Robin Singh © Getty Images
Robin Singh © Getty Images

Robin Singh was born in Trinidad on September 14, 1963. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at India’s answer to the bits-and-pieces player concept that so dominated ODIs in the 1990s.

It is difficult to say to what extent Rabindra Ramnarayan ‘Robin’ Singh would have thrived if he had not been dropped, somewhat unfairly, for a period of seven years. It was not that Indian cricket was flooded with all-rounders: the fifth bowler option was generally shared between Sachin Tendulkar and Ajay Jadeja, and India usually played seven batsmen, often using Manoj Prabhakar or Nayan Mongia as a makeshift opener.

Robin Singh lent that balance to the Indian ODI side. He brought dynamism to Indian cricket. He batted with an unusual stance and grip that made his bat face almost permanently towards the leg; when the bottom-hand came into action, hitting the ball into the crowd, the bat movement seemed almost like a back-hand table-tennis stroke for the right hander.

Other than that, he was a master of running-between-the-wickets; not only was he an excellent judge of the single, but he had that unusual ability of diving from a ridiculous distance and often making it. His fitness showed in his fielding too — in the 1990s he, along with Mohammad Azharuddin and Jadeja, were the only decent fielders in the Indian side.

He bowled brisk medium-pace off a short run-up; since he almost never got a taste of the new ball he had to rely on accuracy and movement off the pitch. He played an excellent foil to the likes of Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble through the 1990s, along with providing his trademark bludgeoning swipes, especially over mid-wicket.

Most importantly, however, Robin was about attitude — there was no denying the fact that he was a trier, and he never seemed to give up irrespective of the situation. His talent may have been questioned by many, but certainly not his commitment.

“Never focus on the result, just focus fearlessly on the task ahead of you and trust yourself and your plan and you will succeed,” was the motto he had always been vocal about. He had also believed that “you must face it fearlessly and aim high for success.”

He played a solitary Test in 1998-99, but represented India in 136 ODIs. He scored 2,336 runs at 25.95 and at a strike rate of 74.30 — which was impressive given that in his era Powerplays were restricted to the first 15 overs of the innings. He also picked up 69 wickets at 43.26 and a decent economy rate of 4.79.

In List A cricket Robin scored 4,057 runs at 26.51 and picked up 150 wickets at 39. His only century and both five-fors came in ODIs. From 137 First-Class matches (for the rare combination of Tamil Nadu and Trinidad and Tobago) he had managed 6,997 runs at 46.03 with 22 hundreds and 172 wickets at 35.97 with 4 five-fors and a ten-for.

Early days

Robin was born in Princes Town, Trinidad and Tobago, to Ramnarayan and Savitri Singh. In an interview to BBC World he mentioned that his ancestors had come to Trinidad about 150 years ago, from Ajmer.

Robin came to Madras, but not before making his First-Class debut for South and Central Trinidad against North and East Trinidad. He scored 0 and 13 and went wicketless.

He  quickly made his way through to Ranji Trophy. He started off as a tail-ender but often got the share of the new ball for Madras. He first created an impression in 1987-88, picking up 5 for 44 and 6 for 28 to rout Kerala. The 11 for 72 would remain his best match figures.

He soon followed it with his maiden hundred when he top-scored with 107 against Goa. In the next match he top-scored yet again with 101 not out against Hyderabad.

He scored 152 against Punjab in the Ranji Trophy semi-final to shut them out of the tournament. In the final he got 131 against Railways — an innings that ensured an innings victory for Tamil Nadu. It was Tamil Nadu’s first Ranji Trophy title since 1954-55.

He had an excellent season, with 555 runs from 8 matches at 69.37 with 4 hundreds in 1987-88; he also had 17 wickets at 18.17 with 2 five-fors and a ten-for. Seldom has a player dominated an Indian season to this extent.

ODI debut, oblivion, resurgence

Robin’s superlative form spilled over to the next season as well when he scored hundreds in three consecutive innings — 123* (plus 7 for 90) against Kerala, 131* against Andhra, and 101 (plus 5 for 63) against Karnataka.

