Former Karnataka captain, and briefly, India star Karun Nair will be turning out for Vidarbha in the new season of the Ranji Trophy. This is not unusual. Former internationals have made similar moves either because they no longer fit into the scheme of things at home, or because they see better chances away. Yet, if fans feel a twinge at the change, that is because it is a reminder of the cruelty of cricket.
Nair, still only 31, has one of the most intriguing records in Test cricket. An average of 62.33 from six Tests is boosted by a highest score of 303 not out against England. I remember an English writer recalling how, after every break, lunch, tea, close of play, it looked like Nair was still at the crease.
He batted 25 minutes short of ten hours, needing just 75 deliveries for his third hundred. He brought up his double and triple in the same session, the only player to do so since Wally Hammond. Anything short was cut or pulled, anything driveable was driven. The English bowlers didn’t know where to hide.
That triple came in only Nair’s third Test. He had just turned 25 then. A little over three months later, it was all over; he had played his last Test. His highest score outside of that mammoth innings was 26. There was a time in Indian cricket when a century ensured a long stay in the team; now, such was the talent available that even a triple was no guarantee. A couple of seasons earlier, Nair had made the first triple in a Ranji final in nearly seven decades.
Andy Sandham, the English opener who made Test cricket’s first triple century, didn’t play Tests again. But that was no consolation for Nair. Sandham was past 40 at the time, and in the next series, England had a new opening pair, Hobbs and Sutcliffe.
In some ways, Nair is in the company of two other Indian players who entered the scene with a bang, but didn’t play into their thirties.
Vinod Kambli and Narender Hirwani played 17 Tests each, and both promised far more than they delivered. In his first seven Tests Kambli made two double centuries and two others besides, and finished with an average of 54.20. He was 23 when he played the last of his Tests, only one of which was outside Asia.
Fast bowlers discovered quickly that a well-placed gully fielder reduced Kambli’s effectiveness as he couldn’t keep his cut down often enough. There were too murmurs of poor behaviour in contrast to his school buddy Sachin Tendulkar who was the epitome of self-control.
More importantly, India did not have a system of mentoring players, especially talented ones who sometimes lost their way in the world of glamour and lights. Better handling might have seen a better Kambli, but the combination of weaknesses, technical and personal, was allowed to decide his future.
Leg spinner Hirwani’s entry was even more spectacular, with 16 for 136 on his Test debut against the West Indies in Chennai. The line-up included Viv Richards, Richie Richardson, Desmond Haynes. Some of those wickets came off poor deliveries as the batsmen panicked, swung over the ball or contrived to get their pads in the way. Hirwani was just 19, and his figures are still the best by a bowler on debut (Australia’s Bob Massie picked up 16 on debut too, but conceded one run more).
Richards was so furious at what he thought, rightly, was an underprepared wicket that he sent out a warning to India after the match: “Come to the West Indies, we’ll show you.” West Indies won the four-match series that followed 3-0, and Hirwani’s six wickets cost him nearly 58 per wicket.
It seemed both Kambli and Hirwani needed the comfort of home while the former needed a minder who could keep him on the straight and narrow. Hirwani’s nine Tests outside India fetched just 21 wickets at nearly 60. With the emergence of Anil Kumble, Hirwani’s career fell away. The two leg spinners played four Tests together. Hirwani played his last Test at 27 in a sport where spinners get better with age.
Nair, Kambli, Hirwani might be footnotes in cricket history, but at their best it was difficult to imagine too many better.