Balvinder Singh Sandhu, born on August 3, 1956, was Kapil Dev’s new-ball partner for India for a couple of years. He was also a member of the World Cup-winning squad, perhaps the most iconic moment of his career being hoodwinking Gordon Greenidge to shoulder arms to an incoming delivery to clean bowl him.
In a short career, spanning eight Tests, Sandhu picked up 10 wickets at 55.70. The surprise element, however, had been his batting — he had scored 214 runs at 30.57 with two top-quality fifties under tough conditions — a higher career average than those of his contemporary openers like Anshuman Gaekwad, Krishnamachari Srikkanth and Arun Lal.
In a First-Class career spanning 55 matches, Sandhu scored 1,003 runs at 21.80 with eight fifties and picked up 168 wickets at 27.91 with five five-fors. He became a very successful coach later on.
Abhishek Mukherjee interviews Sandhu about his swift rise through domestic cricket, playing Pakistan and West Indies at their own den, his memories of the Prudential Cup, his experiences as a coach, and his visions of the future.
Excerpts from an interview:
CricketCountry (CC): Your father [Harnam Singh Naz] was a renowned poet. What inspired you to take up cricket as a profession?
Balvinder Sandhu (BS): I actually started watching cricket from the age of three. There were matches played with a tennis ball in my locality at Bhandup which I followed quite closely and gradually began to play.
CC: You had started as an off-spinner, but gradually migrated to pace. Why was that?
BS: It all started one day in club cricket. One of the opening bowlers did not turn up and I was asked to open bowling. That was how things took off.
CC: But surely that was a one-off?
BS: No, actually Mr [Ramakant] Achrekar had spotted me bowling pace. He must have seen something in me and said that I have a good inswinger. In fact, the captains were instructed to make me bowl pace from one end; I often ended up bowling 20 to 25 overs at a stretch and was not allowed to bowl spin.
CC: Did bowling those long spells help in the later parts of your career?
BS: It certainly did. While playing for India bowling for long spells — even throughout sessions — was never a problem for me.
CC: That was the in-swinger: but you were also renowned for being able to swing the ball in both directions with equal ease. How did the out-swinger develop?
BS: I had actually playing in the Kanga League where you basically do not need do anything: the wickets are usually so bad that if you put the ball in the right place you can get wickets. But once I moved to a higher level on flatter wickets I needed to add more weapons to my armoury. That is when Hemu Dalvi came in. He was my coach at college level, and was an out-swing bowler himself.
Even when I was not bowling I used to spend a lot of time watching him and following his action, and picked up a lot of things. I did the same for Kapil Dev in my later years: watch and learn as much as possible.
CC: Talk us through your First-Class debut [against Gujarat at Bombay, 1980-81]. You had one of the better First-Class debuts in the history of Indian cricket. Talk us through the match.
BS: The ball was doing a bit in the first morning and I picked up a few wickets [five for 59; Gujarat were bowled out for 149]. Then, when we needed those bonus points [Eknath] Solkar promoted me up the order [at No 6, above himself and Ravi Shastri] and I scored a quick 32 to get us the bonus point.
In the second innings, too, I just maintained a steady line and length and picked up four wickets [for 35]. After the match, I knew I belonged to this level. The match took my confidence to a new level.
CC: Then came the final against Delhi: they had won the tournament for the last two times and were definitely the predicted winner. But you pulled off another stellar performance…
BS: Yes, the ball was swinging, and Solkar and [Ashok] Mankad used me very well. I bowled unchanged till tea [Sandhu eventually picked up six for 72]. I have always enjoyed bowling long spells. I loved playing on the patience of the batsmen and getting them out [Sandhu also picked up three for 48 in the second innings].
It was an amazing victory for the young team. We had gelled well as a team, and full credit should go to Solkar and Mankad for handling the team so efficiently.
CC: Did you fancy your chances for the national side after an excellent first season [30 wickets at 18.13]? There were bowlers like Madan Lal and Roger Binny in contention, and Karsan Ghavri was still going strong…
BS: I had been dismissing Test cricketers on a consistent basis in the Ranji Trophy, so there was no reason for me not to believe in myself. I always knew that would be the next step. I got a lot of encouragement from [Bishan] Bedi and other seniors.
