Vinod Kambli narrowly missed surpassing Sunil Gavaskar’s record of the then highest-ever score by an Indian batsman in Tests. © Getty Images
On February 22, 1993, Vinod Kambli completed his double century against England at his home ground in Mumbai. It was the prodigiously talented player’s first Test hundred and a lot was expected of him. Nishad Pai Vaidya revisits that innings.
Vinod Kambli is often said to be the talent that got away. That a man who once matched Sachin Tendulkar stroke for stroke on the maidans of Mumbai couldn’t live up to his potential at the highest level is one of the biggest tragedies of Indian cricket.
On February 22, 1993, Kambli showed why he was been seen a huge hope for Indian cricket. Playing just his third Test, the Mumbai southpaw smashed 224 against England on his home ground to showcase his exceptional class and talent.
Going into the third Test and final at Bombay, India had bagged the series 2-0 with convincing victories at Calcutta and Madras — as the two cities were called then. Kambli had made his debut in the first Test at Calcutta and had recorded his maiden fifty in the second Test at Chennai.
England won the toss and chose to bat in the third Test at the Wankhede Stadium. Graeme Hick’s brilliant effort of 178 and a few cameos took England to 347 in the first innings.
India commenced their challenge on Day Two with Manoj Prabhakar and Navjot Singh Sidhu opening the innings. The duo put up 109 on the board before Prabhakar edged Hick to the wicket-keeper for 44. In walked Kambli on his home turf — for the first time on the biggest cricketing stage. The pressure would have been immense as playing in front of home fans is a cherished moment, but an unnerving experience.
Kambli quickly got off the blocks with a few attacking strokes off Hick. He wasn’t holding back as he nonchalantly charged to him and essayed strokes with minimal power. His first boundary was a well-timed on-drive following a waltz towards the bowler. Hick was then flicked to the mid-wicket boundary for another four. He conceded two more boundaries to Kambli that evening as the left-hander warmed up for a bigger show. India finished the second day on 144 for one with Kambli unbeaten on 20.
Throughout the innings, Kambli showed nimble footwork to the spinners. With his constant intent at charging, the spinners were in a dilemma. If they pitched it short in anticipation, he was ready to smash them on the back-foot. The urge to dominate almost got the better of him when on 57. Charging to John Emburey, Kambli lofted the ball towards long-off. Phil DeFreitas tried to position himself under the skier, but spilled it and to add insult to injury — the ball trickled to the fence for four.
Sidhu was dismissed with the score on 174 and Kambli was joined by Tendulkar. Mumbai’s prodigious sons were in the centre for all to see. Even with the fast-bowlers on, Kambli looked at ease in his strokeplay. He didn’t move his feet too much, but made up for it with tremendous hand-eye coordination.
A striking feature of his duels with the fast-bowlers was the way he drove them through the off-side on the backfoot. While doing so, his feet were in the air as he middled the ball. Geoffrey Boycott, the England great would go on to compare that aspect with the West Indian opener Roy Fredericks. He said on commentary, “He [Kambli] actually reminds me a little bit of Roy Fredericks. Fredericks used to crack it off the backfoot with his feet up in the air or one foot in the air.”
With Tendulkar playing a gritty hand at the other end, Kambli reached his century with a late cut behind square. The Wankhede Stadium erupted with joy to celebrate the milestone. It was a momentous occasion because his childhood friend Tendulkar was with him at the other end, rekindling memories of their jugalbandi in the Inter-schools tournament for their school, Sharadashram. They had seen each other score tons of runs since their young days and now it was at the highest level. A few spectators stormed the ground to congratulate their new hero.
Tendulkar fell with the score at 368, but Kambli continued with his gameplan. India finished Day Three on 397 for three with Kambli going strong on 164.
As the next day dawned, Kambli knew he had the opportunity to convert it into a double. He was not only marching towards that milestone, but was also anchoring the Indian innings. Azharuddin was dismissed the next morning and another Sharadashram student, Praveen Amre, joined Kambli in the middle.
Kambli was getting a bit edgy as he neared his double hundred. The moment finally arrived when he dabbed one to fine-leg. He slowed down and became cautious after reaching his double century, before being dismissed for 224.
India were bowled out for 591, with a lead of 244. England couldn’t challenge that score as they folded for 229 giving India an innings and 15-run victory.
Kambli narrowly missed the chance to break the then record of the highest score by an Indian in Test cricket — Sunil Gavaskar’s 236 not out against the West Indies. But, Gavaskar had a special gift for him, which he told ESPNcricinfo: “The man [Gavaskar] himself congratulated me on my feat and taking me aside, he took off his wristwatch to give to me as a gift. I have treasured that, and kept it safely till date.”
In his next Test (against Zimbabwe), Kambli smashed another double. In fact, he went on to score two more hundreds in his next three Test innings. But, it all went awry after that and he played his last Test in November 1995. One often wonders what might have been.
In the years ahead, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman joined Tendulkar to form a solid line-up. What if a Kambli had lived up to his potential? Perhaps, there would have been another name on that revered list.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and an analyst, anchor and voice-over artist for the site’s YouTube Channel. He shot to fame by spotting a wrong replay during IPL4 which resulted in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. His insights on the game have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. He has also participated on live TV talk-shows on cricket. Nishad can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nishad_44)