Arun Lal: I backed Sourav Ganguly from his early days when the selectors were sceptical about picking him
Arun Lal (second from right) became a commentator after his playing days came to an end. He has done commentary in both English and Hindi © AFP
Arun Lal, born on August 1, 1955, was one of the batsmen who were tried out as Sunil Gavaskar’s partner in the 1980s. He met with mixed success, scoring 729 runs at 26.03 with six half-centuries from 16 Tests. He got an extended run after Gavaskar’s retirement.
He was, however, one of the giants of domestic cricket — especially Ranji Trophy, where he had scored 6,762 runs at 54.09 in 93 matches for Delhi and Bengal, converting 27 of his 49 fifty-plus scores into hundreds. More importantly he was the mainstay of Bengal cricket, lifting them to heights hitherto unknown and masterminding a Ranji Trophy victory after over half a century.
Abhishek Mukherjee talks to Arun Lal about his career, his experiences with some of the giants of the sport, his journey — both at domestic and international level, his love affair with Eden Gardens, and his experience with arguably the most popular music video in the history of India.
Here are a few excerpts:
CricketCountry (CC): What inspired you to take up cricket as a career?
Arun Lal (AL): My father [Dhir Jagdish Lal] was an opening batsman at First-Class level. Both, my uncle [Dhir Muni Lal] and his son [Akash Lal], were also opening batsmen. However, it was my father who was my inspiration to play cricket at the highest level and most other aspects of life.
CC: So would you call him the main inspiration behind your career?
CC: Who were the other cricketers that had influenced you?
AL: I wasn’t really influenced by any specific person: it was mostly performances that inspired me. Big hundreds, match-saving or match-winning performances — things like that.
CC: You made your First-Class debut for Delhi against Karnataka in the Ranji semi-final of 1974-75…
AL: Yes, I remember the match quite well. Karnataka used to be a very strong outfit during that period. We were also a strong outfit but were caught on the wrong foot against their spinners.
CC: Bishan Bedi led Delhi in that match while Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar had played for Karnataka. In your later years you had also played Dilip Doshi and against a young Anil Kumble. Who would you consider the greatest of these bowlers?
AL: Chandrasekhar, without a doubt. He was so unpredictable! I always had problems reading him. He bowled me in the first innings, and even when he was past his prime his variation was very difficult to read.
CC: You migrated to Bengal in the early 1980s and then got selected in the Test side. You made 63 on your Test debut at Madras. Any special memories?
AL: Yes. The Test was played in September at Madras before the season had actually started, so we did not get enough practice due to the rain. I was a bit circumspect before the match but the tension wore off when I walked out to bat. It was a great experience to bat with [Sunil] Gavaskar, though.
CC: Then came the ill-fated tour of Pakistan. You scored 51 at Lahore and did not do too badly in the Karachi Test either. You scored 35 in the first innings there and had seen off Imran Khan’s first spell in the second. You batted for an hour after Abdul Qadir got you out, after which Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar put India in a comfortable position. What happened after that?
AL: Oh, it was entirely different from anything we had seen before. We had, in Kapil Dev, a quality swing bowler — but here the ball started to swing after it lost its shine. We were sitting in the dressing room discussing how Imran was doing that. I have never seen swing bowling of that quality. It was many years later that we had got to know of the term ‘reverse swing’.
CC: Despite the fact that few Indian batsmen did well against Imran on that tour you were made a scapegoat. You were dropped after just one more Test in the series at Faisalabad…
AL: Yes, I had opted out of the Test initially. I did not feel well and had declared myself unfit. However, the management insisted that I play. I did not perform well, and that was that.
CC: You were not recalled till Gavaskar had opted out of the Calcutta Test of 1986-87. You had scored heavily in the domestic season in the interim [3,511 runs at 76.33 over five seasons, plus the Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year in 1987] while almost no other Indian opener had done anything of note during this period. What do you think was the reason for this?
AL: I really have no idea. Maybe it had to do with Bengal not reaching the higher levels of the tournament. You only get noticed by the selectors when you perform in the knock-out rounds.
CC: So you really do not believe in the popular notion that Bengal cricketers typically get a rough deal from the selectors?