I had also played well in the CAB Golden Jubilee Trophy. Even in the off-season I worked very hard on my bowling and joined footballers during their physical training sessions.
CC: We got the first glimpse of Sandhu the batsman in the Duleep Trophy match against South Zone at Bombay. Batting at 11 you had scored 56 and had added 112 with Suresh Keshwala. Did you always fancy yourself as a batsman?
BS: Oh, I used to bat at No 4 for RCF [Rashtriya Chemicals & Fertilizers] in the leagues. I wasn’t really a classical batsman, but I was determined not to get out when the chips were down. I was a khadoos batsman in that way. I was never scared against fast bowlers and the blows on the body did not bother me. In fact, my determination to stay at the wicket only increased when I got hit.
It was against swing bowling that I used to face some problems.
CC: Your debut Test against Pakistan at Hyderabad (Sind) had taken off very well…
BS: I was actually not supposed to play in that Test at all. It was only after the toss that Sunny [Sunil Gavaskar] came back and let me know that I was playing. I always knew that it had to happen at some point of time so I had prepared myself. Luckily for us we were bowling first, so I got into action straight away.
I had trapped Mohsin [Khan] leg-before. I knew Haroon Rasheed loved to flick: so I pitched an out-swinger on the middle & leg-stump, he went for flick across the line and the ball swung away to rattle his stump, deceived completely.
CC: Then Mudassar [Nazar] and [Javed] Miandad took the game away [they went on to add 451 for the second wicket]…
BS: There were a few half-chances towards the beginning of the partnership that went down. A few leg-before decisions were not given, and once they got their eye in they just got going. I bowled long spells — even more than my hero [Kapil] — which made me immensely satisfied.
CC: You came to bat in your debut innings with India on 72 for seven against a rampant Imran [Khan]. Mohinder Amarnath hung around till 131, but you still batted on, with only Maninder Singh and Dilip Doshi — both rank tail-enders — for company. Yet you managed to defy an attack comprising of Imran, Sarfraz Nawaz, Abdul Qadir, and Iqbal Qasim to top-score with 71 [it still remains the highest for a debutant batting at No 9]. How did you adjust yourself so well when some of the top-order batsmen could not?
BS: When I walked out to join Jimmy [Mohinder Amarnath] I saw him playing everything on the front-foot; so I decided to do the same. I had decided to put my left foot forward, play for the in-swinger, and leave anything that was leaving me. So I cut down any kind of stroke to the off against Imran. In fact, Imran did not get me out a single time in that series [and even in the entire career]!
Coming back to the match, Jimmy was a great companion at the crease. One of the balls came back and hit me on the groin. He came up and asked me smilingly in Punjabi: “You okay?” That smile meant a lot in that situation. It relaxed me mentally and his encouragings words built my confidence to bat on.
Later in that innings, I hit Qasim for a six over long-off. Imran immediately brought a long-off and a long-on, and just to prove a point, I hit him next ball over long-off for another six. When you’re young, you get away with these occasional rushes of blood and do such stupid things (smiles).
CC: The umpiring wasn’t really the best in that series…
BS: Oh, they were bowling huge no-balls. Sarfraz was often bowling from a foot outside the crease. After one of the deliveries I walked up the crease and drew a line with my bat to mark from where he was bowling. Imran shouted from mid-on in Punjabi, asking Sarfraz to tell me to do my job.
There was also some serious ball-tampering in the series that enhanced reverse-swing. Several clear leg-before decisions — especially against Mudassar, Miandad, and Zaheer [Abbas] were turned down, and those against Indian batsmen were given. The Pakistanis wanted to win the series at all costs.
We were told it was a Goodwill Tour and we had to stay away from all controversies. The problem was, it wasn’t really a Goodwill Tour for the Pakistan team. They took all kinds of measures to win.
CC: There was an encore at Sabina Park later that season when you came out at 127 for seven and top-scored once again…
BS: Yes. That was a very satisfying innings. All their main fast bowlers [Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, and Malcolm Marshall] were playing. Yash [Yashpal Sharma] was batting very stubbornly and we kept on encouraging each other throughout the partnership.
I have always batted better when the chips were down. I have often tried to hit out with my side on 350 for six but when the side was in a tight situation it always brought the best batting out in me.
