Vinod Kambli

T Kambli he Mumbai dressing room at Wankhede Stadium wore a relaxed look on Wednesday. 'Kuch Kuch Hota Hai' was playing on somebody's transistor and Mumbai skipper Sachin Tendulkar was obliging children with his autograph. The four-day Ranji Trophy clash against Gujarat was over. On the third day itself, Mumbai whitewashed Gujarat.

I reached the stadium late. When I did, the match was over. Vinod Kambli, Mumbai's vice-captain for the game, was looking fit and trim and was engrossed in serious discussion with coach Ashok Mankad. Ten minutes later, his kit bag packed and slung on his shoulder, Kambli joined me outside the dressing room.

Mumbai's season opener, the one-day game against Gujarat last Sunday, was Kambli's return to cricket after nursing an ankle injury for seven months. While substituting for Azharuddin, he twisted an ankle in Cuttack playing Zimbabwe, and was temporarily taken out of the game. Dramatically, he was declared fit to play an hour-and-a-half before the start of the match. He went in and hammered 90 runs in 61 balls. "I wanted to test the ankle. That innings gave me a lot of satisfaction," he told me with a wicked smile.

But his discomfort, which had nothing to do with the opposition bowling, was noticed by many. Especially while Kambli was running. "No, no, it was not discomfort," he hastily explained. "I know I was limping a bit, but I did a lot of running in that game. Sachin and I took quite a few ones and twos. And, as I said, I was testing my ankle by putting more weight on that leg."

I reminded him that Gujarat's fielders were the ones doing most of the running; in fact, Kambli and Tendulkar, who was also going great guns, sent them on a leather chase all over the boundary. Kambli laughed. "Well, it was a good feeling. I was playing first class cricket after seven months, though I played two games for my company before the season opener. Runs at the start of the season always increase your confidence."

He moves around with an 'air cast' these days, wrapped around his ankle. "It works, really," Kambli convinced me. "This 'air cast' ensures that the ankle does not twist." Simultaneously, he undergoes physiotherapy by Dr Ali Irani, the famous physio who ironed out all the aches and pains of the Indian cricket team for many seasons.

"The injury is responding very well to the treatment, and in any case, when I am playing I forget everything. My focus is on the game," Kambli said. Indeed, his focus is, as was evident in the Mumbai vs. Gujarat one-dayer. All through his innings of 90, when it seemed like he was in pain (though he insists he wasn't). Kambli was enjoying every moment of the game. "Really there was no pain... All right, I will say that I was so involved in the game that I didn't feel any pain," the flamboyant left-hander admitted.

Watching Vinod Kambli bat is quite an exhilarating experience, simply because he enjoys his cricket. I have studied the joy on his face when he hits a good stroke. Watched him revel in fielding a good shot. Even seen him bounce in his seat in excitement when he is watching the game from the pavilion. He gives the impression of one who derives much fun out of cricket. I suspect, there is still something of the schoolboy hidden in him.

"I am playing the game because I enjoy it. I am in love with cricket. And I want others to have fun as well. I want my teammates to enjoy, and I want spectators to enjoy the game," Kambli said simply. I mentioned that the seven months' lay-off had brought about a change in him. "Maybe," replied Kambli.

"Maybe it has given me more patience. Mental toughness. I always had. Never lacked it. But one thing I know for sure, I have got my priorities right. I know what I want, and I am hopeful of achievinng that." Right now, all he wants to do is get fully fit and come back to the Indian team. "But I am not rushing things. I know when the right time will be. I will be testing the injury further, and only when I am satisfied with my fitness, will I start looking at bigger things."

He is not making any predictions...
"I'm taking things as they come," he said honestly.

Kambli Kambli has settled down in Pune. He lives in a comfy, modern row house. "It's a nice place, quite relaxing. And Pune is a nice city," the Mumbai batsman said. Mumbai, of course keeps drawing him back to her. He cannot count the number of times he travelled to Mumbai in the last seven months only to watch cricket. That was when he was not watching cricket in Pune.

"Mentally, I was never away from the game. I watched cricket at home on TV. I would also come to Wankhede, CCI. It would give me lot of pleasure," he said. Another thing which gave him a lot of pleasure was the support he got from teammates and officials. Kambli said: "Sachin was always there. Mohammad Azharuddin was very supportive, he encouraged me a lot. Rajbhai (Raj Singh Dungarpur) and Mr J.Y. Lele would call me often and ask about my recovery. The Mumbai squad... I am really thankful to all of them."

If Kambli is a livewire on the field, he is very active in the dressing room as well. He can be relied upon to come up with something when the chips are down. He will boost the morale of the team, ease the tension, and will try and help his teammates, because he cares for them. And his teammates will say as much. Jatin Paranjape said, "There can never be a dull moment when Vinod is around. He is just terrific, as a batsman, and as a teammate. He is my favourite batting partner, though I get tense watching him bat."

In between our chat, Kambli was constantly pestered for autographs and pictures. "I don't like to disappoint them," he said, pointing to a group of children waiting outside the dressing room for him to emerge. "But you know, sometimes you wish for privacy. But, well, this is just part of the job I am doing. I love cricket fans, without them the game will die. I try and sign as many autographs as possible."

Coming back to his cricket, the long layoff I noticed has had no impact on his batsmanship. His approach and his style have remained unaffected, thankfully. Kambli agreed wholeheartedly. "Nothing about my batting has changed. See, minor changes are there all the time, but there has been no drastic changes. I am batting as usual." Outside cricket, Kambli loves music, enjoys seafood, and Desmond Haynes is his favourite cricketer. His teammates call him 'Dessie', which is the nickname of the great West Indian opener.

"I appreciate the West Indians' style of cricket." He, in fact, looks like a West Indian himself -- cropped hair, thick gold chain, gold earring, muscular body. When in Mumbai, he must visit Gajalee Restaurant in the suburbs for its seafood. He prefers Indian and Western music. Elton John, Kishore Kumar (he often borrows Tendulkar's Kishore Kumar collection) are some of his favourites. His other interests include cars and movies.

He has acquired a home theatre for himself in Pune, and his close friends swear it is magnificent. He is a brilliant driver himself, and is in love with his machines.

Kambli admires a lot of cricketers, but Ajit Wadekar and Sunil Gavaskar top his list. Wadekar was the manager of the Indian cricket team when Kambli shot to fame with a sensational home series against England. "Both Ajit (sir) and Sunil (sir) have encouraged me. I owe a lot to these gentlemen," he mentioned. He often returns to his coach, Ramakant Achrekar, for advice.

I asked Kambli about his friendship with Sachin Tendulkar. They share a special friendship, a bond which has only strengthened since their Shardashram days. Before the start of every Test, Kambli calls up his chum and wishes him luck. "His recent exploits have not surprised me, he was always capable of them, and he is capable of much more. His best is yet to come," Kambli said with pride of Tendulkar.

Certainly, Tendulkar is enjoying a tremendous period. But the Gods are smiling on Vinod Kambli as well. He will be leading Mumbai against Saurashtra at Rajkot today, in the absence of Tendulkar. He has successfully led Mumbai in the past and wants to repeat the successes. The season has begun on a positive note for him and if he can continue in the same vein, fans could see him batting for India soon. Vinod Kambli himself is smiling again.