Sportstar archives: Navjot Sidhu - Positive, even in adversity

Sidhu loves a challenge. Even a series of career-threatening injuries have not defeated him. Sportstar caught up with the dashing opener.

Navjot Sidhu: Pressure is because you are aware that millions of people of your country are watching you.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

He loves a challenge. You toss the ball up and he will use his feet. Even a series of career-threatening injuries have not defeated him. Difficulties in personal life too could not kill the competitive instinct in him. He is from Punjab, where people don’t give in without a fight. Yes, Navjot Singh Sidhu is a Sikh who loves to slug it out. You can see it in his battle-hardened face, his hard, piercing eyes. He is indeed a man who believes in the motto, “What’s life without a challenge?” Well, he is a survivor.

Challenge is the key word in Sidhu’s book. Early on when he was dropped after the West Indian tour of India in 1983-84, he was dubbed a “strokeless wonder.” The Sikh from Patiala did not take this slight lying down. He replied in the way he loves to – with the bat.

The World Cup 1987 saw a totally transformed Sidhu – Sidhu the big hitter. The change almost seemed magical. But it was the result of long hours of nets back home in Patiala. The quiet Sikh really sweated it out to show the world his true worth. He had to remove the stigma of being called the “strokeless wonder” and he did just that.

But disaster was just round the corner. Immediately after New Zealand’s tour of India, in which he batted extremely well, Sidhu found himself in a mess after a traumatic incident. But the Sardar took everything in his stride and fought back as only he can.

A blood-and-guts hundred in Jamaica on the ’89 tour and a match-saving knock of 97 at Sialkot in the same year showed the world that even when it comes to playing genuine pace, Sidhu was game.

The injuries, broken bones to be more precise, played havoc with his career till Sidhu fought his way back into the Indian team for the series against England. The century at Madras and the match-winning knock in the Gwalior One-Dayer have cemented his place in the Indian team. Sri Lanka is new terrain for this genial Sikh, but then isn’t he the one who loves nothing more than a challenge?

Sidhu spoke to The Sportstar when he was in Madras with the Indian team for the conditioning camp for the Lankan tour.

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Tell us how you got your nickname ‘Sherry?’

Well, sherry is actually a ladies’ drink. When I was born, somebody presented a bottle of it to my mother. After that, my parents just decided that my nickname would be Sherry. And it stuck.

Coming to your parents, your father played a big role in shaping your career...

Well, today if I am playing cricket, it’s only because of my father, Bhagwant Singh Sidhu. When I was very young, he formed a little club for boys who were under 10. That time I was just seven years old. He brought in about 15, 16 youngsters. He was my coach, my friend, my guide, my philosopher, my mentor. He was everything to me. When he passed away in 1985, I felt I had lost everything. So it was his wish that I should play for the country. He believed in it. I never believed one day I would be playing for India. He was my inspiration. Even after he became the advocate general of Punjab, he would come and watch each and every match that I played. He would get me good books written by cricketers, he gave me gifts whenever I did well. In a nutshell, he was everything to me.

How did your first break come about?

The first break I got was in 1975, when I was selected for the state in the under-19 cricket. At that time we never had under-16 or under-17 cricket. I first played the Cooch Behar Trophy. I was probably the youngest player in the circuit at just 13. Delhi was the main team. We were playing Delhi and my dad was watching. The conditions were ideal for the bowlers, but I just batted on and on. I scored 69. We lost nine wickets but managed to save the game. It was my first success. That was 1976. I won the sports journalists’ award for the most promising junior. From that day I knew I had something in me.

I first played Test cricket in 1983. But what led to it was the India under-19 tour of England under Ravi Shastri. I did pretty well on that tour. I was then picked for the North Zone team against the West Indies. I got a hundred. That’s how I got selected for the Board President’s XI to play the West Indies. Again I got 60-odd runs on a green top. That’s how I got picked for the Ahmedabad Test match.

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How was it playing in your first Test? The Ahmedabad wicket was a treacherous one...

It was a dream come true. I was a bit overawed at that time. I was thinking that I was playing Test cricket and so there was a lot of pressure on me. That’s one of the reasons I could not really do well, though the wicket also was bad. Moreover, I was very young at that time. I did not take pressure too well.

You were called a “strokeless wonder” after the 1983- 84 series against the West Indies...