AL: Oh, no. What do you expect? Think of Mumbai, or even Delhi or Karnataka. How many times have they won the Ranji Trophy? How many times have we [Bengal] won it? You shouldn’t really expect a lot unless you take your team to higher levels in the domestic circuit. I guess Utpal [Chatterjee] could have played a bit more, but that was about it.
CC: You may not have made a comeback altogether, had Gavaskar not opted out of the Calcutta Test. On your return in front of your home crowd you scored 52 and 70 — one of the better comebacks in Indian cricket. However, despite your success you were dropped for the next Test at Jaipur as Gavaskar came back. Krishnamachari Srikkanth, who never had a good record at Test level [he had finished with a sub-30 Test average, and had averaged 23.77 over the previous three series] was retained.
AL: Yes, that remains the only regret of my life. To this date I have no idea as to why I was dropped. It had come to me as a shock. I really could not believe that I was dropped.
CC: Once Gavaskar had quit, however, you had emerged as one of the steady opening batsmen. In the first Test of the series against the West Indians you had scored 20 (out of 75 balls) and 40. You followed it with a 93 at Calcutta and a 69 at Madras that turned out to be match-winning. What was batting against Patrick Patterson and Courtney Walsh like?
AL: Oh, they were fast, very fast, especially Patterson. We took our time to adjust but eventually competed with them as the series went on. The innings at Madras was special.
CC: What about the 93 at Calcutta? It remained your highest Test score… you could well have scored a hundred that day. The entire one-lakh-strong crowd had stood up and applauded after the innings.
AL: Oh, that. I am sure that the ball was missing leg-stump by a significant margin. But Walsh appealed and the umpire ruled me out. I was batting so well that day [93 from 133 balls].
CC: You had scored a 67-ball 51 and added 128 with Mohinder Amarnath for the second wicket at Calcutta, effectively sealing the match. Generally, too, your record at the ground has been exemplary: of your 851 career runs across both formats 266 had come at Eden Gardens at 66.50, while at the other grounds it has not been that good (585 at 15.81). You had also done magnificently at Eden Gardens at domestic level. What do you attribute your success at the ground to?
AL: Playing here is completely different from playing anywhere else in the world. After a few initial successes I had felt indomitable at the ground. I used to get the feeling that I will never return empty-handed. I was a lot more confident batting here.
Then there was the crowd. The support I had received here — whether at domestic level during my few international appearances — was tremendous. The crowd was always behind me, cheering every run I scored; it has always been an incredible experience batting here.
CC: Speaking about the Eden Gardens crowd, there was a time — maybe 25 years back —when people used to flock to the ground to watch Ranji Trophy matches. These days there are empty stands even during Tests. What do you think has made people lose their passion for the sport?
AL: I guess time has changed. People do not have enough time in their hands these days. It is not as easy to take away time from their hectic lifestyle and spend hours at the grounds. I don’t think the overall passion for the sport has decreased: it’s just that people have got busier than before.
CC: Coming to Ranji Trophy now. Bengal had reached the final after 17 years before losing the debacle in the final at Delhi. You were touring West Indies when Bengal lost by an innings in the final. Was there any special preparation before the next season?
AL: No, nothing of the sort. But we were determined to do better than the last time.
CC: The quarter-final innings at Bombay. How special was that?
AL: That had to be one of the best innings of my life. Bombay had scored a lot of runs [590 for five declared, thereby achieving a 'quotient’ of 118.00]; we had lost IB Roy early [with the score on one] when I walked out. We had to bat for six hours on the last day and go past that quotient.
CC: Please talk us through the innings.
AL: Bombay was led by Ravi [Shastri], which meant that they were not short of gamesmanship of any kind. The ball was turning and Shastri himself bowled a long spell. As the day progressed Bombay realised that the match was getting out of hand: they placed nine fielders around the bat but were unable to break through. They sledged, they tried to get under our skin but we hung on.
CC: Then Pranab Roy fell at 275…
AL: Yes, we still had about an hour to bat. I remember that [Ashok] Malhotra was promoted. We knew that one more wicket would have put us out of the match. The last moments were very nervy but eventually we managed to go make it to the semi-final [Bengal scored 312 for two, a 'quotient’ of 156.00].
CC: You also scored 93 in the semi-final at Hyderabad that Bengal won.
AL: Yes, but Malhotra played the real knock . Saradindu Mukherjee also got a hat-trick on debut and we were through to the final.
