‘I’ll have champagne in the Vengsarkar Suite!’

MARK MANUEL meets cricket lover, godfather, and former India captain DILIP VENGSARKAR a day after MCC announced that it would name one of its prestigious suites at Lord’s after him.

Dilip Vengsarkar is the only cricketer I can really claim to know well. Actually, he is my brother's friend. They've known each other for long, some 20, 21 years at least. While I got friendly with him only lately after I had invited Vengsarkar and wife Manali for a celebrity lunch this newspaper was having one Saturday at Zodiac Grill. The Vengsarkars came. They love good food and eating out. And they are a handsome, and popular, couple on the city's social circuit. Yesterday was my turn to call on him. I had read that MCC, the Marylebone Cricket Club, was naming its 20 Tavern Suites at Lord's after outstanding cricketers who are its honourary life members. And Vengsarkar was one of them. He is the only batsman in the world to have scored three consecutive Test centuries at Lord's. I understand this achievement rates high with MCC. Higher than the two Test hundreds made there by the legendary cricketers Sir Donald Bradman and Sir Garfield Sobers, respectively. Congratulations were in order. I called on the former Indian cricket captain around tea-time at his Arabian Sea-facing residence in Sportsfield on Worli Seaface.

Vengsarkar opened the door to me himself. His non-cricketing years have not robbed him of the grace and nonchalant athletic ease of the playing field. He ushered me in, then coiled his six-foot frame onto a sofa and prepared to talk. Just before I came, he had been watching the third day's play of the first Test match between India and England at Mohali. "Laxman has just got out," Vengsarkar cued me in. "V.V.S. ...he scored his customary 28!" Curiously I asked: "Isn't the match boring?" And he replied, "Yes, it is." But he had to watch. He is now a celebrated cricket columnist for publications around the country. In Mumbai, he writes for Mid-Day and Loksatta. The language newspapers translate his reports. And he is rather conscientious about his work. He watches the game till close of play, then writes his column, and faxes or e-mails it to the various newspaper that carry him. "Which is more fun," I asked. "Watching the game live and writing about it, or following it on TV?" "Covering it from home," he replied promptly. "When I go to a stadium, there are always people who want to stop by and say hello, and I miss most of the play. Whereas on TV, I can really concentrate on what's going on." For the spectator, he said, the cricket ground was the more thrilling alternative. "You get the atmosphere. If it is a full house, and the match is interesting, then the atmosphere can be electrifying."

However, this was true only of One-day Internationals. "Test matches can be boring," Vengsarkar admitted. But for the connoisseur, and for the player, Test cricket was the real thing. He explained: "In a Test match, the captain's skills really come out. How he plans his strategy, how he puts pressure on the batsman, this is seen in six hours of play. The same is with the batsmen and bowlers.” He himself used to prefer Test cricket. "A batsman is remembered for his Test record, not the One-day Internationals," Vengsarkar said. Then, with a touch of surprise: "But why are we discussing cricket? I retired ten years ago!"

Indeed, he had. But Vengsarkar is far from finished with cricket. Now he is giving back to the game. Modestly he told me, "This is a common statement, but I am happy that I really did it." He meant his Cricket Academy in Mumbai sponsored by Elf Lubricants. He has another one planned for the suburbs. "The Oval Maidan is too far away for kids coming from Bhiwandi and Vasai," he said. "I have got players who start out at 4.30 o'clock in the morning for the 7 a.m. nets. The academy is on a beautiful ground, the wickets are probably the best in Mumbai, and the coaching is free. Plus I fit them out with kits, I take care of all their needs, yet... where is the Oval! It takes the kids a long time to reach there. Most of them are from the lower strata. They are driven to do something. Cricket is about hard work. About proving something to yourself. With their kit bags, these kids travel in crowded trains to the academy. Then they have school. You won't believe, most of them do their homework in the train! Only the mentally tough last in cricket"

He talked about his early days in cricket. He started playing for Mumbai in 1974. And Mumbai had some excellent cricketers in its team. Vengsarkar played with them all. "There was Ashok Mankad, Sunil Gavaskar, Ramnath Parkar, Padmakar Shivalkar, Karsan Ghavri, Abdul Ismail, Sudhir Naik, Eknath Solkar," he rattled off. And he played for Mumbai right until 1992, when in his last match in March that year he scored 284 against Madhya Pradesh. "Tendulkar, Kambli, Manjrekar, they have all played under me," he added. When he was captain of India, Vengsarkar had selected Tendulkar to play for Mumbai. He told the story: "I had heard about Tendulkar in 1988, but had not seen him in action. Then India played a Test match in Mumbai and I called him to the nets. I asked Kapil and Co. to bowl at him. And Tendulkar was very impressive. I picked him for Mumbai." I asked him whether he had an opinion on the recent controversy in South Africa involving Tendulkar. If he had, Vengsarkar was not sharing it. But he did say that the post of the match referee was so unnecessary. "The umpires on the ground should be able to control the game," he suggested.

And then it was time to talk about Lord's, and the Tavern Suite being named after him. Vengsarkar said, "These suites are not like our boxes. They are really luxurious suites with a fully-equipped bar, a dining table, a TV, and a balcony overlooking Lord's. You can hire it for a Test or for the season. It's expensive. Something like 7,000 pounds for five days." Why you," I asked. And wife Manali, who had come in with tea, said: "Because Dilip is their favourite cricketer!" He shot her a look. "I'm not their favourite. But I have scored three Test hundreds there. I made 103 in 1979, 157 in 1982, and 126 not out in 1986. Few cricketers have scored even two hundreds here. From India..." and here he counted on his finger tips, "...Vinoo Mankad, Azhar, Shastri scored one each."

It was a great feeling, he admitted, to score a hundred at Lord's. That was every batsman's dream. "This is after all the headquarters of cricket," Vengsarkar said. “It is a historic and traditional place. The ground is mind-boggling. The wicket is a very good batting wicket. And during a full house, the atmosphere is charged. It brings out the best in any cricketer. It is like Wimbledon for tennis players." One Tavern Suite will be named after him for the next three years. It will have a framed action photograph of him put up. "Does this make you feel proud," I unnecessarily asked. "Proud," said Dilip Vengsarkar, "I'm looking forward to going to Lord's in July and watching the India-England Test from this suite. I'll have some champagne there!"