I was just dubbed a “strokeless wonder.” If you remember, the same year I got a century in four-and-a-half hours for North Zone against the West Indians. Do you think a “strokeless wonder” would do that? But I took it in my stride. I worked hard to prove people wrong. I used to play with tennis balls for hours at my house back home in Patiala. I used to bat for hours on a cement wicket built by my father. I would ask any guy who was passing by the house to come in and chuck a few. I used to carry on and on.

My father was very depressed by the article which called me a “strokeless wonder.” Something told me to prove this article wrong. I always had the strokes. I stuck that article in my wardrobe. I would read it every day. I never let it fade away from my memory. I had to prove the article wrong.

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After I was dropped from the Indian team, I played in a lot of domestic matches and a lot of tournaments in Delhi. Then the Sheesh Mahal tournament was the major turning point for me. I played very well in that. It was around that time I started believing in my own ability. I also lost my father at that time. I feel very sad that he could never see me play well for India. That is the saddest part of my life. Anyway, after that I gave up cricket for three or four months. Then my wife Noni and my friend Bunny helped me. They said, “Look Sherry, if you really want to do something about your father, then you must really work hard. Give it a go once again to realise his dream.” And that got me going again. And then I played in a lot of tournaments in Delhi, thanks to Kapil (Dev) Paaji. I played for Malaviya club and some other clubs in Delhi. When I got selected for the camp before World Cup 1987, there was no pressure on me. I just said to myself that I had to play my natural game. That’s how I succeeded.

Even before the 1987 World Cup, there were reports coming in from the camp that you were really murdering the spinners. People were really expecting some big hitting from you...

Well, in the first match against Australia, I got going, played all my shots. It was really unfortunate that we lost that match. I got four consecutive fifties during the World Cup. It was all due to the grace of god. It was then that I removed that article from my wardrobe.

Soon after the World Cup, there were all sorts of stories that I could play only against the spinners and I was avoiding pace bowling. I hurt my thumb before the West Indies tour of India in the same year. It was a compound fracture and there was no way I could have played. Still there were all kinds of stories.

Navjot Sidhu: I got four consecutive fifties during the [1987] World Cup. It was all due to the grace of god.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

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This was the first in your list of fractures...

Well, you can’t do anything about broken bones. If it is a muscular injury, it’s okay. But if you break a bone, there is nothing you can do about it. There is a particular time frame for it to heal. It was really unfortunate. I feel really bad that I missed out on some good matches. But these things are all part of the game, part of life.

You came back to the Test team at Bangalore against New Zealand in 1988...

I was under tremendous pressure. I had been named the Man of the Tournament in the Asia Cup at Dhaka. I was dubbed a One-Day player. For the Bangalore Test, coming in place of Jimmy (Mohinder Amarnath) Paaji put more pressure on me. I was playing at one-drop, stepping into his shoes. I had to do something. Richard Hadlee was really bowling well in that game. That hundred gave me a lot of satisfaction. In the next match at Bombay, Hadlee was superb. (John) Bracewell also spun us out.

In the second innings of the Bombay Test, you stepped out to Bracewell and were bowled. The critics were not pleased...

Everybody has his day. That was his day. I stepped out, thought it was a juicy ball, got beaten and that was that. People said I was playing for the galleries and things like that. But I was just playing my normal game.

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Immediately after the series, you went through a traumatic phase in your life. What happened and how did you cope with it?

Well, after the series my friend Bunny and I planned a holiday. So I just said we would go to the bank and I would draw a leaf. We passed through the chowk in Patiala and the traffic lights were erratic. We were not sure whether the system was working properly or not. Suddenly we heard somebody honking wildly. Then the guy went ahead. We took the right towards the bank. The guy still followed us and started abusing. He just went on abusing.

I was just sitting inside. My friend got out. And the man just picked one of the boxes of the bootpolish wallas and threw it on my friend Bunny. He ducked. Then my friend just walked towards him caught him by the collar and pushed him. There were a lot of bicycles on the side of the road. He just fell on those bicycles. He got up, adjusted his turban, and then he fell again. This is what exactly happened. It must have taken a very short while. Suddenly, the bank people came out. My friend had just come from America for 15 days. So they did not know him. People said, “Okay saab, aap jayiye. Pani lekey theek kar denghe. Behoshee ho gayee hai, abhi theek kar denghe. (Okay, sir, you carry on. He has fainted and we’ll revive him with some water).”

