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Limitless talent? Or limits of talent?


Altered State


With no live sport on television, my cricket consumption during the lockdown has been confined to YouTube. (Full disclosure: I unsubscribed all sports channels from my TataSky connection the day the lockdown came into effect because I knew I was not going to tune into any of them.)

During one of my late-night surfing sessions on YouTube, I came across clips of Mark Ramprakash – that quixotic English batsman, who scored over 35,000 first-class runs and compiled 114 centuries in the format – and it reminded me of the term ‘failed genius’. There is no greater example of this in cricket that Ramprakash, who despite his outrageous talent only played 52 Tests and 18 ODIs for England.

From the time Ramprakash played his final Test match in 2002 until he retired from cricket in 2012, hardly a spring went by when talk of another Ramprakash comeback did not blossom. How many hundreds this season? Sure, now that he’s past the age of 40, a recall is due? Will Ramps help Surrey avoid relegation? Can he catch Osama? Will he resuscitate the economy?

Another talented English batsman from whom much was expected, Ed Smith, summed up Ramprakash’s dilemma when he wrote: “The clouds of professionalism descended, and viewing what he did as a job made Ramprakash less good at doing it.”

There have been a lot more crickets whose careers have been dissected and romanticized. Remember Graeme Hick, a contemporary of Ramprakash’s who scored over 41,000 first-class runs with 136 centuries, but who averaged 31.32 in Tests. Was he a flat-track bully? A front-foot thumper? An enigma?

Hick had a record-setting domestic career, but in his own words, didn’t have “the ruthlessness” to cut it at the highest level. Is it a coincidence that he and Ramprakash made their Test debuts together?

Here at home, we too have seen a long list of talented cricketers who promised so much more fell flat. The three biggest stats of the Unfulfilled Talent category are Vinod Kambli, Sadanand Viswanath and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan. The talent, oh the talent. But none of them managed to forge distinguished careers.

Sivaramakrishnan is today a respected commentator, Viswanath turned his life around for the better after a dark phase and Kambli … well, let’s just say it is a relief that he has put the ‘Sach Ka Saamna’ days behind him and that very brief flirtation with Hindi films which was comedic … and that is not a compliment.

In 2010, I was covering an IPL match in Mohali and on the field in front were three of the previous generation’s most promising Indian cricketers are in the same floundering franchise – Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif and Irfan Pathan.

Yuvraj was, frustratingly, unable to crack Test cricket but is one of India’s all-time best ODI players. Irfan – remember his debut and his hat-trick in the first over of a Test? – fell victim to the dangers of rapid promotion, having been elevated to the Indian team too prematurely and then jettisoned just when he was coming to terms with his craft. He is now one of the several entrants in the ‘former future Kapil Dev’ list. As for Kaif … well, a very experienced cricket journalist once termed him ‘India’s Michael Chang’. That is, super fit, always buzzing around, just never really going anywhere. I think that says it all.

Life is unfair. Some cricketers can point to bad luck. So many have fallen well short of expectations. This is one of the most humanizing aspects of sport. And there is, I admit, a solemn satisfaction in romanticizing the fallen. Let’s just hope that young Prithvi Shaw does not follow the same road as Kambli.

(Jamie Alter is a sports writer, journalist, author and actor).