The year was 1996, the venue Rajkot and I was umpiring a Ranji Trophy fixture between Mumbai and Saurashtra. Sanjay Manjrekar, who we shall refer to as Manjrekar (Jr) was leading a near full-strength Mumbai in their second match of the season. Near full-strength as Sachin Tendulkar, then leading India, was away playing the tri-nation Titan Cup. Manjrekar (Jr) had a reputation for being a difficult person to handle on the cricket field and had even been sent off once for bad behavior by the umpires. So one was slightly wary at the prospect of handling him during the five days of cricket (those days the four-day Ranji match was preceded by the limited overs match between the two sides) that was to take place.
Mumbai won the limited overs match easily and there was no occasion for any interaction with the skipper. Saurashtra won the toss for the four-day match and batted on a easy paced wicket. Manjrekar (Jr) kept himself occupied by directing the fielders and encouraging the bowlers in English, spoken with a distinct Marathi accent. During the drinks break between lunch and tea one found him talking on the phone which was kept outside the pavilion (those were days before advent of mobile phones). He returned to the field after the break and continued to take part in the proceedings till tea. When the teams took the field after tea, Vinod Kambli informed me that he was leading the side as Manjrekar (Jr) has gone inside and they were having a substitute, which was allowed.
When we returned to the pavilion at the end of play, match referee informed us that Manjrekar (Jr) had been selected to the Indian squad for the final of the Titan Cup and had already left for Mumbai by the evening flight. The call that he received during drinks break was from a BCCI official informing him about his selection. To my question as to whether Manjrekar (Jr) informed him about this development, match referee replied in the negative and said sheepishly that it was Balwinder Sandhu, coach of Mumbai, who told him! The only issue before the umpires was about permitting a substitute, which we allowed, after getting the green signal from the Saurashtra skipper.
I remember this incident very clearly as I was surprised and also slightly taken aback by the air of hauteur and arrogance shown by Manjrekar (Jr). Before that I had umpired matches involving Azharuddin, Kiran More, Nayan Mongia, Vinod Kambli and many other players who had donned national colors and they had all been polite and courteous on the field. There would be differences of opinions about decisions, occasional high-pitched appeals etc but they always maintained a channel of communication with the umpires. But, here we had a captain who not only ignored umpires so completely that even when he had to leave the match midway through the game, he did not think it necessary to inform them. I must confess that this behavior rankled me for some time till, like everything else, this also was relegated to the back of one’s mind with passage of time.
Manjrekar (Jr) opened the innings in the Titan Cup final against South Africa and was dismissed cheaply. Shortly thereafter, he played his last Test against South Africa. He announced his retirement from the game in 1998 when he was only 32 years old. His decision to hang up his cricketing boots early surprised many, but no tears were shed, except for some observations about how his performances the latter half of his career did not live up to the early promise.
No other cricketer since Sunil Gavaskar had promised so much so early in his career as Manjrekar (Jr) did. He made his debut against the West Indies at Delhi in 1987 and was injured in the second innings when a bouncer from Winston Benjamin struck him on his eye. He returned to the squad for the tour of West Indies in 1989 and batted brilliantly against the most hostile fast bowlers in the world, with a century in Bridgetown Test being the highlight. This was followed by a tour of Pakistan during the same year where he scored a double hundred, again in difficult conditions. These performances with the bat, along with the fact that he could tackle the fastest of bowlers with composure, displaying sound technique and impregnable defense made critics hail him as the successor to Gavaskar. The average cricket fan in the country looked forward to Manjrekar (Jr) to carry the Indian batting on his shoulders during the 1990s.
Obsessed with technique
It would be an understatement to say that Manjrekar (Jr) failed to live up to this promise. During the tours that followed, to Australia in 1991-92 and Zimbabwe and South Africa in 1992, he could score only one hundred, against the Zimbabweans at Harare. He would bat for a long time, showcase his technique and defense and then get out after scoring only 20 or 30. He seemed to be more preoccupied with his technique rather than about the basic business of scoring runs and worse, would allow the bowlers to dominate him by being ultra defensive and not capitalizing on even loose deliveries or even taking singles and rotating the strike.
Manjrekar (Jr) was dropped from the squad when the home series against England started in 1992-93. This was a trifle unfair as he had played all the matches away from home after his debut Test. The success of Vinod Kambli at the crucial No. 3 spot in the batting order, which he had held earlier, ensured that when he returned to the squad in 1994, he could bat only down the order. He hit two half-centuries in the first Test of the series against the West Indies in 1994-95 but could not come up with any other significant innings subsequently. He was part of the Indian team for the 1996 World Cup as well as the squad that toured England later that year.
