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Sanjay Manjrekar: The blade of his bat was the face of perfection

Sanjay Manjrekar: The blade of his bat was the face of perfection

Sanjay Manjrekar’s technique was timeless. It was not just pure as the driven snow, the blade of the bat that he presented was the face of purity itself © Getty Images

Sanjay Manjrekar, born July 12, 1965, possessed the most impeccable technique and was a joy to watch even when not making runs.Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the cricketing career of the man who is now a well-recognised voice behind the microphone.

Timeless technique

No batsman looked as elegant when playing the forward defensive with the full face of the bat. Purists could remain glued to the game for hours, watching him play ball after ball to the silly mid-off, the scoreboard registering nothing but the passing of overs. His technique was timeless. It was not just pure as the driven snow, the blade of the bat that he presented was the face of purity itself.

At the peak of his powers, which unfortunately for Indian cricket persisted only for a very brief while, Sanjay Manjrekar’s defence was thought to be impregnable. When in the second innings of the fourth Test at Sialkot in 1989, Imran Khan’s late inswing defeated his copybook forward defence to trap him leg before, the broadcaster erupted, “That is perhaps the most important delivery of the series.” Yes, Manjrekar, who had amassed 569 runs in the series with a century, a double hundred and two fifties, had taken on the proportions of the plinth on which the supremely talented strokeplayers of India plied their trade. With three Tests drawn and final match at a crucial juncture, it was believed that if he was removed, the rest would totter and fall.

As is well known, the Indian batting did not quite collapse. A 16-year-old baby faced lad was hit on the face, and blood trickled on to his shirt and soiled his pads. But even as concerned professionals rushed up to help him, a small voice piped, ‘Main Khelega’ (I will play).The legend of Sachin Tendulkar was born.

But, during that series, Manjrekar had been the first to underline his enormous promise. Many of the astute judges of the game foresaw fantastic deeds from his willow in the decade to come. He was touted as the batsman of the next decade, the 1990s. With good reason too.Throughout the series he had dealt with Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Abdul Qadir and Waqar Younis with a poise that seemed to seal a covenant of forthcoming greatness. This was Test cricket in its true, unsullied form. This was batting untouched by the modern evils that catered to limited overs, bartering perfection for speed. The bat, often witnessed traversing ugly arcs — adventurous and oblique, was back to celebrating the virtues of the vertical. Such classical craftsmanship was bound to succeed down the line.

Yet somehow, for the next six years, the Manjrekar saga unfolded as a tale of unfulfilled potential. The sublime technique was there for all to see and wonder at. But, there developed some chinks in the armour which had once seemed supremely secure.

He ended the Pakistan odyssey with career figures reading 784 runs from nine Tests, at an average of 60.30 — the form, focus and figures of his batting naturally raising parallels with the recently retired Sunil Gavaskar. However, the next 28 Tests produced a stuttering 1,259 runs at 29.97, with one solitary hundred. It was a gutsy innings that saved India from what would have been the nadir of embarrassment, but nevertheless will be talked about as an effort against Zimbabwe in their first ever Test match.

His father’s son?

It is perhaps redundant to mention that Sanjay Manjrekar had cricket in his blood. Father Vijay had been one of the greatest Indian batsmen of his era, a legend of the 1950s and 1960s. The correctness of his technique was thus eked out from childhood lessons. By the time he rose through the ranks of Cooch Behar, Vizzy and Rohinton Baria Trophies, recognisable shades of the Bombay school of batsmanship could be detected even in the way he walked out to bat.

Sadly, his father could not watch him make it to the First-Class level. Vijay Manjrekar passed away at the age of 52 even as Sanjay was turning out for the West Zone Universities.

Three centuries for Bombay Universities in the Rohinton Baria Cup in early 1985 opened the doors of Ranji Trophy. Manjrekar started his First-Class journey by top scoring with a well compiled 57 in the Ranji Trophy semi-final against Haryana in a tense low scoring game.

