By Suresh Menon
Stories of international sportsmen in their schooldays are revealing. We know of Sachin Tendulkar’s sleep-walking and running singles in his mind when asleep. The bowler who complained to five-year old Tiger Pataudi’s father that “If I bowl fast, I could kill him; if I bowl slowly he hits me to the boundary” is part of folklore too.
The revealing anecdote of Sunil Joshi, Karnataka’s remarkable cricketer, concerns the 110-kilometre train ride he took everyday from Gadag, his birthplace, to Hubli so he could attend nets and be back in time for school. In one sweep, it reveals the player’s temperament, his passion for the game and his willingness to work hard at it.
Today, when small-town India produces international players regularly, it might be difficult to fully unerstand the struggles of a Sunil Joshi to break into the big time. Hubli was the backwaters of the game in Karnataka and Gadag was the backwaters of the backwaters.
Amazingly, at 40 Joshi continues to inspire Karnataka, and is the sole survivor of the team which won the Ranji Trophy final of 1998-99, the last time Karnataka triumphed.
There was a time after a Dhaka Test (92 in an innings and eight wickets for the match) when he was seen as a potential India all rounder, but it is as a left arm spinner of impeccable style that he continues to serve Karnataka, a pillar around whom the team revolves.
Recently he overtook the great Bhagwat Chandrasekhar as Karnataka’s highest wicket taker in the Ranji Trophy. His 444 wickets from 107 matches is topped only by S Venkatraghavan’s 530 and Rajinder Goel’s 637.
On his Ranji debut in Hubli, he remained unbeaten on 83 but the match was called off following the upheaval on the demolition of the Babri Masjid. He made his Test debut on his 27th birthday in Birmingham, broke a finger while batting, could not bowl and had to return home. It was an anti-climax to a season when he scored over 500 runs and claimed 50 wickets in the Ranji Trophy as Karnataka won the title.
Bishan Bedi, under whom Joshi often trained, always thought that it was a “mystery” how the younger man did not play longer for India. “He is committed, technically sound and a student of the game,” he says.
Joshi’s 15 Tests fetched him 41 wickets and 69 one day internationals a haul of 69 wickets. Not startling perhaps, but then he was never given the confidence that comes from security. It is possible he under-performed because he was under-utilised. His stunning figures of 10-6-6-5 against South Africa in a one-dayer came in the LG Cup Tournament in Nairobi.
Despite a paucity of quality left arm spinners in the first half of the last decade, Joshi became the forgotten man of Indian cricket. He became indispensable to Karnataka cricket, though.
It must take great passion for the game to continue playing at the domestic level long after the international days are over. To be able to motivate oneself to travel, to train, to give off one’s best day in and day out is a rare gift. To be doing this at 40, when there is nothing left to prove is extraordinary. Karnataka, rather spoiled in the last decade by the number of glamorous international players in their ranks, has tended to take Sunil Joshi for granted.
But it is players like him who are the true inspiration in any team. Such men live the abstract concepts on which sport is founded: teamwork, selflessness, sacrifice. Karnataka owe him a lot.