Q&A: Dhoni is the hero of my 'Democracy's XI' - Rajdeep Sardesai

Meritocracy in cricket made sure the cricketing lineage of Dilip Sardesai was not enough for his son, Rajdeep, to play cricket at the highest level for the country.

India's captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni plays a shot during their ICC Cricket World Cup final match against Sri Lanka in Mumbai April 2, 2011. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/Files

However, Rajdeep Sardesai, an Oxford Blue, more than makes up for it with a fine effort to chronicle the democratic journey of Indian cricket in his recently published book, “Democracy's XI”. He spoke to Reuters about his debut book on the sport and the cricketers who changed the course of Indian cricket.

Q: Tell us how and when did the idea of “Democracy’s XI” come and what kind of preparation went into writing this book?

A: It was always there within me somewhere that I wanted to write a book on cricket. Since Mihir Bose had already written a book on the history of Indian cricket, I wanted to write on cricket with the social and economic fabric of the country as a backdrop. I began writing this book in Jan, 2016 and it took me around 18 months to finish it. My day-job of broadcast journalism left me with little time, so I'd write for couple of hours in the morning as often as possible. I have interviewed almost 80 people for this book and that had its own challenges.

Q: You start your book with a touching tribute to your father, Dilip Sardesai. Do you think his innings of 212 in the very first test match at Kingston against the West Indies was a turning point of the 1971 series?

A: First, I must say why I included my father in the book. Apart from paying my tribute to him, I felt he represented that dream of a small-town boy (he came from Margao in Goa) who goes on to play for India.

I do think my father’s double century, which was the first double century by an Indian batsman overseas, changed the course of the series. But I’m not alone. Gavaskar once told me that in a practice match before the series my father told him the West Indian pace attack was quite mediocre and paled in comparison to the pace attack of Wesley Hall and Charlie Griffith, which he had faced in ‘61-‘62 series. Gavaskar recalled the remark gave a lot of confidence to rest of the batsmen to take on the West Indian bowling attack. Moreover, Ajit Wadekar, who was captaining the ‘71 team, told me, “Dilip’s innings in Kingston changed Indian cricket forever.”

Q: Would you agree that Tiger Pataudi, for the first time, brought ‘self-belief’ to Indian cricket?

A: Yes, an element of ‘self-belief’ and to some extent ‘self-respect’ – the belief that you are not playing cricket to just make the numbers but to actually play to win or at least compete hard. Pataudi brought meritocracy into Indian cricket.

Q: After winning test series in West Indies and England in ‘71, the Indian team was expected to grow into a world-beating side. Later, we did win a test series (2-0) in England (‘86) and drew a series (1-1) in Australia (‘80-‘81) but for the greater part of next two and half decades, India struggled to win a series overseas. Do you think Indian team went back to ‘saving-the-test-first’ mode or is it that India didn’t have enough match-winning bowlers?

A: I think it’s the latter. India didn’t have enough fast bowlers. At the end of the day, to win abroad, on those wickets in England, Australia, West Indies and South Africa, you needed fast bowlers to get you wickets. For a long time we had Kapil Dev through the 80s but he didn’t have the kind of support that the team needed to win. In the 90s, we had Srinath but he also didn’t have the consistent support. Anil Kumble had to play the role of a main bowler overseas and he was never going to be the same kind of a match winner that he was at home.

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The victories against West Indies and England in ’71 were achieved through spin, which was unusual but it was never going to be a lasting formula. The team needed at least two fast bowlers to win abroad.

Q: Your book talks about how Indian cricket grew alongside the progress India was making as a young nation post-independence. In that context, how and where would you place Gavaskar?

A: I feel Gavaskar is a critical figure in the evolution of Indian cricket. He gave Indian cricket the self-belief that they could play fast bowlers. I think till Gavaskar came, there was a belief that Indian batsmen were easily intimidated by fast bowling. Gavaskar changed that forever. In the 70s, the West Indies probably had the best fast bowling attack of all time. I think he taught Indian batsmen how to face fast bowling. And please remember, he was the only player who was a part of the victorious team in ‘71 and the team that won the World Cup in 1983. He also brought that hard-edged professionalism to Indian cricket. Earlier, the board dominated the lives of the players in a very feudal manner. He brought a change in relationship, making it more equal.

Q: In the intervening period between Gavaskar and Sachin, would you consider Mohammad Azharuddin as perhaps the best batsman? What made you include him in your XI?

A: I think overseas it was Dilip Vengsarkar but at home it was certainly Azhar. Vengsarkar, for a while in the 80s, was world’s best batsman. But Azhar was special because he brought a certain electricity to his fielding. He may have been controversial because of match-fixing allegations but the reason I have him in my book is that he should be recognised for being a premier batsman of his generation till Tendulkar took over, possibly the best all-round fielder India ever had and a durable captain who lead India for almost a decade (’90-’99).

