Ask Indian fans to name their favourite batsmen across generations and we’ll see plenty of names been thrown around. From CK Nayudu and Lala Amarnath to Vijay Merchant, from Polly Umrigar to Salim Durani, from Mohinder Amarnath to Gundappa Vishwanath, from Sunil Gavaskar to Dilip Sardesai, from Tendulkar to Mohammad Azharuddin, from Sourav Ganguly to Rahul Dravid, from Rohit Sharma to Virat Kohli. Lots of options but very rarely does Dilip Vengsarkar make these lists.
But he should. Not so much because of his upright stance which earned him the ‘Colonel’ moniker or the sheer elegance of his shot-making or those three consecutive hundreds at Lord’s. But simply because this was a man who lent India consistency at the No 3 spot for well over a decade and at the time of his retirement in 1992, he was second only to Gavaskar in runs and centuries scored in Test cricket for the country.
As he turns 64 on April 6, one can’t help but feel that his contributions have gone a little unheralded.
We forget, mainly because time makes us. But somehow, Vengsarkar always seemed to have someone better or more flamboyant in his team. His career, for the most part, coincided with the genius of Gavaskar and Kapil Dev. And he didn’t hang around long enough after that to truly drive home the point.
Vengsarkar’s India story begins with a 110, scored for Bombay (now Mumbai) against Rest of India in the 1975 Irani Trophy. The right-hander was in his first season of first-class cricket and only got the opportunity to play because Eknath Solkar got injured at the last moment but such was his class on a turning wicket against off-spinner Erapalli Prasanna, left-arm spinner Bishen Singh Bedi and leg-spinner Ashwini Minna that the selectors decided to fast track him into the Indian team.
As we have often done since, Vengsarkar, the middle-order batsman, was so impressive that the selectors decided to play him out of his usual spot and as opener instead. The experiment didn’t turn out too well – as opener, he averaged only 13.75 – and the idea was quickly abandoned.
Even though he didn’t have runs to show, his technique and courage stood out. Here was a batsman who wasn’t afraid. It wasn’t until the tour of Australia in 1977/78 that Vengsarkar became a permanent fixture in the side.
But he didn’t look back after that. At home, Vengsarkar was rock solid (his career average in India was a splendid 55.59) and away from home, he found ways to make vital contributions but invariably saved his best for England, where he made all four of his overseas centuries.
His elegant driving and his command of the hook and pull shot stood him in good stead on these tours. His overall career record of 6868 runs at av average of 42.13 shows how steady a performer he was.
The crowning glory of all those England tours was undoubtedly 1986. It was 21 years before another Indian team triumphed in England again and this was a series win that saw Vengsarkar at his very best. He scored 360 runs (including 61 and 102 not out at Headingley where nobody else on either side passed 36) at an average of 90.00 in the series. The next highest run-scorer for India was Gavaskar, who made 173 runs at an average of 29.16.
And it wasn’t just the runs. Rather, it was the manner in which he scored them that saw Wisden name him as one of the ‘Cricketer of the Year’ in 1987.
“This tall, elegant batsman reached his zenith in the summer of 1986 when his two hundreds, one at Lord’s and another at Headingley, on one of the poorest Test pitches seen in England for some years, went so far towards India’s achieving their 2-0 win in the three-match series. He finished it with an average of 90, by some margin the highest of any Indian batsman in England. Any suspicions that these hundreds were scored against a weak England team can be discounted. In each instance, Vengsarkar, having come in at the fall of the second wicket, was still short of his century when joined by the number eleven batsman. They were innings of the highest quality.”— From the Wisden Almanack
The glorious run in England started him off on a purple patch that saw him score eight centuries in 16 Tests. In the eyes of many, he was the world’s finest bat at that point. Between January 1, 1986, and December 31, 1988, he scored 1,800 runs in 20 Tests at an average of 90.00. In the 80s, he scored more runs than any other Indian batsman including Gavaskar.
In 1987, former England great Ted Dexter collaborated with statisticians Gordon Vince and Rob Eastaway to produce the first ranking system for cricket and Vengsarkar sat right on top of the table – he was the world’s best.
In this day and age, such form over a period of two years would have earned him adulation from the fans, massive contracts and the Board wouldn’t have had the courage to take him on.
But then things unravelled in a slightly strange fashion after Vengsarkar was punished by the Board of Control for Cricket in India in 1989 for unauthorised participation in a three-way, three-match cricket series with the West Indies and Pakistan in the US and Canada.
A five-member disciplinary committee of the board banned for a year six senior cricketers – Dilip Vengsarkar, Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri, Mohammed Azharuddin, Kiran More and Arun Lai – besides fining them Rs 35,000. Six others – Sanjay Manjrekar, Robin Singh, Margasahayam Venkataramana, Narendra Hirwani, Sanjeev Sharma and Ajay Sharma – fined Rs 50,000 each.
Vengsarkar came back briefly but he was never quite the same batsman. The BCCI’s decision had hurt him in more ways than one. From being the world’s best to suddenly finding himself on the outside, robbed of captaincy, was a cruel blow and it seemingly took a lot of him.
The Mumbaikar, who became only the second Indian cricketer to play over 100 Tests, also had a very successful stint as chairman of selectors with several players like Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli coming to the fore during his tenure.
Still, before all that came Vengsarkar the batsman and perhaps it is an injustice to not remember him more fondly. He wasn’t flamboyant but in his own way, he did Indian cricket a great service.