"The most miserable experience of your cricket career would be touring abroad with the Indian team and not getting to play a single match." The man who spoke these words had kept wicket in all of India's five Tests in the West Indies in 1971.
I had got into the star-studded SBI team when P Krishnamurthy was touring the West Indies, and when I first met him on his return to Hyderabad, after India's first series win in the Caribbean, he was brimming with confidence. Happily for me, he had liked what he saw of my bowling and lent me great support in my quest for a regular place in the team as an offspinner.
But this was five years later, and Murthy was no longer quite the impressive wicketkeeper he had been as a member of Ajit Wadekar's triumphant team. In fact, after his debut series he never played another Test match, with first Farrokh Engineer and later Syed Kirmani replacing him in the XI. He was part of the squad that went on tours of New Zealand and West Indies in 1975-76, and he barely got a game on either trip.
A similar fate befell young Karnataka batsman Sudhakar Rao, who had impressed the selectors with a double-century against Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy. He never played Test cricket for India despite scoring tons of runs in domestic cricket.
Murthy had been specific about the loneliness and travails of an Indian cricketer on tour if he wasn't in the playing XI, but I wonder if it could be very different for players of other nationalities, unless the team management handles the situation differently--with tact and genuine understanding of the player's psychology.
I think Murthy felt left out and unwanted during the long tour, and that was perhaps the failure of the tour management.
When the India Under-19 team won the World Cup in 2000, Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan and Arjun Yadav did not get a single game as the team kept winning every round and there was no scope for changes. The youngsters must have been treated very well during the championship because they came back quite cheerful. Winning of course helps, and I believe much of team spirit is fostered by the habit of winning rather than the other way around.
Is your loyalty to the team tested when you are regularly kept out and unfairly so, at least in your mind? How difficult is it to keep up your morale and enjoy the success of your team and the company of your team-mates? Well-managed teams seem to prove successful in keeping the reserve players in good mental and physical shape. The captain and coach play vital roles in this.
The Indian team in recent times has been quite effective in this regard if you go by the way players like Amit Mishra managed to stay positive enough while on the reserve bench and made the best use of their chances, however belated.
A spectacular example from recent history has been that of Ajinkya Rahane, who waited for 16 Tests as a reserve before making his Test debut. This was a tribute as much to the player's sterling mental qualities as to the way the management must have handled him.
I had a personal taste of loneliness during the 1975-76 domestic season, when as a member of the South Zone squad, I sat out one tour game against Sri Lanka, followed by a Duleep Trophy game and a Deodhar Trophy match, both against Central Zone. We were 16 of us, and everyone except me played at least one match for the zone in that fortnight or so. Some of the seniors were not very kindly disposed towards me, and I felt rather low in spirits, when, as 12th man for the one-day match, I was told I would carry drinks but fellow reserve Kirmani would replace an injured fielder. Sure enough someone got injured, but there was no sign of Kirmani. I ran on to the field only to be called back frantically as by now Kiri was charging on to the ground. On my way back, a spectator in the pavilion gave me a dirty look and called me a bastard with unmistakable venom. I did not know this guy from Adam, but I will recognise him any time anywhere, even though the incident took place 40 years ago. My mood did not exactly brighten when I received the news that I had been dropped for the Duleep and Deodhar finals.
I experienced yet another low when I was the only player among 33 in an Indian probables camp at Chepauk not to be picked for the upcoming Duleep Trophy, the unofficial trial before the 1977 tour of Australia. The South Zone team had been picked at the ground where we were training, and I felt as if I had been slapped.
To come back to my ethical question: was my loyalty to my team tested? It came pretty close, but in the first instance, my Bangalore room-mates, Narasimha Rao and Jyotiprasad, not to mention our daily visitor, a diminutive genius named GR Viswanath, kept my spirits up with their unstinting friendship. In the second, young wicketkeeper Bharath Reddy brought the South Zone skipper S Venkataraghavan to my hotel room, and they both consoled me, with Venkat explaining that he had not been involved in the selection process.
I have long wondered about the effect of exclusion on a cricketer's psyche and the damage it can do to morale, team spirit and loyalty. I know my late friend Krishnamurthy was quite a wreck after a couple of long, lonely tours, at a time when we had less understanding of such troubles as depression. At the same time, I feel such factors as resilience, the comfort you can draw from the kind words of your colleagues, and the caring guidance of coaches and mentors can all help a player stay in the fight. Indian cricket seems to be faring quite well in this aspect of management - a healthy development in its history.