Couch Talk 108 (Play)
Guest: Ajit Agarkar, Former India Cricketer
Host: Subash Jayaraman
Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. The guest today is former India cricketer Ajit Agarkar. Ajit talks about his career, the expectations on him to be the next Kapil Dev, the Adelaide Test of 2003, his controversial withdrawal from Mumbai’s Ranji team in 2011, amongst other things. Welcome to the show, Ajit!
Ajit Agarkar (AA)– Thank You! Thank You..
SJ– It is my pleasure, and advanced birthday wishes to you.
AA– Thanks. (laughs)
SJ– You didn’t have the prototypical body type to be a fast bowler, and yet you were one. Where did the pace come from?
AA – As you said, I didn’t have a body built for a fast bowler, so I had to work pretty hard off the field to maintain my fitness. The speed generally came from a fast arm action. But it was also a combination of all the fitness work that I did off the field. I had to push myself that much harder to have the fitness to last while bowling the way I did. It took a lot out of my body.
SJ– You were actually a batsman growing up and you were an accidental bowler. Correct?
AA – Yes. Sort of. I mean, I always loved bowling, but I never bowled with any sort of pace when I was growing up. I swung the ball, but getting older, I suddenly realized I could bowl some bumpers. Once you realize you can bowl bouncers, it is always exciting. And then it just happened, as you said, accidental, but a good accident.
SJ– I remember listening to an interview of yours from many years ago about how one of the opening bowlers wasn’t there for your club and you had to bowl, and then you bowled in another match against Sachin Tendulkar and he told you to stick with bowling. Was that the origin of Ajit Agarkar the bowler?
AA – Actually me and Sachin were playing for the same team, CCI, in a Kanga League game. I think he had had a bit of a break and maybe there was a series approaching and he had come to play that game. He saw me bowl, and he said “I know you bat more than you bowl, but I think you should start focusing on your bowling a bit more as well.” I had a word with a captain as well. Until that time I never got bowling with the new ball and was always more of a third or fourth seamer. After that the captain started giving me more bowling, and it worked out well. I picked up a few wickets early that season and got my debut for Mumbai in the next season.
SJ– I saw this interview of yours with Karan Thapar from 2000, in which you said that you were a confidence bowler. What gave you confidence and what were the things that eroded your confidence as a bowler?
AA – It’s a difficult question to answer. It’s just a feeling when I bowled. I’ve not had any formal training where bowling is concerned. I’ve just learned bowling more than anything else. Ok, you get advice from various players or various coaches as you go along, but I’ve never had a bowling coach as such. My coach Ramakant Achrekar was there. I was growing up as a batsman and he taught me batting but never really bowling. I suppose that’s where the confidence came from. I was always pretty sure about what I could do with my bowling. It wasn’t too complicated. Luckily I had some speed, I had an outswinger. So it was just a feeling. I was always happier with the ball in my hand. It’s difficult to explain. Of course, you go through patches where you are having a tough time and the ball isn’t coming out right. But as I said, because I wasn’t cluttered with my bowling, I hadn’t learnt a million different things growing up, I had learnt what I had learnt through sheer bowling. In that sense it helped knowing my game very well.
SJ– There is a question from a listener Kartikeya Date and this is about knowing your game. Could you tell when you were in complete control of what you were doing, what the ball was doing from your hand, and where it was landing and all that when you were attacking and trying to take wickets, and did you know when things were not in your control? Could you tell that difference when it was happening?
