More sinned against that sinning

S. DINAKAR

THE triumphant wave of his willow, the sparkle in those often cold eyes, the otherwise dour visage lighted by a vibrant smile, the agony and frustrations of the past swept away, at least momentarily, by the sheer joy of the occasion... a lovely sporting vignette gleaming with genuine celebration and happiness.

The much-maligned Ajit Agarkar had conjured an unexpected Test hundred with India, on a 'slippery slope' at Lord's, hurtling towards a humiliating defeat. India still went down, but Agarkar's last gasp unbeaten 109 had enabled his team salvage a measure of pride.

-VIVEK BENDRE

It isn't easy to be in Agarkar's shoes. The man who fires them in at the batsmen, is often under the line of fire himself.

He does evoke extreme reactions. The critics seldom fail to point out the inconsistent streak in his cricket, batting in particular, while his supporters claim he is more sinned against than sinning.

After all, hadn't he been the quickest to cross the 50-wicket barrier in ODIs (21 matches), and doesn't he possess the Indian record for the fastest half century in limited overs cricket, off just 21 balls.

On the flip side, the 24-year-old Agarkar's inability to produce a match-winning spell in Test cricket, his rather horrendous run with the bat that left him with a shocking Test average of just over seven in 11 Tests prior to the Lord's effort, and a tendency to go off the boil during the heat of the battle, earned him the wrath of the media and fans.

His has been a rather intriguing career so far, sprinkled with surprises, laced with disappointments, dotted with possibilities.

Yet, despite the vicissitudes, the Mumbai cricketer has managed to stay afloat in choppy waters. During a conversation not too long ago, Indian coach John Wright had opined that Agarkar was just the type of player who needed to be handled with care.

Wright was hinting at Agarkar's confidence, that during certain situations had appeared fragile, and his small, light frame, which suggested he should be used more as a 'shock' bowler in Tests.

Returns of 29 wickets (ave. 42.72) and 236 runs (ave.13.88) in 12 Tests might be less than satisfying, however, Agarkar, if he is able to prove that his bright century at Lord's was no flash in the pan, might just be the elusive cricketer India is seeking. Let's, however, keep the 'if' in place for the time being.

In the ODI's, he has performed much better with 154 scalps in 100 matches (ave. 28.43, sr. 33.4, eco. rate 5.10), and taking his ability to strike into account, his economy rate, on the higher side, can perhaps be excused. And considering he bats lower down the order, his 665 runs in 62 innings (ave. 16.62, sr. 90.23) are more valuable than what they look at first glance.

Indeed, statistics hide more than they reveal about this rather enigmatic cricketer. What is the real Agarkar like, how does he react, how does he respond?

Well, Agarkar did answer quite a few questions during a free-wheeling chat with The Sportstar, before the English tour. And he did pack a punch.

"I never went around with a banner proclaiming 'I am an all-rounder.' I have never done that. People assume certain things. My primary job is to take wickets. I have some ability with the bat, and over a period of time, can develop on that," Agarkar fumed. In the event, the Lord's hundred is a huge step forward for the Mumbai cricketer.

The angry reaction back home, when he was lampooned for his string of first ball zeroes in Australia, '99, left him hurt. Especially since, he had been the pick among the Indian paceman in the three-Test series, hitting the deck and posing the powerful Australian batting problems with his nip off the pitch.

In other words, he had become the 'whipping boy'. "Today, even I am made to feel that I had not done enough on the tour, when actually I bowled very well in Tests. It does hurt. Everybody asked me about my dry run with the bat, but there was no talk about my bowling. I batted at No. 9, while I was a frontline bowler. I got three and three in both Melbourne and Sydney, got the Waugh brothers. All I received in return was criticism. What could I do? It is sad that people, on occasions, tend to look only at the negative things."

In the same breath, he agrees that everyone has a right to criticise, in a country where cricket is driven by rare passion. "They all have an opinion, I guess. You cannot stop people from reacting. Cricket is like a religion here."

He is basically a rhythm bowler. When everything falls in place, there is that distinct buzz in his bowling, but then, when Agarkar's body and mind aren't exactly in cohesion, it can so easily go awry. Agarkar admits he is working on 'consistency', without compromising on his ability to strike.

Aggressive by instinct, Agarkar is an attacking customer, even if he is expensive on occasions. "If you pick wickets, it certainly helps, in any form of the game. Even in the ODI's, a couple of quick wickets, at any stage, is sure to keep the runs down. Of course, like any bowler, I don't like going for runs. But then, there will be days when you will be costly. It's a part of the game. In the ODI's, I try to mix it up quite a bit. Yes, aggression is a big factor in my cricket, when I have that within me, I tend to bowl better."

