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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Farewell, Ajit Agarkar

I haven't blogged since July, when Bruno passed away. Though there has been a lot of stuff happening that has made me to write loads of satire for The UnReal Times, nothing made me write anything on this blog. Not even Sachin's retirement or the audio of Irandam Ulagam by my favorite music director Harris Jayaraj.

But this news has - Ajit Agarkar has announced retirement from all forms of cricket. Before anything let me tell you, this is NOT satire :) Surprising as it may sound, I have always been a fan of Ajit Agarkar, no matter what. Yes, towards the latter half of his career, he was more made fun of, than appreciated. I've made fun too, but deep down, I've always felt sad at his fall from peak.

It all began in 1998. India's bowling attack comprised the evergreen duo of Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, then there was Anil Kumble and was there Sunil Joshi?May be.  It was an all-Karnataka bowling attack. And soon, in one tournament, there was a new fast bowler. A young, 21-year old stick of a lad called Ajit Agarkar. He was third fiddle, but he was super-impressive.

His bowling action was perhaps, the simplest of all bowling actions. He would run fast, bowl fast as well. He was the epitome of a wicket taking bowler. He could amazingly swing the ball. Yes, he would give away over 40 runs in the 10 overs that he bowled, but there would almost always be 3-4 wickets in his spells. I used to adore him those days. I was just 11, and while playing gully cricket with those in my neighborhood, I would bowl with Agarkar's action :) (before Agarkar, it was Curtly Ambrose whom I'd try to bowl like :P) I was that big a fan back then, until of course, Shane Bond's popularity overshadowed everything else. He was more lethal than James Bond in his heydays. There was something about his bowling action that was super appealing. I started bowling like him :P. Anyway, Agarkar did become a craze back then, by getting to 50 wickets quicker than lightning.

Agarkar could bat too. No one can forget his fastest fifty record that was there for a while. Or his match-winning innings against Sri Lanka. By this time, he was being compared to Kapil Dev as India's next all-rounder. Of course, his batting just didn't stay consistent after that, but at that point, he was really a phenomenon. I don't intend to sound like a Congress supporter talking about Rahul Gandhi or Niti Central talking about Narendra Modi, but Agarkar was smart and handsome too, then :P. He did endorse Pepsi too, for a while, if I'm not mistaken.

His bowling performance improved a notch very soon. He could get 5 wicket hauls regularly. But it soon converged into in a pattern. As someone on Twitter rightly pointed out to me, if overs were of 4 balls each, every Agarkar over would be a maiden :) He would bowl 4 dot balls, may be even take a wicket in one of them and then get thrashed in the other 2.

Srinath-Prasad-Agarkar was an amazing pace bowling attack for the few years that it lasted :) (Though Prasad can't be considered as a pace bowler in the true sense of the word :P). At one point, with Srinath and Prasad retiring, it was Agarkar and Zaheer Khan who took care of the pace department. Agarkar had to soon shoulder the responsibility of being the spearhead. The wickets continued to tumble, but he started giving away a little more runs than usual. Batsmen's fear of him dwindled a little. His pace too, seemed to have eased a little.

But then, thanks to Ganguly's persuasion, Srinath withdrew his retirement and came in again, to bolster the Indian bowling attack like never before. The Srinath-Zaheer-Agarkar-Nehra combo was at its lethal best in the World Cup 2003, barring the forgettable final against Australia.

I think it was after the advent of Greg Chappell that Agarkar's downfall began. The 5-wicket hauls had become sporadic. The 3-4 wicket hauls still came, but after conceding at least 60 runs. Batsmen didn't fear him at all. He would get thrashed in his first spell. But one thing remained - when a partnership had to be broken, Ganguly made it a rule of book to bring Agarkar back into the attack and yes, he used to do the job!!

But, as was the case with Zaheer Khan, Ganguly, Sehwag and quite a few players, Agarkar's morale really started coming down in the Greg Chappell era. The wickets also stopped coming. He became more and more expensive. India's pace attack now was Zaheer-Agarkar-Nehra. Agarkar being the most experienced of the lot and Zaheer being the spearhead. But it just didn't work unless Zaheer struck a few early blows. Yet, Agarkar was never quite able to resurrect himself. Unfortunately and sadly, for fans like me, he only got worse. The journey from then on was only downhill. He just lost his wicket-taking ability and began to get ridiculed. Earlier, when batsmen used to go in full flow and Agarkar came in to the attack, people would sit up, anticipating a wicket to fall, but in the era I'm talking about, people would cringe and let out a scream of frustration. "Agarkar?! WHAAAT?! There's no stopping the batsmen AT ALL now," would be the expression of pain. If the score was 200 and Agarkar came into the attack in the 45th over, people would say "Okay, now surely they're gonna get to 270-280. No doubt."

From being a brilliant fast bowler, Agarkar had reduced himself to a matter of mockery. No one is sure whether to blame the absence of Ganguly as captain, or the enforcement of Greg Chappell's weird rules, but the reality was the colossal destruction of Agarkar, the once-brilliant bowler. Other factors were the emergence of Irfan Pathan and Lakshmipathy Balaji. But the few die-hard fans he had, me being one, surely still didn't lose faith in him. 