He followed these with 69 against Goa (where WV Raman and Arjan Kripal Singh famously slammed triple-hundreds in the same innings) and 63 against Maharashtra in his next two innings. It was on the backdrop of these performances that after just 8 List A matches — none of them for Tamil Nadu — he was selected to play for India. He did not do anything worth a mention in the tour matches but was asked to play 2 ODIs.

On his debut at Queen’s Park Oval he batted at six and scored 3, and conceded 7 runs from 8 balls; he remained unbeaten on 10 in the next ODI at St John’s and did not get a bowl. They would be his last international matches for over seven years.

Robin continued to deliver at domestic level after his axing: despite his questionable technique he scored 2,121 runs across the next four seasons at 60.60 with 9 hundreds. His bowling fell short of expectations till 1995-96 when he single-handedly routed Bombay for 147 with 7 for 54 in the Ranji Trophy quarter-final.

Robin Singh established himself firmly in the side at the unlikely age of 33 © Getty Images
Robin Singh established himself firmly in the side at the unlikely age of 33 © Getty Images

The comeback

Then the gates opened: a full-blooded drive from Srinath in a net session hit Sourav Ganguly on the leg, and Robin got a chance to make a comeback in the Mohali ODI against Australia in the Titan Cup of 1996-97. He scored just 6, but brought the Australian momentum to a halt by removing Mark Waugh and Stuart Law off consecutive deliveries: India eventually made it to the final.

He attempted a single in the slog overs in the final and was stranded midway when Jonty Rhodes hit his stumps from backward point. He came back strongly, though, by picking up Darryl Cullinan and Hansie Cronje and finishing with 2 for 40. India won the Cup, and Robin had established himself firmly in the side — at the unlikely age of 33.

The performances kept improving. Chasing 237 against Zimbabwe at Paarl, Robin hit 48 from 31 balls to almost pull off a near-impossible tie (Venkatesh Prasad was run out in the penultimate ball). He also played a crucial role in the qualifying match against Zimbabwe at Benoni when he scored a 29-ball 38 and added an unbroken 83 with Jadeja to push India to the final.

The first fifty came in the Independence Cup of 1997 when India were reeling at 29 for 3 against Sri Lanka at the Wankhede Stadium, and even after Rahul Dravid and Jadeja’s resilience India needed some acceleration. Robin walked out and stepped up the gear, scoring a 52-ball 51.

A few days later he got his only List A hundred: promoted to first-down by Azhar Robin top-scored with a 102-ball 100 against the same opponents. Robin made a difference with the ball as well. In a short four-over burst Robin removed Aravinda de Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga, and Roshan Mahanama, and finished with 3 for 20. However, the match was called off due to bad light when, according to the on-field commentator Greg Chappell, there was sufficient light for the match to go on.

Sri Lanka were at the receiving yet end again when he picked up his first five-for. Playing in the windy Guwahati Robin’s medium-pace turned out to be more than useful; in a 5-over spell he picked up 5 for 22 and restricted Sri Lanka to 172 for 9 and won his second Man of the Match award (after Paarl).

Continuing his fine form Robin pulled off one of his finest performances at Dhaka next January. India were set a world record 315 from 48 overs, and after Tendulkar’s initial onslaught of 26-ball 41 Azhar promoted Robin ahead of himself, Jadeja, and Navjot Sidhu — once again to join Ganguly, raising several eyebrows.

Tendulkar’s innings had left India at 71 after 8.2 overs. The Indians knew that Ganguly had the ability to take it to the end, but was Robin capable to handle the Pakistani attack?

The answer came. As Ganguly’s drives pierced the gaps on the off-side with clinical precision Robin did not let the pace relax, hitting the occasional four and six, and always striving to keep the scoreboard ticking. The two ended up adding 179 runs in 179 balls: Robin played the perfect supporting role with an 83-ball 82. India eventually won due to Ganguly’s 124 and Hrishikesh Kanitkar’s famous boundary off Saqlain Mushtaq, but Robin’s contribution in that chase cannot be denied.

