The Brief History of a Friendship

Even before the overrated controversy around a reality show, Vinod Kambli and Sachin Tendulkar were drifting apart. Here is a moving story of what was once a pure and improbable friendship between a boy from the shanties and a professor’s son
bonding
Lifting the Ranji Trophy, 1994
Tendulkar and Kambli at the RCF ground, Mumbai, early 1994-95
The two friends with Ramakant Achrekar (Dronacharya awardee, 1991-92) receiving the Shiv Chhatrapati award

On 23 February 1988, Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli made a record partnership of 664 runs for Shardashram School in the Harris Shield Inter-school Cricket Tournament semi-final against St Xavier’s School, Bombay. “Can you imagine? We were bowling, and we just had to give up even thinking about which of the two to try getting out,” recalls Jyotirmoy Saha, an entertainment industry professional in Singapore who can never forget that day. “And,” he adds, “they were our juniors—younger than us.” Sachin and Vinod just let their bats do the talking. A few days later, the two attended a sports awards function at Willingdon Catholic Gymkhana in Santacruz.

Pradeep Gandhe, a former badminton player who won a bronze medal at the 1982 Asian Games, was one of the award winners. At dinner, someone asked him if he could drop the two boys near Ashish Medical Store in Dadar. He agreed. Gandhe, his wife and their daughter, along with Sachin and Vinod, left the Gymkhana in his white Premier Padmini.

“We had to make a quick stop at a relative’s in Khar,” Gandhe says. “Sachin and Vinod waited in the car. They were a picture of obedience. Taking a taxi was an indulgence for middle-class Maharashtrians those days, like eating a whole apple. They seemed thankful for a lift, speaking only when spoken to.”

According to Kambli, he was 11 when he first met Sachin, who was ten then. If Kambli is right, the year must have been 1983. But it was in February 1988 that their friendship and talent came into national spotlight. That was when we began to learn about two very special boys who were vastly different. The left-hander was from a Kanjurmarg shanty and the right-hander from a building named after a poem (‘Ushakal’ by Suresh Bhat, in Bandra’s Sahitya Sahawas colony). Ganpat Kambli, Vinod’s cricketer father, used to verbally abuse and physically assault his son. Ramesh Tendulkar, a professor of Marathi, hardly ever raised his voice. Vinod was dark, flamboyant, talkative. Sachin was fair and quiet. “One Sunday, they came to my shop looking for cricket videos,” says Theo Braganza of Marine Sports, the sports books store in Dadar. “Vinod was the man in charge, yapping away in broken English. Sachin stayed in the background.” (It is said that Sachin used to call Vinod “Guruji”.) Vinod and Sachin were unlikely buddies. But the beautiful thing about adolescent friendships is that they are free from the ‘common background’ encumbrance. No one is out of anyone’s league. Leagues exist in the calculating world of adults.

There is a similarity between the two, though. Both were very mischievous. Yes, even Sachin. “I never let them (his family) know where I had fallen and whether my shin or knee was hurting or whether I had scraped my elbow. Every evening when I got back home, my father used to check my body for injuries,” Sachin once said.

Years ago, when I interviewed Vinod for a cricket magazine, he summarised their bond in these words: “Sachin is the first person who’ll tell me, ‘Vinod, don’t do this’. At times I tell him a few things. He is a shrewd fellow, very intelligent. Not to say I’m not intelligent.” He laughed, then added, “Nobody’s the boss in our friendship.” Amol Muzumdar, the Mumbai veteran, says, “Sachin Tendulkar has a space around him which few can enter. Vinod could. I would be astonished with what he could get away with Sachin.”

As boys, playing for India was a distant but destined target for both. Sachin, expectedly, got there first. He went to Pakistan when he was 16. Vinod wrote in Mumbai’s Mid-Day newspaper recently that after hitting Abdul Qadir for four sixes in one of the tour matches, an excited Sachin told him, “Kamblya, mi Abdul Qadirla tadi dili.” (‘I whacked Qadir’) For those who follow Marathi, the line is warm and endearing because the ‘ya’ suffix to ‘Kambli’ captures the spirit of their relationship, and the comment is filled with flavours of the Mumbai maidan. It is also a rare glimpse of an unguarded Tendulkar who, in public, usually speaks a sterile language that conceals more than it reveals (“I let my bat do the talking”... you see).

Vinod, despite taking the “the stairs”, as he once said famously, caught up with Sachin just two years later in 1991. In 1993, almost exactly five years after the Harris Shield record, the two were in a setting and moment that Mumbai had sought so dearly. They were playing a Test for India at Wankhede Stadium. The opponents were England. Sachin was under immense pressure to score his first century at Wankhede and he made a tense 78. He was out to a contentious leg before decision against the left-arm spinner Phil Tufnell. The luck that he did not have came Vinod’s way. Early in his innings, he was dropped by Phil DeFreitas at long off. He went on to 224.

There was something about the series. India won all the three Tests. The spin trinity of Anil Kumble, Venkatapathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan delivered with the ball. In the news we heard Prime Minister Narasimha Rao congratulate Mohammad Azharuddin on the phone. The country was on a high, and it was somehow appropriate that the team sponsor was Lord & Master whisky. Due to a combination of these heady factors, the 224 remains Vinod’s most memorable innings.

