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Things were so different when it all began.
It was rare for middle-class families to encourage their kids in sports. I was fortunate, in that I made a name for myself with by bowling performance for Punjab Schools at the age of 14 and went on to represent North Zone Schools with distinction. This was in 1957, and my father was among those who noted newspaper reports of my exploits with pride.
I made my Ranji debut for Southern Punjab in 1958-59 and shifted to Delhi after joining the State Bank of India, five years later. I represented the capital for twelve years. It felt great to share a dressing room with the likes of Bishan Bedi, Vijay Luthra, Vijay Mehra, Ramesh Saxena, Manmohan Sood, the Amarnaths, Madanlal and Tiger Pataudi, who was my first captain. In fact, we shared a lot more than just a dressing room.
I remember one of my early games for Delhi in Patiala, where one large hall was placed at our disposal. ‘Charpois’ were laid out, and the entire team slept in one room, Tiger included. Those were days when you had to carry your own bedding on tours! However, the experience was anything by stressful, and the cricket made up for everything, I took 33 wickets for Delhi in the very first season.
A lot has been said about the ‘rivalry’ between Bishan Bedi and me, but there was no such thing. He was an outstanding bowler, who relied on flight and loop to deceive the batsmen. He was very good on ‘good’ wickets. I focused on ‘hitting the deck,’ and was a handful on turning tracks. He would bring me on first-change before he introduced himself into the attack.
The calibre of players notwithstanding, Delhi was an underachieving side until Bishan took over as captain. He made the boys believe in themselves and emaphsised the importance of fielding and fitness. There was many an occasion when he challenged me at the end of a lengthy bowling session in the nets, to bowl at one stump. That was good enough for me to forget my tiredness and engage in a bout with him. Bowling was my passion, and I would indulge in it for hours and hours in matches, and in the nets. It would be safe to say Bishan and I could land the ball on the desired line and at the ideal length, blindfolded. I remember Rusi Surti saying to me in Hyderabad, “Goel, one more ball, and your arm will come off!”
The Haryana Cricket Association came into being in 1970, after which the office-bearers started sending me feelers. Their contention was that I ought to represent my own state. I duly joined them in 1972-73 and made a memorable ‘debut,’ with figures of 8-58 against Railways. The next game against Punjab yielded me figures of 6-6. I would like to believe that I had a small part to play in the evolution of the Haryana team into a fighting unit. By the time 80s came along, we were qualifying for the knockout stage fairly regularly. The impact that Kapil Dev had on the team cannot be quantified. I had the honour of being his first Ranji captain.
Haryana could not win the Ranji Trophy during my time, but I had the privilege of selecting the side that won it in 1990-91. A year later, as many as four Haryana players – Kapil, Chetan Sharma, Ajay Jadeja and Vijay Yadav – were part of the Indian team that undertook a historic tour of South Africa. That was a great moment.
I kept going for the sheer love of the sport. The records were incidental. There were times when I felt like quitting, only for officials and teammates to ask for ‘one more year.’ I finally bowed out in 1985-86, at the end of a season in which I had bagged 39 wickets from six games.
While I will always regret not representing India in Tests, I am proud of the fact that I witnessed many a transformation in the Ranji Trophy, and in Indian cricket itself, during the course of my long career. Mumbai was the team to beat, and the professionalism and temperament of its players worth emulating. It is still a formidable side, but cricket has spread to every nook and corner of the country, and other teams have caught up. The BCCI deserves to be complimented in this regard. Facilities have improved and match-fees increased. There is even a pension scheme.
My love for cricket is undiminished, and I would like to continue serving the sport. It is important to remember the good times, and not think too much about what might have been.
The above article was first published in BCCI’s Ranji Trophy Platinum Jubilee volume, which was brought out in December 2009.