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Then we went off to the university. I had some work regarding my wife’s transfer. When we came back from the university, my wife was panic-stricken. She said, “You have killed a man.” I said, “Noni, I never got down from the Gypsy. I didn’t even talk to that man. I never even went near him. Then how can I kill him? And he was just unconscious. They were just trying to pour some water on his eyes.” My wife said, “No...he is dead.” So I was totally shaken. There was a big mela going on then. The SSP (senior superintendent of police) and the DSP (deputy superintendent of police) had all gone there. I just went off to my village as I thought it would be a safe place. In the evening, the news came out and I really felt bad. It was a very, very bad time for me. Anyway, I am glad it’s over now.

Were you in a proper shape mentally to undertake the tour of the West Indies in 1989?

My conscience was clear. I knew I had done nothing wrong. I have tremendous faith in god. I knew he took me into this and he would get me out of it. I just prayed during that time, did nothing else. That was a very important time for me because the West Indian tour was around the corner. I had to prove to a lot of people that I could play pace. I really prayed to god, “Please give me a chance... I must go to the West Indies.” Only at the last minute I was cleared to go on the tour. It was all due to god’s grace. Before I left, my wife Noni, my friend Bunny and my brother Dhanwant S. Mann said, “You got to go there and play for the sake of your father.” I really felt that I had to do something. I had to prove that I was not scared of pace. I never shied away. I am glad I came out with flying colours. God was very kind to me.

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What about your hundred in the Jamaica Test?

Yes, I think that was my best innings. That was a bad wicket. Actually Jimmy Paaji, who had come there as a commentator, advised me. I had done well in the first Test but failed in the second. I couldn’t really play well. He told me that I was bending too much, crouching too much. He asked me to stay erect. In the match against Jamaica, I tried this stance and got 286, the highest by an Indian abroad. That gave me the confidence really. I found the stance very comfortable. The hundred in the Test match against the West Indian quicks is the highlight of my career.

You always attack the spinners. Step out when they flight the ball...

I personally believe that by staying in the crease and playing a spinner, you really don’t upset his rhythm. When you step out to play a spinner, you upset his rhythm. There is no particular length he can bowl to. That’s my belief personally. I always believe in using my feet.

Coming to the Pakistan tour of 1989. You did very well there. The team too did well...

The Pakistan tour saw one of the best performances by an Indian team abroad. The team as a unit played very well. To draw four Tests in Pakistan was a tremendous achievement. It was a good team. I played a match-saving knock of 97 at Sialkot. It was a green top and Imran (Khan), (Wasim) Akram and (Waqar) Younis were bowling superbly. In the second innings, we were four down for some 25-odd (runs) when Sachin (Tendulkar) and I had a long partnership. We occupied the crease to deny Pakistan victory.

Then you went to New Zealand and again cracked a bone in the first Test after getting 80-odd...

Cracking bones has become a feature of my career (laughs). I missed about 20 matches due to that. Again I was disappointed. But these things happen.

In the series against England in 1990, you didn’t get too many runs, and before the tour of Australia, you again suffered a fracture. When you went to Australia as a reinforcement, you were not too successful...

The main problem I had was I had not played cricket for two months and I went straight into a Test match in Australia. It did make a difference. In Sydney, I got out for zero, got 30-odd in Adelaide and a 40 in Perth where we were 80 for no loss and were dismissed for 120. But the selectors did not repose their faith in me and I had to come back, missing the World Cup.

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When you finally came back, the century at Madras against England must have given you a lot of satisfaction...

That was a very important innings for me. I got a 40 in Calcutta but threw away my wicket. I told myself before the Madras Test that even if I didn’t get any runs, I would just stay at the wicket. I am glad it clicked. Then my match-winning century in the fifth One-Dayer at Gwalior was one of my best moments as a cricketer, my best One-Day innings.

Against England, what changed the course of the series?

Well, (Mohammad) Azharuddin’s 182 at Calcutta definitely changed the course of the series. He massacred the bowling. It was one of the best innings I have seen. Even in England in 1990, he had made a century at Lord’s in just two-and-a-half hours. When he gets going, he is a tremendous player.

As an opener, what is your major objective?

When I open the innings, I leave as many balls as possible outside the off stump. Early on I don’t go for too many shots. Being an opener, my main job is to take the shine off the ball. Ensure that the lower-order batsmen don’t get to play the new ball. If the side is in trouble, I just try to stick it out in the middle. The bowlers may become a little tired, the weather might change. Later on you can play your shots. At that moment I try to dig in.

