`Age should never be a criterion'

ROBIN SINGH will be remembered as the footsoldier who invariably put his best foot forward for India when things went wrong.

S. DINAKAR

ROBIN SINGH will be remembered as the footsoldier who invariably put his best foot forward for India when things went wrong.

N. BALAJI

The Trinidad-born Robin represented the country in 136 ODIs, gathering 2336 runs (ave. 25.95) mostly walking in at No. 6 or No. 7, and taking 69 wickets (eco. 4.79) with his seamers.

He also played a lone Test against Zimbabwe in 1998, and figured in 137 first class games, making 6997 runs (ave. 46.03) and scalping 172 batsmen (ave. 35.97).

However, more than any numbers, the spirit with which Robin often played the game — reflected in his brilliant fielding — won him several admirers.

Robin Singh, a brilliant fielder, has taken a catch in the outfield and India has scored over Australia in the ICC knock-out tournament in Nairobi, in 2000. — Pic. TOM SHAW/GETTY IMAGES-

Now, the 40-year old former Tamil Nadu and South Zone captain is the coach of the Indian under-19 team, apart from being the director of the MAC Spin Foundation in Chennai.

Robin, who announced his retirement from international and domestic cricket recently, spoke to The Sportstar in Chennai.

Question: Your career was an eventful one. How would you sum up your long journey?

Answer: It has been pretty satisfying, considering I started playing for India the second time around after the age of 30. I also had a reasonably good stint with Tamil Nadu. I led the state for quite a long time. Unfortunately, we could win the Ranji Trophy just once. Played a lot of zone matches, captained the zone teams. I enjoyed playing for all the teams.

Considering that you are still extremely fit, did it hurt you when age became one of the factors in your omission from the side? Should age be a criterion when it comes to selections?

Age should never be a criterion. There have been people who have continued to play well after the age of 40. As long as you are fit and are able to mentally tune in to the game and go with the flow, and adapt, it is fine. That is more important. Experience plays a crucial role. At the other end of the spectrum, if a guy is 17 or 18, has the ability and is mentally tough enough, I see no reason why he should not be picked for India.

Robin Singh provided vital breakthroughs with his medium-pace. -- Pic. N. SRIDHARAN-

Talking of selections, it must have been a crushing blow to you when you picked up five wickets in a World Cup game against Sri Lanka in '99, and then were dropped for the next match!

Those moments were very disappointing. There can be no explanation. Nobody can give you one, however much the people try to convince you. I knew just before the game that I would not be playing. The point was that a player had done well and he was dropped without an explanation. In these situations, you got to pick yourself up and carry on from there. It is very difficult. It's almost like making a second or a third comeback. The odds are stacked against you.

Do you believe that you should have played more Test matches for India than a one-off Test against Zimbabwe? There is a tendency to brand cricketers.

It is very unfortunate that the cricketers get branded. We grow up playing the longer version of the game and built on that. If you are a good four-day cricketer, you can adapt to the one-day situation. I think if Yuvraj is given the opportunities somewhere along the line in Tests he is going to score. It's only a question of giving someone the confidence, allow him to play his game. Sehwag is a typical example. Four years ago, nobody would have said he would make a successful Test opener. But he's proven himself. Yuvraj is in the same mould. He has his own style, times the ball well and can accumulate the runs.

Leaving behind your family and friends in Trinidad and settling down in India must have been a huge decision. Did you at any point regret the move?

I have no regrets about leaving the West Indies, living in India and playing cricket here. The decision to come to India was not forced on me by anyone. I had already played at a level that was pretty high in Trinidad. I played for the Trinidad senior team and captained the under-19 team.

When you started your career as a first class cricketer in India, you were a lively fast medium bowler who loved banging the ball in short. As your career progressed, you cut down your pace and approached the job differently.

Robin Singh, a brilliant fielder, has taken a catch in the outfield and India has scored over Australia in the ICC knock-out tournament in Nairobi, in 2000. -- Pic. TOM SHAW/GETTY IMAGES-

I started reducing my pace when I started playing in England. The conditions are different, you realise you have to move the ball, swing it.

After seven years in exile, you made a comeback into the Indian team during the Titan Cup match against Australia in Mohali. The pressure must have been on you.

When I got a chance again, I had almost given up hopes of playing for India. But every time I played in a domestic game, I went in there to enjoy the game, play to the best of my ability, do well for my State or for my zone. You have to be performing all the time. I think Azhar kept mentioning my name during every selection meeting. I think he, to a large extent, kept the hope lingering in me. It made me think that I was still in contention for a place. Most cricketers live on a little bit of hope. They have to believe that there is always a chance.

Coming to the Titan Cup, Sourav was injured, then Raman also got injured and I received my chance. I went into the game knowing fully well that if we did not win the game, we would not qualify for the final, and it would probably be the only game where I would get a chance. We won, I picked up a couple of crucial wickets, and I stayed on in the team.

In the early stages of your career, you were more of a worker of the ball. You then began to play a lot more strokes, began striking the ball a lot harder. You also earned a reputation of being an unselfish cricketer.