However, big scores did not come regularly until 1986-87. He scored his first First-Class hundred against Baroda. And a few days later, he turned out for the Indian Under-25 side against the Pakistan team touring India that season. The attack consisted of Wasim Akram, Zakir Khan, Tauseef Ahmed and Manzoor Elahi. Manjrekar stood alone among the ruins of the first innings as he struck his way to 128.

The son of a legend has his own battles to wage. As highlight packages of that innings made their flickering, patchy way to Doordarshan, old timers gathered around the televisions, a large proportion of them black and white sets of primitive make.Manjrekar played as impeccably and straight as ever. And characteristically, cross batted strokes to the leg side were limited, and indulged in only when he was running out of partners in the latter half of the innings. But, it was only when a hook was essayed to long leg that the eyes of the ancient viewers lit up. They had at last seen the shades of the father, renowned asa fearless hooker of frightening bouncers. The similarity was imagined. Manjrekar seldom played the hook.

Retired hurt on debut

The next season, Manjrekar started out with 278 against Central Zone in the Duleep Trophy. With Sunil Gavaskar having called it a day, and Mohinder Amarnath and Mohammad Azharuddin opting out of the first Test against the mighty West Indies, there were plenty of places to fill in the new look Indian eleven. Manjrekar made his Test debut at Delhi, in one of the most fascinating matches ever played.

Dilip Vengsarkar, captain of India and Manjrekar’s senior in the Bombay team, slotted him at number six, after the more experienced Ravi Shastri. The first innings Manjrekar batted in was a tale of debris and devastation. India were bowled out for 75, and Manjrekar himself managed five before being caught in one of the many slips placed for the express pace of Patrick Patterson.

West Indies did not fare much better, knocked over for 127. Vengsarkar played a superb innings when India batted again. Manjrekar joined his captain at 82 for four, and showed admirable poise in negotiating the pace. He batted over an hour and a quarter, the two Bombay batsmen tiring the bowlers enough to see the first introduction of spin. But, then, at the individual score of 10, a ball from Winston Benjamin reared up and hit Manjrekar over the left eye. He was wearing a helmet, but no face guard. He had to retire hurt, joining Charles Bannerman, Talat Ali, Ewan Chatfield and Andy Lloyd as batsmen who had been forced to end their innings that way on debut. In 1996, New Zealander Greg Loveridge became the only other batsman to retire hurt in his first Test.

The match was won by West Indies after a spectacular Viv Richards century. And Manjrekar would have to wait to get back into the side. Mohinder Amarnath and Mohammad Azharuddin returned, and there was no place left for him in the middle order.

Along with the sympathy associated with the injury, there were of course harsh comparisons. It was aired that that his father would never have been hit by West Indian pacemen. The fearless hook shots off Wes Hall in 1959 were recalled again and again. It was a burden Manjrekar had to live with.

Success in the Caribbean

He was selected to go on that disastrous tour of West Indies in 1988-89. After the first Test was washed out, Indians were faced with the relentless barrage of fast bowling. Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Ian Bishop and Courtney Walsh hurled their thunderbolts on a spicy wicket at Bridgetown. Manjrekar walked in at a crisis situation with India on 68 for four. He proceeded to play the fast bowlers with unflinching brilliance, with a calm composure that comes with solid technique. The innings of 108 is probably the best Manjrekar managed in his career, in spite of his later heroics in Pakistan.

India collapsed in the second innings, lost the second Test and kept on losing for the rest of the series. Manjrekar could not repeat his performance, but played two solid innings of 40 odd in the final Test, having been pushed up to number four by the last innings. Captain Dilip Vengsarkar marked him out as the find of the tour.

The Pakistan heroics

By the time India toured Pakistan a lot of changes had taken place. Vengsarkar had been removed as captain and had dropped out of the tour citing mental fatigue.  Sixteen-year-old Tendulkar had been included in the side. The middle order that took on the might of Pakistan bowling suddenly looked fresh and young. And they held their own.