CC: You were playing outside the subcontinent for the first time. Did you make any adjustment?
BS: After the first Test I realised that I wasn’t bowling fast enough to extract the advantage I could have. So I increased my run-up and practised hard in the nets before the Trindad Test. The confidence from the Pakistan series came handy. I bowled with a longer run-up from the second Test at Trinidad and was able to generate more pace while maintaining my swing and seam.
CC: You have almost always managed to keep the destructive West Indian batsmen on a leash [an economy rate of 3.65 in the ODIs] — something that few of your contemporaries could achieve. How did you managed to do this?
BS: It was all about accuracy. I tried to swing the ball in my first spell, but when I was brought back the ball would have invariably lost its shine. I kept on bowling a nagging line and length, did not try to do too many things, and the dot balls kept coming.
I did not have Kapil’s pace, so I had to be accurate and deceptive.
BS: It was not the first time I had bowled Greenidge that year; that dismissal is remembered more because of the fact that it was a World Cup final, but I had also bowled Greenidge with in-swingers in the Trinidad Test [for a duck] and in our first World Cup match [at Old Trafford].
By this time I knew that he wasn’t picking up my in-swingers when I was bowling close to the stumps. When he was at the non-striker’s end in the final, I kept on bowling out-swingers to [Desmond] Haynes. The ball was swinging to a long extent in those opening overs. Then, when I bowled to Greenidge from close of the stumps he thought it was an out-swinger and left it. The ball hit the seam and came back to bowl Greenidge.
CC: You had also picked up [Faoud] Bacchus in the innings…
BS: Bacchus had the habit of groping outside the off-stump. When I pitched one up he went for the drive and [Syed] Kirmani took a brilliant catch. I think the credit for the dsmissal should go to Kirmani rather than to me.
CC: Any fond memories after the victory?
BS: The moment the last wicket fell I ran in from long to collect a stump as a souvenir. By the time I had reached there the crowd had taken over and I was engulfed in the huge mass of people. Funnily, all of them were trying to take away the stump from me! I managed to retain it, though, and return to the pavilion safely. Only Roger Binny, Madan Lal and me have that World Cup stump.
CC: After the World Cup got over you bowled quite well in the first match at Hyderabad, picking up three for 27 against Pakistan. You were easily the best bowler in the match. After then everything went downhill for you and by the next season you were out of the side. What went wrong?
BS: I was simply not picking up wickets. When you do not pick up wickets you simply do not deserve to play for a long stretch. By then Chetan [Sharma] and Manoj [Prabhakar] had also appeared on the scenario, so I was left out.
I still felt that I was bowling well on the Pakistan tour. However, the tour was called off when news came out during the Sialkot One-Day International that Mrs Indira Gandhi had been assassinated. I never got another chance.
CC: But what about domestic cricket? You were in very good form with both the bat and the ball. Your 98 helped Bombay win a Ranji Trophy semifinal against Tamil Nadu. Even in your last season you had picked up 15 wickets at 24.53 and had scored a fifty. Why did you quit?
BS: I was dropped from the Bombay side, and I still have no idea why. After that I did not feel there was any reason for me to carry on.
CC: But you could always have played for another Ranji side…
BS: No, I never wanted to. Bombay was where I was born and brought up and I could never imagine myself turning up for another team in domestic cricket. When I played the Sheesh Mahal Trophy in 1979, Ramesh Saxena had offered me a job for Tata and asked me to play for Bihar. So I told him “thank you very much for the job offer, but I will not play for any team other than Bombay.”
Even now I feel an urge to do something for Bombay cricket. Whenever my help has been asked for I have provided with whatever help I have been capable of.
CC: All Bombay cricketers are immensely proud of having represented the team, and rightly so, given the success of Bombay in Indian cricket. What do you think has been the main recipe for Bombay’s success over the years?
BS: The attitude is completely different from other teams. We enjoyed playing hard, and were merciless on the field. This khadoos attitude was handed down from generation to generation: Ravi [Shastri] and I had inherited it from Sunny and [Ajit] Wadekar, and we had passed it down to the next crop.
CC: What made you take up coaching?
BS: I never intended to become a coach. I trained a few players here and there before Makarand Waingankar spotted me. He told me that I had in me the qualities for a good coach, and so I decided to go for it.