AA – Oh. Always. Sometimes when you bowl the first two or three balls you know. You know that it is coming out right. It might not end up in wickets on the day, but there are so many occasions when you know you’ve bowled well. And there are other occasions when you are bowling poorly and you still end up getting wickets, and at the end of the day you get a few claps. But generally, if you ask most bowlers, it’s not that you can’t improve during a game. Of course, if you are not bowling well you’ve got to get that right as soon as you can. That’s the difficult part, because you know that everything is not working as it should. Not just bowling, this is the case in every part of the game. But you’ve got to sort that out in the middle. And that’s the toughest part, because you are bowling to some of the top batsmen in the world who are unrelenting, basically. So you’ve got to think on your feet a little bit. And in a one day game especially you’ve got 10 overs. In Test Matches you’ve got a bit more time to get back your rhythm. In ODI cricket there is hardly any time. Yeah, but you know what it feels like when you bowl the first two or three balls. Over the years you try to follow the kind of routines that you did on that particularly, and it generally works.
SJ– Generally, every bowler has a stock delivery, in your case the outswinger. Did you have any benchmarks to know that today things were happening for you, and whether you had to make any changes?
AA – Yes, as you said, outswinger, that was my stock ball. I had a natural outswinger. When the first few balls swung, I knew that I was in good shape on the day. As I said before, things might go for you or might not, but as a bowler I knew that I was going well on that particular day. For me, if the outswing started going early on, I was very happy. It was the inswinger to the left hander which I always liked bowling because I knew if I got it right I had a chance early on with most left hand batsmen. And even for a right hander, with the new ball you have slips in place even if it’s a one day game. If you get the outswinger right you always have a chance. In modern day cricket it’s very difficult to stop the runs on a daily basis, so you’ve got to be attacking and get wickets.
SJ– Speaking of confidence, a lot of listeners have sent in this question about that infamous series of ducks. Did that sequence affect other aspects of your game, namely your bowling?
AA – No, not at all, that’s the best I’ve bowled in my life. I’ve been trying to get some videos of my bowling in that series (1999-00 in Australia), because I think I picked up about 11 wickets in the first two Tests. I didn’t pick up a wicket in the third Test. Unfortunately everything got overshadowed by my batting. I wasn’t supposed to go and get runs there. I was supposed to get wickets. I think my bowling went pretty well. As far as I remember, that’s the best I’ve bowled. I bowled at a decent pace and I swung the ball. That’s one of the series that’s stuck in my head in terms of Test cricket. It was tough. That was the best team that I have played against in my career. That Australian team dominated the game for what – 10, 12, 14 years. So to do well against them was always satisfactory.
SJ– You burst onto the international scene getting 50 ODI wickets in 20 games and you broke Dennis Lillee’s record and you played a couple of blistering innings as well at that time. Prevalent talk was that you were the next Kapil Dev. How did you view that assessment of you back then and has your perspective changed looking back at it today?
AA – No, I didn’t come and say that I was the next Kapil Dev. So it’s a little bit unfair to blame me for it…
SJ– No no, I’m not saying that you said it. But the expectations…
AA – No, what I’m saying is that it was a bit harsh to blame me for not getting runs. Ok, I had ability with the bat, but my priority was always bowling. No one was going to pick me for my batting alone in the Indian team, so I had to focus all my energies on bowling well. That was always the priority. When you are a bowler in India, you ask any fast bowler, it is hard work. It takes a lot out of you and it is not always easy to focus on both. You are talking about Kapil Dev, he’s a once in a generation player, and to compare anyone with him is actually a bit foolish to be honest with you. Everyone wants another Kapil Dev, but it is not going to happen. It would be fair to say that I could have done a bit more with the bat. There is no doubt about it. But on the flip side, the bowling took so much out of me, that it wasn’t always easy to put the same sort of energies into batting.
SJ– At the time you were in your first season of international cricket. Was there this imaginary pressure on you to match up to these expectations?
AA– No, not at all. I was very clear that I had to bowl well in each game. Batting, yeah as I said I always contributed down the order but I never batted higher than 8 or 9 for India. Maybe a couple of times here and there, but I was never picked as a batter. I was always picked as a bowler who could bat a bit. So I was pretty clear in my head that my first job is to bowl well. Whatever runs I can contribute with the bat are always a bonus for the team. In my head my priorities were very clear and sometimes I got unfairly blamed for not getting runs, but it wasn’t due to lack of trying. But I said no one was going to pick me on batting, if I didn’t bowl well I was out of the team, so to blame me for not getting enough runs is also unfair. I would have expected more out of me batting wise, but bowling always came first.
