Transcript: Couch Talk with Sanjay Manjrekar

Couch Talk 121 (Play)

Guest: Sanjay Manjrekar

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk.The guest today is former Indian batsman and now an accomplished commentator Sanjay Manjrekar. He talks about the pressures of choosing cricket as a profession coming from a cricket family, his unfulfilled India career, and also about his commentating career, amongst other things. Welcome to the show, Sanjay!

Sanjay Manjrekar (SM)– Thank you, thanks for having me on.

SJ– It is absolutely my pleasure.

You come from a cricketing family. Your great uncle played for India. You are one of the handful of cricketers in India whose father also played Test cricket, and he was considered one of the best batsman India has ever produced. Growing up in that shadow, what was that pressure like?

SM– Actually I had mostly advantages. One of the things that happens is the cricketing climate in the house. As a kid, you are growing up and you have this misconception that you will become a cricketer. In my case, I had this strong misconception that I would actually become a Test cricketer when I grow up. That is what I thought normally happens to young players. That is the kind of belief that I had as a kid. That, really helped because I was focused. I knew very early in my life what I wanted to be. I played with an ambition. When I look back, that was a great start to have for a kid.

SJ– Looking from another perspective, it is probably a  relief that you would think that someone would make a life choice not being a cricketer, especially if your father was a successful cricketer in a cricket mad nation like India. But, I guess, following your father in his footsteps was a natural choice for you, an obvious choice?

SM– Yes. Because I had lived in an area near Shivaji Park, Dadar, during that time cricket was the only sport. There were so many heroes coming out from that area, Dadar, Shivaji Park – Sunil Gavaskar, Subhash Gupte, Vijay Manjrekar, Ajit Wadekar, the list is long. There was a strong cricketing culture and a lot of cricket played – high quality cricket played – even in the gully, in the building compound, with the soft ball. It was of very high quality. That really helped.

I see that with my son. He had a little bit of interest in cricket. But, I thought he was slightly burdened by the fact that I was an international player, and my father was a much better player than me – he was almost an Indian batting great. He chose not to go for it seriously because he thought he was never going to be as good as us. Time would have told if he would have eventually become that good, but he didn’t want to take that kind of ambition or a dream. Whereas, I had a dream and had that as my sole dream.

SJ– Considering when you grew up, compared to someone growing up now under the shadow of their father being a Test cricketer – the times have definitely changed now. Cricket has changed. Cricket was a sport back then. Now, cricket is a business. There is this 24×7 scrutiny of everyone pursuing it. Would you still make that choice of becoming Indian cricketer, if you were growing up now?

SM– Absolutely. Because, there is more motivation to take it up now. When I was growing up, I had to be a Test cricketer. You had to be a good Test cricketer to make a name for yourself and make a little bit of money. Nobody in our time was growing up to be a 50 overs player. If you didn’t make the cut, if you didn’t play international cricket, life was simple, almost hard for a first class cricketer because there was no money in first class cricket. The one good thing that happened in our time was corporate support – these good companies would employ cricketers only for their cricketing skills, because they would have their own company cricket team. That was a bit of a lifeline for guys who failed to make the cut and play international cricket. That is something that I decided very early – that I would be an international cricketer, and worked at it. If I don’t, I might get a decent job in a company because I was a commerce graduate from Poddar College. I knew that my future was pretty secure. During our times, nobody was dreaming to become a millionaire. We needed to live a good middle class lifestyle and that was fine. Those were the ambitions that we had at that time.

SJ– You briefly mentioned about the cricketers that came from Mumbai. There is this tradition of Mumbai’s school of batsmanship. If you are a much touted batsman from Mumbai, you are expected to have certain approach to your batting and there is a lot expected of you and you are expected to deliver on the field right away. You said growing up under your father’s shadow was a positive for you. This Mumbai school of batsmanship – was there any added pressure when you started playing for Mumbai and India?

SM– Just coming back to the father – son thing. One of the thing that happened, to give you an example, is there was an open selection trial for u-15 or u-19 cricket. I turned up as one of the candidates for the selection. I would immediately gain attention because the selectors would know my father, and would say “Okay, his son is here, let’s have a look at him.” That was the advantage I got, I got singled out. But then, once I started exhibiting whatever skills and abilities that I had, then the comparison would come. Often it would go like “He is not as good as his father.” But, as I said, I had more advantages. Looking back, there are more advantages than disadvantages. The other thing that Mumbai school of batsmanship, is that all these stalwarts were always hanging around, watching the young talent. A few things that they always looked for was good technique in batsmen and big appetite for runs. They were never pleased if you got out for 140 when you could get a double hundred. That is something that was drilled into us – once you are in, you have to get a big score. The other thing about the Mumbai school of batting was that you have to be good against fast bowlers. Mumbai’s batting stalwarts always prided themselves on this fact, and then get the tough runs when it mattered the most. These were the four important mantras that were drilled into us growing up as young batsmen.

