Monday, September 25, 2006

“I want to play for India once again”

Permission to reproduce this copy has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Newly married and completely recovered from a shin injury, a confident Vinod Kambli wants to play for Mumbai first

Shevlin Sebastian

“I was 13 years old,” says stylish left-hand batsman Vinod Kambli. “One day, there was a match at the Azad maidan. Our team was batting and I was at No. 3. When a wicket fell, my father came into bat. He got 110 in just 60 balls, while I got out after scoring 50. Later he took eight wickets. How many sons have a chance to play with their fathers in the same game? This is one of the best memories of my life.”

We are talking in an exercise room in Leena Mogre’s fitness gym in Khar. A few minutes earlier, he had come with his wife, Andrea Hewitt, a model, whom he married on September 8.

“You are twenty minutes late,” says the pony-tailed Mogre, as music pulsates from the several speakers around the gym.

Kambli smiles and shrugs his shoulders. He is broad shouldered and sleek, in white T-shirt and shorts, with silver earrings, while Andrea is slim and pretty, in black leotards.

Andrew Leipus, 36, the former physiotherapist of the Indian cricket team, waves out. Kambli raises a hand in greeting. The Australian is helping the injury-prone bowler Ashish Nehra with some weightlifting and is also guiding Kambli’s fitness regimen.

Kambli has the look of happiness of a man who has just tied the knot. Husband and wife stand so close to each other, there is no space for a knife to go through. So how does it feel to be married?

“Andrea loves me for the person I am,” he says. “We were friends earlier, but it turned to love later. In the past few years, I have gone through bad times, with a serious shin injury and jaundice. During all these times, Andrea stood beside me.”

Later, Andrea confirms what Kambli has said. “I liked him as a friend,” she says. “It turned to love when I realised what a nice human being he is. He is caring, loving and sweet-natured. And, despite all the bad times he was going through, there was always a smile on his face.”

This is Kambli’s second marriage. His earlier marriage to Nicole ended in divorce and they had no children. Understandably, a week after his wedding, he did not want to talk about it.

“It is in the past,” he says.

In and out

As for Kambli’s cricketing past, it’s been quite a few years since he played for India. So does he miss the limelight? “Not at all,” he says. “People still love me. They keep telling me I can play for the country. But my first goal is to play for Mumbai and do well and then play for India.”

It does seem like an uphill task. At 34, time could have run out for this prodigious talent. “Age is not a criteria,” he says. “I just need another chance. I have made nine comebacks so far; this is a record by itself. Whenever I was dropped from the Indian team, the Mumbai team would help me to make a comeback.”

And the feeling from Mumbai is mutual. “If he is fit and scoring hundreds, which he is capable of, he can easily stage a comeback,” says Milind Rege, chairman of the Mumbai selection committee. “He is that good. But the desire to come back has to be there. It is not enough to say ‘I want to come back’. We are all frustrated that Kambli has not started playing for Mumbai.”

Kambli’s father, Ganpat Kambli, 72, feels his son can play for India if he starts practising regularly. “There is a little over a year’s difference in age between Sachin and Vinod,” he says. “If Sachin can still play for India, so can Vinod.”

Tough life

Kambli’s initiation into cricket happened because of his father. When he was three years old, Ganpat used to take him to watch him play the Kanga League matches. His father was a bowler and Kambli would lie on the grass and sometimes go to sleep. “During the lunch break, my dad would give me his big bat, and I would start playing,” he says. “That is how I started enjoying the game.”

The turning point in his career came when, at 12, he came under the eye of famed coach Ramakant Achrekar and moved to Sharadashram Vidyamandir at Dadar, where he met Sachin Tendulkar and their destinies intertwined. They scored that memorable world record of 664 in the Harris Shield in February 1988, and things started changing. “All the breaks in our careers came after this record,” he says. Today, the childhood friends are still close. “Sachin Tendulkar is my friend, philosopher and guide,” says Kambli. “We say a friend in deed is a friend indeed and he has always been there for me. We have kept alive the friendship because we respect each other.” It has been an unusual friendship because of their differing backgrounds.

While Tendulkar had a middle class upbringing, Kambli came from straitened circumstances. His father, a machinist at Guest Keen Williams, worked in Bhandup, and the family initially stayed at Bhindi Bazar, before moving to a chawl in Kanjur Marg. Since school started at 7.20 am, he set out at 6 am. After school, he would play cricket at Shivaji Park till 7 pm, hang around with Tendulkar, eating vada pavs, till the latter went home at 8 pm. Then Kambli would go to a friend’s place and spend some more time. Because the trains were crowded, and he had a large kit bag, he would only take the last train home. “I always travelled in the luggage compartment and I can still recall the smell of the fish and the vegetables,” he says. His mother would be waiting at the station at 1 am and take him home. After a few hours sleep, he would be back on the grind.

Kambli made his one-day debut in 1991 and his Test debut in 1993. However, while Tendulkar has soared, Kambli has stuttered. “People should not compare me with Tendulkar,” he says. The striking thing about Kambli’s career was how short-lived it was, especially his Test career, which lasted around two and a half years. His one-day career totalled nine years, with many breaks in between. He would be in and out of the Indian team; there was talk that he was distracted by the glamorous life; there were disciplinary problems, too.
“Kambli did not have a mentor who could have guided him at that young age, like the way [elder brother] Ajit Tendulkar kept an eye on Sachin,” says Rege. His wife Andrea agrees. “If he had somebody to help him when he was young, he would have been able to avoid the mistakes he made,” she says.
But then, you live and learn. And the good wishes of the fans will always be with him, because he is a nice guy. As Rege says, “Even after 10 years, Kambli is the most popular guy in the Mumbai team.” So, with a little bit of luck, sustained commitment and lots of runs, he should be back: first in the Mumbai team, then Bharat Mata!

Career stats

Test debut: January 1993, Versus England
Last Test: November, 1995. Versus New Zealand
No of Tests: 17; Average: 54.20; Runs: 1084; Highest score: 227. 4 centuries. 3 fifties
One-Day Debut: October 1991. Versus Pakistan
Last One-Day Match: October 2000. Vs. Sri Lanka
ODI’s: 104; Average: 32.59; Runs: 2477; Highest score: 106. 2 hundreds. 14 Fifties


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