Sarkar Talwar may have got a raw deal in his career, but his cricketing mind is ripe as ever, like the chillies at Le Meridien’s Chilli Festival

More than two decades after he hung his cricketing boots, Sarkar Talwar remembers the landmark moments of his career in vivid detail. Sitting at Le Meridien’s eau de Monsoon restaurant for a leisurely lunch during the ongoing Chilli Festival, it does not take much to prod him. “I made my Ranji debut playing for Southern Punjab versus Services. My captain was M.P. Pandove. I bowled my first ball to Harcharan Singh. Ashwani Marwah was my first First Class wicket,” Talwar recalls, every detail accurate, just like his bowling. “At that time there was no Haryana. It was later that I started playing for Haryana. I have spent some 24 years in Chandigarh, another 32 in Faridabad besides a few years here and there. I am 60 plus, content with life, no complaints.”

That is generous on the part of the man who was sold a dummy on more than one occasion by his captains. Lesser stars made it to Indian team while Talwar was relegated to reserves when it came to playing foreign teams on a tour of India. Requesting the restaurant manager Kamal Chhabra to keep spices at a very moderate level for his lunch that has for a starter surkh lal bhurwan humb, a mushroom preparation with green chilli and Assam’s laungi chilli, Talwar recalls, “I was the highest wicket taker in 1973-74 and was picked in the North Zone squad to play against Sri Lanka. On the morning of the match I got to know that I was the 12th man.” If it was a disappointing experience under Bishan Singh Bedi’s captaincy for Talwar, it was to get worse some 15 years later under the captaincy of Mohinder Amarnath, himself often at the wrong end of selectors’ whims. “It was 1987. I was the highest wicket taker in the Duleep Trophy yet could not make it to the final XI for the match against the West Indies.”

Chhabra and his colleagues at the restaurant serve us the main course comprising piri piri chicken and lal maas. Talwar, a complete vegetarian, sticks to the good old paanch mirchi ka paneer – cottage cheese cooked with three kinds of pepper and two types of chillies – and we continue our discussion on his chequered career. “I have no complaints against anybody. Cricket has given me everything. I took 357 wickets in First Class cricket. I gave my best performances against Bombay claming 26 wickets in three matches against them. In our time, performing against Bombay was regarded as the yardstick for any player.”

He, however, did get to play against a foreign team once. Bad luck again was his companion. The match was against England at Jammu. Kapil Dev was supposed to be the captain. “He pulled out on the eve of the match, handing over the reins of captaincy to Yashpal Sharma. I requested Kapil to play because I was not certain how Yashpal would use me in the match.” In the end Dev stayed out. Talwar played the match but got to bowl only two overs. Yashpal, a specialist batsman, bowled many more. Still Talwar nurses no grudges, no rancour, no ill will. “I at least bowled to Geoff Boycott, the most technically accomplished of batsmen.”

As he tries some hari mirchi parantha, he reveals that his career was not just about the clouds. There were sunshine moments too. Gratification was only delayed, not quite denied. It came when his pupils won the World Cup Under-15 tournament. He was the coach of the team that had in its ranks Mohammed Kaif, Yuvraj Singh and Reetinder Singh Sodhi, who all went on to play for the senior team later on.

Desserts cry for attention on our lunch table. He opts for coffee though to wash it all down. Talwar is in nostalgia mode. “In our times, we used to have lunch after the seniors. There was genuine love, affection, fellowship in the game. Cricket, unfortunately, is no longer a gentlemen’s game. There are too many things changing the face of the game. Not just IPL, the new rules are not helping the game. The players shoulders should not be allowed to over-rule the on-field umpire’s decision (DRS under which a team can question the umpire’s verdict twice in an innings). The decision to over-turn the on-field umpire’s call has to be made by the third umpire. Players should not review the decisions. Cricket is not just a sport. It is a way of life. It teaches you about life off the field too. If not restored to its earlier days, it will become like WWF.”

Cricket may have changed, what has remained unchanged is his zest for the sport on the field, and a desire to churn out something in the kitchen when off it. “In our family, everybody is taught two things: cooking and driving so that you are never dependent on anybody in your life. I can whip up pulao with ease. I can make paranthas, even the usual dal-subzi. I use very little spices and limit myself to green chillies.”

Ah! But he is at a chilli festival! “Well, it has been a unique experience by itself. And the fare uniformly good. I like their hospitality,” he sums up. Indeed, Talwar who was a gritty player on the pitch, remains a quintessential gentleman off it.

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