At his best, Kanwaljit Singh was a sight for sore eyes, a classical offspinner with a big heart and a massive bag of tricks. It was his lot that he started his career for Hyderabad when Shivlal Yadav and Arshad Ayub were already established offies. Often reduced to bowling an over before lunch, an over before tea and perhaps a couple before stumps in his early days, the original Turbanator managed to keep his wits about him and sustain command over his craft for 20 seasons, signing off with 369 first-class wickets from 111 games at an excellent 28.24. Except for one season in 1986-87 when he played for Tamil Nadu, Kanlwajit was an out-and-out Hyderabad boy, from 1980-81 to 2000-01.
With a little bit of luck and perhaps a friendly nudge from an influential godfather which he didn’t have, Kanwaljit could have played with distinction for India in the mid-90s, alongside his great mate Venkatapathi Raju. Instead, he plied his wares without complaint in the domestic arena and finally found some solace towards the end of his career when, at 40, he was selected for the India A team that toured the Netherlands.
Boisterous and fun-loving, Kanwaljit contributed to a vibrant Hyderabad dressing room with Raju, Narenderpal Singh and MV Sridhar as the primary practical jokers, never shy of a prank except when it came to Mohammad Azharuddin. Now a contented 59, he does the occasional jig at the National Cricket Academy as a spin consultant, and diligently attends to his work at Andhra Bank in Hyderabad.
Memories of Ranji debut
I didn’t even dream of playing representative cricket because I didn’t come up the ranks. I was a pretty good volleyball player and it wasn’t until my second year in college that I started to play cricket seriously. As I began to play more matches, I got more and more confident and realised that I could compete with Shivlal and Arshad if I worked harder. My debut was against Andhra (December 1980); I didn’t get to bowl in the first innings, and only bowled nine overs out of 95 in the second. Little did I know then that the scenario was to play out for a vast majority of my career! My first wicket came in the second game in Bangalore, R Sudhakar Rao caught at short-leg. It was a pretty good first wicket for a 22-year-old.
Turning point of his career
It was when I got back from Tamil Nadu after that one season. I only played one game there and felt like an outsider because I was one. But then I got back to Hyderabad and worked my way back into the side. The turning point was the game against Tamil Nadu, ironically, in the 1989-90 season in Tiruchirapalli. K Srikkanth was the captain of a strong Tamil Nadu batting side, and all three of us offies – Shivlal, Arshad and I – played that game. I got 5 for 83 in the first innings and 4 for 68 in the second as we took the first-innings lead. That gave me immense confidence. I didn’t see a difference between the guys who had already played for the country and me. I said there can’t be any stopping me. But I was at the mercy of someone else, and I couldn’t fight that. I could fight fitness, I could fight opponents on the field, but off-field things, I couldn’t really fight it out.
Most cherished win of his career
It was against Uttar Pradesh in Kanpur, in the quarterfinals in 1999-2000. We had conceded a 71-run first-innings lead, and set UP a target of 311. Lachchi (Raju) took six wickets and I got three, and we won comfortably (by 92 runs). To come from behind like that in a knockout game was brilliant. And the best part was that Lachchi and I shared the spoils equally – I got six in the first innings and he got six in the second. I cherished every moment spent bowling along with Lachchi, as a combination we had lot of success.
Favourite Ranji moment
Two of them, actually. I enjoyed myself the most under (ML) Jaisimha sir when he was the Hyderabad coach. The moments shared with him are very memorable. He was one person who really elevated the players. He was very down-to-earth, I have not seen a better person than him as far as cricket knowledge goes, and as a human being also. The knowledge he shared with me made a better cricketer and a better person.
Also, getting Rahul (Dravid) out at Gymkhana (in the 1997-98 semifinal) was brilliant. It was a very tense game and in the fourth innings, as Karnataka chased 157, Rahul was the person we were looking forward to getting out. Getting him beaten in the air and trapping him in front for one, that really made me feel good personally. It was a great match for me, I got 14 wickets, but it didn’t really mean too much because eventually we lost by one wicket.
The toughest conditions he has played in
Has to be the game against another strong Tamil Nadu batting unit at the NFC grounds in Secunderabad. We had Raju and myself in the team, and the shocking part was that despite that, our team management opted for a paata track. It was a small ground, a strong batting line-up. (S) Sharath got a hundred, Tamil Nadu amassed 566. I bowled nearly 50 overs, Raju 33. That was one of the most difficult conditions I have played in, especially at home. It is fine to get flat tracks outside home; I thought it was an honour that other teams held us in such high esteem. But this TN game, our home association gave us this batting beauty, which was tough to digest in every sense.
The toughest opponents
Have always been Bombay because that time, they had a batting line-up that ran deep – No. 8 or No. 9 was capable of scoring a century, and at least six or seven of them were either currently playing for India or had already played for the country. And then the wickets in Bombay at that time were just cut out for their batsmen. To bowl on those tracks against Sachin (Tendulkar), (Dilip) Vengsarkar, (Vinod) Kambli, (Chandrakant) Pandit, (Sanjay) Manjrekar, phew!
Most fun-loving teammates/opponents
Oh, the entire Hyderabad dressing-room, as you know! The big culprits were NP (Singh), Lachchi, MV and myself. MV was a big motivator, but also the silent prankster who was always up to something. NP was just NP, saying and doing the most outrageous things. We had plenty of fun off the park, we had lots of lighter moments. We were like a family, we didn’t bring the pressure back to the hotel room and that helped us on the field.
Life after retirement
I coached the Hyderabad team, then was the South Zone coach for the Duleep Trophy. But the best phase was being part of the Deccan Chargers coaching set-up. It was a fantastic experience to be with the stalwarts. I was also director of the Hyderabad Cricket Association Academy, and am proud that we got rid of red tape at that time when it came to training and upgrading cricketing facilities.
Half-century against Srinath in a Ranji game, his only first-class fifty
Oh yes, how can I forget that?! MV told me that if I got a 50, he would give me a bat, the bloke never did that. I enjoyed batting against Sri (Javagal Srinath) and Venky (Venkatesh Prasad, at the Gymkhana in December 1993), though I got hit all over the place. Sri was nice to me in that he didn’t try to break my head! He was only trying to bowl length balls. It was just one of those things – Sri was a great fast bowler, the fastest I have faced and he could have knocked my head off any time he fancied.
Missing out on a Ranji title
Spooky! I went out of Hyderabad for one season to play for Tamil Nadu (1986-87), and Hyderabad ended up winning the crown. I returned to Hyderabad the following season, and Tamil Nadu became champions. I suppose in some way I am to blame, though I don’t really know how!