SJ– When Irfan Pathan came onto the scene, he was tagged as the next Kapil Dev and we have seen where that has ended. How much of a burden is that? India is always looking for a seam bowling all-rounder. How much of a pressure is that on any up and coming bowler with an ability to bat?
AA – It’s just the way you look at it individually, I mean I can’t answer for Irfan, but Kapil Dev did it over a long period of time. 400 plus Test wickets, 5000 Test runs – that is a phenomenal achievement for an Indian fast bowler. To even start comparing anyone with Kapil Dev just because of few good knocks or few good spells would be unfair on the guy. Everyone wants an all-rounder like Kapil Dev but the fact is that there is only one Kapil Dev. Just goes to show what a rare occurrence that is. It just depends on how an individual takes it, I mean at least in my case I was pretty clear that I had to bowl well first. I never had any pressure in my head that I have to show my batting ability as well.. Every time if someone comes and gets few runs and bowls few spells to call him the next Kapil Dev [is unfair]… Everyone wants one, but it’s not that easy to have.
SJ– There is question from a listener, Balajhi: Which accomplishment made you feel more proud, the Adelaide 6fer or the hundred at Lord’s?
AA – No brainer! Adelaide. I was on that 1999/2000 Tour and as a team we didn’t stand a chance against the Australian team and to go back in another series and to actually win a Test match, obviously when you contribute it makes you that much happier but a win, no doubt about it. Every time you win, those are the things you remember more. Even if you’ve done well in a losing cause, it doesn’t matter. It’s not an individual sport, it’s a team sport. Especially for some of us, I think 4 or 5 of us who were on that 99/00 tour, someone like a Sachin or a Rahul, Sourav, Anil and Laxman – We know how hard the previous trip was and to actually go back. And it was Steve Waugh’s farewell series. He’s been one of my heroes; so to actually create an upset there was a fun thing to do. They were the best team of that time and to go to Australia and beat them, there’s no doubt about it.
SJ– I want to talk a bit more about the Adelaide Test. It is of course undeniably one of the high points of India’s Test history. You guys draw the Test at Brisbane, go to Adelaide and Ricky Ponting comes in and scores this mind-boggling double hundred and then Australia pile on the score on the opening day of the Test. So what was the thinking within the team at the close of play on Day 1, when Australia were 400/5.
AA – Oh, not good! When you concede 400 runs you know you are in trouble here. What can you say; the guy was in unbelievable form. Ricky Ponting is one of the greats to have played the game and he was in superb form in that series anyway. We tried. It was a flat wicket. To lose the toss in Adelaide is always hard. The first 3 days are really good to bat on and especially that wicket didn’t crumble on the 4th and 5th day as Adelaide normally does. In that case we were lucky to be chasing on the last day and the wicket had not gone completely difficult to bat. 400/5 and we were already in trouble, the next day I think they got 550. Anil got a 5fer, so we kind of limited the damage because Gilly was still batting at the end of 1st day and he could have easily crossed 650 and then I don’t think we could have won the game. 550 was hard enough.
SJ– And then Rahul Dravid plays an innings of a lifetime, drags India back into the game along with VVS. What was captain Ganguly saying as you guys stepped on to the field with 20-30 runs behind, what was the talk he gave you guys before you started bowling in the 2nd innings?