Incredibly, Vinod scored another double century less than a month later. Two more hundreds followed. He was more prolific than Sachin during this spell, and for the first time, there were whispers of tension in their relationship. But Sachin returned to his dominating ways, playing pivotal roles in the Hero Cup and in New Zealand. The old order was restored. They were friends again. They hung out in New Zealand, Walkman strung to their ears, visiting waterfalls, Vinod in Michael Jackson’s Dangerous World Tour T shirt, Sachin in jeans and sunglasses. Their fashion sense was still evolving. In the summer of 1994, a cola ad paid ode to their friendship. It showed Sachin struggling to write a love letter. Out comes Vinod, and says, “Tu likh, main bolta hoon. Meri pyaari Anita, maine aaj tak yeh dil yun nahin khola… (You write, I’ll narrate. Dear Anita, never before did I open my heart so…).” A bottle of cola is uncapped and the drink bursts forth.

But Vinod was getting drawn to other bottles. “After checking into a room he would take out a photo of Saibaba and a bottle of drink. That’s Vinod,” a Mumbai player once said, laughing and shaking his head. From 1995, Vinod lost his youthful look. He put on weight and began to bald. What little hair was left began to grey. Like Michael Jackson, his idol, Kambli experimented with his looks to bizarre effect.

“Vinod was serious about the game. But off the field, someone needed to control him,” Ajit Wadekar says. Wadekar was the manager in the mid-90s when Kambli was in the team. “If he was batting overnight it was important for him to sleep well. (So) at times I’d have dinner with him. The idea was to prevent him from having dinner with his friends.”

April 1998 is a month Vinod and Sachin will remember for different reasons. Tendulkar reached what many still regard as the zenith of his skills: winning India the Coca-Cola Cup in Sharjah with successive hundreds against Australia. Earlier in the month, Vinod fractured his right ankle while fielding at Cuttack against Zimbabwe. It was one of those falls that make you sick when you see it.

There were a few times after that when Vinod extricated himself from the grip of indiscipline, when he applied himself and inspired hope. In 2000, his mother Vijaya died a day before the Ranji Trophy semifinal against Tamil Nadu. Vinod was close to her. She shielded him from the fury of his father. (On the television show Sach ka Saamna, Vinod did not deny being beaten up by his father and said he does not want to live with him. To paraphrase what he said, he has not gotten over “incidents” from his childhood. But he said he forgives him.) Vinod played the match and scored a crucial 75. In the final against Hyderabad, he got a hundred.

But a sustained recovery would prove beyond him. The man who climbed the stairs to the top took the elevator to the bottom. On the other hand, Sachin soared, feeding his inexhaustible hunger for glory by claiming one cricketing peak after another. Off the field, he developed an image. He acquired not just money but also sophistication. Once, he could barely speak English. Now he politely declines interview requests by saying his schedule is “choc-a-bloc”. He spends summers in London, sometimes adjusting his tie as he settles into the Royal Box at Wimbledon.

Vinod participates in tacky television shows, where, before an answer, he kisses a chunky cross. He says he does not do the shows for money and expects us to believe it.

Vinod has suffered a broken marriage. He did not do justice to his career. Stories about his drinking abound. “It is pointless to call him in the evening,” someone advised. If he still blames everything on fate or selectors, he is being unfair to himself. Vinod’s common defence is, “No one told me what I was doing wrong.” Couldn’t he see it himself? Did he need Sachin to show him where he was going wrong? The other theory behind the Vinod flameout is his underprivileged background and sudden exposure to wealth. This would have been valid at an early stage of his career. But over time, he should have learnt how to handle things. True, a bad childhood does not end with childhood. It stays. But there was enough fortune in Vinod Kambli’s adult life for him to break free from the attitudes that an unfortunate child has. Time and again, Vinod began to use his past as an excuse to cross the line.

In the furore over Sach ka Saamna, however, Vinod was innocent. He was asked if Sachin could have done more to save him from his “self-destructive behaviour.” Vinod said, “I think yes.” He said if Sachin had motivated him a bit, his career might have been longer. This doesn’t mean he said Sachin did not do enough for him. Sachin will not be upset with him because it’s not worth getting upset over. The fact is that even before the television show, the two were no longer close friends. The affection and bonhomie remains, but both have worlds of their own. Besides, Sachin’s schedule is ‘choc-a-bloc’.

“They do not meet often. Out of sight is out of mind, but the affection that you feel for a friend does not change,” says Sunil Harshe, Sachin’s friend from Sahitya Sahawas colony. “What Vinod said on the show was not objectionable, nor controversial. Besides, Sachin is not vindictive.” Who are Sachin’s close friends today? Not hangers-on, but friends? “At his level, only his family can be his best friend,” says Harshe.

Ajit Wadekar believes that despite the growing distance between Sachin and Kambli, co-creators of a Guinness Book partnership, there is a bond between them that will ensure that they are always friends. “You expect a lot from your friend, but sometimes he is so busy. It’s like a family where you expect the older brother to make time for you. When he doesn’t, you feel neglected.”