Are you bothered more by pace or by swing?

Pace is easier, but genuine swing bowling is difficult to counter, especially if a bowler can swing it both ways. I would prefer playing a tearaway to him.

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How do you adjust to different wickets?

On bouncy or placid wickets, you can cut more often. On a seaming wicket, you allow the ball to come to you. You don’t go for the ball. If you reach out to drive, you might be in trouble. So you have to bat according to the wicket. The basic technique remains the same except for a few minor adjustments.

Which pace bowler has troubled you the most?

I probably had a mental block against Angus Fraser of England. He is the one who has bothered me the most. I could not make out his in-swingers from out-swingers. He got me in three of my four Test innings in England. He was not very quick but moved the ball very well.

The best spell of fast bowling you have faced?

Well, it was a spell by Richard Hadlee in the Sharjah tournament in 1988. On a placid wicket, he was really hostile. He bowled his first six overs to Jimmy Paaji and me. He was immaculate. The lift he was getting on that wicket was unbelievable. It was a quality display of seam and swing bowling.

Navjot Sidhu: I did not open much with Sunny Bhai (Sunil Gavaskar). He was the perfect example of how an opener should be. Technically perfect.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

What about your opening partners over the years?

I did not open much with Sunny Bhai (Sunil Gavaskar). He was the perfect example of how an opener should be. Technically perfect. Chikha Bhai (K. Srikkanth) could murder any bowling on his day. Technically, he was not all that sound. But he had a tremendous eye. He would just attack the bowling. If he got going, the bowler had no chance. You cannot set a field for him. He is such a player. Tremendous. I really enjoyed opening with him. Ravi Shastri is another very good cricketer. Temperamentally, his attitude towards the game is something I always admired. He would make the bowler work hard for his wicket. W. V. Raman is very elegant. He is one who makes batting look very easy. Manoj Prabhakar is a great fighter. He loves a battle. His acumen is remarkable. I have great respect for him.

What is pressure in a Test match? Having played in some close Tests, how do you react to pressure?

Pressure is because you are aware that millions of people of your country are watching you. That is one thing. The media hype is also there. The press coverage is there. People writing things about you. You are being watched. You are being scrutinised. Every move you make is watched by thousands of people on television. These things add up and the pressure gets to you. Moreover, if you don’t have the runs, there is added pressure. The fact that you are not doing well in front of your countrymen bothers you. And the press starts playing around with you. The stronger the individual, the lesser the pressure. The weaker the individual, the more the pressure.

The temperament comes into play there...

There is a world of difference between Ranji and Test standards. I have seen players who are very good, very talented at the Ranji level, but when it comes to Tests, they don’t play their normal game, which leads to their downfall. This is due to pressure. I personally believe that if you curb whatever god has given you, you won’t get anywhere. Anything that comes naturally to you is to be retained.

Do you read press reports during matches?

No. I don’t read newspapers or magazines about the matches during the series. I read them all after the series is over. Because reading them during a match can increase tension.

What role does the crowd in play creating an atmosphere for a match? How was it different, say, from playing in Sharjah to playing in some other place?

In an Indo-Pakistan match, because of the tension involved, the crowd becomes quite noisy. But again it depends on the individual as to how he reacts to the noise. Many cricketers will just shut their mind off and ignore the crowd. I also do it that way. If you really start thinking about the crowd and have it at the back of your mind, then it is bound to affect you. The crowd does not exist for me when I am playing. I am now immune to playing in front of large crowds. Sometimes when the crowd gets unruly, it disturbs you. If the spectators get physical and start throwing stones at you, then it becomes serious.

Like the one-dayer at Karachi, Pakistan, in 1989...

That time the crowd started throwing stones. Azharuddin got hit by an iron rod. And then there was this incident when Srikkanth had to check an intruder. This kind of crowd disturbance is bound to affect any cricketer. But as far as shouting or hooting are concerned, you can easily ignore them.

The game has seen a lot of changes since you made your debut in 1983...

The transition from that time to this time has been tremendous. It has become very fast. It is because of more competition. It is no longer a gentleman’s game. Thorough professionalism has come to the fore. It’s become a very mean game and very competitive. It’s a war out there. The fielding standards have improved tremendously. Everything has changed.

What about your approach to the game?