AA – Not a lot, because at that point it didn’t look like there was a lot of time left. We came in to bowl just before lunch. Rahul and Laxman basically got us back into the game, otherwise 550 in Australia, then the Australian team put enough pressure on the opposition team and you know, that’s generally winning score in Australia so and to get that close was a phenomenal effort and we were struggling at the start, we were a few wickets down, to get that partnership – they’ve always liked batting with each other. There was not a lot of talk, we’ll try and get some early wickets with the new ball and see where we are because getting so close to the score obviously put them, I don’t know if it put them under pressure because the wicket was still good, but I’m sure they must have known that they can’t lose too many wickets upfront. Because if that happened there was still enough time and they didn’t have a big lead which was always an advantage and then to pick 2 wickets before lunch, and then we picked up Hayden just after lunch to Ashish I think. And we knew that we had the upper hand and they couldn’t run away from the game thereon.
SJ– And then Sachin comes on and gets those 2 incredible wickets, one was an absolute ripper of catch by Dravid. But still Gilly tees off and then Kumble gets him and then finally you’re brought back into the attack. So now tell me what is going on in your mind with Simon Katich there and then rest of the tail. What is in your head at this time?
AA – Oh, not much really. I mean the ball was old by then. Sachin’s 2 wickets were the turning point of the game and especially Rahul’s catch because Damien Martyn and Waugh were batting well at that time; they had put up a partnership. It was still a good wicket. There a little bit of reverse swing happening, but not a lot. I mean I thought I’ll bowl a little conservatively and then Gilly got out to Anil, because Gilly as you said was teeing off. He could have scored a hundred in no time. I just decided to bowl a bit steady to him more than try to get him out at that point. Because the way he bats, he’s always going to come after you so maybe to stop the flow of runs at that point. And then once he was out, I think Katich hooked me and then luckily, with the Adelaide boundaries straight are so long, you have to have the fielder in the right place, otherwise the ball might not reach the fielder. Fortunately, Ashish was in the right place. Gillespie had got a 50 in the 1st innings, and he poked one outside off stump and got out and then McGill and Williams.
SJ– Yeah, Brad Williams. So now you have your first fifer and you have six wickets and you guys have bowled out Australia for 196 and you’re walking off the field. Please describe the feeling that you must be having.
AA– Oh, very special. Very very special. At the point the second innings started you always hope that things go your way but you don’t hope that you’ll bowl out Australia in a session and a bit. And to have a chance with a whole day and a bit — I think we had about seven overs or nine overs that evening if I am not wrong. So almost hundred overs to get 230-odd runs. We knew we had a serious chance of going one-up in the series. We had enough batting and enough experience in the batting at that point. Viru was already an established player. Sachin, Laxman, Rahul and Saurav — we had a massive experienced batting lineup more than anything else which we didn’t in the previous tour when we went to Australia.
Great feeling to walk off the ground actually knowing that now we had a serious chance of winning a Test match in Australia which you always hope that you do but they are a tough team. They are a tough team anywhere but they are a tough team in Australia. And then Viru, I remember clearly, wanted to get as many as we could that evening to reduce the pressure the next day. And all of us inside were thinking we should just take it easy. And he wanted to hit boundaries. So those thirty runs or whatever we got that evening helped so much the next day because you suddenly have under 200 to get the next day. And psychologically it was a massive 30 runs we got that evening.
SJ– And next day morning with less than 200 to get, all 10 wickets in hand you guys were pretty confident that this is pretty much a done deal even though this was Australia in Australia?
AA – Yeah, very confident. Except you always know it’s the last day. At least you always knew if you had taken the pressure well, the score was very gettable. And I had said before the wicket had not crumbled… Generally the Adelaide wicket on the fourth and the fifth day is a lot more up and down. The bounce is a lot more variable. But fortunately this wicket wasn’t too bad. It spun — I think Macgill spun the ball a lot. But it wasn’t a wicket where there were too many demons in it, which obviously helped. We were in a little bit of trouble but again the great man Dravid played the innings of his life. I think he will probably classify that 72 not out better than the 200 in the first innings. We were under immense pressure.