The arrival of Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly in the national side and their quick success indicated to him that Indian middle order was getting crowded. Hence, he decided to try his luck as an opening batsman from 1996 season onwards, but here also he could not make his mark. He was dropped from the national squad after the second Test against South Africa in 1996 and could not make a comeback after that.
After retirement, Manjrekar (Jr) made a smooth transition to the visual media and has now established himself as one of the more accomplished commentators of the game. He worked hard on his accent and delivery and presently speaks fluent English, not betraying any signs of his mother tongue. He is a deep thinker of the game and unafraid to voice his thoughts, even if they tend to be against the prevailing trend; neither does he indulge in hyperbole nor attempt to charm an audience by catchy phrases. He crisp and cogent statements from the commentary box has seen him rise to the level of holding his own even in the presence of such giants as Ian Chappell and Nasser Hussain.
When I read in the newspapers that Manjrekar had published his autobiography titled “Imperfect”, I was in two minds whether to buy it. As stated earlier, he had not done justice to his talent as a cricketer and, as a person, I was put off by his behavior. Though there was a distinct disinclination on my part to make purchase, I could not control the urge to read what he had to say and bought the book.
I must confess that I have not come across another cricketing autobiography that has been written so honestly. Manjrekar (Jr) admits the mistakes that he had made in his career, both as a batsman and a person, in a very candid manner, which is both amazing as well as refreshing. He has recounted the incident where he was sent off the field by umpires and another instance when he blew his top at a senior player in the Mumbai Ranji Trophy side. He has narrated the disappointment he felt after being left out of the national side and the frustrations involved in attempting to make a comeback. He provides a sneak peep into the glamorous world in which international cricketers live and how he enjoyed that life and missed it when he was dropped from the squad. He has also let one into some of the events that took place in the dressing room during his times, which is normally treated as the holiest of holy by all cricketers.
Manjrekar (Jr) has also analyzed what went wrong with his batting and how he lost out by striving too hard to attain perfection. Even after scoring a double century he would try to correct some perceived flaw in his technique and spend hours practicing, with the result that he lost the basic intuition and instinct, which lies at the core of each player. He has compared his efforts to plugging a leaking boat; when a hole is plugged at one point another one emerges and in a similar manner, he would spend all his time correcting one mistake while paving the way for a new one. The words in an article by Raju Bharathan, the veteran cricket writer, “Manjrekar’s game is going from one weakness to another” summed up his travails.
The book also throws light on the functioning of Mumbai school of cricket where the torch is passed from one generation of players to another, with seniors constantly encouraging and motivating the newcomers. Manjrekar (Jr) has written about the focus on developing mental strength and fearlessness while facing fast bowlers to the extent that there was lesser attention to physical fitness, which proved to be a detriment in his career. He has also dwelt upon the rivalry between Mumbai and Delhi sides, and by extension between West Zone and North Zone, and the impact this used to have on the cohesiveness of the national squad.
Many of the new generation of cricket lovers would not know that Vijay Manjrekar, father of Manjrekar (Jr), was a former Test cricketer who was considered by many to be the bravest batsman India has produced. After Nari Contractor was felled by Charlie Griffith at Bridgetown, it was Vijay Manjrekar who replaced him at the wicket, only to be hit on his nose by another bouncer. He retired to the pavilion but came back to score an century in the second innings, which is rated as the most courageous innings played by an Indian batsman. But Manjrekar (Jr)’s book brings out a facet of his father’s personality which is not known to many. After his playing days were over, Vijay Manjrekar was a frustrated individual who missed the adulation and applause of the crowd and took out his resentment on his family. Manjrekar (Jr) has written how terrified he and his siblings were of his father and his temper and road rage, which often led to physical violence. He has written about the financial difficulties the family went through, that prompted his mother to start working again. All these incidents left their imprint on the personality of Manjrekar (Jr) and contributed in some manner to his failures on the playing field.
Manjrekar (Jr)’s book should be read by all aspiring cricketers as it is an honest account of one of the most talented and intelligent cricketers that India has produced. His truncated career as a player brings home the reality that talent even when combined with cricketing acumen and hard work would take a player only to the door steps of success. His life story also drives home the cardinal principle that developing the proper attitude of staying rooted to Mother Earth and possessing a balanced head on one’s shoulders are absolute prerequisites for achieving greatness. It was his misfortune that Manjrekar (Jr) learnt these lessons of life the hard way. However, he deserves applause for admitting his mistakes and showing the courage for penning them down so that upcoming cricketers are better equipped to tackle the pitfalls and challenges that may come their way.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)