Ace left-arm spinner Rajinder Goel was born on September 20, 1942. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at yet another Indian cricketer who was born in the wrong era.
The atmosphere was grave in the Goel household in the cold month of November 1984. There was a letter in the name of Rajinder, the champion left-arm spinner from Haryana. There was, however, a catch: the letter had come from Gwalior Jail.
His family was apprehensive, but Goel braved it and opened the letter. It was from a dacoit called Bukha Singh Yadav. As Rajinder Goel read it, his mouth curled into the polite smile that had so characterised his controlled exaltation after picking up a crucial wicket. Yadav had congratulated him for being the first man to 600 Ranji Trophy wickets.
Not many cricketers have received fan mail from the other side of the law. Goel did write back to Yadav.
Goel bowled with a short, economic run-up, and just like the Bishan Singh Bedi and Padmakar Shivalkar — the other two famous Indian left-arm spinners of his era — he gave the ball a serious tweak with his fingers. Just like Bedi and Shivalkar he seldom erred in line and length.
He did not, however, have the picture-perfect arc or the aesthetically pleasing loop; if anything, Goel bowled flat, which made it impossible to score runs off him. On a good pitch he was impossible to score off; on a difficult wicket he was unplayable. “Not that he could not flight the ball, but the flighting was minimal and because he could obtain turn on any track, the flighting was just not necessary,” wrote Sunil Gavaskar.
He was as mean a bowler as anyone who has played cricket. Gavaskar had mentioned that he over-pitched or bowled short for the first time in perhaps his 25th or the 26th over of the innings. “All the overs before that were deadly accurate. We were lucky to scratch a single or two off those and lucky if we survived.”
Like Shivalkar, Goel did not have a chance to play a single Test for India — their only fault being that their careers had overlapped with Bedi. “I think I was born at the wrong time” is how Goel has always dismissed the reason for him not being picked, which is not very far from the truth.
In his book Idols, Gavaskar had named 31 cricketers who were ideally the ‘idols’ for budding cricketers: though the list did not contain the names of contemporary stars like Dilip Vengsarkar, it had both Shivalkar and Goel in it — the only cricketers to have made it to the list without playing a single Test. Gavaskar had always mentioned that Goel is the bowler whom he had “really dreaded facing” in his career.
Comparing Bedi and Goel, Sunil Gavaskar wrote: “Given the choice of facing [Bishan] Bedi and [Rajinder] Goel at their peak, I would prefer to play Bishan because with his flight, Bishan gave you a bit of a chance by coming down the track and converting those deliveries into drivable balls, while Goel, with a flatter trajectory, was almost impossible to hit.”
Goel’s (and Shivalkar’s) omission was somewhat baffling, given that India had often played two off-spinners (EAS Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan) simultaneously; they had also played two left-arm spinners together in the 1980s in the form of Dilip Doshi and Ravi Shastri (Doshi was later replaced by Maninder Singh, another left-arm spinner). It was obvious that Bedi should have played more Tests than the pair. However, it does not make sense that both of them did not play a single Test.
They made a splendid combination, Bedi and Goel, for North Zone. Ramachandra Guha has compared the two: Bedi, the captain and the flamboyant artist, was always in his elements both on and off the field; after play there was inevitably a party in his room involving copious amounts of whisky and tandoori chicken; in another room, meanwhile, the quiet, modest Goel had already been in the land of nods, preparing himself for another match.
Goel is the highest wicket-taker in the Ranji Trophy with 637 wickets at 17.28 and a measly economy rate of 2.06. Venkat, his nearest competitor, is on 530, and nobody else has gone past the 500-mark. The number demonstrates the gulf between Goel and other spinners in India’s premier domestic competition.
Goel also took 25 wickets in a Ranji Trophy a record 15 times; this included his nine final seasons. He played on till well past the age of 42 for a state that had never won the Ranji Trophy till Goel’s retirement (their only triumph came in 1990-91 under Kapil Dev following a high-intensity final).
In all First-Class cricket, Goel had 750 wickets from 157 matches at 18.58 with an economy rate of 2.09. He had 59 five-fors and 18 10-wicket hauls. His agricultural batting, which relied mostly on sweeps (even off seamers) got him 1,037 runs at 9.34: he never got a fifty. Additionally, he was a safe catcher, and just like his bowling, his throwing was unnervingly accurate.