I, for one, had always hoped that post the Greg Chappell era, he would regain confidence and return with a bang. But that was never to be. Here's where I would say Ganguly's captaincy was more motivating and inspiring than Dhoni's. Yes, surely, Dhoni is a more successful captain and perhaps, the greatest India's ever had, but Dhoni isn't someone who motivates people to give their best. Well, at least I feel so. IMO, Dhoni's more of the kind who just wipes away pressure from the team and thus enables people to play coolly and confidently, but he's never been a motivating force like Ganguly. Think of the number of Indian cricketing greats today, who blossomed under Ganguly - Sehwag, Yuvraj, Harbhajan, Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan. Laxman too, to some extent. Who would've thought Sehwag would become one of the world's most destructive opening batsmen ever, from a middle order #6 one? Ganguly had the audacity to push Tendulkar down to #4 to unleash Sehwag. Of course, that did have its impact on Sachin, but still, every breakup causes a new phenomenon, doesn't it? AR Rahman might've not come in explosively, had it not been for the Mani Ratnam-Illayaraja split.

Most players who are playing under Dhoni today are leaders in their own right. Virat Kohli was already a U-18 world cup winning captain before he played for the Indian team. The only players I can think of, who have flourished mainly under Dhoni's tutelage are Raina and Ashwin, perhaps. Sir Jadeja too. With these players, it's more of consistency in good performance than standout, legendary performances. So yes, Dhoni is an amazing captain, but not as much of a motivational force as Ganguly was. 

Agarkar flourished in the Ganguly era and under Srinath, but just waned after that. The IPL began. I didn't give up even then. I thought Agarkar would be the ideal performer for T-20 cricket - every bowler gets smashed anyway, taking wickets is the key and Agarkar is good at that. But unfortunately, only the first half of my wish was true. Agarkar got smashed and didn't take many wickets. 

He was bought by the Delhi Daredevils in the 4th season. By this time, people made as much fun of him as they did of Nehra. I still nursed hope that he would perform well for Delhi. He didn't. That was when I gave up. I knew that the Ajit Agarkar I once adored and yearned for will never be back again. 

Today, as he announces his retirement, Twitter is full of jokes. Sadly, this is the lasting impression that he's managed to create in people's minds. That of a run-leaking machine. Even when it comes to his batting, people will remember the 5 ducks record. But, fortunately, he had a 109 at Lords to get back with - a feat which even Sachin and Ponting haven't achieved. 

It's different with Sachin retiring. Sachin was never out of the team, he never had to go through the kind of downs that Sehwag and Agarkar went through. In case of these 2, their form dwindled to such a nadir that fans began to hate them. Sehwag was able to reinvent himself and re-position himself exactly back to where he rightly belonged (of course, he's out again now, that's another story), but the same lady luck didn't favor Agarkar.

When people like Nehra, Sreesanth or Piyush Chawla are out of the game, no one will feel sad. But this run-leaking machine is different - he was one of India's best bowlers at his prime, he was a great all-rounder prospect at his prime, he was one of the world's best wicket-taking bowlers for quite a while, but he was someone who was, sadly, never able to re-invent himself. If only that had happened, India would've easily had its best fast bowler after Javagal Srinath as Agarkar and not Zaheer Khan. 

The time has come for me to kill that last bit of hope that I had nursed that those 5-wicket hauls will come, in first-class cricket at least. (When you have Pravin Tambe bowling splendidly at 41, why not? ). And with a heavy heart, I bid goodbye to it. But yes, he at least clinched a Ranji trophy for Mumbai with his captaincy. 
I'm sad, but happy too. More cricket would've only led to more ridicule of him.

The first and last time I saw him the stadium was a memorable experience. It was India v/s West Indies in Chennai. Agarkar got Gayle out LBW in the very first ball of the innings :).

Farewell, Ajit Agarkar and good luck with everything! Thank you for being an awe-inspiring and memorable part of my growing up days. For me, you will always be one of India's finest talents that was just partially honed.

You would've been remembered as one of the world's greatest bowlers, had you retired in 2006 or so. 
People would've called you a legend. They still do, but unfortunately, sarcastically.


Saral Minocha said...

I still remember an excellent throw by Agarkar from deep square leg, from where only one stump can be seen. Not only did it hit on target, the throw was flat as anything.

Apart from being an awesome swing bowler and a more than handy batsman, Agarkar, unlike our other fast bowlers of that time, was also an amazing fielder with perhaps the best throwing arm in the team.

Anonymous said...

I remember the 6 wicket haul against Australia in the 2nd innings(in 2004 series I guess)and helped India win after superb batting by Dravid :)

Amit said...

i remember him for the ranji win and yes.. those agarkar days:)

Amit said...

I remember Ajit for the recent Rqanji win and yes.. those Agarkar days of Indian cricket:)

miral kania said...

A very well written piece ashwin bhai. ..agarkar indeed wss a fine bowler..the only difference then and now is that india has batsmen who now have tbe capacity to chase any target which would've been an ideal atmosphere for agarkar. ..I too liked him...but ad they say the next bedt can only happen if the now good makes room for it..

Raman Asoory said...

Good article about Agarkar and I could really sense your feeling. Happy that some positive article is written with all those fun/sarcasm around him. I still remember an article before the 1999 world cup (I think in Sportstar) with Agarkar and Robin Singh in cover photo. Yes, truly agree to Ganguly's motivational capabilities and in identifying talents (he brought Dhoni as well)