Sunday, October 6, 2019

Imperfect - Sanjay Manjrekar

For someone obsessed with perfection to write a book titled 'Imperfect' is itself a great story. In his acceptance of his imperfections Sanjay Manjrekar elevates the book from the rest of the books in its category - cricketer biographies and autobiographies. Even as you read the book, and sometimes as he commentates, one sees him struggle with his analytical mind, his desire to find that one thing that sometimes to the viewers is not there or is too inconsequential to bother so much about (he even writes about this when he refers to Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akthar in the commentary box who ask him to chill a bit). But that's Sanjay Manjrekar for you, imperfect, and therefore, hugely relatable.

The book started off brilliantly and I could hardly wait to read more, page after each page, and it pretty much sustained the same energy throughout. His writing is as honest as his bat was when he played. There is also the same precision in the way he uses his words, as he goes about organising his book - much like his batting again. And I enjoyed reading the book as much as I enjoyed watching him bat. I could not put it down as so many familiar names and situations and tropes flashed by. Sanjay was my vintage.

The book starts with this palpable feeling of fear of his father, which is wonderfully described. Sanjay is the son of a successful test cricketer and a brilliant batsman, Vijay Manjrekar, who was also an angry man who would frequently get into bouts of road rage. But at the same time, there was this gentle side to him. Sanjay says that his father never interfered with his cricket and was chiefly responsible for instilling the belief that Sanjay was destined to be a test cricketer (whereas with Rajdeep Sardesai, a member of the same Bombay University team that won the Rohinton Baria Inter-varsity tournament with Sanjay in 1986, his father Dilip Sardesai was the one who asked him to pursue other careers). Thanks to that belief, Sanjay never thought that his life was destined for anything else but cricket. There is a scene where his mother once tells Sanjay who was in school then, that he could choose another option, and he gets so angry that he walks all the way home from Wankhede stadium. I can picture that! He writes tenderly about his mother.

Exposed to great cricketing minds visiting his home often, seeing older, respected cricketers often, Sanjay imbibed the nuances of the game early. Gavaskar, Vishwanath and even Rohan Kanhai he says. He fell in love with those pleated creams that were every cricketer's dream. (Sanjay also fell in love with the way the flap of the pads fell, an interesting confession.) Vijay Manjrekar liked what he saw of Sanjay's game and even told him that he would turn out to be a better batsman than he had been. VM once went to get a friend of his from Dadar to watch Sanjay bat - a journey that takes an hour and a half - believing Sanjay would be at the wicket when he came back - and guess what, he was. Beautiful story. What stayed with me of Vijay Manjrekar was this - he was passionate, romantic, vulnerable - and a great father in the way he let them be. That Errapali Prasanna found him the best batsman he had bowled to and that Mansur Ali Khan Patuadi said he was the best Indian batsman he had seen was another thing.

The days at Krishna - Kamal at Dadar are very evocative and so are the words he uses to describe his days at Moonreach, the place where they had shifted after his father's benefit match. I would so love to see these places. Sanjay Pednekar is a person one will not forget after reading the book, the generous witty jeweller friend who paid everybody's bills as if it was his responsibility and who died at an age of 36 to bone cancer. Wonderful tribute to his friend. Two other cricketers from Moonreach, Raju Kulkarni and Subhash Kshirsagar also feature. Raju played for India and Subhash for Bombay as an opener. I loved the way he describes the contribution of umpire Vijay Gaundalkar who told Sanjay to take his picture to Times of India after he scored a century. Sunil Gavaskar coming to Cross Maidan and sending word for him while he was playing a match - he had bought him a Gray-Nicolls bat from England. That Gavaskar was great enough to come personally and hand over the bat was one thing but Sanjay also reminds us of another detail - about how Gavaskar;s handwritten replies to his fan mail. (I have a handwritten letter from him when I sent him a copy of 'The Men within' in 2007). Wonderful stuff.