SJ– When you made your India debut, it was already spoken that you were there, readily available to fill in the shoes left by the retirement of Sunil Gavaskar. What was your thinking process of what was expected of you in India colours? What were your own expectations of yourself?

SM– Whenever anyone is making his debut, there is always self-doubt, however heavily you would have scored at first class level. At that time, there was a big gap, huge gap between first class cricket and international cricket. Now, there are a lot of international teams that are not really international standard because of the conditions they play. That gap between first class cricket and the international cricket is a bit reduced now. But, when I was growing up it was huge. Even if you had the backing of runs and people thought you were extraordinary as a first class batsman, there was still doubt whether you would be able to change a game and raise your game to the requirement of your international bowling attack.

One emotion that takes over all other emotions is just the feeling of pride – that now on even if I got two ducks in two innings, nobody can take away from me that I am a Test cricketer. It meant a big deal at that time to be a Test cricketer. That actually, your first couple of test matches, is just feeling happy to have become a Test cricketer.

SJ– On your debut, in the second innings you had to retire hurt because you got injured by a delivery from Winston Benjamin and you missed nearly a year and a half of cricket for India. You talked about briefly about your self-doubts when you take your crease for the first time and then you have the pride. After this incident happened, what was your thought process?

SM– Actually, before I got hit on my eye, I batted for about an hour against a good bowling attack on a pitch that had a bit of pace and bounce. It was one of the exceptional Indian pitches at Feroz Shah Kotla. There were scores of 100 and 70 in the first innings of the Test match. Just the way that I was able to survive that one hour gave me tremendous confidence. When I got hit on the left eye, it wasn’t the case of me taking my eyes off the ball or seem like I had a problem with the short ball. It was just about that one ball taking off and I was a little slow to react and the ball hit my left eye. But, I don’t think it put a doubt in me that I was not equipped to play fast bowling because there was a good one hour where I faced some serious fast bowling – a bit of fire from people like Patterson and all that. That was enough to keep me going after the injury.

SJ– When you made your return to the Indian team in 1989 in West Indies and in Pakistan, you had one of the great runs in terms of the quality of runs you made and the amount of runs you made for any Indian cricket in a season. Beyond that, would it be right or accurate that your India career remained a tale of potential that was unrealised?

SM– There are two things to it. There is no doubt that I could have done lot better, could have played a lot more Test matches. In fact, I am actually very disappointed with the way my Test career finished off – just 37 Tests. I was good enough to play maybe 50-60. I was quite happy with the way my ODI career shaped up. There were occasions where I was the man of the series. I thought I was never cut out to play One Day cricket. So, I am not so disappointed with the way my One Day career eventually finished up. But yes, in Tests, yes. As I said, two things that I should have done a lot better in.

My weakness was perhaps recovering from failures. That was my problem. I don’t think I was good at bouncing back from failures. Once I had a good run, I was very good. Also, the fact that I had a great start, like I had in West Indies and Pakistan, and people tend to expect a lot more. Now, when I look at myself in a detached fashion – if Sanjay Manjrekar the analyst watches Sanjay Manjrekar the cricketer at the age of 21-22, I don’t think I was as gifted as people thought I was. I had good technique and good temperament and all that, but the first time that I saw someone like Sourav Ganguly or Rahul Dravid, I thought they were far more talented than I was. (Sachin) Tendulkar was obviously in a different league. So, the two explanations to the question that you asked.

SJ– Okay!

You have mentioned the youngsters coming in. Did that put any additional pressure on you? You spoke of Tendulkar, and then there was (Vinod) Kambli and then in 1996 you had Ganguly and Dravid also coming into the team.

