“Enakena prakarena prassidham purusho bhavath
Ghatam bhitwa patam chitwa maataram praharannapi”
(Become famous by whatever route - hook or crook; whether it is by breaking pots or tearing off one’s clothes or even by beating one’s own mother)
This famous verse came to mind when one read about the statements made by Vinod Kambli criticising the commentators for being effusive in praising Sanju Samson during the ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL) 2018. Sanju, who is in brilliant form with the bat, has won accolades from the critics for his performances for Rajasthan Royals. Hence one was taken by surprise when Kambli chose to air in public, through Twitter, his angst at the youngster from Kerala winning compliments from experts in the game. When the expected backlash from followers of game from Sanju's home state came in the form of counter tweets, Kambli went one step further and chose to challenge Sanju to either hit a century or retain the 'Orange Cap' by remaining the top scorer till the end of this edition of IPL.
The first thought that crossed the mind when one read Kambli’s statements was that he was trying to show his annoyance at a player from a cricketing backwater hogging the limelight. However, his subsequent reaction and later comment showed that this was not an off the cuff remark in an unguarded moment. His challenge to Sanju, who had wisely kept himself away from responding to the tweets, to prove himself sent a very wrong message in that he tried to place individual performance above the interests of the team. Scoring runs and winning awards for oneself would amount to nothing if, in the process, one causes harm to the cause of the side. Kambli’s poser to Sanju was a very inopportune one, unbecoming of his status as former Test player. It was in this context that one got the feeling that Kambli was attempting to get some cheap publicity.
Criticising and challenging players and opposing teams in public is not the norm in our country though one finds occasional instances of this kind when one goes through the history of the game. The incidents are worth recounting as they indicate the effect that harsh words spoken in public can have on the individual players as well as on teams.
Gavaskar's challenge to Kapil
Sunil Gavaskar was leading India during the 1979-80 cricket season, which featured 13 Tests - six each against Australia and Pakistan - and one against England. Kapil Dev, who had made his debut during the previous season and was evolving into a genuine all-rounder, was the brightest star in the Indian cricketing firmament during that period. Though he had a bad series with the bat during the tour of England in 1979, Kapil regained his form when the Test series started against Australia. But when he failed in one of the Test matches, losing his wicket by playing a bad shot, his captain was not amused. “Kapil would never score a half-century in Test cricket the way he is batting,” announced Gavaskar to the world.
This statement by the Indian skipper stunned the cricket lovers in the country. Kapil himself confessed later that he was hurt to read the comments made by Gavaskar. He willed himself to retaliate with his performances on the field. His batting become more disciplined and he took care not to throw his wicket away. He top scored for India in the the third Test in Mumbai against Pakistan that the hosts won and he was awarded the man of the match award solely based on his exploits with the bat. When India completed their series triumph against the visitors at Chennai, Kapil again won the man of the match award, this time for his haul of 11 wickets as well as his knock of 84. At the conclusion of this match, Gavaskar publicly acknowledged Kapil’s role in fashioning the victory and confessed that his earlier statement was made with the intention of challenging the all-rounder to show greater responsibility and contribute more as a batsman.
India had a miserable home series against England in 1984-85 when they lost the Test series 1-2. At the end of this series, the squad to play in the World Championship of Cricket (WCC) in Australia was announced. One of the newcomers in the national side was Sadanand Viswanath, a wicketkeeper hailing from Karnataka, replacing Syed Kirmani who had done the duty behind the stumps during the matches against England. After the team was announced, Doordarshan, then the only television channel available in the country, ran a programme where M A K Pataudi, former Indian captain, analysed the performance of the side during the series against England and the team selected for the tournament in Australia. While commenting on the squad for the matches Down Under, Pataudi said, “Kirmani was the wicketkeeper for the whole series against England which means that selectors believe he is the best in the country. The team has sufficient number of opening batsmen which indicates that Viswanath has not been selected in that capacity. So I do not understand the logic behind dropping of Kirmani.”
Viswanath performed so brilliantly in Australia that no less a person than Gavaskar stated that his presence behind the stumps was one of the key factors behind India’s success in the championship. It was quite unfortunate that he was not able to maintain his high standards subsequently and lost his place in the squad soon. Subsequently he became an umpire accredited with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), when I had an opportunity to interact with him as a colleague. When I asked him about Pataudi’s observations he told me that he had watched the programme and felt bad when he heard the comments about his selection. He said that Pataudi’s words had motivated him to prove that he deserved his place in the side and this was one of the reasons behind his superb show in Australia. “I mentioned this to Pataudi when I had an opportunity to meet him later”; he just smiled and said that it was nice that something good came out of his words, said Viswanath.
When Greig's comment backfired
If these are two instances when public criticism acted in a positive manner to spur a colleague or youngster to reach greater heights, the next one that comes to mind involves an episode where the words of captain of a Test side had the opposite effect of rallying the opponents to achieve excellence. In the summer of 1976, West Indies under Clive Lloyd toured England. Both the sides had seen disastrous tours of Australia, with England losing 1-4 in 1974-75 while West Indies were thrashed 1-5 in 1975-76. However, in the interregnum, England under Tony Greig had managed to hold Australia to a draw in four Tests in 1975, after losing the first match. Hence, critics and followers of the game tended to bracket the two sides together. While England had the advantage of playing in home conditions, West Indies had unearthed new fast bowlers, as Michael Holding and Wayne Daniel, to support their spearhead Andy Roberts.
In an interview conducted by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on the eve of the first Test of the series, Greig made this astonishing statement “These guys, if they get on top are magnificent cricketers. But when they are down, they grovel and I intend to make them grovel”. The word “grovel” carries with it bad memories of the inhuman treatment meted out to the black slaves in USA by the whites. Hence it appeared to be an extremely undiplomatic comment, to put it mildly, coming from the England skipper, who also happened to be born and raised in South Africa, a country that discriminated against the blacks during the relevant period. Though Greig issued an apology once he realised the faux pas, enough damage had already been done by that time.
The words of Greig raised the hackles of West Indian players, which was reflected in their performance on the field where they played with an aggression and competitiveness that was hitherto not associated with them. As Viv Richards noted subsequently, “this was the greatest motivating speech the England captain could have given to the West Indies team”. Caribbean speedsters invariably found that extra ounce of energy to bowl with added venom and hostility whenever Greig came out to bat. The end result was a thrashing of the hosts who lost the five-Test series 0-3. Greig’s reputation as a fearless batsman and motivational leader also took a beating. He could score only 243 runs in nine innings and except during the Test at Headingly, Leeds, where he struck form to hit a century, he could never get going against the firepower of West Indian quicks. He was also subjected to intense barracking from the West Indians in the crowd throughout the season. Finally, in the last Test at the Oval, he went and stood in front of the stand housing West Indian expatriates and sunk to his knees, seeking to make peace with them.
These three instances demonstrate the power of public criticism in provoking players to strive and attain a level of excellence that they themselves might not have believed they could achieve. Kambli is not in the same class nor does he possess the stature of Gavaskar, Pataudi or Greig and his words were not intended to motivate an youngster but to run down his achievements. However, one hopes earnestly that these words would motivate Sanju to strive harder and earn a place in the national squad. If that happens, cricket lovers would still forgive Kambli, as however distasteful his comments are, they could still help a talented and hardworking youngster to realise his full potential.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)