Test debut

There is a standard quiz question — which two consecutive Test caps — both one-Test wonders — for a country share the same full name? The Delhi seamer Robin Singh (typically referred to as Robin Singh Jr) had made his debut at Hamilton the previous season. It was now our hero’s turn.

Robin Singh broke Gavin Larsen’s world record of playing 55 ODIs before making his Test debut (the record has changed hands since). For one-Test wonders Robin still holds the record, and is way clear of Nikhil Chopra’s 36.

Robin bowled six wicketless overs as Zimbabwe managed 221 at Harare. Batting at eight he struggled, scoring 15 off 42 balls with 2 boundaries, before Henry Olonga trapped him leg-before. Facing a 59-run deficit Zimbabwe fought well as Robin bowled four more wicketless overs.

India had only 235 to chase but suffered from a drastic start to the fourth innings with both openers scoring ducks. They were soon reduced to 37 for 4. Dravid and Ganguly restored some dignity, but after they fell Robin followed with a 12-ball 12 with two fours, and India lost by 61 runs. He would not play another Test.

World Cup 1999

Disaster struck for India just before the Zimbabwe match at Grace Road. News had flown in that Tendulkar’s father had passed away, and the great man had to fly back. India required only 7 off the last 2 overs with Robin and Srinath at the crease, but Olonga’s over resulted in 3 wickets, and that was that.

Requiring to win matches to get into the Super Sixes India duly defeated Kenya at Bristol before moving to Taunton to play Sri Lanka. After Ganguly (183) and Dravid (145) put up a record 318-run partnership to lift India to 373 for 7 Robin scythed through the Sri Lankan lower order, picking up 5 for 31, setting a new World Cup record for Indians (it was also the second World Cup five-for by an Indian since Kapil Dev’s 5 for 43 way back in 1983). The record for the best bowling is currently held by Ashish Nehra (6 for 23).

In the first Super Sixes match at The Oval Robin came to his elements with the bat. After Australia amassed 282 for 6 Glenn McGrath and Damien Fleming left India reeling at 17 for 4 when Robin joined Jadeja. There was only one possible way out of the situation, and the duo decided to counterattack.

Robin was eventually caught by Paul Reiffel off Tom Moody after scoring a 94-ball 75 with 5 fours and 3 sixes. Jadeja went on to score a 138-ball 100. The pair put up 141 runs in 187 balls. During the onslaught the pair hit 3 sixes in a single over from Shane Warne. However, no other batsman scored more than 8, and India lost by 77 runs.

Final days

After the World Cup Robin’s form took a steady downwards turn: he still made the occasional contribution, like 75 against Australia at SSC; 3 for 43 (Chris Gayle, Brian Lara, and Ricardo Powell, no less) against West Indies at Toronto; and a gritty 50 against Pakistan at The Gabba.

However, with the advent of young batting all-rounders in the form of Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, and Dinesh Mongia, Robin found himself out of favours with the national selectors. In the Sharjah disaster of 2000 (where India were bowled out for 54 in response to Sri Lanka’s 254 for 5) Robin was the only one to get into double figures (with 11).

However, he played one more match, going wicketless and scoring a 32-ball 16 as India slumped to a 93-run defeat against Australia at Visakhapatnam. He quit all sorts of cricket the following season (though he came back to play two Twenty20 matches for PCA Masters XI in 2005).

Coaching

Robin started his coaching career with Hong Kong in 2004 and helped them qualify for the Asia Cup. Two years later he was appointed the coach of India A. He was drafted into the Indian coaching staff from 2007 to 2009 as a fielding coach before both he and Prasad (the bowling coach) were fired without a valid reason. Robin currently coaches Mumbai Indians in IPL: his side won the 2013 IPL.

In 2006 Robin and Arun Kumar Layam had opened the Robin Singh Cricket Foundation in New Jersey with the aim of spreading the sport in North America. He has coached the United States Under-19 team and the United States Women’s Team.

He also owns a realtor company called Robin Associates.

In pics: Robin Singh’s cricketing career

(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)