A statistical comparison of the top bowlers of the era may be relevant here. While Bedi had the best average in Ranji Trophy, Goel was significantly the best bowler in all First-Class Cricket, even if we leave out the performances at the top level.
|Top Indian spinners of the 1960s and 1970s||All First-Class||Tests||Non-Tests||Ranji Trophy|
The famous quartet was arguably better than the other three on the list (though VV Kumar did play two Tests). The awkward bit was not that the four was preferred over the others; the selectors made it look like that they were mandatory inclusions. As Doshi later wrote in Spin Punch, “I consider these bowlers [the quartet] great and their contribution to Indian cricket undeniable but I still retain the right to question the indispensability factor.”
Despite the odds, however, Goel did carry on. His First-Class career lasted a whopping 26 seasons. It wasn’t that he made only sporadic appearance towards the end; he was the leader of the Haryana attack almost throughout his career, though the burden was shared by Kapil towards the end of Goel’s career. The sudden boom of international cricket since the late 1970s, however, meant that Kapil was often away on national duty, and Goel had to be back to his role as the sole performer.
Goel’s career records, however, was bloated significantly by his performances against Jammu and Kashmir, one of the weakest sides in the Indian domestic circuit. A fifth of Goel’s wickets had come against the northernmost state of India. The contrast is startling:
|Against Jammu and Kashmir||22||1274||152||8.38||15||6|
|Against other opponents||135||12666||598||21.18||44||12|
|All First-Class matches||157||13940||750||18.59||59||18|
Goel was born in Narwana, Haryana. He was the son of an assistant station-master in Indian Railways. He studied in a local school and attended college at Rohtak; at the age of 16 he was declared the Best Bowler of the All-India schools tournament, helping North Zone Schools to clinch the Trophy.
Goel made his Ranji Trophy debut for Patiala against Services at Delhi in the 1958-59 Ranji Trophy at the age of 16, picking up a single wicket. In his next match, also at Delhi, Goel picked up four for 35 and five for 30 (Delhi lost only 16 wickets in the match).
He played for Southern Punjab from the next season. The first of his spectacular bowling performances came against Northern Punjab at Patiala. After his side was bowled out for 87, Northern Punjab looked to be heading for a lead at 35 for two. Goel intervened, and skittled out the opposition for 54 with figures of 4-0-6-6.
By 1962-63, Goel had shifted to Delhi. In a match against his old side Southern Punjab at Patiala, Goel put an amazing stranglehold and ended up with figures of 31.4-24-17-5. He finished the season with 25 wickets at 14.80 and an economy rate of 1.49. His best, however, was still to come.
The first 10-for came next season, against Northern Punjab at Delhi. Pitted against Bedi, Goel emerged as the superior of the two, picking up four for 29 and six for 30; he bowled only once in the next match against Services at Delhi, picking up five for 95, but in the match that followed he routed Railways at Karnail Stadium with five for 59 and five for 37. He was subsequently chosen to play for the third unofficial ‘Test’ against Ceylon at Ahmedabad.
India had already clinched the series 2-0. Tiger Pataudi’s team scored 189; Goel and Venkat bowled well in tandem before Sri Lanka declared at 144 for seven, 45 runs behind. The strong Indian line-up was then bowled out for only 66, with only Ambar Roy and Ramesh Saxena going into double figures.
After 41 was added for the first wicket and 36 more for the second, Pataudi eventually brought Goel back. In an inspired display of bowling Goel picked up four wickets, reducing Ceylon to 98 for six. However, he could not prevent the tourists from pulling off a four-wicket win.
Goel shifted to Haryana in 1973-74, perhaps because of the appointment of Bedi as the captain of Delhi (which meant that if one left-arm spinner was picked it would no longer be Bedi). On his debut for Haryana, Goel picked up eight for 55 against Railways at Karnail Singh Stadium; it would remain his career-best figures. It was also the first time a bowler had picked up eight wickets in an innings for Haryana.
So near, yet so far
The West Indians were in India in 1974-75; the initial squad consisted of Bedi, who was later dropped on disciplinary grounds before the first Test at Bangalore. Goel was drafted into the squad along with Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Prasanna, and Venkat. The ideal situation would probably have been to play Goel and Chandra along with an off-spinner.