CC: It was again Delhi, but this time it was a home match. Delhi scored only 278 but they had an outstanding bowling attack in Manoj Prabhakar, Atul Wassan, Sanjeev Sharma, and Maninder Singh. Sourav Ganguly, making his debut, walked out at 20 for two and batted brilliantly. You were there at the other end throughout the innings. Did you feel that you were witnessing the greatest Bengal cricketer of all time?
AL: Oh, I had watched Sourav grow from the very beginning. I backed him from his early days. In fact, I was among the ones who had pushed for his inclusion in the final when the selectors were sceptical about picking him.
CC: Bengal were 97 for four, still behind Delhi in quotient, when Raja Venkat [Venkatraman] joined you. You forged a partnership with him in a rain-affected match where the players had to go on and off the field…
AL: Yes, the weather was bad. Kirti [Azad] kept on insisting about the resumption, but the match was eventually called off and we won the tournament on quotient — I think after 51 years.
CC: You were hailed as a hero in the city and were greeted with a Lal Salaam everywhere you went [red salute: a pun with reference to the Communist Government]. What did it feel like?
AL: Oh, this city [Calcutta/Kolkata] is definitely very passionate about the sport. I can never forget the love and affection it had showered me within my playing days.
CC: You were also Richard Hadlee’s record-breaking wicket. How good a bowler was Hadlee?
AL: He was dead accurate and very consistent. I think he was the most consistent among all fast bowlers I have seen.
CC: You had faced some of the greatest fast bowlers of the 1980s. Who do you rank as the greatest among them?
AL: Imran, without a doubt. You had a chance against the others: on that tour [1982-83] he was absolutely unplayable. I have never seen anyone more devastating.
CC: In between all this you had been a part of the iconic Doordarshan music video Mile sur mera tumhara. Is there anything you would want to say about it?
AL: Oh, that was special. When we were shooting we had no idea that it will make this big. But it is a popular video even now. It definitely feels great.
CC: You played on for Bengal till the 1995-96 season and played club cricket for East Bengal till an age of 46. What had urged you to go on?
AL: I guess I was simply in love with the sport. I loved to bat for hours. I had received contracts for television commentary earlier but had turned them down to play on more.
CC: You had played for both Delhi and Bengal. Did you see any difference between the mindsets of the two sides?
AL: I thought Delhi was always hungrier to win matches. It did not matter to them how the runs or the wickets came as long as they kept coming: they wanted to win matches irrespective of the method. The Bengal side, on the other hand, had a greater appreciation for elegance and finesse and often ended up compromising efficiency for art. I guess it was the appetite for victory that set the two teams apart.
CC: Do you think today’s cricketers have a different mindset from the ones of your generation?
AL: Definitely. Since they’re financially more secure they are a lot more confident and fearless and can play a lot more freely. I enjoy watching their carefree attitude. I have always believed that you will achieve the most out of life if you’re fearless.
CC: Is there any contemporary cricketer you’d want to talk about specifically?
AL: MS Dhoni, without a doubt. He never panics. The Twenty20 World Cup he won for India was special — but what was more special was his reaction after the tournament: he did not display any emotions, and neither was there any special celebration on his part.
Another significant aspect of Dhoni is the fact that he never gets angry. You have seen him on the field, but even off it he is a very composed man. I have never seen him lose his temper even in the hotel.
CC: You have been commentating for several years now. Do you enjoy it?
AL: I had enjoyed providing commentary from a very early age: I had even commentated in Bangla [not his mother tongue] in my early days. These days it’s an excellent experience to work with some of the greats of the sport and watch some other greats in action.
CC: Who are your favourite commentators?
AL: Actually there have been quite a few — Ian Chappell, Sunny [Gavaskar], Ravi [Shastri], Sanjay [Manjrekar], Rameez [Raja], Tony Greig…
CC: What is life after cricket like?
AL: Oh, it’s quite hectic even now. Whatever time I manage to squeeze out from my commentary duties I dedicate to my academy.
CC: Your academy is the first of its kind in Kolkata with all kinds of amenities…
AL: Yes, it is a quite good one. Let us see how things shape up. I really want to improve cricket in Bengal from the grass-root level. It is taking time but it will happen someday.
CC: Thank you, Arun, for your time. It was a great experience talking to you.
AL: You’re welcome.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)