Maninder Singh © Getty Images
Maninder Singh © Getty Images

Maninder Singh, born June 13, 1965, was a fine left-arm spinner who promised much as a prodigy but who did not live up to the expectation. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the unfulfilled career.

Making history

Four runs off the final over. That was what it had come down to after almost five days of tussle. The heroics of Dean Jones, Greg Matthews, Kapil Dev, and Sunil Gavaskar would depend on these six balls. Allan Border handed the ball to Matthews. The off-spinner, bowling unchanged throughout the day from the eighth over of the innings, complete with a cap and a full-sleeved shirt, ambled in to bowl what would be the last over in a historic Test.

Madras — virtually a steaming cauldron in September — had come to a halt. The sweltering heat had ready sapped the life out of Jones earlier in the match. But the spectators in a jam-packed Chepauk braved the heat of the concrete seats in the sun, and sat sweaty-palmed with bated breath, waiting eagerly for the climax that awaited them.

Ravi Shastri kept the first ball out, and thick-edged the next to deep-square leg for two. He played it safe, flicking the next ball past mid-wicket for a single — ensuring that India would not lose. Maninder Singh, clad in a white patka, was on strike now.

Maninder would later finish his career with a Test average of 3.80 runs, and would finish his career with 99 runs — still holding the record for most Tests (35) and innings (38) for anyone with less than 100 Test runs.

He somehow managed to put the fourth ball out.

Two balls left, one run to score. Could Maninder defy all odds to pull it off? Matthews pitched it up, Maninder missed it completely, the ball struck him on his back pad, and umpire V Vikramraju lifted the tell-tale finger after a vociferous appeal. Maninder was not happy (he claimed to have edged it) — the cameras show that he was not happy — but he had actually etched his name in history by being only the second batsman (after Ian Meckiff) to be last out in a tied Test.

Maninder later complained: “I am sure he was very nervous. I was surprised because before I even played the ball, I could see his finger going up. I mean almost before playing the ball. That shows he was nervous but that’s part of the game.”

Suresh Menon, later claimed that he had often asked Maninder whether he had got a touch: Maninder always replied with the same sentence: “Wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me the question and my answer will be the same.”

The career

The man — complete with the left-arm spin, the variety, the beautiful run-up, and the patka — was hailed to become the next Bishan Singh Bedi, but never lived up to his promise. A tally of 88 wickets from 35 Tests at 37.36 with 3 five-fors and 2 ten-fors can hardly be called exceptional. His First-Class records were far more impressive — 606 wickets from 145 matches at 23.85 with 46 five-fors and 14 10-fors.

Maninder later lamented: “Having that tag [Bedi’s successor] on me was more of a disadvantage to my playing career than an advantage. It was a great compliment but it was unfair to expect too much too soon. Because of the pressure, I tried too hard to get wickets. As a spinner you need to be patient and draw the batsman out, outthink him, experiment with a plan, plot against each batsman. I was always expected to get wickets the moment I came onto bowl.”

Despite the underperformance, Maninder’s career had reached amazing heights during an amazing run from June 1986 to March 1987 — a standard he had failed to emulate before or after that phase. A quick classification of his numbers will provide an idea:

M W Ave 5WI 10WM
Till June 1986 15 22 57.82
June 1986 – March 1987 13 55 23.56 3 2
After March 1987 7 11 65.45
 Total 35 88 37.36 3 2

In the shorter version Maninder had picked up 66 wickets from 59 ODIs at 31.30, and his economy rate was a more-than-impressive 3.95. His economy rate is the second-best among all Indian bowlers (after Kapil Dev) with over 50 wickets. In world cricket, his economy rate is the best among all left-arm spinners with over 50 wickets.

Early days

He became the youngest Indian made his Test debut at the age of 17 years 193 days, but was ripped apart by the likes of Javed Miandad, Zaheer Abbas, and Mudassar Nazar. It was as bad a hammering as one could imagine: from five Tests he took three wickets at 148.00.

