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The quiet champion who just kept playing

Rajinder Goel. File photo R_V_Moorthy

Rajinder Goel. File photo R_V_Moorthy  

Rajinder Goel was a captain’s delight, a foot soldier who made no demands, who was happy with the field he was given. No one had a harsh word for him, which in the competitive world of sport is an achievement in itself.

Can a player be called ‘great’ — that most misused term in sports — if he hasn’t performed at the highest level? Or won the most important tournament in his sport? Does not having won Wimbledon make Ivan Lendl or Ken Rosewall lesser players, or are they ‘great’ regardless?

Barry Richards was a fabulous player, probably the best batsman of his time, whose Test career was restricted to four matches owing to South Africa’s policy of apartheid which caused them to be banned from international cricket.

He finished with a Test average of 72.57, but is that enough for ‘greatness’ alongside his 28,000 runs in first class cricket (average 54.74)?

It takes a leap of faith to imagine that consistent performers at the domestic level would, given the opportunity, excel at the international level too.

National selectors have to make the leap all the time — sometimes they see in their mind’s eye a successful career for a player despite a modest domestic record, and at other times they intuit that a statistically significant record in domestic matches is no guarantee of success at the highest level. Being human, they get it right sometimes, and mess it up at other times.

Had the late Rajinder Goel been born in any other country or even in India at another time, he might have qualified for the title of ‘great’. He might have been — one can never be sure of these things that require a leap of faith — the finest spin bowler never to have played Test cricket.

In a warm and generous tribute, Bishan Bedi, the man who kept him out of the Test side, said that when he made his debut, Goel was the better bowler but Bedi himself got the lucky break. But Goel himself always conceded that Bedi was superior. There was another inflection point some eight years later when Bedi was dropped for the Bengaluru Test against Clive Lloyd’s West Indies and Goel was in the squad.

Skipper Tiger Pataudi didn’t insist that Goel play on that turner, a decision that might (leap of faith again!) have swung the game in India’s favour. “Had Goel played,” Bedi said later, “India would certainly have won the Test.” It was difficult to shake off the feeling that Bedi was being protected by the powers that be. It was, said Dilip Doshi, a successor to Bedi, a cowardly decision. The point is not whether Goel would have finished with more wickets than Bedi’s 266 or led India — but that he was not given the opportunity.

Unbelievable motivation

Amazingly, and that was the kind of person he was, Goel was less troubled by all this than most people who followed the game. It took unbelievable motivation to keep bowling over after over, day in and day out, year after year knowing that the big prize was not within grasp any more.

Goel, four years older than Bedi was still playing four years after the Test man had retired. On his Ranji debut, Goel played against Lala Amarnath, and in his final match dismissed Sanjay Manjrekar. There are a few generations who played in-between!

They were different types of bowlers (Goel flatter and quicker through the air) and different types of men (Goel diffident, agreeable, even deferential, words you never associated with Bedi!). Both men were given the C K Nayudu Lifetime Achievement Award by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Goel seemed almost embarrassed by the honour, but that evening at the ceremony you could see the pride in his eyes. It was validation for a player who never sought validation. He was happy he had taken more wickets in the national championship than anybody else.

Statistical quirk

It is a statistical quirk that only one of six batsmen with the highest aggregates in the national championship has played Test cricket while only one of the top six bowlers hasn’t. Goel, that lone bowler, didn’t dwell on this too much. He came, he bowled, he conquered. He wore out the batsman, he seldom bowled a loose ball.

He was a captain’s delight, a foot soldier who made no demands, who was happy with the field he was given. No one had a harsh word for him, which in the competitive world of sport is an achievement in itself.

Was he a great bowler? Perhaps. That greatness might have existed in potential, but did not have the chance to assert itself over a career spanning 27 years. In the end, he came up against a better bowler and a future captain, understood his role and made his peace with that. There is a lesson here for the easily disappointed who complain about unfair treatment by selectors anywhere.

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Printable version | Jul 13, 2020 1:35:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/the-quiet-champion-who-just-kept-playing/article31900775.ece

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