International cricket, particularly Test matches, offers the toughest test for a player. While a cricketer requires talent, technique, temperament and even large slices of good fortune to break into international cricket circuit, it is strength of the mind, fortitude and capacity to face and overcome adversities that determine his longevity at the highest level.
Cricket history is replete with instances of doughty and determined fighters who overcame heavy odds to emerge triumphant, in spite limitations in talent and poor starts.
However, a peep into the history of the game would also show details of certain incredibly talented players who could not survive in the rarefied atmosphere at the highest level after they had arrived with lots of expectations.
These players possessed the required amount of potential, showed immense capacity for hard work and had successfully come through the system, playing junior and first class cricket, before breaking into the Test squad.
But despite starting out well at the international level they subsequently floundered and were forced to make hasty exits.
In Indian cricket the most prominent among such prodigiously talented cricketers, who flattered to deceive, are Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, Sadanand Viswanath and Vinod Kambli.
Sivaramakrishnan or Siva, as he was popularly known, hit headlines when he captured 7 wickets for 28 runs on his Ranji Trophy debut against a strong Delhi side in 1982.
He was selected for the tour of Pakistan in 1982-83 and a visit to the West Indies followed immediately thereafter, when only 16 years old. He made his debut in the final Test in the West Indies, but did little of note. However, when England toured India in the winter of 1984, Siva donned the mantle of destroyer and ran through the batting line up of the tourists in the first Test picking up 12 wickets for 181 runs.
He was a leg spinner in the classical mould, not afraid to toss the ball up, had a lovely loop, extracted prodigious turn and possessed a googly that could not be read from the hand.
Siva was the star when India won the World Championship of Cricket (WCC) in Australia in 1985; the delivery with which he lured Javed Miandad out of the crease to set up an easy stumping in the final was one of the best balls of the tournament.
At this stage it appeared that Siva could do little wrong on the cricket field. Even bad balls bowled by him were fetching him wickets as batsmen appeared clueless while facing him.
But law of averages soon caught up with him. He had an off-color series when India toured Sri Lanka in 1985. Even worse was to follow as his performance touched rock bottom during the Test series against Australia in 1985-86 and in the tri-nation limited overs tournament that followed thereafter.
He was dropped form the squad when the season started in 1986. Though he was recalled for the World Cup in 1987, he could not make any impact with the ball and lost his place in the side.
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The most shocking aspect of Siva’s career was the sudden and sharp decline in his bowling skills. He found it difficult to take wickets even in first class matches and captains hesitated to give him the ball.
Rumors to the effect that he was loath to practice and was spending more time away from the ground did not help.
He looked a pale shadow of the spinning sensation who had mesmerized top class batsmen in various parts of the world as even club level cricketers played him with ease.
He tried to remain in Tamil Nadu Ranji Trophy side as a batsman, but that also did not work out for long. He lingered on the fringes of domestic cricket circuit till his retirement during the 1998-99 season. Surprisingly, his post retirement career, as a commentator and a member of ICC cricket committee, has been more successful.
One of the stars of WCC
Sadanand Viswanath came into the national squad in 1985 for the WCC as a wicketkeeper, replacing Syed Kirmani.
He was a prominent presence on the field and no less a person than skipper Sunil Gavaskar had written that Sadanand was one of the main factors behind India winning that tournament.
His brilliant work behind the stumps, aggressive approach and flamboyant personality combined to give him the aura of a superstar in the making.
He played for the country during the three-Test series against Sri Lanka in 1985 and performed creditably. However, when the squad to tour Australia in 1985-86 was announced, his name did not figure as Kirmani was back as wicketkeeper, with Kiran More as his deputy.
Sadanand tried hard to win his place back during the next couple of years and did play a couple of international matches as well, but the selectors were not too keen on bringing him back.
In disgust, he quit the game in 1988 when he was only 26 years old. He returned to domestic cricket subsequently as an umpire and coach, but met with limited success.
One of the difficulties that Sadanand faced throughout his career was the fact that he had to compete with Kirmani for a place even in his state side. Kirmani kept on playing at the first class level till 1992 thus denying him a chance to don the gloves as wicketkeeper of Karnataka side, on a regular basis.
Further, he developed a reputation of being moody and mercurial, which went against him.
It was evident to followers of the game that his wicketkeeping skills were of top drawer stuff, but despite this he could not survive at the highest level.
Vinod Kambli gained fame as the partner of Sachin Tendulkar during their record-breaking partnership in school cricket.
A left-hander hailing from a moderate background, he had to take a rougher road than his more illustrious schoolmate and arrived on the international level three years after Tendulkar.
He made his Test debut in 1992 and immediately made his mark hitting two double centuries on the trot.
The series against the West Indies in 1994-95 exposed a weakness against fast short-pitched bowling, but Kambli managed to retain his place in the squad with some creditable performances subsequently. He was one of the few batsmen who played well during the 1996 World Cup and the sight of him leaving the ground in tears after rioting stopped play during the semifinal against Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens would remain etched in the memory of all those who witnessed it. Yet, he was dropped from the squad for the tour of England that followed.
Reports suggested that he was dropped on account of complaints to the effect that he was a disruptive factor in the dressing room.
The success of Sourav Ganguly, who came as his replacement, meant that he had to wait long to make a comeback.
But here also he suffered a stroke a bad luck as he was laid low by a injury and was dropped from the side. He continued to play domestic cricket for some more years with moderate success, but could never reestablish his place in the national squad.
Thus, these three enormously talented players who possessed the potential and skill to play for the country at the international level for many years could only manage a total of 26 Test matches among them.
A look into the reasons behind this would reveal that this had occurred solely because of their failure to handle the pressures brought about by success at the highest level.
While Siva took his success for granted and failed to put in the efforts and practice required to ensure survival at international level, the other two suffered from whims of selectors as well.
However, what all three had in common was a lack of gumption and will to do justice to their immense talent. Instead of showing resilience and fortitude by fighting back and regaining their place in the national side, based on the strength of their performances, they allowed the setbacks to overwhelm them and chose the easier option of wallowing in despondency.
Lack of family support
Another possible factor that affected these three cricketers could be the absence of strong support from the family.
When one talks about successful players such as Gavaskar, Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid etc one invariably finds mention about the role played by family in shaping their careers.
The contribution of parents and siblings, and that of wife later on, is always highlighted. Family plays a big role in the success of any top sportsperson; in the first place they keep him grounded and they also act as a protective mechanism when disappointments and misfortunes happen.
The strong presence of a family would ensure that even the biggest of celebrity remains a ordinary human being at home and has his feet firmly planted on the ground. Further, family helps to act as a shock absorber when life turns difficult and critics start pouring vitriol on the player for real or imaginary reasons.
The absence of protective embrace of family meant that these cricketers surrounded themselves with timeservers who were only keen to bask in reflected glory and kept singing praises about them.
These opportunists had no qualms about dropping them like hot potato when things turned sour and soon these players found themselves lonely.
These developments on the professional and personal fronts created bitterness which bogged them down even further and made them give up without offering a serious fight.
Indian cricket and budding cricketers should imbibe serious lessons from the fate of these meteors who lit up the cricketing horizon of the country, but faded away soon thereafter.
It would be a travesty of justice if such instances are allowed to recur; talent is too precious a commodity to be frittered away.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)