His quest for a destructive spell in Tests, that would provide a thrust to his bowling career, continues. "It always helps to have one big haul behind your back. Hopefully, instead of beating the edges, the snicks would be held in the cordon. Yes, that would give me a lot of confidence."

The rather frail-looking Agarkar does make the batsmen hurry their strokes; his ambling run-up suggests that the delivery would come through at a friendly pace. Where does the extra 'zip' come from? "I have a whippy, quick arm action. I think I am deceptive. Batsmen do not expect me to come up and bowl at a sharp pace, and they are surprised. In my school days I was bowling at, say, slow medium. Then as I grew up, I discovered I could bowl a lot more quickly."

Agarkar has the ability to swing the ball from a fullish length, but as he admits, has to work more on his yorkers. "I can get the ball to reverse, but can also go for runs going for the yorker. It's a thin line. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. With a side-on action, it's not all that easy to control this delivery."

Given that the away going delivery is Agarkar's principal weapon, there is a feeling that probing around the middle and off-stump, would benefit him more than an off-stump line, considering that, under favourable conditions, he regularly beats the batsmen without any addition to the last column in his analysis.

By bringing about a slight adjustment in line, he would be making the batsmen play more often. Agarkar's agreement is conditional. "Yes, I do beat the bat without the batsmen nicking it. For instance, in the Harare Test last year, I kept beating the bat the whole day, without being rewarded. It was very frustrating. I was trying to get my Test career back on track. A middle and off stump line might help me find the edges more. It also depends on the situation and the wicket." Agarkar may be right. In the sub-continent, the chances are that anything around middle stump will be whipped on to the leg-side.

Haunted by injuries early in his career, Agarkar, however, denies that his action - latest studies hint that a side-on release puts more pressure on the back - was the cause. "No, it wasn't my action. Probably, I didn't know how to handle my body weight properly. I have no problems now. Experience teaches you a lot of things."

Like most members of his tribe, he is delighted with the one bouncer an over rule in ODI's. "It has definitely changed things. The batsmen now think twice before putting their front foot forward and thumping you. With the bouncer into the equation now, they can no longer be that confident. Especially, the non-regular pinch-hitting openers."

He realises that luck plays a huge part in this game of 'swinging' fortunes, and adds a cricketer has to keep going, irrespective of the results. "Sometimes you bowl well without getting wickets, and sometimes you bowl badly and still pick up some. It comes with the package, I guess."

Agarkar is forthcoming about bowlers who have inspired him. "When I was young, I was fascinated by Michael Holding's run-up and action. Then Allan Donald and Glenn McGrath are bowlers with fine qualities. I think our own Javagal Srinath's achievements are extraordinary. He has over 200 Test wickets, more than hundred of them at home. It's an exceptional feat. Before him, the great Kapil Dev showed the way for the Indian pacemen."

He was overwhelmed by emotions at Lord's, yet, Agarkar is a cricketer who keeps 'fist clenching and back slapping' to a minimum on the cricketing arena, giving many the impression that his cricket either lacked passion, or bordered on the arrogance. "That's the way I have always been. Some jump after every ball, I don't do that. Not that I am less happy after taking a wicket, but, I do not show it. It's not that I am arrogant or something. I just keep to myself. Even at home, I am like this, reading a book or listening to music."

Queried about those who have helped him along the way, Agarkar readily acknowledges the contribution of his former Mumbai skipper Sanjay Manjrekar. "He has always been there for me. I made my debut for Mumbai under him. Learn't a lot on how to approach a game from him. Sachin has been encouraging too, but I guess he is like that with every young cricketer. He is such a great player but makes a youngster feel uncomfortable. Then, my family has been very helpful. My wife Fatima is a big source of support."

What has he learn't about life from cricket. Agarkar ponders for a while before replying. "Like cricket, life is a great leveller. You are bound to have the good and the bad days. You have to survive through the bad times, and make the most of the good ones."

And how does he motivate himself, when the going gets rough? "I play for the love of it. And the opportunity to represent India is the biggest incentive. I am 24. It could have been better, but, on the whole, I have done my bit for the team."

Agarkar says he doesn't really believe in setting long-term goals for himself. "I take things as they come. Not think too far ahead, but approach it step by step, game by game. I am still learning. The bottom line is that you have to perform in whatever opportunities you receive."

Given that a sportsperson's career is a long, winding journey littered with dangerous curves along the way, Ajit Agarkar realises that a cricketer lives 'day to day,' surviving one duel, preparing for the next. The Lord's hundred is history, future will tell.