Q: And then came Sachin Tendulkar. Do you think he introduced a new brand of fearless and aggressive cricket, which the likes of Rahul Dravid, V.V.S Laxman, Virender Sehwag and even Anil Kumble as a bowler, emulated?

A: I think he did. He had the technical skill of Gavaskar and strokeplay of Viv Richards. He was a modern-day prototype of a perfect batsman. I think Gavaskar was not the best batsman of his era. Viv Richards was probably the most dominating batsman and Greg Chappell was as proficient in a way, but Tendulkar was clearly seen as the greatest batsman of his era, ahead of Brian Lara. He was a global number one player and that inspired others to set the bar higher. The Dravids, the Laxmans, the Sehwags looked up to him and said if Tendulkar can do it, can we also.

Q: You mention about the 2001 Kolkata test against the Aussies. How do you think the famous victory impacted Indian cricket?

A: The Kolkata test will always stand out for the Laxman-Dravid partnership (376), Harbhajan’s bowling (7 for 123 & 6 for 73) and Ganguly’s captaincy. It was a critical match because it came within 12 months of match-fixing. The victory in the Kolkata test restored a sense of pride in Indian cricket. It gave Indian cricket a new lease of life. If ’71 gave us a sense of ‘self-belief’ for the first time, then ’01 restored it 30 years later.

Q: But how could you leave out Anil Kumble, perhaps the greatest match winner of Indian cricket, from your XI?

A: I wanted to include a cricketer who represented, to my mind, some of the finer traditions of the game. A player who embodied the notion of gentlemanliness, dignity, discipline, determination and of being low profile amidst all the glamour. And I think Dravid represented all those attributes. But so does Kumble. He is very unlucky to miss out the XI but I do refer to him repeatedly in Dravid’s chapter. In fact, I start the chapter with him and his 10-wicket performance in the ‘99 Delhi test match. I think both Kumble and Dravid represented dignity in sport. And therefore when Kumble was removed from the position of Indian coach, I thought that was just not cricket.

Q: Your book has a fascinating anecdote of how a famous race horse’s name was used as a code word. However, errors seem to have crept in. The name of the horse Mill Reef has been incorrectly mentioned as Mildred. Moreover, your father, Dilip, had used it as a code word for B.S. Chandrasekhar’s ‘faster delivery’ and not goggly as mentioned in your book.

A: I think that’s a mistake I made. I went with my late father’s version, which could have got distorted with time. I should have checked with Chandrasekhar but he was reluctant to talk. However, I should have checked the facts about the story.

Q: Your reverence for Dravid is quite apparent in the book. It was also nice to see you mention about his catching skills, which rarely gets written about. How would you describe him as a player?

A: I guess somewhere I’d love to be like Dravid in my life. I think he’s shown that it’s possible for the nice guys to win. He is a kind of person who genuinely strived to raise the bar when it comes to life beyond the boundary. Had he lived in any other age, he would have been celebrated much more. He always worked hard at his game. He was an ordinary fielder but worked hard to become perhaps the best slip fielder of his time, worked hard to become probably the best number three batsman of his era. And on so many occasions he’s taken catches off Kumble and Harbhajan, which is so much more difficult than taking catches off fast bowlers in a slip cordon.

Q: With his extraordinary batting and captaincy, Dhoni perhaps changed the way shorter versions of the game is played. What do you have to say about him?

A: In my view, Dhoni is in a league of his own. If there is a hero in my ‘Democracy’s XI’, it would be Dhoni. He came from a town, Ranchi, which has no cricketing history - a Railway class-3 employee who goes on to become a magical cricketer. He’s almost as much loved as Tendulkar. I think Sachin gave happiness to millions of Indian cricket fans and so did Dhoni. May be it’s the T20 World Cup in ‘07, may be it’s the World Cup in ‘11, there’s something about Dhoni, much like Sachin, that endears him to people.

Q: Just the way Sachin and Dhoni have inspired their teammates, do you find Virat Kohli inspiring his team members in terms of fitness and work ethics. Can he inspire his team to win a test series in South Africa, something that India has never done before?

A: Absolutely! It’s a baton relay. If you were to look at this book as a baton relay from Pataudi to Gavaskar to Tendulkar to Dhoni and to Kohli, then they all have passed on their passion for the sport. I think Kohli’s biggest contribution is fitness and the conviction that you have to be a 3-in-1 player. It’s not good enough to be only proficient at Test or ODI or T20, you have to be good at all the three formats. If we use Gavaskar as a symbol of ‘self-respect’, Tendulkar as a symbol of ‘stature’, Dhoni as a symbol of ‘power’, then I think we should use Kohli as a symbol of ‘freedom and domination’, which is a tribute to his fitness.

Yes, I think he can inspire his team to win the forthcoming test series in South Africa. Don’t forget, this time he has three fast bowlers. If they remain injury free then this team can win the series.