The real characters are missing

IT can be tough, even for the most experienced cricketers, on long, demanding tours. The players are away from home for more than a couple of months, and mentally, it can be hard, especially when things aren't going too well.

There is plenty of stress and strain, both physically and mentally, and some of the cricketers, defeated by the pressures of big time cricket, look forward to catching the first flight home.

It thus helps to have lively characters around in the side, who can keep the spirits up, even during the most difficult of times. It is so vital to have such men on away campaigns.

Taking the happenings on the field away from the mind during the evenings is crucial. The tension should be allowed to flow out of the body.

I remember, during my playing days, Sandeep Patil was one such character. He had a wonderful sense of humour and there was hardly a dull moment when he was around.

Even during tours like that of Pakistan, where there is little else apart from cricket, and the evenings can be so dull and boring, he invariably managed to put a smile on our faces.

There would be practical jokes, pranks, and even the men at the receiving end would have had a hearty laugh at the end. There was one exception though!

Yashpal Sharma used to get provoked very easily, and it was precisely for this reason that he was the target more often! Yashpal would often find his bat, gloves and pads missing, would go red in the face, and then complain to the manager.

Of course, all this would be forgotten at the end of the day, for the intention was only to lighten the mood in the dressing room.

Like Patil, I was a bit of a jovial bloke in the team, and it certainly made me more popular in the side. At the end of a long, hard, tiring day, you do need a few laughs.

Sunil Gavaskar was perhaps the most focussed among the cricketers I ever came across, but even he was a bit of a prankster off the field. Perhaps, it was a conscious decision by Gavaskar to lessen the stress and strain of being India's leading batsman.

Travelling across the border, Javed Miandad, an extremely combative cricketer otherwise, had a lighter side to him. He never did mind a laugh on the field.

He would say a few things to the players, but after a while would come back to you and confess it was all a joke. He was quite a character.

During the Chennai Test against Pakistan in '87, when I was on my way to an attacking hundred on day three, I heard Miandad telling me "you are a slogger, have no technique."

I took it in my stride for a while and then answered Miandad. "Javed, if everybody had your technique and strokes, there would be several Javed Miandads in world cricket." Soon, Miandad walked up to me and said, "It was all a joke. Don't take it to heart." Miandad often walked the thin line between sledging and humour.

Another unforgettable personality in the Pakistan side was Abdul Qadir. The man's self-confidence was amazing. He would wear shirts and pants of the brightest colours, yet could pull that off. He loved to get noticed!

In my mind, Qadir is the finest leg-spinner of our times, somebody who could change the course of a match in a single spell. And off the field, he was the most 'colourful' of them all.

Now to another spinner of my time. Greg Matthews was to put in one word - crazy! He had his own ways of doing things and came across as a totally different Australian cricketer.

Traditionally, the Aussies have been hard-nosed no-nonsense competitors, yet Matthews was an exception. Right from his hair style, to the manner of his dressing, to the way he talked, he was unlike his mates.

This is not to suggest that he tried less hard. In fact, it was Matthews who enabled Australia to fight back from the brink, and tie that famous Test at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium.

In the moment of despair for the Aussies, Matthews with his bubbly demeanour not only lifted the spirits of his team-mates, but also sent down a fine spell in an extremely difficult situation. He was one character who would be hard to forget.

In stature, Ian Botham was a much, much bigger cricketer, yet there are so many tales about his off the field pranks. Especially the ones where the good old Geoffery Boycott was the victim. One day, I would love to get Boycott's opinion on Botham!

Still on English cricketers, Allan Lamb was a lively individual. He often saw the funny side of things, and this could be seen in the manner he played his cricket.

He was a free-stroking batsman, who often struck the ball with enormous power. On one occasion when he did that, during the '84 Test at the Eden Gardens, his furious pull off a L. Sivaramakrishnan full toss, got almost lodged between my armpit at short-leg!

The ball finally dropped down to the enormous relief of Lamb! After the completion of that over, he said to me, "Man, had I got out in such a way, I would have given up playing cricket!" Even in the heat of the battle, the lighter side in him surfaced.

I am an admirer of West Indies cricket, and consider it a great honour when I finally played against them in an international match. They were supreme entertainers, who played hard on the field, and were easy going chaps off it.

Even the fast bowlers, who were such a menace in the arena, would never think twice before sharing a drink with you in the evening. That's how it should be. These days though, I get the distinct impression that the real characters are missing from the game. There is so much money in cricket now, and the stakes are so high that many of the players find it difficult to 'relax.'

Of course, there are still a few guys around like Harbhajan Singh, a chirpy, likable individual with the knack of making people laugh. And before him there was Vinod Kambli, again someone who loved to keep everyone in splits.

I wish there are more of their ilk in the Indian and international scene. Cricket is a hard game, played with a hard ball, but off the field it can be so different. Even on the field, occasionally!