SJ– It was poetic that the two big architects of that victory – you and Dravid – were at the crease when the winning runs were scored. You were at the non-striker’s end when he scored the winning runs. So what was the celebration on the pitch and off the pitch like?
AA – Obviously very very chuffed. Again, unthinkable that you could go for 400 runs on the first day and you end up winning the Test. I don’t think it happens that often. We were obviously super happy. As I said, especially for the guys who had been to Australia on the previous trip and not even looked like competing, forget winning a Test, to actually go back. And they were a serious team — you can name all eleven guys easily. That’s how good a team they were. Obviously very happy. We celebrated because we had a few days off after that. Everyone was just super happy to actually get over the line which wasn’t easy as much as it looked easy on paper to get those 200 runs. But obviously there was serious pressure.
SJ– I want to talk a little bit about your career after that series. You played a total of eight Tests after that Adelaide Test. One in Sydney, and then you played your last Test two years from then – 2006 in January in Pakistan. What went wrong? Can you put a finger on what precipitated that quick fall from grace?
AA – Oh, I don’t know. You got to ask the captains and the coaches and the selectors. Obviously I should have done a lot better in Tests than I have in my career. There’s no doubt about it. I would have loved to do a lot better. I think I got injured after the Australia series; at the end of the One-Dayers I had a stress fracture which I was playing through. Then I didn’t go to Pakistan for the One-Dayers. And then to come back after the injury, in Test matches is always going to be difficult. I think I have just played one Test after that series. And there was a break. You just have to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes the form, fitness, maybe some other bowlers were doing well at that time. Zak obviously was doing well — he’s always done well in Test cricket. Irfan had made a huge impression early on and he was bowling well. A combination of things but it’s difficult to put a finger on one thing. I would have definitely liked to have played a bit more Test cricket but this is what it is so I have to move on.
SJ– It is kind of unfortunate and sad in the sense that you debuted when you were 21 and your India career – even though you continued to play First-Class – you basically played last for India when you were 30. Do you believe that you got all the cricket out of you for India as much as you could?
AA – No. I think at least in One-Day cricket I always hoped that I got another opportunity. Again the Australian series – the next time when they went to Australia when Anil was captain, I was always there and thereabouts to getting picked. My record in Australia was pretty good and I was still playing First-Class cricket. So it wasn’t like I was not playing First-Class cricket. My record in One-Day cricket is pretty good so you always hope at 29 or 30 that you get another opportunity. You don’t think that you will never get an opportunity. Even my last series in England, I played One-Day cricket and I went for a few runs but everyone did and I think I picked a few wickets in that series. So yeah, sometimes a little disappointing not to have another opportunity but look it’s like this — if you had told me at the start of my career I would take 340-odd international wickets, I would’ve given you anything. I tried my best that’s why I switched myself to First-Class cricket. That was one of the things I always wanted to do for Mumbai – try and help some of the young guys coming through. After that I was finished playing for India so just wanted to pass on my experience more than anything else. I ended up winning last year’s First-Class. I’d loved to have played a few more, I was very close to 300 wickets in One-Dayers so it would have been nice to… But I am pretty happy with 288.
SJ– I want to ask you about Mumbai. You continued playing Ranji for Mumbai but then there was a bit of an issue in 2011 when you returned back from Cuttack and your reason was that you weren’t treated correctly for the service that you had done for Mumbai. Any change in thoughts about that? Or looking back on it, would you have handled it any differently?
