Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling, published in October 2019. Rajinder Goel, the former first-class cricketer who holds the record for most wickets in the history of Ranji Trophy, died at the age of 77 on June 21.
There are not too many cricketers around the world who have received congratulatory messages on cricketing achievements from convicted criminals lodged in a prison. It is testimony to the popularity and indeed the magnitude of Rajinder Goel’s achievements that when he took his 600th wicket in the Ranji Trophy, among the many messages he received was a letter from Gwalior Jail.
Opening the envelope with much trepidation, Goel was floored when he read the congratulatory note from dreaded dacoit Bhukha Singh Yadav who was lodged there: ‘Kindly accept my congratulations for grabbing more than 600 wickets in the Ranji Trophy. I am your fan and I hope that with the grace of God, you achieve more success in life.’
Notwithstanding the love and recognition from a doting fan base across the country, the call-up note from the Indian selectors would sadly continue to elude Rajinder Goel as he walked into the sunset. Seventeen years of first-class cricket and 750 wickets to show for at an incredible career average of 18.58, including 637 earned in the Ranji Trophy, would not be enough proof to the selectors of his claims to an Indian Test cap.
Many years later Goel would remark with a wry smile: ‘I have preserved this three-decade-old letter. I was not liked by the selectors but yes, a dacoit liked me.’
Born on 20 September 1942 to an assistant station master in Haryana, Goel studied at the local Vaish High School and attended college at Rohtak. At sixteen, he was declared best bowler at the All-India schools tournament, helping North Zone schools to clinch the trophy. He made his Ranji Trophy debut for Patiala against Services in the 1958-59 season picking up one wicket. In the next match, he took 9 of the 16 Delhi wickets to fall.
The first spectacular Goel performance would come in the next season when he played for Southern Punjab against Northern Punjab. His team was all out for 87 and at 35 for 2, when Goel was brought into the attack, Southern Punjab looked set for a big lead. An hour or so later they were all out for 54 and Goel had figures of 4-0-6-6.
In 1962-63, Rajinder Goel moved to Delhi to play under Tiger Pataudi and his first face-off against Bishan Bedi came when Delhi played Northern Punjab at Ludhiana in the 1964- 65 season. Goel picked up 10 wickets in the match against Bedi’s 3 and Delhi won by an innings and 99 runs. In 1973-74, Goel moved to Haryana and on his debut picked up 8 for 55 against Railways which would remain his best figures. Goel continued to play for Haryana until his retirement in 1985.
When Clive Lloyd’s West Indies toured India in 1974- 75, Bedi was dropped before the first Test at Bangalore on disciplinary grounds and Rajinder Goel found himself in the squad alongside Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan. Goel was told he was in the playing XI but his name was not on the slip at the toss. Instead, Chandra, Venkat and Prasanna played. The West Indies won by 267 runs. Goel’s left-arm spin could perhaps have provided the variety that would have saved the Test given the form he was in. Instead, Goel and Indian cricket suffered from the politics that had always been the bane of Indian cricket. On the one hand Bedi needed to be punished while on the other, the board could not take the chance that a match-defining performance by Goel would keep Bedi out of the side longer than that one match. This would be the closest Rajinder Goel would come to playing for his country.
When Bedi came back for the next Test and continuing the bizarre series of events engineered by the selectors, it was at the expense of Chandra (Venkat was included to captain the side when any one of several senior players could have been given the job) who had dismissed Richards for 4 and 3 at Bangalore. Richards would score 192, free of the danger of his nemesis, leading his team to an innings victory.
The full effect of Goel’s displeasure was unleashed upon the hapless batsmen in domestic cricket. He took 32 wickets that season at 21.56 and 43 the next season at 17.95. He was particularly brutal on Jammu and Kashmir, a pattern that would repeat itself over his career.
In 1977-78, J&K were dismissed for 93 and 23 in the same match, Goel picking up 13 wickets including 7 for 4 in the second innings. In the next match against the same opponents, he took 10 wickets.
While the Indian cricketing fraternity has for long lamented the fact that India never enjoyed the services of these two brilliant spinners, Shivalkar and Goel have largely put a stoic face to their disappointment. The hurt that undoubtedly simmered inside those stout hearts all these years finally peeked through when BCCI honoured the two with the CK Nayudu award in early 2017. It was, however, masked with the trademark smile when Goel remarked: ‘Now I can understand how tough it must be for the celebrated cricketers, being bombarded with non-stop phone calls.’
Ironically, it is the man whose genius was to a great extent responsible for keeping the duo out of the national team, Bishan Bedi, who paid them the ultimate tribute: ‘They had what makes a good spinner – technique and temperament. I really used to revere them for these two qualities. They had amazing patience too. They had in abundance the humility that marks a great sportsman. To me, they have been two beautiful but unsung artists. They never had any rivalry, no bitterness. I think it was a matter of getting a break. I was fortunate to get one.’
Excerpted with permission from Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling by Anindya Dutta, Published by Westland.