There is a lot of difference. Earlier on I used to throw away my wicket after settling down. Sunny Bhai advised me against doing this. Now I concentrate more. At that time, I never used to train. I was lacking in physical fitness. Now I work really hard on my physical fitness. Nowadays I watch a lot of videos of my innings and analyse my strong and weak points. It has become much more scientific, much more competitive.

Does sledging bother you?

No, it doesn’t. There have been incidents but I try to ignore them. Sledging doesn’t affect me at all. Anger doesn’t help you. I let my bat do the talking. I have rarely wished ill for anybody.

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How would you feel when the side is 30 for four with a bowler like (Curtly) Ambrose steaming in?

In a situation like that, it’s just the bowler and you. You don’t think about anything else. Not bother about the close in field. Just focus yourself completely on the ball. Shut everything else out off your mind.

Navjot Sidhu: In One-Day cricket, you have to be impulsive. In One-Dayers, there is less pressure, batting-wise.   -  V. V. KRISHNAN

 

How’s your approach different in a Test match and in a One-Dayer?

In One-Day cricket, you have to be impulsive. In One-Dayers, there is less pressure, batting-wise. The real thing according to me is Test cricket. That is where your abilities are tested to the fullest. In One-Dayers, basically it is a defensive game plan and you have to improvise. You have to go for a shot even off a good ball. In Test cricket, you play according to the merit of the ball. But One-Day cricket is very popular with the people now because it is played at a fast pace and there is a definite result. Test cricket is the real thing.

Your attitude towards life?

I just take things as god gives them to me. I personally believe in the stars also. Life is a road of ups and downs. If success goes to your head, then it is bad. And if you get depressed when things are not going your way, even then it is bad. You have to maintain a proper balance. That is what life is to me. Fighting...fighting all the troubles. If you are down, you got to fight back. That is my way of living life.

Has stardom changed you?

People do change with time. But I have not changed much. I never thought that I would be a star. I don’t believe in stardom. It’s just that god has been kind to me and my work has been recognised. All human beings are at equal. Fame is a temporary phase. It will just go by. Life has to go on. I have always been the same with my friends, with my family. It doesn’t affect me. Good and bad times come. But you got to face them.

Doesn’t failure bother you?

Failure in a way indicates there is something wrong with you. And you have to work hard. Do away with it. I never felt after any failure that this was the end of the world. When the chips are down, you have to fight it out.

What about your reputation of being an introvert?

I read a lot and I prefer staying in the room. It basically depends on the individual. Some guys like to go out for a dance and things like that. I personally don’t like these things. I have something else to do, reading books, watching video. It basically depends on one’s interest. I like to spend time in my room during Test matches. But I am open to conversation. I am not an introvert that way. I am an early sleeper, too. Coming from Punjab, I prefer to sleep very early. That’s why I don’t go out much. I hate attending parties. Official dinners theek hai (are fine). I avoid going to parties. That’s the way I am. I don’t say I am different. But that’s my original self. I am also a very religious person. I believe in god. Whatever little I have achieved, it is all because of god. I don’t go to too many religious places. God is within. I am truly secular that way. Though I am a staunch Sikh, I believe in all religions. I think there is a universal force that has created this world.

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Does money play an important rote in your playing for the country?

Money doesn’t play such an important role in my playing for the country. I have enough money to live a decent life. The money is a very, very secondary factor. It has always been the urge to play for the country and also to do well for the sake of my late father. It was his dream that I should play well for my country. I would like to play as much for the country as for the sake of my father.

How do you feel about Punjab winning the Ranji Trophy?

Well, that is all due to one man, Bishan Singh Bedi. He made the team believe in itself. He was everything to the team. Even Bindra and Pandove contributed. Gursharan (Singh) too led by example. I would like to compliment the bowlers, especially Bharati Vij, Bhupinder (Singh Sr) and Arun Bedi. The team is really confident now. Success breeds success.

Who are the cricketers you have always admired?

Sunny Bhai, Kapil Paaji and Jimmy Amarnath. I have never missed an opportunity to really watch them play. I have learnt a lot watching them... They are institutions in themselves. They always helped me whenever I had difficulties.

How is the mood in the Indian team before going to Sri Lanka?

Success is something which always lifts the team. The morale is high. The present team under Ajit Wadekar and Azharuddin is riding a crest. As far as I am concerned, I will work hard and try to give my best. I have always been positive in my attitude.

(This article was first published in Sportstar on July 10, 1993)

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