Questions flood the mind after Kambli’s latest comments. How seriously should we take him?
There are two visuals on my screen. Both of them have Vinod Kambli in tears.
In the first, he’s walking off the park. Fifteen years ago, that image helped us register that our World Cup dream had come to a painful end. In the other, he’s telling us why the dream may have ended. But that's the problem: it was 15 years ago.
"I would never betray my country, betray my team. Today my heart feels lighter because ... that 1996 match... I would never forget it in my life... because after that match, my career was finished off... shit...," Kambli told a news channel in broken sentences before hiding his teary face from the camera. What incentive did he have to air his case, however weak, on national television?
Kambli suggests that Mohammad Azharuddin's infamous decision to field in the World Cup semifinal was not what the team (according to Kambli) had agreed on, and therefore something was amiss.
The first person to react to Kambli's outburst was Azharuddin, who trashed the allegation saying Kambli had "shown his class." Sanjay Manjrekar, who had played that game, tweeted that fielding first was an honest cricketing decision. Since then, coach Ajit Wadekar, wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia and spinner Venkatpathy Raju have all junked Kambli's version.
Questions flood the mind after this.
First: what credibility does Azharuddin have in this matter, given what he had been accused of?
After this, Kambli had a tragi-comical conversation with Wadekar on the phone. This is made-for-TV stuff. You feel sorry for Kambli when he childishly pleads, "Sir, aapka saath chahiye (I need your support)".
Second question: what did Kambli mean when he said the Indian batsmen were padded up and ready to go? Who pads up before the toss?
Clearly, he had not thought this through, and maybe this whole thing is a huge impulsive mistake, like many of his dangerous flashes through the off-side. Maybe he's only trying to draw attention, like that time he laughably announced his retirement from international cricket.
Wadekar brushes him off, saying the team had indeed decided to field, that his own memory was fine, and maybe Kambli's had weakened.
Did Kambli think this through? Was this 'coming out' a huge mistake?
Then, there's the BCCI reaction along expected lines. Vice president Rajeev Shukla said Kambli's views carried no weight and would be swept aside. ICC president, former BCCI president, and former Mumbai Cricket Association president, Sharad Pawar said Kambli's statements are irresponsible.
Third question: Kambli may have surrendered his right to be taken seriously. But he's a well-known cricketer with an enviable record. He is a respected do-gooder in local circles. Sure, he's been accused of being irresponsible, immature and tactless. But nobody has accused him of dishonesty in public life. Isn't that alone worth something?
To understand why Kambli's comments have received scant regard from the authorities, you only need to examine incidents from his playing days.
When Kambli says his career ended after the World Cup game, he's only partially correct. He had been a team regular till then. He made two vital contributions in the tournament: a 33 in Gwalior where he destroyed Curtly Ambrose, and the 106 in Kanpur where he saved India from being embarrassed by Zimbabwe.
He was axed from the ODI tours of Singapore and Sharjah, and eventually from the squad for England. Chairman of selectors Gundappa Viswanath said Kambli had not even been considered as an option. This hinted at non-cricketing reasons for this vastly talented player's removal.
It also lent weight to rumours about his problems: that he'd given in to every pleasure life could offer a fun-loving celebrity of his sort. There were stories of skirt-chasing, boozing, boorish public behaviour and even substance abuse.
Kambli's removal had one positive effect: it allowed another left-hander to come in, score a Test hundred on debut at Lord's and change the course of Indian cricket.
Over the next four years, Kambli made seven comebacks, and played only 35 more ODIs, the last of them in 2000 in Sharjah, where Sri Lanka bowled India out for 54. In all those games, he failed to produce that one innings that would turn his career around.
The son of a machinist, Kambli had promised to be an incredible success story alongside his childhood friend Sachin Tendulkar. Instead he finished as the genius who threw it all away, the stark contrast to Tendulkar's incredible longevity, and the contrast itself has become one of Indian cricket's greatest clichés.
There were fitness problems. He had a failed first marriage. His school coach Ramakant Achrekar once said, "Vinod needs to be disciplined. He has always been happy-go-lucky. He must look into his own performance and must not talk about others."
It didn't help that Kambli, despite his best intentions, had the tactfulness of a five-year-old. There's a story about him that a Mumbai cricketer once shared. When Kambli, still 17, hit his first ball in First Class cricket for a six, he immediately held up his hand to stop the non-striker from taking a run.
"Kambli was sure so he had hit the ball for a six, he didn't want to waste his energy running for that shot," the cricketer said. But the non-striker was a heavyweight in Indian cricket and a man not to be trifled with.
"The teenager had unwittingly affronted the heavyweight with his attempt to stop him in his tracks," he said.
The cricketer goes on.
"Once I walked into the dressing room where Vinod was sitting with little more than his jockstrap on. I chided him, and told him to put something on, lest he gave another reason to annoy a bigwig who was expected to visit the team that day."
"So Vinod said, 'This is who I am. It will make no difference to my career if I'm naked or fully dressed.'"
Then the cricketer turned to one of his colleagues sitting in the row of chairs behind us and said, "Tell him about Vinod."
And the colleague bit his tongue and held his right ear-lobe (as a mark of reverence for the person he was about to speak of) and said, "He has a heart of gold."
Recently, Kambli painted himself into a corner again on a TV show where he said Tendulkar could have done more to save him from his self-destructive behaviour. He spent the next few days clarifying his stand. Classic Kambli.
Interestingly, that show, Sach Ka Saamna, tested a contestant's ability to pass a Polygraph test while answering a series of probing questions about his personal life. For what it is worth, Kambli passed the test by answering 15 questions.
After this latest controversy dies down, few will remember him for being the first batsman since Bradman and Hammond to score back-to-back doubles. Or that high back-lift. The precise jump down the wicket to the spinners. How he hammered Warne in Sharjah. The chunky jewellery, the crazy hairstyles, the sunglasses, the ear-stud, his Caribbean flair for life. Or the on-field antics that showed him to be the lovable rascal he was.
What will remain of him are the controversies, that clichéd Tendulkar comparison, and the cynicism with which we treat cricket, no matter if India wins a World Cup or loses one.