After the sessions with Frank Tyson, I really got interested in coaching. Coaching gives you a lot of satisfaction. When you see the months of effort you put into a side makes them play well, it makes you immensely happy.
CC: Guided by you, Bombay won virtually everything in the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons. What was the reason behind this success?
BS: First of all Sanjay [Manjrekar] was an excellent captain. We shared an excellent rapport. When I assumed the duty of the coach I realised that we needed to improve in the fielding department.
So one day I assembled the team and asked “do you want to see Bombay as a better fielding side than the Indian side?”
They replied in unison, “Yes!”
Then I said “don’t just say ‘yes’, act likewise!”
They practised very hard on their fielding, and I worked as the taskmaster. Sanjay was always eager with his inputs. He was very strategic and explained quite a few nuances of batting to me. Over two seasons we had only one bad session of batting where we collapsed. While fielding, we dropped only five catches during this period. Unfortunately, two were by Sachin [Tendulkar].
CC: Despite the fact that he lacked speed, Kapil managed to compete with his contemporary fast bowlers quite well. What do you attribute his success to?
BS: Oh, he could actually bowl very fast in short bursts if needed, often reaching 140-145 kmph with swing. For a long time, however, he was India’s only strike bowler, and had to bowl long spells. He bowled quite fast in the nets but had to cut down his pace in order to bowl longer spells and to ensure that he lasted at the top level. He had incredible stamina and a great heart to bowl.
Other than that he had a very good high-arm action and a very effective late out-swinger. One of the less famous aspects of his bowling was his bouncer; the ball did not seem to be a bouncer, but once it pitched it just kept on rising, making it difficult for the batsmen to play.
CC: Why do you think the Indian fast bowlers of the later generations picked up injuries? Even today, when you consider the likes of Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron…
BS: Most of these fast bowlers if affected by identical injuries, then their biomechanics need to be corrected and fine-tuned by a competent coach, and a physiotherapist should be able to sort out the reason and properly strengthen the affected area for no re-occurrence of the injury. Focus should be on maintaining a balance between fitness training, working on bowling skills and also the work load should be monitored properly. One can’t have the same training for a Derby winner and mules.
CC: You played a significant role in the revival of Zaheer Khan’s career. Can you talk us through that?
BS: Zaheer was dropped and Kiran More, the Chairman of the Selection Committee, told me to keep him motivated to work hard on his bowling skills and fitness when I was the coach of the Baroda team in 2006-07. I had suggested him to cut down the length of his run-up and have a brisk run-up and work on his wrist position at the point of release, to generate back-spin on the ball — so vital to keep the seam upright to swing the ball. Then I monitored him closely and made a video of the spells where he bowled well. I gave him the video and asked him to watch it whenever he had a difficult phase. That way he would get to know exactly what he needed to do to get his rhythm back.
CC: You have been a part of a World Cup winning team, and you have seen [MS] Dhoni’s team lift the World Cup. How would you compare the two teams?
BS: It’s really difficult to compare teams across eras. We [in 1983] were the underdogs, having won only one match from the previous two World Cups — against East Africa. We had no resources to prepare ourselves against the other teams in terms of knowledge.
On the other hand, Dhoni’s team was more equipped in these aspects. However, since they were already going uphill and winning matches, the expectation on them was very high. They had handled the pressure really well. I think both teams have done a tremendous job for Indian cricket.
CC: Despite the entire Indian Premier League (IPL) hullaballoo, the Ashes has managed to keep Test cricket alive. What do you think of the three versions of cricket?
BS: Test cricket is the real thing. It’s like a good meal that helps you to build a healthy body and mind. Limited-overs cricket is a lot like fast food; unfortunately, it the latter is more popular these days. There may be a good Twenty20 match, but it is highly likely that you will forget about it the next day, whereas you tend to remember Tests from several decades back.
It’s the same with music: the soulful classical music — both Indian and Western — and ghazals have given way to music that does not really soothe the mind, but good for foot tapping.
There are good aspects of the shorter versions as well, the most important being money and employment it generates. Everyone gets paid way more than they used to. Given its short duration of less than four hours Twenty20 will also help spread cricket in countries like USA and Canada.
CC: Thank you for your time. It was a great experience talking to you.
BS: 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/