Sanjay was making waves, carving his own name through school and college cricket, working at his game, when two incident happened. The first was the video recording of his batting that Salil Datar's father made which upset Sanjay - he did not like what he saw. Second, that he was bowled by English fast bowler Mike Hendrick, who was over the hill and bowling off  a short run up, in an exhibition game at Muscat. Sanjay remembers crying for a long time after that dismissal. Egged on by his shortcomings, when he believed he was already ready, he went and practiced hard, the first to be at the Poddar College nets at 7 am.

The work paid off and Sanjay roared into national headlines when as captain of the Bombay University he scored six centuries consecutively and was a huge factor in Bombay University winning the Rohinton Baria title, in 1985 perhaps. Everyone in India heard of this prodigy then and soon after he played first class cricket. Sanjay gives credit to the Bombay brand of cricket for his growth. The khadoos attitude, which is primarily the attitude to grind opponents down in wars of attrition, look ugly even, but not give up and get the job done, win. How players, especially seniors would caution juniors when they were relaxing by saying khadoos ho ja. It was about Bombay cricket, not about the individual. How everyone would always push batsmen to score, 50 then 100 and then 150. Batsmen who threw their wicket away were treated like outcasts. Generous seniors, the entire eco system loved cricket, stood for good cricket. Coaches like Subhash Bandiwadekar, Bhor, VS Patil and his stint with Dilip Sardesai as part of a Mumbai camp when Sardesai would insist on their playing every ball with conviction, give no chance to the bowler. Sanjay talks about a chat he had with Milind Rege who once advised him to concentrate more and Sanjay asked him what it meant. Milind explained that it was to play every ball as if your life depended on it, and play each ball like that. Not give your wicket away. He talks of the talks he had with Sandeep Patil who would pick him up and drive him to the Ranji nets and back and how valuable those talks were.

From then on it is all about how he went on to fulfill his destiny and played for India and then as he says - self-destructed. Sanjay won the man of the match award on debut on a spinning wicket against Haryana, quickly progressed to Test cricket and got his maiden hundred against the West Indies, then some wonderful knocks against a full fledged Pakistan attack with Waquar, Akram and Imran. (You read the book 'The Big Leap' and you understand what Hendricks means when he says Upper Limit Problem.) Whatever upset Sanjay's equilibrium, made him self-destruct is not known, perhaps things were not as he thought they would be, but he did and never found his way back. Though he wonders if he would have benefited from a personal coach then, we also realise that it is not the availability of advise but our ability to receive that stops it.

Some fine cricketing insights come through, and I am sure there are so many more. One that he simply watched the ball closely and played it late, without committing early, and this technique was good enough to handle swing and reverse swing without knowing what they were really. The idea of looking at the shiny side etc did not bother him and he did very well without. Watch the ball closely is what Bradman also said. Another thing was Wadekar's coaching - everyone would take 100 catches a day, would bowl to three batsmen (Kapil included). Once Chandu Borde advised him that a knock before the inning always helps - he had just got out without caring to knock before this inning. Also how Borde's advise to open his stance helped get runs on the leg side and opened up options. Or Chappell talking about him pulling Merv Hughes - something Gavaskar also advised. Gavaskar showing Sanjay how to play the West Indian fast bowlers, sitting in a chair, elbow up, when Sanjay asked him if it was true that one cannot sight the ball when the West Indians bowl. Of course you can see it! Stuff that every cricketer can learn from. (I remember the two times I played international bowlers - Raju Kulkarni and Eddo Brands - I felt I might not see the ball but I could and even clipped both to the boundary in classic Hyderabadi fashion! The third, Robin Singh, hit me on the box.)

Sanjay does not hold back the ugly parts which is what makes the effort beautiful. How he tried to make Azhar feel small, how he was arrogant in his first stint as captain, how he had a showdown with umpire Patil in a Ranji game and was sent off. how he confronted Ramakant Desai when he was dropped leaving the great man in tears later, how he was abrasive to a journalist in Sharjah, how he hid when his father wanted to come to his nets and appeared only after the evening passed. Sanjay lays bare the frailties, his shortcomings brutally, almost as if he wants to inflict pain on himself, and by doing so absolves himself of the burden of carrying them. It is this vulnerability that enables him to connect to the reader as someone human and genuine. Not surprisingly the book has been received with great warmth by the book reviewers - we are not used to seeing honesty in celebrity bios.

