In the autumn of 1996, Pankaj Dharmani was called up to the Indian one-day squad on the back of three fruitful seasons in domestic cricket. He joined the team for the Titan Cup, a tri-series involving Australia and South Africa. After three matches on the bench, he made his debut against South Africa in Jaipur.
Chasing 249, India crumbled after Sachin Tendulkar fell. Dharmani, a staid, reliable wicket-keeper batsman for Punjab, was originally slotted to go in at five. “But the run rate went up so much,” he recalls. “Srinath went in as a pinch-hitter and then Ajay Jadeja.” Dharmani, then 22 years old, eventually walked out at seven. “The asking rate was already nine an over. This is too much, I was thinking.” He managed eight nervous runs in ones and twos when Fanie de Villiers, an enterprising, often-funny fast-medium bowler, sent down one of his renowned cutters. The batsman swung at it and was bowled.
“Yeah, I was beaten on the slower ball. We lost that game and I didn’t do well, so there’s nothing much to remember of it,” he says.
Dharmani never played for India again. But to recall him as a one-cap wonder is to do him a disservice. “There is no disappointment at all,” he states. “The game has given me so much. I retired as a content and happy man. What more can I ask for?”
Dharmani announced his retirement in 2011, at the end of a first-class career that spanned 18 years, standing fifth among the Ranji Trophy's all-time leading run-scorers. Last year, he embarked on a new chapter in his cricket life, as a match-referee. It takes him up and down the country; an under-19 game has now brought him to Bangalore.
“It is a good way to be involved with the game,” he says. “No cricketer can be away from the sport for too long. After I stopped playing, I thought let me get some time to myself and think over what is best for me. The chance came along to be a match referee, and I took it.” That single outing in India colours may have preserved him in the history books alongside the likes of Stuart Law, Darren Pattinson and Andy Ganteaume, but Dharmani holds no bitterness over his perceived lack of opportunity.
“Look, there are players who have been given more chances. I was not given more than the one chance. So maybe the selectors or the captain at the time thought that some other guy who was better, deserved a shot. They were working in the best interests of the Indian team. I have no regrets as such.”
It is a simple, modest approach. It is perhaps what kept him playing for so long, when someone may have burnt out. Dharmani's two decades in the domestic game, including a single IPL appearance for Kings XI Punjab place him in an ideal perch from which to reflect on Indian cricket. “Money has poured in like anything. My fee in my debut Ranji Trophy match was a Rs. 1,000. For my last Ranji match, I received 1,40,000. That is a huge difference.”
The approach to batting has also changed, he feels. “The IPL has altered the playing style. Earlier, when someone got out playing a cheeky shot in a four-day game, it wasn’t tolerated by anyone. Now, everyone takes it as long as you’re getting runs. The experts used to say that it is better to play the new ball from the non-striker’s end but you don’t hear it these days. When someone goes out and hits a six in the first hour of a four-day game, it’s acknowledged. This is the major change.”
Dharmani still turns out for his State Bank of Patiala side and is also a selector with the Punjab Cricket Association. His job as a referee keeps him busy and he’s happy for it. “This is a very challenging role.”
Talking about sledging, Dharmani says: “On-field chatter has always been there and it will continue to be there. It depends on what part of the world it’s being played in and their culture perhaps. For me, as a batsman, the best way to respond was to perform. As Sunil Gavaskar says, if you bat and keep the fielders out under the sun throughout the day, they tend not to say much to you.”
Dharmani's 9,000 first-class runs show he took those words very seriously.