SM– I think my game after 1992-93 steadily declined. So, if I felt that I was still playing really well, then I would have maybe competed with these people. There was an injury issue in 1996 where I missed out and Dravid played and got a 90 and Ganguly and Dravid had an excellent start to their Test career. I knew that they were going to be there for a while. There was still a spot left in the line up for me to hang on to. But, my game was steadily declining. The worst thing that can happen to a cricketer if he is not playing – in and out of the team – and if he is not playing ODI cricket, you are  Test exposure are spaced out. That is why I thought VVS Laxman did a terrific job just as a Test player who had played so many Test matches without the backup of 50 over cricket, that was an incredible achievement. I realise how difficult it is to just be a Test player and come after gaps of two-three months and come back and have the same kind of performances. As I said, my game was steadily declining and I used to be harsh on myself. When it came to my batting, I was a very harsh judge of my own ability. When I realised that my game was not really taking off…I was waiting for the second win to come…it never came, so the best thing was to leave the scene and be young at some other profession.

SJ– I want to talk about you being a harsh judge of your own batting. But first, I want to ask this – you had a century against the West Indies and two against Pakistan, but then you had one more Test century against Zimbabwe. You still had reasonable scores, you had 90, 60s, 70s and stuff. And you mentioned that coming from Mumbai school of batting, where you took pride in scoring big 100s. Where did that century makig habit go away? Why did that go away?

SM– I think insecurity and being too eager and anxious. I remember that I made a comeback against WI at no. 5 or 6 in 1994/95 at Wankhede. India was in trouble, 4 wickets down. I think I got 50s in both occasions in that match. That was a match saving, good valuable contribution. But most times, I would have gone on and get a hundred. But because I got a fifty and there was s sense of relief because I was struggling for runs, I felt that I got a base score to give myself a few Test matches. Maybe there was a sense of relief that got me to play a shot that I shouldn’t have. All those things come into play. And finally, the mind really dictates everything that you do out there. The reasons that I didn’t get big scores out there was purely because of all these insecurities one has in their mind. Guys who are able to come back after a string of failures, getting 50s, 60s, they have a couple of good overs and they bounce into the 70s and 80s…and then the 100 is for the taking. Things just didn’t shape out that way for me. There were opportunities, like I mentioned, at the Wankhede stadium in that Test match. When I crossed the score of 50, there was the 100 for the taking which I didn’t grab. After that, you get a couple of good balls, failures come in, and you never really establish yourself. That second surge in your batting career that you are waiting for never arrives. That is what happened to me.

SJ– Okay. I want to go back to that. This is a listener question from Avi Singh in New Zealand. You were often charged with being overly focused on achieving technical perfection at the cost of other aspects of your batting. You accepted that as well. He wants to know what advice would you have for any young batsmen on how to strive for improvement without the need for perfection becoming all encompassing objective?

SM– When I analyse my own batting now, I could actually do that. After I quit, in a year’s time I knew exactly what had gone right and what had gone wrong with my career. By nature I am a very self critical person. It has its advantages. One is that you never take your skills for granted, you are always working on them. You get rid of most of your weaknesses because that is what you are focusing on. When you are playing well, all that helps, you make the most of what you have. When the failures come, if you keep thinking of your failures, you miss out on some of your strengths. The real essence of batting is to score runs. Then, you start focusing on the one weakness that you have got out to in the previous 4 or 5 innings, you are focusing on that and then you forget why you are out there batting. All these things come into play. That is where I think a good captain or a senior player or a good coach/mental conditioning coach can come to help. Cricket was different in our times, players had to fend for themselves on all these fronts. So, many of them did a very good job analysing their weaknesses.

I perhaps focussed a lot on my weaknesses. i wish I could have given more thought to me strengths. Weaknesses would be something I would always be aware of by nature, but I could have focussed more on my strengths, and maybe not strived to have the perfect batting mechanism.

SJ– From all the things that you have said, Rahul Dravid could be saying all these things. He is something who is hyper self critical of his batting. I have heard Rahul Dravid talk about his batting. This is like absolute echo of the same thing. But, you see the fact that he went on to become one of the all time great Test cricketers. Was it just the fact that there was someone along with him helping him along, refocusing him on things that matter on hand that made him get there? What is your take on that?

SM– I think it is the individual primarily who is responsible for his success. You get some good advice at the right time. but, when a guy bounces back from failure the real credit should be going to the individual. So, Rahul deserves all the credits for what he has achieved. In fact, a couple of years after my retirement, I was worried for Rahul because I could see that  he was a guy who was just like me – very studious, intense, and would focus on one shot that he played wrongly and got out on 150. He would still focus on a couple of shots that he played wrongly. But, he just didn’t cross that line of becoming over studious. Where I think he was different from me was that he knew his limitations very early. He knew what were the gifts of a Gangualy or a (Virender) Sehwag or a Tendulkar and he never went away from his core strength which was about defense, tremendous mental reserves – on that front he was far superior to me as a batsman. He had great mental reserves where he would play two tough innings and would be ready for another one. Even after failures he will be willing to hang in there. Having crossed the score of 50 or 60 like I did, he would have gone on to get two hundreds in that match. In that he e was different. There were a lot of similarities between the way Rahul thinks and the way he bats as well. But, obviously there are a couple of very important dissimilarities in him and me.