Sanjay is equally gracious and honest when he talks about Kiran Mokashi's helpful nature, Shastri telling him to bat for the team, Azhar's giving nature, his friendship with one of the sweetest people he knew, Venkatapathi Raju, with Manoj Prabhakar and Ajay Jadeja. The gloom of the semi-final loss to Sri Lanka in the 1996 World Cup after beating Pakistan in a tense match in Bangalore.

His playing or not playing to his potential does not really matter to us, not to me. I have seen him bat and absolutely loved its precision. To me the joy he gave was enough - whether it was over a 100 tests or more does not matter. I cannot say Tendulkar is greater or Azhar is greater or Laxman is greater because they have all given the same pleasure in different ways in different times. But to me that kind of perfection or precision, only Sanjay Manjrekar offered, not Dravid, not Gavaskar not anyone else. Rajan Bala also was a huge fan of Sanjay and I remember how highly he would speak of him and his batting.I do not see him as a failure, or anyone else as a greater success.

My first run in with Sanjay was during a Buchi Babu match in 1985 when he just came after his six consecutive centuries, and I remember reading about it. He played well for Nirlons but got out edging Rajesh Yadav to slip. I found it fascinating to see how late he left my deliveries so late. My second interaction with him was that same year, 1984. when we went to play the Arlem Torophy at Goa and he came once again with the Nirlon side. One evening on a cruise dinner on the boat he sang on the mike and he sang wonderfully well. A Pankaj Udhas number of I am not mistaken but he was comfortable as the performer. The third time I met him was when he launched my book 'The Men Within' in Mumbai in 2007. He was kind enough to give me time, come on his own, though he did not know me and give me a little push with my first book. I will always remember that act of kindness from Sanjay. I bother him once in a while with some request or the other. A few years later, 2011, or so, I was once again with him in CCI Mumbai where he was Chief Guest and I was a special guest to speak at the launch of Rajan Bala's last book, an event that Rajan Bala missed because he had passed away a couple of months before. I send Sanjay copies of my books when they get published.

There are so many things I relate to in this book and people.  Kshirsagar, to whom I bowled twice, while playing against Nirlon in Arlem and in Buchi Babu. Raju Kulkani, whom I faced for one ball, and hit him for a four on the last ball of the 50 over game - a flick to midwicket, just after Raju returned from Australia. Ditto with Shastri who I bowled one ball to - I got Milind Gunjal out lbw against Tatas and Shastri walked in and did his chapathi shot first ball and promptly got bowled to Venkatapathi Raju next over. Rajdeep Sardesai whose book event I moderated at the Hyderabad Literary Festival a couple of years ago and with whom I share stats books and cricket wise (four books and seven first class matches). Salil Datar was from the IDBI and in some way related to my wife Shobha. Venkatapathi Raju and I grew up through the junior cricket and up to Ranji trophy (and who released my first book 'The Men Within' in Hyderabad. Chandu Borde, who released 'The Men Within' in Pune in 2007. Azhar was my senior at school (he released the book 'The Renaissance Man - Doc MV Sridhar)' this year. Of course I know Parag Paigankar and Jaideep Pal, both of whom played with Sanjay at Poddar, perhaps at Dadar Union too, and were my team mates at IDBI - Jai was my skipper. Both helped me when Sanjay was the chief guest at the book release function.

Sanjay significantly says that he never touched the bat after he retired at the age of 32. I feel only those who really loved the game so much do that - you hate it as much as you love it. He feels he self-destructed because cricket to him meant a lot. It was all he lived for. One can understand the charge behind that. Hopefully he has let go of the intensity that drove him (the negative aspect of it), and enjoys his singing now and his commentating and his writing.

Wonderful effort Sanjay. Now to get it autographed by him next time I meet. Buy and read to get an insight into what goes into the minds of those who aspire for excellence, who play at the highest level.


jaideep said...

Very well written and you never forget to mention your friends who may have just played a part in your journey everytime you wtite your gems makes one feel extremely proud of you and your humbleness.

jaideep said...

Superb analysis of a great cricketer and still better human being.