricketers bring to their memoirs.

Sanjay brings out the anxieties and fear that a short-tempered patriarch can unleash in a family when he is past his professional prime. In a way, it also tells how hard it was for middle-class cricketers of his father’s generation to gainfully engage themselves if they were devoid of non-cricketing skills.

Respect– and senior Manjrekar got lots of it in the cricket fraternity — was a poor compensation for redundancy and financial insecurity. However, he credits the Mumbai cricket fraternity for taking care of him and his family after his father’s death.

Despite not being mushy about it, Sanjay can’t help but remember the tender side of his father’s presence as well, including his father’s belief that Sanjay was more talented than him and destined to be a Test cricketer. Even while reviewing costs incurred by the family because of his father’s one-dimensional life, he can’t hide his impish glee recounting the Vijay Manjrekar school of humour and an understated sense of pride in remembering what former greats said about his father.

While great off-spinner E Prasanna always made it a point to describe Vijay Manjrekar as “the best batsman he bowled to”, legendary former Test captain Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi called him the “best Indian batsman” he had seen.

Sanjay is more explicit in his love, and hence sense of loss, for his hard-working and dutiful mother who went back to her typing skills to support the family in difficult times. The primacy of duty over emotion is something he sees as the key takeaway from his mother’s life.

Another rare instance of emotional recollection is reserved for his first overseas tour as a Test cricketer. A young Sanjay’s eyes welled up as the great West Indian opening batsman Desmond Haynes went out of his way to inquire repeatedly (and personally finding out) whether the promising Indian batsman was in the playing 11 during the 1989 Indian tour of the West Indies.

What, however, could have done with a trimming is the chapter on the distinct Mumbai approach to batting. In times when such distinction has got blurred with the diminishing hold of the city on Indian cricket and also emergence of a more eclectic philosophy of batting across zones, the chapter doesn’t go beyond registering a few nostalgic tidbits from a more innocent era.

Its disproportionate space in the book can be perhaps attributed to how the western metropolis’ way of cricket was integral to the evolution of Sanjay’s cricketing philosophy. Quite honestly, he identifies fame as the prime driver of his career ambitions in the game, but the route to it was nothing less than obsession for him — the restlessness of a perfectionist’s craft.

For a batsman who played a major part of his international cricket abroad and scored all his four Test centuries on foreign soil, the book expectedly has two of its best chapters on his memorable tours of the West Indies and Pakistan.

His technique-enabled success against the dreaded Caribbean pace battery of the 1980s — Marshal, Ambrose, Walsh, Benjamin and Patterson (remember his hundred in the Barbados Test) has been beautifully narrated with self-deprecatory tone and interesting anecdotes.

Far more riveting is his account of his most successful international tour of Pakistan in 1989, a series in which he scored at Bradmanesque average and notched up two hundreds (including a career best of 218 at Lahore) against the Imran Khan-led bowling attack which had young Wasim Akram and debutant Waqar Younis in the line-up.

Citing various instances, Sanjay juxtaposes his deep admiration for Imran Khan’s approach to leadership and its influence on Pakistani cricket against the lack of killer instinct, on-the-feet thinking and leadership deficit in the Indian team of his days.

It’s a strand of thought that he carries on to show the many fault-lines visible in how Indian cricket was in the last decades of the last century — punching below its weight with insecure and self-preserving seniors, intrigues, stifling senior-junior hierarchy, negative mindset and neglect of physical fitness.

These were things which were the stuff of whispers among observers but finally an insider has given it the clear expression that a draft of sporting annals deserves.

In his accounts of his foreign tours, however, what comes across as a notable omission is the 1990 England tour – the second Test of which saw Sanjay scoring a technically polished 93 while Mohammad Azharuddin scored a majestic 179. What isn’t surprising is his account of his Test-saving against the unfancied Zimbabwe side. One remembers reading in newspapers what David Houghton, then Zimbabwean skipper, thought about Sanjay’s innings — “an impeccable display of batsmanship”.

The most well-written chapters of the book are obviously about his failures to correct something which was long seen as his forte — his technical competence and elegance. As if to showcase the vagaries of time, it deserted him when it was needed to entrench him as a regular in the Indian squad.

Sanjay’s struggles with his performance in the long Australian tour of 1991-92, subsequent technical woes and a string of low scores in South Africa, and finally the unexpected troubles in negotiating short pitch bowling against the visiting West Indian and South African teams in 1994 and 1996 respectively, were preparing the script for being dropped from the team at regular intervals.

The agony and insecurities of playing for a place in the national side has been well documented by him, with the critical lens of introspection on his own game as well as on the ways Indian cricket was run.

The psychological and cricketing buildup to his decision to quit international cricket, and then first-class cricket, is a point of departure from the banal pleasantries one gets to consume at such personal moments. Its import doesn’t strike with the peculiarity that it carries — a sportsperson’s unusual professional life cycle ends at an age when other careers enter a flourishing phase. But, what is also evident is his satisfaction in working hard and finding rehabilitation in public visibility through his post-retirement career in cricket punditry.

For a kind of readership, the book would be of interest for Sanjay’s thoughts about some of his colleagues — in the Indian cricket team as well as in his role as a commentator. His analysis of the less discussed ones, like Manoj Prabhakar, is sharp — something close to what a perceptive follower of Indian cricket could infer from outside too.

In identifying Prabhakar as a rare example of a streetfighter cricketer who was denied his due, Sanjay somehow hints at the genesis of his scepticism about Indian cricket which culminated in the Tehelka revelations. While contemporary icons like Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar and Dilip Vengsarkar are used as anecdotal material and not as subjects of analytical scrutiny, that doesn’t stop Sanjay from turning his perceptive gaze to analyse his captain for most of his India career, Azharuddin. For those looking for a blend of human drama and understated humour, his take on Azhar is certainly one of the highlights of the book.

There are obvious pitfalls in allowing hindsight to make sense of life; Sanjay’s account hasn’t escaped them either. One could clearly see spells of self-contradictory reflections — the duality of being obsessed with batting technique and saying he wasn’t a passionate cricketer, ruing lack of clarity in his approach along with priding himself on being very decisive.

He can’t be faulted for such oversight, it creeps in when we read messages when there are none and try to derive lessons from moments which may ultimately be meaningless. As in history-writing, autobiographical accounts could plug that chink with a maxim that Cambridge historian FW Maitland prescribed: “What is now in the past was once in the future”.

That doesn’t take away from Imperfect its important place in the sports memoirs of our times. Its power lies in the sheer sincerity of its narrative purpose and its appeal lies, among other things, in making us revisit our cricketing memories through the personal story of a failed “future of Indian batting”. With his years as a commentator outnumbering his career on the field, the thinking perfectionist has much to say beyond the game.

This article was first published in Newslaundry.