By now promoted to number three, Manjrekar started with 113 not out in Karachi, helping India bat out the final day and draw the Test match. The second Test at Faisalabad saw him score 72 in the first innings and share a delightful 143 run association with Tendulkar. He followed it up with 83 in the second essay as India batted out to save the game yet again. And in the third Test at Lahore, although helped along by the most heartbreakingly placid wicket, he batted nine and a half hours to pile 218. The Indian record of 236 posted by Gavaskar looked very much within reach when an unnecessary attempt at an impossible single cost him his wicket.

And in the final Test at Sialkot, he scored another 72 in the first innings. By the end of the tour, Sanjay Manjrekar was the biggest hope in Indian batting along with Tendulkar’s obvious extraordinary talent. Sunil Gavaskar dubbed them the ‘terrific two’.

But the Manjrekar half of this story suddenly ground to an abrupt halt.

The decline

Was it his self-confessed enjoyment of the One Day game? Perhaps. Or was it that Richard Hadlee and Danny Morrison found him out and the word spread quickly. The New Zealand tour was a disaster. In England, he was expected to be extremely successful with no apparent weakness in his batting. He performed admirably in the tour matches. But, as far as the Tests were concerned, he did not get going apart from scoring 93 and 50 in Manchester. By this time, the technique that was the marvel of many suddenly came across as one dimensional. His right hand came down, close to the shoulder of the bat. His bat face opened and edges kept going to the slips.

Runs came in heaps in the domestic tournaments. Manjrekar scored consistently, with a mammoth 377 in the 1990-91 Ranji Trophy semi-final. It still stands as the second highest score by an Indian batsman in First-Class cricket after BB Nimbalkar’s 443 not out in 1948-49. By this time he was leading Bombay, and was part of that fascinating final which Haryana won by two runs. He also scored his first and only ODI century in Delhi when South Africa visited in late 1991.

However, yet again, touted to be a great success in Australia, he failed miserably. Gideon Haigh observed that he did not seem to possess any attacking strokes. He spent long hours at the wicket, but every innings ended just as he promised better times. The highest he managed in the five Tests was 45.

Tendulkar was on his way, conquering the world and hearts as predicted. But, the masterly manner of Manjrekar had stopped producing results. A miserable World Cup did not help his cause. His questionable running between the wickets was under the scanner after he took on the arm of McDermott at a crucial moment in thegame against Australia. The big hope of Indian cricket seemed to have lost all self-belief.

There was one final moment of glory when he rescued India from the devious spin of John Traicos at Harare in 1992, batting close to nine hours to post 104 — his last international century. But some terrible time in the following series in South Africa ended with his being dropped in favour of Vinod Kambli when England visited India in 1993.

The remaining career of Manjrekar was a perpetual struggle on the fringes of the side. He sometimes got in, but a gamut of talented middle order batsmen almost always ensured that his tenures were brief. He did flourish once at Mumbai, with two fifties that helped India to win against West Indies in 1994. But such successes were exception rather than the rule. He even offered his services as an opening batsman, but played only one unconvincing Test in that position. With Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman filling up the line-up, Manjrekar lost his place for good at the end of 1996.

He continued to represent Mumbai for another couple of years, often glimpses of his style regaling the meagre crowds that attended domestic games in the late 1990s. He led Mumbai to Ranji Trophy triumph in 1996-97. But, by 1998, his chances of returning to the Indian side looked bleak and he called it a day from First-Class cricket.

Manjrekar scored 2,043 runs from 37 Tests at an average of 37.61, which does little justice to the enormous talent and impeccable technique. In ODIs, he managed 1994 runs from 74 matches at 33.23. Possessing a safe pair of hands, he emulated his father by sometimes donning the big gloves when the regular ’keeper was indisposed.

Sanjay Manjrekar: The blade of his bat was the face of perfection

Sanjay Manjrekar (left) is one of the most articulate and analytical commentators of the game © Getty Images

Manjrekar had been a popular singer in the Indian team during his playing days. However, after retirement his voice soon found its niche in the commentary box.He emerged as one of the more articulate and analytical commentators of the game. Some of his views are not tailor made for public acceptance, but that has seldom held him back. Within a decade, he has graduated to an old reliable broadcaster in spite of his still youthful looks.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)   

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