AA – No. I don’t think so. I came back knowing that that was probably the last time that I had played for Mumbai. I wasn’t going to go back and play. Nobody wants to leave the team the way I did but there were reasons for it. We sorted it out. They called me for a chat which was very nice of them. They were nice enough to me after that. But I was clear in the head that that was it for me where Mumbai cricket was concerned. It wasn’t like I had left the team and then I’m going to tell them next year, “Now you have to pick me”. That was never the case. And I didn’t play the rest of the season for Mumbai. It wasn’t like I was holding a gun to their head. But there were reasons for it and sometimes you can’t discuss all the reasons in a podcast here. I don’t know whether to say I regret that or I don’t regret that but I think I was doing it for the right reasons and sometimes you can’t discuss all the reasons. I came back and played the One-Dayers at the end of the season and we reached the finals. We sorted things out. It was always nice to have a chat with them, put my points across. I didn’t have an issue with getting dropped. I think people are getting it wrong. Nobody is bigger than the game. But if you are not going to pick me… I was injured till the earlier part of that season. I had played one game – against Karnataka – and suddenly I wasn’t good enough to be in the Mumbai team so that was a bit disappointing. But we sorted it out. I spoke to them and as I said, you can’t discuss all the reasons but fortunately I got another opportunity last year. I have to thank the (Mumbai Cricket) Association for it. They would have been completely justified if they didn’t want to pick me again. I got an opportunity to play and we won last year.
SJ– Yeah and you walked away winning the Ranji Trophy as a captain also with a four-for. 4/15, I think, against Saurashtra. So did you feel vindicated at the end of it all?
AA – Look, as I said, we had sorted the problem out the previous year itself. So it wasn’t the case of me trying to come back and show something. I’ve always enjoyed playing for Mumbai. I’ve been very privileged. You just look at our history. And to have played for the team for so long I am very honored. Those things were sorted the previous season. As I keep saying, there were reasons for it. It wasn’t like because I got dropped I just left. And fortunately I got an opportunity to win a Ranji title.
SJ– OK, last couple of questions. I was interviewing Clayton Murzello of Mid-Day last week and he was saying there is a shortage of mentors in Mumbai cricket and he was worried that the up-and-coming players in the Club cricket don’t get to rub shoulders with the seniors that are playing First-Class and playing for India from Mumbai etc. So they don’t understand what it is to play for Mumbai and what it takes to play for Mumbai. So what is your take on the situation?
AA – It’s probably true. It’s probably true that not a lot of top players from Mumbai get to play club cricket. But there’s reasons for it. The season’s become so long now – the Ranji season – that we’re practically playing every three days or four days. And you can’t – there’s hardly any time to go and play Club cricket. It’s very difficult. We’ve played with some international players and we’ve seen the way they go about the game and that’s where you learn so many things – sometimes just being in the dressing room around some of the guys who’ve played international cricket. There’s no doubt it will help but how you balance it out is going to be difficult with the amount of cricket that’s there throughout the domestic season. You start in October and you finish just before the IPL so that’s a lot of cricket. And to expect players, sometimes when you have a week off, like when you have four or five days, to come and play Club cricket is a little bit tough. So while it is a point, before, you played four Ranji games and then it was knockouts. So at the most, you ended up playing seven games in a season. Now, to get to the finals, it’s ten games. So that’s the amount of cricket that’s increased. Plus your Duleep Trophy and Deodhar Trophy and One-Days and the T20s, so there’s hardly any time for the guys who are playing regularly for the state teams to go and play club cricket, which would help but unfortunately that’s going to be difficult now.
SJ– Finally, now that you’ve retired from First-Class cricket as well, what are the plans for your future?
AA – Oh, tough one. Not known anything other than cricket for all these years so lets see, still some time to figure out. I’ll give myself some time and just relax a little bit more than anything else. It’s nice to wake up in the morning without any aches and pains. Normally, after bowling 25 overs, you’ve got enough sore parts in the body that it’s nice to wake up without them. I try and spend some time with my family – I’ve got a young son and he’s quite happy that I’m around at home. So that’s the plan at the moment. Lets see, if something comes up sooner or later I’ll figure that out.
SJ– OK, all right. Thanks a lot for coming on the show, Ajit and it was wonderful talking to you.
AA – Thank you so much.
SJ– And wish you the very best.
AA – Thank you, thank you so much – appreciate it.