He sported the same demeanour as he used to years ago walking into the stadium ring. He walked just as tall, smart and confident. Though the cricketing pads, gloves and bat were no where near him, his nonchalance in a dark blue jacket with a pocket square lent a mellowed grace to his personality. Dilip Vengsarkar the cricketing legend of the yesteryears was the man of the moment when Kasturi Ray caught up with him for a chat.
Excerpts from the exclusive interview:
Colonel, the name given to you has always intrigued us. Why Colonel?
Oh My God! That must be long time back. I think it was when I played for Bombay for the first time in 1975 and it was Irani Cup match. I was 18-19 years old and I scored a 100 in that match and hit seven sixes.
Lala Amaranth was doing commentary that time and he was an expert on All India Radio. Someone asked him about me how good these boys are (pointing at Vengsarkar). He said he bats like Colonel CK Naidu. So the press picked it up and that is why this Colonel is being addressed to my name. It continues even today but only by the press to be honest. Nobody calls me Colonel anyway. I have never been in the Army.
You have visited Odisha many times earlier as a cricketer. This time as an icon to give away the prestigious Ekalabya award, the only coveted award organised by IMFA group for Sportspersons in the State. How do you feel being a part of such an occasion. How important is it for sportspersons to be recognised and appreciated by their respective governments?
It’s a great honour. I think it’s a fantastic award been given to the best sportspersons of the State. It’s a great thing and IMFA is doing a great job. My compliments to all the committee members, IMFA president and everybody connected with this award function. And congratulations to all those sportspersons who have achieved so much for the State and the country as well.
Its very very important for sportspersons to be recognised because you work hard, you do well in India as well as abroad. So recognition has to be there. Then you get motivated also and feel happy that everybody is praising you and receiving such awards really help you do better and better all the time.
Coming to cricket, what’s your take on the changing format of the game? Is test cricket losing is importance due to shorter formats of the game?
Unfortunately, yes. Actually I still believe test cricket is ultimate format. These matches test your skills and mental toughness as well. On the other hand, T20 format is very exciting format. It is here to stay, popular all over the world. There are some players, unfortunately, who want to play only in T20s, which is not good for the game at all.
But all formats are good. All the players should play all the formats. They have to keep in touch with the game & they must play everything.
If test cricket goes out of scene, I think it will kill the game basically, that’s what I feel. For all formats to survive, it’s important for test cricket to survive.
How do you see the present Indian team in context of the World Cup 2019?
Indian team is number one in the world at the moment. They are playing so well. They beat everybody, did very well in England and doing well against the West Indies. Windies is a good team and won the championship of T20I matches. I am sure there will be good matches. All the matches were close, unlike test match cricket where India dominated throughout.
Do selectors play an important role in deciding the future of the team on the whole?
About 10-12 players just pick themselves. It’s a matter of 2-3 players when I think the expertise of selectors come to the fore. And the selectors have to play an important role. If they see exceptional talent at a very young age, they must have the courage of conviction to keep the guy at that time. You have to select the player at the right time. The time has to be very precise and selectors play a very important role in this.
Kohli was your selection..
I made Dhoni also the captain in 2007. And we selected Virat Kohli in 2008 or 2009. Not only me. I was the Chairman of the selection committee; the entire committee was magnanimous on picking both of them, one as a captain and one as a player.
Kohli was U-19 player then. I had gone to Australia to watch the ‘Emerging Players’ tournament where India was participating. He scored a hundred against New Zealand. He played very well & I was convinced that here’s a boy who should be groomed. I came home and told selectors and MS Dhoni who was the captain then, that this boy is very good and we should pick him.
Dhoni has been dropped from Australia T20Is and Yuvraj doesn’t get a chance. Is this a wise decision?
I guess Dhoni wants to play only one format of the game, because next big tournament is World Cup, that’s what I feel. And you have to look ahead as well. Rishabh Pant is a young guy, very talented & he did very well in the IPL as well. I think India is looking for a T20 guy who would play for India for a long time. And Pant fills that place. Dhoni, of course, has been an outstanding cricketer and his service to Indian cricket has been huge. I would say I think he wants to play World Cup now.
How about Prithvi Shaw?
Shaw is an exceptional talent & comes from a very humble background. He came to Mumbai and he would travel in train two hours every day, until somebody spotted and kept with him, so that he could attend coaching. He did very well for India U-19, India ‘A’ team and for India as well because he scored a 100 in his first game. Even he played well in Duleep Trophy.
I hope he gets a chance to play in the first eleven. He is ready for international cricket and is a delight to watch.
Yo-Yo test has been the bone of contention for some time now? Your take on whether fitness should be the only major criteria for selection of players.
I think fitness also is important now, because during our time, the game was much slower, 5-day game basically. But now in one day matches and T20s, you have to be on your toes. All the time you have to be extremely fit.
Yo-Yo test might be important, am not saying that, but your skills are also very important at the same time. Ambati Rayudu had performed well but failed in Yo-Yo test, so he missed out on the recent England tour. It was somebody who had not performed got to play in England, it’s very unfair indeed.
On whether the fitness test should continue..
As a test it’s important. But that should not be the only criteria because how match-fit a player is, his form, skills are important at the highest level so that’s also one has to look into.
India captain Virat Kohli had requested the BCCI to allow wives and girlfriends to accompany the players throughout their overseas tours. Justified?
When I was playing, they used to allow spouses to come during midway of the tournament. That’s when actually you don’t feel homesick. Once the wives come on the tour for a while, it definitely helps. Then you are not talking about the game, about the matches.
But it doesn’t distract you. It’s for a particular period of time. I think BCCI has done a good thing that they have allowed them, I think for a couple of weeks during middle of the tour.
If you are asked to pick the best 11 for World Cup 2019, who all would figure in it?
I think the guys who are playing now are doing well. I think I would pick Prithvi Shaw to open the innings. Dhawan has been opening the innings but he has not been in good form and he failed in England also. The next World Cup also is in England. I would also like KL Rahul to open the innings. They are fine cricketers. And lot of players who have been playing now against the WI, they are very good players.
How do you feel the state teams have been faring as far as selecting the right talent? In context of Odisha, not many are making to the national team, what do you think ails them?
The thing is that every association must organise U-12, U-14, U-16, U-19, U-25 tournaments. If they play more matches, they will gain more experience and exposure. I don’t know how many grounds you have in Odisha and how many tournaments you organise here. But In Mumbai, we organise 125 official tournaments.
Coaching also is very vital. The coach has to guide them properly. They are the level 2 or level 3 coaches who have not played cricket. So the thing is that if you have knowledge about coaching, it’s important to know when to implement that knowledge. Every bowler has a different style and different technique, it’s important how to get a batsman out and the coach has to tell that. Coaches should help them improvise.
What does the Elf Academy that you have founded do? Do you coach aspiring cricketers there?
Those are sponsored academies. We select the boys and many have come from a humble background and we pick them only on merit. All those who play for Mumbai in U-14, U-16, U-19 or first class, 60-70% boys come from my academy. It’s free of cost. We don’t charge money from them. All the sponsors look after the expenses of the academy, so that differently helps them.
There is no such hindrance for players from other states to come and play in the academy but then the accommodation is a huge thing in Mumbai, the hotels are very expensive.
Personally, I dedicate a couple of hours every day in the academy & train them on every aspect of the game.
How do you find Odisha, have you been around the heritage destinations?
I have been to Puri. When I landed, I felt this place is so clean and beautiful, it reminds me of Kerala basically and there are 2-3 places like this in India. I am really impressed by Odisha, with the greenery and cleanliness of this place. Really really impressed!