I notice Vinod Kambli was rushed to hospital last week. It was a different Kambli from the person I knew. I found myself wishing for his health, but increasingly when it became clear that he would be fine I found myself wishing for some stability in his life. I don't know if he seeks it but it has dodged him for a long time now. If there is a God, he drove a hard bargain with him; gave him the kind of talent others crave for but took away a lot of the skills you need to make the most of the talent.
Kambli didn't become the cricketer he could have been, and that's all right, very few do anyway, but increasingly in a mad search for attention, he became a caricature. He isn't alone there either. Kambli these days is an example of what fleeting fame can do. It takes away the high but leaves you lusting for it. And this search has seen him put his finger on a self-destruct button and, sad to say, keep it permanently pressed.
He makes the news for the wrong reasons and there is a large part of me that wants him to turn his back on the present and re-enter a world where he has a lot of goodwill; where people remember him with a warm smile; not just for the runs he once made but for the disarming guy you had no option but to like.
The Vinod I so grew to like had an amazing story to tell. Of carrying a kit bag bigger than him, of lugging it into the compartment where the fisherwomen sat because he couldn't get space otherwise and, telling this himself with a laugh, of smelling of fish for the rest of the day! It should have been the story to beat all stories; of how an extraordinarily gifted young man fought the odds, struggled his way through, endured many, many hardships to play for Bombay and then, so dramatically, for India.
The Vinod I knew could be disarming. He could play a prank on you and you would laugh with him. He could tell you a story and move you. And he could use his feet against spin better than anyone else you could see. Before his first ball in first class cricket he asked the batsman at the other end, the captain of Bombay Dilip Vengsarkar, what he should do. "Play your natural game" he was told, as he should have been. "Okay" he said and hit the first ball back over the bowler's head for six. The captain walked up to him, his mouth wide open and he said to him "But you told me to play my natural game...."
This should have been the story of two children, two boys, who would rule the world and be like two brothers. In 1993, among many odd things I did, I produced an album of cricket songs and one of them was set to the tune of "yeh dosti hum nahi todenge..." and the words were "main hoon Sachin aur yeh Kambli...." They were such friends. I once dragged them into a recording studio and they wouldn't stop chatting. Even when one took the elevator and the other the stairs, that friendship didn't change. You just had to like Vinod.
But as success brings much happiness, it introduces you to other dangers that some are able to keep at arm's length and to which many, sadly, succumb to. Vinod starting getting trapped in an image. He wanted to live life kingsize, as the cigarette ads used to say, and I fear there was either no one to stop him hurtling down that path or he chose to disregard them. Vinod was enjoying the fruits of his success, richly deserved and something he had worked very, very hard for, but I wonder, and I am not certain of this, if that became more important than his cricket.
It didn't help that once the West Indies had bounced him out in 1994, he wasn't the same player. Before that series his scores in Test cricket read 16, 18*, 59, 224, 227, 125, 4, 120, 5, 82, 57. Post, and during, the bouncer barrage he managed 40, 0, 0, 6, 18, 0, 27 and 28. That, in sum, was his Test career. You might think he deserved more opportunities but within a year of his last innings, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and V.V.S. Laxman had arrived and there just wasn't the same consistency, even in limited overs cricket, where he had an off-on engagement till 2000. He was battling injuries too (his ankle tear in 1998 had to be the most terrible you would ever see) but even more than that he was battling himself.
He has made some poor choices, especially on television, where he has been ruthlessly exploited. Television is nobody's friend, it seeks the headline, elevates the person producing it and consigns him as soon as he is no longer needed. Each time, I suspect, Kambli thought there was a future beckoning. But in the kind of programmes he was enticed into, there is no future. There cannot be any in the peddling of morbidity. This was not about Vinod, the lovable clown, this was about Kambli projected as a has-been trying to cling on to a friendship that others were seeking to benefit from. He couldn't see that. He didn't have the skill or maybe he didn't want to see it.
Everybody who played cricket with Vinod has a lovely story to tell about him. I don't know if they have reached out to him or whether Kambli today has been engulfed by demons that they believe are beyond redemption. But I hope there is another twist to his story, another sunrise.
If Kambli is willing to keep the foes within him away, he will discover that Vinod has a lot of goodwill left.
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