In the West Indies tour that followed, Maninder picked up two wickets at 96 from 3 Tests (though he routed Trinidad and Tobago at Pointe-a-Pierre by an innings with 5 for 48 and 7 for 47). With 5 wickets at 127.20 from 8 Tests, he seemed to be one of those talents who were simply not Test-class.

Maninder later went on to say: “I was brought into Test cricket too young.” He added: “I feel a spinner should play at least two to three First-Class seasons and experience the ups and downs in First-Class cricket before he is thrown into the sea of international cricket.”

Maninder was brought into the Test side after he had two very good seasons for Delhi and North Zone, where he picked up 44 wickets at 17.84. In two consecutive matches, he took 8 for 48 and 6 for 74 against Punjab, and 5 for 26 and 4 for 20 against Jammu & Kashmir at Delhi.

He also picked up 8 wickets in the Irani Trophy match for Delhi, and drew attention by dismissing Gavaskar in both innings (he bowled him the first innings). He became an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year in 1982. In the next season Maninder took 26 First-Class wickets at 19.69 and was drafted into the side.

The England tour

There were a lot of questions when Maninder was selected for the 1986 tour of England after 22 wickets from 15 Tests at 57.82. He did not do exceptionally in the league matches, but it was evident that he could keep the Englishmen on a leash, and was selected for the first Test at Lord’s.

Kapil won the toss and asked England to bowl, and despite a fighting hundred from Graham Gooch, were restricted to 294 by Chetan Sharma’s 5 for 64. Maninder acted as the perfect foil to the seamers, holding one end up with figures of 30-15-45-1.

He went out to bat with India on 303 for nine and Dilip Vengsarkar on 95. He hung around for 59 balls (which was extraordinary given his batting records) scoring 6, allowing Vengsarkar to score his third consecutive hundred at Lord’s, and stretching the Indian innings to 341.

The Indian seamers, led by Kapil, bowled well in the second innings — but they struck their blows on a side already put under a noose by Maninder. With amazing figures of 20.4-12-9-3, Maninder helped dismiss England for 180, and India won their first Test at Lord’s.

India obtained a 170-run lead in the second Test at Headingley, with the England first innings folding for 102 even before Maninder got a bowl. He found himself in a familiar situation in the second innings — coming out to bat at 233 for 9 with Vengsarkar on 99: once again he hung around till the hundred happened.

England had no chance. Chasing 408 they succumbed to Maninder, who dominated the rout with figures of 16.3-6-26-4, and India won their first series on English soil. He impressed in the drawn third Test at Edgbaston as well, and finished with 2 for 66 and 2 for 41; his series tally read 12 wickets at 15.58 with an economy rate of 1.63.

Back home

After the failure in the Australia series at home, Maninder came to his elements in the series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan. He picked up his first five-for and ten-for against Sri Lanka at Nagpur, where he finished with figures of three for 56 and seven for 51. He finished the series with 18 wickets from 3 Tests at 15.50.

On a flat pitch at Madras, Maninder bowled a marathon 59 overs to pick up five for 135. There was nothing in the pitch for the bowlers (only 21 wickets fell in the Test), and yet Maninder had restricted Pakistan to 273 for 7 before Imran led them to recovery.

The flat wickets meant that the first 4 Tests were all drawn (the wickets per match tell it all: 28 at Calcutta, 22 at Jaipur, and 22 at Ahmedabad after the 21 in Madras — 23.25 wickets per Test).

The authorities decided to prepare a rank turner for the final Test at Bangalore, and the ball turned square from the very first session. Under virtually unplayable conditions, Pakistan collapsed to 116 as Maninder took a career-best 7 for 27. After India acquired a 29-run lead, Maninder toiled on hard.

In Maninder’s own words, “Ravi was there, Shivlal was there but none were able to bowl as well as I did. If even one of them had bowled well enough I think we would have done better there.” Though he eventually found his ten-for, he had already conceded 99 in the second innings. Pakistan won the Test by 16 runs despite Gavaskar’s heroics in his last Test innings.

