Kambli’s bit part in Sachin’s surge to stardom

The story of Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli, contemporary schoolboy champions who became international team-mates, is one of lifelong friendship. It is also a story of middle-class comfort and working-class poverty, of fulfilment and disappointment, of discipline and distraction, of acquiescence and rebellion, and, ultimately, of what is and what might have been. As Tendulkar passed Kapil Dev’s record for the number of Test matches played by an Indian yesterday, Kambli watched from the stands, in the middle of finalising a divorce and dreaming of his next Bollywood film.

Kambli looks different now from the player who smashed 224 (still the highest by an Indian batsman against England) in Mumbai 13 years ago – my only Test on Indian soil. His waistline is thicker, what remains of his hair is braided back, a grey-flecked beard covers his face and, when he opens his mouth, attention is drawn to a diamond-encrusted molar.

He certainly looks more Bollywood than batsman, although these days, as the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Mahendra Singh Dhoni suggest, the two are not mutually exclusive. In any case, Kambli, out of Test cricket for more than a decade, has not given up on a recall to the Indian team.

Kambli’s story begins in Bhendibazar, a poor and violent mainly Muslim suburb of Mumbai, and in the single-room chawl (slum dwelling) that was home to anything up to 24 members of his extended family. The small patch of land that served as his first cricket pitch was surrounded on all sides by high-rise buildings. The scoring system was dictated by the lack of space, and the higher a batsman hit the ball into the buildings the more runs he scored. It explains why Kambli was one of the best over-the-top hitters of spin I have seen.

His talent was recognised early on, and with his school fees and travel money paid for, he was sent to Shardashram School and placed under the tutelage of a coach called Ramakant Achrekar. He would rise at five, take the hour-long train journey to school, often sitting among the fish and the vegetables at the back of the train so that by the time he got to school he stank. In the afternoons and early evenings he would practise for five hours, often not returning home until after midnight, when his mother would feed him before he grabbed the five hours or so of sleep that nourished this cycle of sacrifice.

Tendulkar also travelled an hour by train to Shardashram School, but at least he came from East Bandra, which, despite being looked down upon by the inhabitants of West Bandra, was a relatively comfortable middle-class suburb. It was at Shardashram where the two first met, when Kambli was 11 and Tendulkar was ten.

According to Kambli, Tendulkar was frozen by nerves on the day Achrekar came to select 50 youngsters for summer camp. ‘He was so tense that he was getting beaten each and every ball. Initially, he was told he wasn’t good enough and he started crying and begged for another chance. He came back with his brother, Ajit, the next day and his talent was there for all to see.’

The two became the most famous schoolboy cricketers in the land in February 1988 when, in a three-day semi-final match against St Xavier’s College, they put on a world-record 664 for the third wicket. Tendulkar made 326 not out and Kambli 349 not out, innings that extended to over three pages of the scorer’s book. A mutual friend from those days says that Kambli is the only real competition Tendulkar has ever had.

Kambli remembers the carnage on the Azad maidan that day; that bowlers were crying and didn’t want to come back for the second day. Neither did the fielders, who were leg-weary from continually having to fetch the ball from miles away. Kambli says that Achrekar had demanded that they declare overnight, a dictat that Tendulkar, the captain, ignored. It was only when Achrekar returned at lunch the following day that Tendulkar declared at 748 for two. But it was to be Kambli, not Tendulkar, who became the rebellious one.

Tendulkar made his debut for India in 1990, ‘taking,’ Kambli says, ‘the elevator to the top while I took the stairs.’ When Kambli’s chance came to join his friend in the team three years later, he made the most of it.

After a quiet start in his first two Tests against England, he scored that 224 in his third (putting on 194 with Tendulkar), followed by scores of 227, 125, 4, 120, 5, 82 and 57. Sixty-four runs in six knocks followed in the West Indies and after two more Tests against New Zealand he was dropped from the Test team. Despite averaging 63 for Mumbai, 59 in first-class cricket and 54 in Tests, Kambli never played Test cricket again. Finished at 23.

He did have a problem against the short ball, often fending it off to gully, but it was his attitude as much as his batting that cost him his career. While Tendulkar played straight, Kambli swaggered to the crease in an earring and with experimental haircuts long before it was fashionable to do so, wore enough bling to made David Beckham blush, and drank openly when Westernisation was still frowned upon in certain quarters.

If he started playing now it is likely that he, not Tendulkar, would receive the biggest cheers (as Dhoni does) from crowds who find the combination of consumerism, cricket, celebrity and soap opera impossible to resist. Instead, it is Tendulkar who is the megastar of Indian cricket, while Kambli is recovering from a shin operation and hoping for another season or two as part of the Mumbai team before he calls time on his career. After that, Bollywood beckons. He has already starred in one film called Anaart.

‘Anaart’ translates into ‘disaster’ which, in box office terms, it was. He is lined up to star in another, a romance called Pal Pal K K Saath (‘Along With the Heart’). As we walk through the Cricket Club of India during our evening together, the waiters implore him to make a comeback rather than go into Bollywood. I’m not sure whether that is a reflection on his batting or his acting.

He is still close to Tendulkar. When they meet they do so alone, even though Kambli must be frisked first by the security staff who guard Tendulkar’s apartment. Kambli, like the England bowlers, thinks that his friend’s reactions have slowed a little, that he is hitting the ball squarer than he used to, that he is playing a little too conservatively and needs to try to dominate more, just as he did on the Azad maidan all those years ago.

Does he tell him? ‘You must be joking. We never talk cricket when we get together.’ He also thinks Tendulkar will get a hundred in Mumbai.

Recently, Kambli was an honoured guest at the party to celebrate Tendulkar’s record-breaking 35th Test century. Since their schoolboy days together, Kambli has always given Tendulkar a vada pav (a delicacy of fried potatoes in bread) for every hundred Tendulkar scored. This time, Kambli offered up 35 vada pavs.

Despite my promptings, Kambli shows no trace of envy towards his old friend. After all, he says, it took Tendulkar six years longer to a get a Test match double hundred.