SJ– Fair enough.

You have made a very successful transition from being player to being a commentator / pundit. Let’s talk about that a little bit. What helped you in making the transition? What were the things that you knew coming into the job and what were the things that you had to learn on the job? What kind of people and who were the people that you were learning it from?

SM– I thought I took to this job like fish to water. I am not saying that I am very good at it, but the job came very easily to me just because it was a natural extension of my personality. When I was playing cricket I watched a lot of stuff going on when I was in the nets, for example. When I had finished batting, I would watch the bowlers bowl, other batsmen bat. I was very interested in others as well. Tendulkar, I used to watch him really focus on his own batting. Once he finished his batting, he would start bowling and start taking catches. He didn’t spend too much time watching or analysing others, which is one of the reasons he was so great. I was the exact opposite. I was very interested in how somebody else was bowling or batting. As I said, commentating was just a natural transition for me.

SJ– Every commentator has his own voice, distinct style in how they communicate the cricket to the audience. I am assuming you have defined your own voice as well, your space. What was that process like?

SM– No, I was just myself. When it started, I used to just react to what I saw on the field. That was it. it was very much my nature that came into play. My views on the game and things like that, the way I spoke or the opinion that I had, the observations that I made and the analyses. Somewhere down the line people found some strength that I had, and maybe that is the reason that I am still around. Obviously good commentators, if you are going to a room field of people and if you ask them about a certain commentator, 4 or 5 will say “I love him”, and another 4 or 5 will say “I hate him.” That is something that comes with the job. I didn’t really work at creating my own style. I was just being myself in front of the mic.

SJ– Here is a question from Clayton Murzello of MiDDay for you.

SM– Clayton is a dear friend.

SJ– His question is – do you understand now the role and pressures on the commentators and writers better than what you did in the playing days?

SM– Yes. There was more free-spirited commentary in the early days. I don’t think it has changed only in India. All over the world, commentators are a little more careful about what they say. Initially, when it was almost like the kind of chat you would have in a private room at a cricket match, where you are openly critical of players and the banter used to be a lot more free. There wasn’t that much discipline. Overall, when you look at international commentary, commentators have grown to realise that it is a much more responsible job than you think. They realise that they have a big platform and they have to be really careful about what they say. Cricket is a sport where the action comes in spurts, and there is a lot of idle time where the only connection with the match is through the voice of the commentator. His voice becomes very important. Commentators have realised that. Understandably, they have been more careful of what they say.

SJ– Let me phrase Clayton’s question differently. There was a time when Bob Willis was a player in 1981 after England won the Ashes, he had a go at the media, the people that doubted him and the players etc. but then, once he transitioned to be a media person himself, he was doing the things that he railed against the media persons about. see what I mean? when you were playing, the people that covered you – they may have said not very pleasant things or nice things about your career or batting, failures and success etc. But, when you put on the hat of the pundit, do you see ‘I see why they were critical of me’, or why you should be critical of someone else?

SM– When I was a player, I realised very early after a good tour of West Indies that I had a good tour. I read some of the articles written about me and at the end of it, I would say “Was I that good?” because, they were such flowery articles praising me to the skies. I said, I wasn’t that good. I realised very early that there is always an exaggeration when it comes to covering of a performance especially from the people who haven’t played the game at the highest level react to them in that fashion than the people who have played who are a little more clinical. Obviously, when you fail, the reaction on that front is always an over-reaction. The one thing that I learnt to do is that when you fail, you know exactly why you are failing and you don’t need to read the papers for that. And you also know exactly what is going to be written about it. There is going to be criticism. When I didn’t have a good run, I didn’t bother to read the papers too much. I knew there would be criticism about my performance. Also, I didn’t pay too much attention when I was playing well either. Very few articles were able to do complete justice. Either they were exaggerating or being too complimentary. Of course, when you are failing it is the other extreme. So, I didn’t have an issue with the media. I could understand the job they were doing. My way of handling them was to be indifferent. Indifference was my shield against media people.