I have always played my cricket like that. I never played for personal glory. When you play at No. 6 or No 7 in the ODIs, you have to be prepared to sacrifice your wicket, if the need be, for the team. You can't just look at hanging in there and scoring a run a ball. You are looking at scoring two runs a ball. Steal a run, make something out of nothing. You have to create situations. At the start of my career, I was looking at getting the ones and the twos, then I decided to win matches on my own for the State, began getting more boundaries.

Your fielding and running between the wickets served the team well too.

You need to run well between the wickets, you need to look for runs all the time. I always enjoyed my fielding.

Moments that you remember about your career with India?

We beat Pakistan in Pakistan, in Karachi. Then we had a terrific win over Pakistan in the '99 World Cup. Then there was that run chase against Pakistan in Dhaka. The tied game against Zimbabwe...You always remember the close, tense games, where every run scored or saved becomes important.

Being deeply involved in coaching these days, as the coach of the India under-19 side and the Director of the MAC Spin Foundation, what do you feel about this new role of yours?

It's a totally different feeling. It's a learning experience. You enable the youngsters to evolve. You do not tamper with their natural talent. You take one step at a time as coach. You try and build on what is there in a cricketer. Even though, you have played the game, you know the game, you are making somebody else understand it. You got to be patient, that's the key. Somewhere down the line, the youngsters would pick things up.

Before being picked for the senior India side, Irfan Pathan was a part of the Indian under-19 team. What are your impressions about this left-arm paceman, who has made a fine impression down under?

He has got a lot of potential. But he has to know what his limitations are. I don't think he can be an outright fast bowler. His asset is the ability to move the ball. And he can move the old ball, that is very important. If he can add a yard or two of pace, he can be quite a good bowler in the future. He's young, he's hard-working, he's willing to learn. And he can become a very decent batsman. He has the ability to hit the ball hard.

What do you make of India's chances in the under-19 World Cup in Dhaka?

It will be tough. But we have a very good chance of making it to the last four and then win it from there. We have as good a chance as any other top side.

Robin, there is an overwhelming view that the quality of bowling has gone down in domestic cricket.

The bowling in the 80s and the 90s was of a much higher standard. Even in the local first division league cricket in Chennai, it was very, very, competitive then. Most teams had two or three good spinners. We played a lot of matches on matting, which was very different. You had to be a good batsman to survive, you had to be a good bowler to take wickets. The competition was stiffer. It was more difficult to get into the State and Indian teams. There were less matches played. You had to be performing all the time. Today, there is a lot of importance given to the odd good performance. Then the guys who were not playing were almost on a par with the guys who were playing. Because the opportunities were less, the standard was kept high. Today there is so much more cricket and there is less quality.

You were an important part of some strong Tamil Nadu sides. Why is it that the state side, with a wealth of talent, has flattered to deceive on so many occasions?

We faltered on so many occasions. Losing to Mumbai in the semifinals in 1999-2000 was a great example. Our main bowlers did not bowl well and you were searching for bowlers who would do the job. We were in a very good position with the bat, we were 400 for four, and we ended up getting below 500 runs. We should have got 600 runs, and with that score, Mumbai, even with Sachin Tendulkar, would not have had a chance. We conceded the lead in a close finish and ended up losing the game. We had so many players who should have gone on to play a lot more. The attitude is important. Tamil Nadu has always had a lot of talent. You need to be playing as a team all the time. The team spirit had to be there, also the urge to win and win consistently. From there, you can go on to bigger things.

You have said that the then coach Madan Lal's words during India's tour of South Africa in 1996-97, before the game against Zimbabwe, fuelled you to greater deeds.

I heard him saying that it would be my last game. The point is it probably helped me to play a lot better. He must have said it out of frustration since the team was not doing well. But it mattered to me. I went on to play probably one of my best knocks. The match was tied from an impossible situation for India.

Representing India must have been an intoxicating feeling? Can you shed light on some of the personalities in the side?

Srinath was a very lively character, always up to something. Kumble was quiet and positive, Tendulkar was aggressive, always liked to win. Rahul was focussed. Jadeja helped me a fair amount in the beginning of my career. You need that bit of guidance. Azhar was always there for support. Made a huge difference to my international career. Every team-mate of yours comes in handy somewhere down the line. Playing for India is a superb feeling. When you walk in there you got to remember that you are playing for India. Once you do that and focus on your role, you would cherish almost every game that you are going to play. Every game is different, a new experience. You have to start from scratch each time you go out there. Initially when I started playing, Kapil was around. I have played a fair amount with Srikkanth in Tamil Nadu. W.V. Raman was a very good state cricketer and played for India as well. He didn't play as much as I thought he should have played.

You have said that you were inspired by the exploits of some great Indian cricketers in the Caribbean. When you could not watch them, you never missed a chance to listen to the action on the radio.

Listening to the cricket on the radio and watching some of the matches when the Indians visited the West Indies was inspiring. The feats of Gavaskar, Mohinder, and Kapil in the West Indies were extraordinary.

As a youngster, I used to follow the career of Gavaskar. Then the performances of the spinners, Bedi, Prasanna, Chandra, and Venkataraghavan, were so creditable. And when I came to India, the person who helped me a lot was Brijesh Patel. He sort of moulded me into a good cricketer. He made a difference to my career.