Rajinder Goel, the best of the nearly men

Written by Sandip G
| New Delhi |

Updated: June 22, 2020 12:50:46 am

Rajinder Goel Rajinder Goel had 750 first-class scalps — 637 off them coming in the Ranji Trophy, where he’s comfortably the highest-ever wicket-taker. (Twitter/BCCI)

Rajinder Goel, the stalwart left-arm spinner who died on Sunday at 77 after prolonged illness, was arguably the greatest of his craft to have never played Test cricket for India. Yet, he left Indian cricket richer with his skilful bowling, charming personality and relentless drive to mould young cricketers till he grew too weak to drag himself to the distant domestic fields of Indian cricket, always spotting a smile and stewing an old story or two.

When he left the domestic field at the age of 43 after 24 years of first-class cricket, he had in his ledger 750 scalps at 18.58 — 637 off them coming in the Ranji Trophy, where he’s comfortably the highest-ever wicket-taker. He was so deceptive — a classical spinner, who incorporated cunning and beauty in equal measures — that he enjoyed one-upmanship over the finest batsmen, cutting across eras.

Even the top Indian spinners of that era sought his advice to counter the legendary Vijay Manjrekar, as destructive a player of spin one could ever behold. But Goel used to find his inside-edge with a frequency that made the great Bombay batsman admire him and admit that he was one of the finest he had ever faced. Manjrekar passed on the mantle of the Bombay School of batsmanship to Sunil Gavaskar, who was in as much awe as dread of the beatifically smiling Goel, who nabbed him five times in his career.

Goel stamped such a lasting impression on Gavaskar that the latter named him as one of the ‘idols’ in his eponymous book. “He is the one bowler whom I have really dreaded facing in my life. I have never been able to feel comfortable against his left-hand spinners and Goel has been the one who, because of his flatter trajectory, has not given me the opportunity to step down the track and drive,” the legendary opener had written.

But then, Goel was not a dart-the-ball-in-at-the stumps modern-day DRS-powered left-arm spinner. Rather, he had several bows in his string and a sharper-than-sword mind. He had a beautiful action and pivot, used to get nice loop and drift. What made him very difficult was the subtle changes he made in flight and drift. Goel’s release too was romanticised. So neat and unfussy, no heavy tweaks or rips, no visible strain on his lithe body or malleable writs, that he hypnotised batsmen with his uncanny minimalism.

Yet, a Test cap eluded him, making his story the greatest so-close-yet-so-far narrative in Indian cricket, perhaps world cricket. The closest he came to was against the West Indies in Bangalore in 1974-75, when Bishan Singh Bedi was suspended on disciplinary grounds. He was widely tipped to make his debut, but instead, the team chose two off-spinners, EAS Prasanna and S Venkataraghavan to ally leg-spinner BS Chandrasekhar.

It was a logic Goel could never grasp. “When India played two off-spinners in (Erapalli) Prasanna and (Srinivas) Venkataraghavan, what stopped them from playing two left-arm spinners?” he had once remarked. It puzzled him throughout his life, but he was never bitter.

Close friends

Goel’s path to the Indian team was blocked by Bedi’s prowess and stature, but the two remained close friends. “A contented man who had no bitterness,” says Bedi. “A man who could not get angry,” chimes in former BCCI treasurer Anirudh Chaudhry, who worked closely with Goel as the latter served Haryana cricket in several capacities – including talent spotter and mentor – after his playing days.

Goel’s path to the Indian team was blocked by Bedi’s prowess and stature, but the two remained close friends. (File Photo/Reuters)

Chaudhry’s father and former BCCI president Ranbir Singh Mahendra said that “the cricket world has lost one of its finest jewels.”

“His contribution to the game post his retirement was massive and he would eagerly watch even an inter-district game in search for talent and remained the pivot for selection of Haryana cricket teams till he regretfully laid down his office on account of the Lodha recommendations,” Mahendra said.

Few cricketers have worn disappointment so gracefully and stoically as Goel, who till his last days used to groom cricketers from Haryana and remained a grandfatherly presence at nondescript, dusty cricket grounds of the state. “He was a domestic match referee for a long time, then he used to travel to every ground in the country to spot talents. I don’t think there is any cricketer in the country to not have passed through his eyes,” says Chaudhry.

A friendly, amiable figure, Goel would not only impart young cricketers with trade-specific knowledge, but also used to transport them to the time he played cricket. “He was our window into the 1970s, used to tell me so many great stories that made me fall in love with the game. He kept giving back more to the game that it had given him,” according to Chaudhry.

READ | Lifetime Achievement award winners Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar give contrasting views on honour

Goel, though, was averse to praise, and always undersold himself. “What could have I done except bowling well? I loved cricket and that was my life. There will be regrets but you do what you have to do,” he had said.

Though unfortunate that he plied his craft at the pinnacle of India’s spin bowling riches, several generations of Indian batsmen honed their skills facing him. “It’s because of bowlers like him that we Indian batsmen became good players of spin bowling in the world. You need to be a good quality batsman to face them and they meant business by challenging each batsman from the first ball. They were high-quality bowlers to face and if a batsman can play them, then they can play any spinner in the world,” reflects Dilip Vengsarkar, who used to keenly await the Times Shield so that he could play “Goel Sahab”.

He remembers another match, in Rohtak in 1984, when an autumnal Goel mopped up half the Mumbai side in the first session. The nature of the surface hardly mattered to him, some of his finest efforts had come on green-tops. “He meant business by challenging each batsman from the first ball. It was unfortunate that he did not play Test cricket,” says Vengsarkar.

That could well be the epitaph of his life and career. Yet, that should not define him. For he was much more than that, a textbook case of how to handle the setbacks of a career with a disarming smile, to illustrate that you could be a hero even if you don’t play at the highest level of cricket. As ‘Goel Sahab’ had repeated several times in his life: “What could I have done except bowling well?” A true romantic of the game.

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