How do you feel being ignored for national selection after scalping 50-plus wickets in Ranji Trophy for two successive seasons? Or being denied the India cap after averaging 58.18 with the bat? And that too despite opening the innings all your life.
These are curious case studies of two domestic giants, Kanwaljit Singh and Surendra Bhave, who never made the highest grade. There are others who got opportunities following their exploits in domestic tournaments, but couldn’t carry the form to the international level. Some others acquired greatness after climbing the international ladder from the domestic rungs.
Recently, Hrishikesh Kanitkar, the left-handed run-machine who has led Rajasthan to two back-to-back Ranji Trophy titles, completed 10,000 runs after playing first-class cricket for more than a decade. He is among the rare few who wore India colours, but failed to do justice to his talent in two Tests and 34 ODIs.
Kanitkar has been a true domestic cricket king, churning out century after century, match after match, season after season. Now 38, Kanitkar still has the drive and passion to play domestic cricket. This, more than a decade after having last played for India. One of his contemporaries feels that Kanitkar has matured as a batsman in the last four seasons. Perhaps, he is akin to wine, getting better with age.
Kanitkar says, "It is the thrill of playing and facing challenges every day that keeps me going. Reaching 10,000 runs is a great feeling. It’s a result of years of hard work — a feeling that is different from scoring a century. The challenge is when I’m up against younger, fitter cricketers who are ambitious to play for the country,"
Scoring 339 runs at 17.84 in 34 ODIs and 74 at 18.50 in two Tests are no reflection of Kanitkar’s talent. At this point, Kanitkar has 10,013 runs in 138 first-class matches at 53.54. "My international career could have been much better. I won’t say I am satisfied but I am happy to have played for India. Would have been happier if I was given a longer run. Having said that, I have no regrets," Kanitkar said.
No regrets. This is what the others who missed the India bus also feel. It is the passion of playing cricket that has kept them going. Take a look at some of the ‘dons’ of domestic cricket who have not played for the country. Rajinder Goel, Padmakar Shivalkar, Amarjit Kaypee, Surendra Bhave, Sridharan Sharath, Shantanu Sugwekar, Amol Muzumdar, Sitanshu Kotak, Sridharan Sharath, Yere Goud, Kanwaljit Singh, K Bhaskar Pillai and Ashish Winston Zaidi, to name only a few. Perhaps, their skills would have been rewarded had they been plying their trade in some other Test-playing nation.
Others such as Vikram Rathour, Pankaj Dharmani, S Badrinath, Gagan Khoda, Ajay Sharma, Utpal Chatterjee, Ramesh Powar and Murali Kartik have played for India. While some could not translate their success at the ODI or Test level, the others have not been given a fair chance by the men who mater.
Sunil Gavaskar wrote in his book Idols: "There are two cricketers who were desperately unlucky not to have played for India. They are Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar, both left-arm spinners of the highest order." Gavaskar also mentioned that Goel was "the one bowler" he really dreaded facing. This, coming from a batsman who notched up 13 of his 34 Test centuries against the fearsome West Indies quicks.
Until recently a national selector, Bhave, who averaged 58.18 in 97 first class games from 1986 to 2001 and along with Sugwekar (63.10 in 85 matches from 1987 to 2002) formed the backbone of the Maharashtra batting in that decade-and-a-half, said, "Obviously, you play with the aim of representing India. That keeps you going. At the end of the day, you accept the fact that there are quite a few other players who are also knocking around. This (not being picked for the country) happens all over the world despite scoring tons of runs." When he retired in 2001 and took up coaching, Bhave vowed to impart skills to youngsters. He wanted to do it with a clean heart and not be sore about the opportunities denied to him.
One can only consider himself unlucky to have been born in the wrong era. Take Tamil Nadu’s Sridharan Sharath as a case in point. Having played India U-19 with Rahul Dravid — and in no way any less talented than the Karnataka great — Sharath lost out on the national call. His best years coincided with the early flowering of Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman – each of whom have played in more than 100 Tests. Sharath amassed 8,700 runs at 51.17 in 139 first-class matches from 1992 to 2007.
Punjab’s Pankaj Dharmani played in one ODI in 1996 with limited success. He had been a workhorse in domestic cricket, piling up 9312 runs in 147 games between 1992 and 2010. Dharmani, who exited the domestic circuit last season, said, "Once you reach a level, a lot is expected from you. I believe if one is good for the highest level, he will last long. A couple of years before retiring, I had made up my mind that I should go out happily and without any regrets."
Amarjit Kaypee, who devotedly turned out for Haryana, scoring 7894 runs at 52.27 with 27 hundreds from 1980 to 2000, accepted fate. "You have to accept what is written in destiny. You work hard and set targets. Getting past Brijesh Patel’s record of 26 Ranji hundreds as also surpassing Ashok Mankad’s aggregate kept me going."
Kaypee, now BCCI match referee, also said that scoring runs or picking wickets at the "right time" mattered for national selection.
Some who missed the India bus do nurse a wound. "Obviously, when you perform so well and are not picked, you are going to be disappointed. If you are the highest wicket-taker in Ranji for successive seasons and are still not be picked, it hurts," said Hyderabad’s Kanwaljit.
Just getting the runs or wickets in domestic cricket is alone not enough. Like a seasoned cricketer-turned-match referee said, "It also requires cricketing and mental discipline, work ethics, right application, attitude and temperament and getting rid of the fear factor. That is why the foursome of Laxman, Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly are exceptional. They could survive in international cricket after amassing lots of runs at the domestic level."
Having said that, it is not easy to score or pick up bagful of wickets in domestic cricket year after year. You have to get adjusted to the varying pitch conditions and have the passion to will you on.
Thus, so what that the India whites eluded the Goels and the Bhaves, the Sharaths and the Kanwaljits? They still merit a place in Indian cricket. And a special one at that.