SJ– As a follow up to Clayton’s question, I have one for you. I received a bunch of questions when I announced on social media that you were going to be on the show. These questions, I’m only presuming that they were sent in jokingly, “Why does Sanjay not like Sachin?” I am assuming they are referring to your columns and opinions and various things that you may have said as a pundit. That is your job, to give your opinions on cricketing matters, no matter who the player is. When you do, you sometimes get these emotional backlash. How do you learn to deal with these?

SM– That is never easy. Harsha Bhogle once said that Sachin Tendulkar is an irrational topic in Indian cricket. I can understand that.

The big difference with me and the others when it comes to Tendulkar is that I saw him as a 14 year old. I saw him grow into a cricketer. I never could make myself look at him as the God of the game as the fans look at him. I was never in awe in the way the fans and a lot of people do. i was completely bowled over by the talent, something that I saw very early. That is something that I have always admired. But, it was always a more clinical way of looking at Tendulkar. I have seen him from close quarters. I always thought he was a child prodigy. That is what my expectations from Tendulkar were, as he became an adult at the international level.

There were occasions when he disappointed me with what he was doing on the field. Those were the kind of observations that I made. As I said, those were the observations made by a guy who knew his subject really well. There wasn’t that aura that I felt when it came to Tendulkar. I just wrote those articles out of that emotion. Very often when I have written something about Tendulkar that is not complimentary, I have always been surprised by the backlash, because I would always think that I was making an observation of a player and similar observation would have been made on a lot of other players. But, with Tendulkar it is a little bit different. There is nothing about liking or disliking, but in his long career there have been patches where he has disappointed me as a batsman whom I saw from very close quarters. Over the years, those points were raised, if I have written 120 columns on Tendulkar, there would have been 2-3 that people would remember as being critical of Tendulkar. That is the situation with Tendulkar.

SJ– Fair enough!

There is another question on commentary and this comes from Shoaib Naveed. It is about the effect of the commentary team around you, and how it dictates the quality of the commentary. Do you feed out of your colleagues in the box? He feels, Shoaib feels, that you are brilliant in the Sky box, and perhaps slightly fluctuating when doing with Star and not so well with TEN Sports. Do you also feel the same way?

SM– There are certain commentators you love working with, you get into good areas of cricketing talk and the content gets richer. If you have a fellow commentator who is on the same page, the overall quality of the content gets richer, when you have two people talking about something digging deeper into some cricketing aspect. That certainly is. But, I don’t think the [broadcasting] company makes that much of a difference for me. When I am working for TEN Sports, my working is no different from when I am working for Star or Sky. Fellow commentators, yes. Sometimes you feel the need to raise your game when there is someone like Michael Holding next to you. When he sits next to me, immediately I realise that here is a very intelligent cricketing person sitting here. It just shakes you a bit out of your comfort zone and gets you to raise your game even further. You are never in your comfort zone when you know you are live and people who are watching the game. I never lose sight of the fact that the people actually tune on the television to watch cricket and not listen to us. so, I also never lose sight of the fact that we are not that important to the coverage.

SJ– Some of the players that you played with and against are also fellow commentators. Of course, some of them have become caricatures of themselves. Performers in their own way, even after they have done playing cricket. For example, Navjot Singh Sidhu, or a Danny Morrison or a Ravi Shastri. Is there an incentive towards being that way? If so, how does one resist that? Did you have to resist becoming one of those types of performers on air?

SM– It is a personal choice that everyone makes. What typically happens is that when you start off your career as a commentator, you get a certain kind of feedback from your producer and you see how fans react to you when they see you in daily life. They say that they enjoy this part of your commentary, something like that. So, very early the commentator get a sense of what people like about your commentary. Then, it is up to you, how much do you want to invest in that element of your commentary. That is what most commentators get into. They realise ‘this is what the people like, this is what I am going to work on.’ The obvious advantage is that the producer is happy with you bringing in that element of the commentary. You are assured of another offer the next time. your job is secure. You work on that and keep the producer happy.

The one thing that I have realised is that however good you are, the one thing that never helps the commentator is over-exposure. You could be the best commentator in the world, but if the fans hear you all the time, you start to get on to their nerves. That cannot be helped. That is something that every commentator has to be careful about. It is a no-win situation, that one.

SJ– Alright! We will leave it at that, Sanjay! Thanks a lot for spending this morning with me.

SM– Thank you very much, thanks for having me on, Subash!

SJ– My pleasure, Sanjay! Take care.


Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman