The Mumbai stalwart Sameer Dighe was born on October 8, 1968. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the career of the man who had played the finishing touches to one of the greatest series of all time on his Test debut.
Cheapauk had turned into a smouldering cauldron in the Chennai heat. The people in the ancient gallery were, however, quite confident. After all the heroics, their men can surely chase down 155, right? There were a few circumspect voices — never underestimate the Australians — but the general consensus was that India would win.
Australia had battered India at Mumbai, but VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid, and Harbhajan Singh led a once-in-a-lifetime counterattack that had brought the Australian juggernaut to a halt. By the time they had moved to Chennai, the wounded tourists were ready to have a serious go at the hosts.
Matthew Hayden’s 203 had helped Australia put up 391, but India managed a 110-run lead thanks to a hundred from Sachin Tendulkar and four other fifties; Harbhajan Singh then pulled off a magical spell, for the fourth time in as many innings, and the hosts were left with a mere 155 to chase with all the time in the world.
The openers began aggressively before SS Das top-edged a hook and Glenn McGrath had him caught-and-bowled. Sadagoppan Ramesh, the local hero, played some elegant strokes and added 58 with the in-form Laxman before he got caught up in a mix-up and was run out.
With Laxman and Tendulkar in complete control India were on the verge of taking it away from the Australians; this was when Jason Gillespie struck, getting Tendulkar with a bouncer and then having Sourav Ganguly caught in the slips. Dravid had a leading edge and was caught at mid-off, and India were suddenly 122 for five.
In walked the debutant wicketkeeper from Mumbai. Would he be able to hold the nerves and help Laxman clinch the series? He had, after all, scored only four in the first innings (though he had stumped Ricky Ponting off Harbhajan to give the Tasmanian yet another golden duck earlier in the Test).
Then came the big wicket: Colin Miller bowled a rank long-hop that Laxman pulled, and Mark Waugh came up with a blinder at mid-wicket. A hush came down on the great stadium as Laxman walked back, shaking his head in sheer disbelief; three balls later Sairaj Bahutule, the other debutant, edged one to Mark Waugh at first slip. There were still 20 runs left.
The Australians had smelled blood. They knew that they had only the tail to contend with. They had probably not taken into account the man at the other end. He looked innocuous, it was his first Test, but then — he had over a decade’s worth of experience, and had been in situations like this before.
He knew the only way out was to counterattack. With only one slip present he went after Miller, and the calculated risk resulted in a boundary past slip; Miller pitched one short, and the batsman cut him hard past point for another four to bring down the target to below 10.
Steve Waugh then brought back Gillespie. The South Australian bowled one just outside off-stump, but not too far away; it was not very short either. The debutant, however, remained on the back-foot and slashed at it hard; the ball flew past second slip for another boundary. The target was down to four now.
The drama did not end there; Zaheer Khan edged McGrath to give Mark Waugh his fourth catch of the innings. After playing out four balls from Gillespie the Indian wicketkeeper tapped him for a single and Harbhajan kept the strike with another. The first ball of the next over from McGrath was sliced past point for the winning runs.
The crowd cheered, as did the dressing-room; the only Indians present on the ground not to rejoice were the two batsmen at the crease. Though they had finished their second runs with their bats aloft, Harbhajan was asked to wait as his partner, his composure still intact, verified with the umpire that the match was indeed over before breaking into the celebrations. He was a man like that.
Such was the sensational Test debut of Sameer Sudhakar Dighe. It is the kind of magic cricketers dream of: playing a Test for the country, coming out in a pressure situation, keeping his calm, farming the strike when required, and guiding his side to a tense victory.
Dighe was more sound than spectacular, more safe than flamboyant; he carried away with his responsibilities in a no-nonsense manner – without any fuss, seldom hogging the limelight yet seldom making a major lapse. He served Mumbai in the 1990s and early 2000s as a batsman, wicketkeeper, and captain with dedication and perseverance.
From a career spanning six Tests, Dighe had scored 141 runs at 15.67 along with a victim tally of 12 catches and two stumpings. This is hardly a representative of his illustrious First-Class career of 83 matches where he had scored 3,958 runs at 35.98 with 10 hundreds, and had 243 catches and 35 stumpings to his name. His ODI career of 23 matches fetched him 256 runs at 23.27 with a fifty, 19 catches and five stumpings.
Dighe was born in Bombay and made his way to Bombay Schools at a very early age. He made it big very early, top-scoring with 106 not out against Saurashtra Schools at Pune. Soon afterwards he made it to the Bombay Ranji Trophy side.
Gujarat batted first at Bombay and were bowled out for 231. It was a lucky promotion for Dighe: Lalchand Rajput, the Bombay captain, had pulled out of the match and Dighe was sent up the order to open with Jayaprakash Jadhav. The pair added 115, and Dighe went on to add 116 more with Dilip Vengsarkar before being dismissed for 107 in debut.
The outstanding form continued: with Rajput back in the next match against Saurashtra at Rajkot the pair added 92, and once again there was a 166-run partnership with Vengsarkar. Dighe had bettered his score from the previous match and eventually fell for 153. It would remain his highest First-Class score, though he would emulate it again. Dighe, however, played the match as a batsman, with Chandrakant Pandit keeping wickets.
He finished the season with 440 runs at 73.33. By the next season Pandit had moved to Madhya Pradesh and Dighe had assumed the responsibility of the premium gloveman for his state. The fine form continued to the next season as well. His career numbers after the first three seasons read 1,170 runs at 58.50, 41 catches, and four stumpings from 16 matches.
Dighe led Bombay for the first time against the touring West Indians at Kozhikode in 1994-95. He rallied his bowlers around efficiently, effected three victims himself, and the tourists were bowled out for 176. The match, however, had to be called off as there was no play on the last two days.
He was then asked to lead an Indian Youth XI against a strong England A at Bombay that season. In the Ranji Final later that season at the same ground he scored 137 and set up the foundation with a 286-run stand with Sanjay Manjrekar which was eventually crucial in Bombay clinching the title.
Despite his consistent performances he was not considered for a selection to the national side. At 30, however, he had probably realised that his time was running out; he had been contemplating going for higher studies in the United States instead.
He had played Australia A at home and had toured West Indies with India A in 1999-2000, but an international call-up was certainly not a consideration. It was then that he was called up Down Under after India’s embarrassing debacle in the Test series.
It was a disastrous series for India: they won only one of the eight league matches. Dighe played a good hand in the last match of the tour, scoring a 38-ball 36 not out and adding 73 in 56 balls with Robin Singh, but did little else of note. His wicketkeeping, however, had been sound. He also played the first three ODIs against South Africa at home but was left out for the other two.
He was pulling off something elsewhere: he led Mumbai to the Ranji Trophy final. In the match against Hyderabad at home he scored 46 in the second innings and Mumbai lifted the Trophy under Dighe thanks to a whopping 297-run victory.
When the touring Australians came next season, Dighe made an impact with 84 runs and six victims as he led Mumbai against the tourists. In the third Test of the series he made his debut as a replacement of Nayan Mongia and, as mentioned above, played a significant part in the final stages of the Test. In the process Dighe became only the third wicket-keeper in history to remain unbeaten during a successful chase in a Test after Percy Sherwell and Anil Dalpat.
Ganguly had announced during the camp before India’s tour of Zimbabwe that Dighe would be the wicketkeeper of his choice. He kept his word, and Dighe began the series with a 72-run partnership with Harbhajan at Bulawayo: the 95-ball 47 with six fours would remain his best at the top level.
He scored 20 in the first innings of the second Test at Harare, this time helping Dravid put on 43. Hemang Badani’s failure at the top, however, meant that Dighe had to open in the second innings. He failed, India collapsed, and Zimbabwe drew the series against all odds.
The outrageous chase
India dominated the Coca-Cola Cup (featuring West Indies and Zimbabwe) that followed to such an extent that Dighe needed to bat only once in the four matches before the final. In the final, however, the West Indians came to their elements and scored 290 for six.
India lost the in-form Tendulkar early, but it seemed that Ganguly and Laxman had things under some sort of control with their aggressive batting. But an inspired spell by Corey Collymore, with some assistance from the others, had India reeling at 80 for five in the 18th over with all chances of a victory virtually ruled out.
Dighe walked out to join Reetinder Singh Sodhi. It was a daunting task. What was going through his mind? “You should strongly believe in yourself; you should back yourself to be successful; it’s all about mental toughness,” were his words as he spoke to this writer over a decade later.
Sodhi and Dighe launched themselves into the West Indian attack. They refused to surrender; they had decided to go down all guns blazing. Sodhi immediately hit a six, while Dighe, having scored a mere nine off the first 28 balls he faced, suddenly opened up with a cut and a flick off Marlon Samuels for consecutive boundaries.
By the time Sodhi was out to Collymore, Dighe had managed 34 off only 63 balls, happy to play the second fiddle. Then came the 43rd over when Chris Gayle clean bowled Harbhajan and Zaheer with consecutive balls. India required 81 runs from the last seven overs.
With Debasis Mohanty for company and only Ashish Nehra to follow, Dighe suddenly exploded, pulling Collymore for four, lofting Gayle for four more, and hitting Carl Hooper for two consecutive sixes over mid-wicket. Runs came at a breakneck pace; Hooper persisted with Collymore and his spinners — and Dighe’s 96-ball 94 not out went in vain. He may have pulled off an impossible win had the tail held fort.
Dighe’s score was the highest among Indian wicketkeepers in ODIs, going past Mongia’s 69. Even now MS Dhoni and Dravid are the only ones to have scored more runs than him in an innings — and are also the only others to have scored more than Mongia.
Dighe made only one more international tour, to Sri Lanka later that year. He was instrumental in India’s victory at Kandy with a depleted side with five catches — all of them, surprisingly, off seamers. It was a quiet tour otherwise and he was never recalled as Ajay Ratra, Parthiv Patel, and Dinesh Karthik made their way to the Indian side.
He did not have any grudge against the selectors for not earning a recall. He took things in their stride: “Once you’re dropped you’re dropped; if someone performs better than you then he should be the one to be picked.” Dighe quit First-Class cricket later that season at a relatively low age of 33.
Dighe took up a coaching assignment in Hong Kong. He also coached Tripura for a period of two years — a tenure which he calls “a learning experience”. He instilled a sense of belief in the minnows of Indian cricket. He arranged morale-boosting lessons for the team with Dravid, and laid emphasis on the fact that the success of a team depended on abilities, not state of birth.
He was also the fielding coach for Mumbai Indians in the inaugural IPL in 2008; in 2009 he was chosen as a selector for Mumbai by the Cricket Improvement Committee of the Mumbai Cricket Association led by Sunil Gavaskar. Dighe has also coached India A, and has coached India Blues to victory in the recently concluded NKP Salve Challenger Trophy.
He currently works as a wicketkeeping coach in the BCCI Specialist Academy (for spin bowling and wicketkeeping) in Chennai.
(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)