As things turned out, Goel was left out of the XI at the last moment and West Indies won by 267 runs. Bedi came back for the next Test at Delhi, and just to cite another example of Indian selection policies, a fit Chandra was left out despite having dismissed Viv Richards for four and three at Bangalore. Richards slammed 192 not out and India lost by an innings.
Back to domestic cricket
If anything this increased Goel’s appetite for wickets. He picked up 32 wickets that season at 21.56 and followed it with 43 more at 17.95 the next season. The Duleep Trophy final of 1975-76 at Chepauk was a high-intensity affair with Bedi and Goel playing for North Zone and Prasanna, Chandra, and Venkat for South Zone.
South Zone scored 390 on what looked like a flat pitch. Goel seemed to be the only threat with figures of seven for 98. Chandra, with some aid from Prasanna and Venkat, then obtained a 99-run lead. Goel (five for 36) and Bedi (five for 77) took over after the seventh over and bowled straight through, dismissing South for 134. South Zone, however, had the last laugh, with Venkat demolishing North Zone for 196.
In a match at Rai in 1977-78, Goel demolished Jammu and Kashmir for 93 with figures of six for 25. In the second innings, opening bowling with Kapil, he returned ridiculous figures of seven for four, bowling them out for 23. Goel became the first Haryana bowler to pick up 13 wickets in a match. In the next match against the same opposition at Srinagar, Goel picked up seven for 37 and three for 55. He finished 1978-79 with 47 wickets at 11.78 (the previous season had earned him 34 wickets at 15.50).
The performances made him an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year in the company of the rather odd pair of Surinder Khanna and Faoud Bacchus. Almost immediately he routed Delhi at their den with eight for 87: he remains the only Haryana bowler with two eight-wicket hauls.
The chances that did not come
By now, the trio of Bedi, Chandra, and Prasanna were all out of the Indian side (though Venkat continued to play for a few more seasons). It was a toss-up between the 37-year-old Goel and the 39-year-old Shivalkar (though the 26-year-old Rajinder Hans was taking rapid strides in domestic cricket.
However, Goel probably lost his last opportunity when the 32-year old Doshi was chosen over the others; while there can be no doubt regarding Doshi’s pedigree, the choice was perhaps not an obvious one. Doshi later went on to become only the second bowler (after Clarrie Grimmett) to pick up 100 Test wickets making his debut after thirty. Goel accepted it with a sardonic “ye sab kismet ka khel hai” (it’s all about luck).
The preference of youth over age was something that Goel could never come to terms to. Even in his later days he always stuck to “Age cannot be regarded as a constraint. Do you want a good performance or do you want to play a youngster just because of his age?”
His final chance probably came on the 1980-81 tour of New Zealand when Doshi was injured before the first Test at Wellington. Gavaskar, however, insisted on having the teenager Ravi Shastri getting flown down from the middle of a Ranji Trophy match instead of his ‘idol’. Shivalkar and Goel had perhaps felt a bit let down when both Doshi and Shastri played in the next Test at Christchurch.
The final days
With his final chance to play for India gone, Goel attacked the hapless batsmen in domestic cricket. Jammu and Kashmir faced his wrath at Rohtak when he picked up five for seven and five for 18 to bowl them out for 61 and 73; in the next match against Punjab at Faridabad Goel returned figures of seven for 33 and five for 49.
Goel retired at the end of that season after he had picked up 600 Ranji Trophy wickets, Chandrakant Pandit (caught by Chetan Sharma) being his milestone wicket. However, he was persuaded to play for another season, and he immediately routed Jammu and Kashmir at Rohtak with figures of seven for 36 and seven for 38. He became the first Haryana bowler to claim 14 wickets in a match (and remains the only one with two 13-wicket hauls).
Goel picked up 39 wickets that season at 16.71. It was a good thing that he played that season, because subsequent calculations have shown that Goel’s Ranji Trophy tally after the previous season had stood at 598 wickets.
Goel worked for State Bank of India, and later became a selector for Haryana; he also selected the Indian Under-19 team that won the World Cup in Sri Lanka in 2000; the Under-15 team that won the Asia Cup in Malaysia later that year; and the Under-17 team that won the Asia Cup in Bangladesh in 2001.
His son Nitin, a prolific left-hand opening batsman, had played 68 First-Class matches, mostly for Haryana. He made his debut the season immediately after the one that was his father’s last.
Rajinder Goel won the CEAT Domestic Cricket Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2007.
(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)