Had BCCI handled Maninder Singh more carefully, things might have been different © Getty Images
Had BCCI handled Maninder Singh more carefully, things might have been different © Getty Images

World Cup 1987

As the defending champions, India were considered one of the favourites for the 1987 World Cup. There were a few big names in the line-up, and Maninder (unbelievably, he was only 22 then) was the one on whom a lot depended — especially since the matches were to be played in the subcontinent.

Gooch swept India out of the tournament in the semifinal, but Maninder emerged out of the tournament in flying colours. He took at least a wicket in every match; he picked up 14 wickets (the highest for a spinner and the fourth-highest for any bowler); he averaged 20 with ball (once again, the best for a spinner and the fourth-best for any bowler with a 10-wicket cut-off); and his economy rate of 4.00 was the second-best for any bowler with a 10-wicket cut-off.

Final days

Maninder mysteriously lost form after the World Cup. He was never the same again. He blames a fever he had picked up later that year. As he mentions: “I kept training and bowling, and getting weaker and weaker. I had a double jump as I reached the stumps while bowling. When I lost that jump, I lost everything. It was the jump that used to give me the nip and bounce I used to get. I started feeling the ball was not coming out of my hand right. Sometimes the ball used to get stuck in my hands and not come out.”

The career came to an end after Maninder picked up 4 wickets from his next 6 Tests — once again against West Indies and Pakistan. By that time Venkatapathy Raju had arrived on the scene, and had forged a formidable partnership with Anil Kumble. Even then, 118 wickets at 17.89 over two seasons earned him a place against Zimbabwe at Delhi when Raju was injured.

India won the Test by an innings, thanks to Vinod Kambli’s double-hundred and beautiful and accurate bowling in tandem from Kumble (8 for 160) and Maninder (7 for 145). One would probably have expected Maninder to go on after the impressive comeback, but it turned out to be his last Test — at an age of 27. He quit First-Class cricket next season.

Batting

Towards the end of his First-Class career, Maninder displayed an incredible improvement in batting. The proverbial bunny had suddenly started to score 20s and 30s, and then 50s, and eventually reached his zenith against Haryana at Gurgaon in 1992-93. Coming out at 97 for six, Maninder remained not out on 102 out of 153 scored during his stay. He followed it with match figures of 59.3-31-76-10.

The contrast between First-Class batting records in the two phases of his career make interesting reading:

M I NO R Ave 100 50s
Till 1990-91 season 107 99 42 501 8.79 1
1990-91 and later 38 41 16 886 35.44 1 4
Total 145 140 58 1,387 16.91 1 5

Post-retirement

Maninder became a successful commentator after his retirement, and was known for his no-nonsense, aggressive, critical style. He also had a short stint as a coach of Delhi.

In 2007, Maninder was arrested after he was found carrying 1.5 grams of cocaine. He later confessed having taken up drugs a decade back in Netherlands. Later that year he was admitted to a Delhi hospital with injuries in both hands and had to undergo surgery. Though the television channels had suspected an attempted suicide, the cricketer’s wife had dismissed the suspicions, mentioning that it was ‘purely an accident’.

It is unfortunate that someone as talented as Maninder had a career this ordinary. He was inducted early, and when he failed, he got axed from the side when he was still a teenager. He had to fight back with virtually no guidance; he came back brilliantly, and when he failed for one season, he was sidelined again.

This was the story of a young kid who had once told, “I used to dream of cricket. While eating I would see a pitch in my roti. When drinking water I would see a field in the glass and I would be bowling in it. It was so much in my subconscious mind that it came true ultimately.”

The dreams were backed by adequate talent, but did not get the coaching and guidance required. He kept on experimenting on his own, trying to find a way back, but could not. He even tried changing his action multiple times through his career, but to no avail. Long after his career was over, he complained: “In India we ridicule people who admit to having a problem. In Australia, in England, or in South Africa when they own up to their faults they are helped. Here when you do, people are quick to shunt you out.”

He also said later, “Had I been able to talk to some doctor or sports psychologist at that time [when he had lost form] he would have helped me get over my action and I would have improved. That’s the reason why I keep insisting on having a sports psychologist. I needed a lot of talking to. I was a guy who needed to practice every day; I needed a proper program and that would have helped.”

So much for your help, BCCI.

(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)