It was sad to learn of the untimely demise of Rajendra Goel. He was a left-arm slow bowler, who has the distinction of taking the highest number of wickets in Indian domestic cricket. He had a long tenure and played first-class cricket in India for more than two and a half decades.
He was a quiet, well-mannered individual, rarely made a song and dance when he got a batsman out, maybe because for him taking wickets was not a novelty. A tireless performer, he could bowl with his clockwork action the whole day long.
The incident, however, that I recall involving him is when 50 probable Indian cricketers were at a training camp in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) in 1977 before the tour to Australia. A fitness coach, Tandon, was brought from NIS Patiala to get the Indian players fit and ready. The first day was rather hilarious as many players were not able to even run three rounds of the ground. A few came tumbling down when we were made to go up and down the stairs, while many succumbed to the basic exercises put forth by the instructor.
The first victim of this rigorous day was Rajendra Goel. He was a well-oiled machine when it came to bowling but every limb of his ceased when it came to physical training. His muscles cramped and tightened to such a degree that one had to physically lift him up from the bed to take him to the bathroom.
Similarly, many other casualties were cricketers who could bat for days and were known for their big scores accumulated with immense patience and stamina. However, for them, the idea of running endlessly and flexing their muscles in all directions was not something they found essential.
The question that came about then was that although fitness was important, it was not a critical area in order to be a successful cricketer.
The Indian team at that time did not have a fitness trainer or a nutritionist. Cricketers enjoyed their spicy Indian meals even during the game but one never saw lethargy or sloppiness once they were on the field.
A cricketer’s skills and mental strength was as much as it is today and in some ways even greater because of the lack of process and structure. Rather than striving for a six pack, cricketers then used every practice minute honing their skills through bowling for hours or batting for as long as they could possibly manage. Cricketers, therefore, were more match fit, as one got very few matches to showcase their skills and just one failure could put one down the pecking order.
Present cricketers have a much easier task, as they have a calendar full of cricket and therefore, they have the opportunity to shine even after a few failures.
The first-class Ranji Trophy matches then were a three-day affair, mostly on matting wickets with outfields for fielders that could give one several bruises if one dived or decided to do a skid stop. Points were of immense importance to qualify and the team strived to get an innings win to get the maximum points from the encounter. Individual performance was not as important as playing for the team and therefore one presently gets misled as regards the earlier cricketers batting or bowling averages.
Cricket in those days was not for the faint hearted, as protective head gear and good quality equipment was not available. Cricket shoes were handmade by cobblers and one mostly had matting spikes even when one played on turf. At the end of a match day, bowlers had bruised and bloody feet as the spikes dug more into their skin rather than into the ground.
Most cricketers had cricket shoes that had leather patches in areas that were torn and fast bowlers had a metal plate for their boots to enable them to last longer.
Gary Sobers was astonished to see Ajit Wadekar, on his debut Test against the West Indies, wearing a patched cricket boot to play in the Test match. The West Indian captain presented Wadekar with a brand new Garry Sobers boot. What a wonderful gesture by one of the world’s greatest cricketers! Cricket then was played in such a friendly spirit, wherein a visiting side captain was graciously concerned about a rival debutant and his footwear.
The batting pads were just barely a protection as when one got hit facing a fast bowler, a shooting pain was a normal outcome. Similarly, one faced bruises and bleeding after a long innings, as the straps of the pads were made of leather and had buckles for tightening them.
Cricket gloves was an area that one did see some development in, but the quality of leather was such that with sweat the gloves became like a well starched shirt.
The thigh pad was a thin protection that gave one more of a mental confidence than anything else by wearing one, whereas, the bat was a thin stick that one preserved and nurtured more than anything else that they possessed. Owning a bat was a luxury and one made sure to ensure that it lasted for a few seasons at least.
Amidst all this, the passion and the love for the game was what kept cricketers striving to achieve their goals. Cricket then was played hard and the conditions made cricket even harder. There was intense rivalry but also plenty of respect.
Indian cricket did not have the finances to make cricketers playing the game comfortable and secured. However, the crowd and fan following then had genuine cricket lovers. They watched the game of cricket not only at the stadium but at every club ground and a first-class game then had a full house to boast off.
A century or a five-wicket haul in first-class cricket had crowds running onto the field with coins and rupee note to appreciate ones performance. It was those moments that made cricket a pleasurable game.
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former Test cricketer. Views expressed are personal)