Rajinder Goel was a classical left-arm spinner, who ended with 637 Ranji Trophy wickets, which remains a record to this day. © Akshay Goel

Rajinder Goel was a classical left-arm spinner, who ended with 637 Ranji Trophy wickets, which remains a record to this day. © Akshay Goel

Few XIs of Indians who should have played Test cricket but didn’t would be complete without the name of Rajinder Goel, who Sunil Gavaskar included along with Padmakar Shivalkar in his list of heroes in the 1983 book Idols, the only two in the pantheon of greats who didn’t play internationally.

Goel’s first-class career spanned close to four decades – from 1958-59 to 1984-85 – and was worth 750 wickets, 637 of them in the Ranji Trophy, which remains a record. The No. 2 on that list, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, had 107 wickets fewer than Goel, who turned out first for Patiala (which became Southern Punjab later), then Delhi, and for the longest time, Haryana. He got 25-plus wickets in a Ranji season 15 times, including in each of his last nine seasons – his last fling in the Ranji was worth 39 wickets.

The hurt of never getting to represent India in a Test match – he did play against Ceylon in January 1965 in an unofficial Test in Ahmedabad – is still very much there, but Goel, now 75, insists that he is a satisfied man, living a happy post-retirement life in Rohtak.

Memories of Ranji debut
Which debut should I talk about? My first debut was for Patiala, in 1958. The first match was against Services. I remember all the details vividly; I remember all the details about all the games I played. I stayed with Patiala till 1962, it had become known as Southern Punjab by then. After that, I got a job with State Bank of India, and moved to Delhi. I played for Delhi for 10 years and then started playing for Haryana. It had become a state in 1966, but they started cricket seriously slightly later. So I moved there. If you ask me about my debut, I’d say the first match for Haryana, which is the state I originally come from, was my debut. By the time I went there, I had a big reputation. People knew me. When Bishan (Singh Bedi) was dropped from the Indian team (for disciplinary reasons) for the Test against West Indies in Bangalore (in 1974-75), I was called up, but didn’t get a chance. I moved to Haryana soon after that when they had a team.

Favourite Ranji moment
All the wickets were memorable. Each of the 637 I got in the Ranji. Sunil Gavaskar, Vishy (Gundappa Viswanath), Vijay Manjrekar, Polly Umrigar, Dilip Sardesai, Parthasarathi (Sharma), Rusi Surti … sab mahaan batsmen they (they were all great batsmen). It was tough to even beat them, so getting them out was a pleasure, and I got all of them out quite a few times. There was a time when I had the wickets of all the major batsmen in our country – all of them are my favourite moments. But the best is when I took 12 wickets (7-98 and 5-36) against South Zone in the Duleep Trophy final in 1975 in Madras. I took 12 wickets and Bishan got six (1-109 and 5-77). That was pleasing.

Rajinder Goel meets Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, then president of India, during the 1974 Bangalore Test against West Indies. © Akshay Goel

Rajinder Goel meets Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, then president of India, during the 1974 Bangalore Test against West Indies. © Akshay Goel

Turning point of his career
I never played for India, so the turning points of my career are bad ones (laughs).

I mentioned the Duleep final when I took 12 wickets – after that, the team was selected for the tour of New Zealand, but I didn’t get in. So that was a turning point.

Then Australia came to India (in 1979). Kim Hughes was the captain, and in a tour game, I got nine wickets against them. That was not a joke. But I didn’t get a chance then also.

Those were turning points, because I realised that I would never get a chance even if I got wickets. Maybe it was my kismat (fate). Maybe because I was from a poor team, from a poor background, I never got a chance. I continued playing for my enjoyment, and Gavaskar saab wrote about me in his book. That was great. You can call that a turning point also, because everyone realised how good I was.

I played the Sri Lanka ‘Test’, and I picked up four wickets in the second innings. But I was dropped for the next match. If the media were like it is today, then I wouldn’t have been dropped. Everyone is getting a chance these days. Rajinder Goel didn’t get a chance. It’s difficult to explain why it didn’t happen.

The most cherished win of his career
I don’t remember wins, but there was a match we should have won. Against North Punjab, when I was playing for South Punjab. This was 1962-63. In Patiala. I got 6 for 6 in four overs in the first innings – Bishan was in the opposition. It was a low-scoring match, and Ganesh Lal got 10 wickets and they won.

The biggest characters (fun teammates, pranksters) he played with
Ramesh Saxena. He was from Jamshedpur but played for Delhi. His Ranji Trophy debut was against us (Southern Punjab) and he scored a century. We played together a lot, and we toured together also, as part of North Zone. We were great friends, and he was a wonderful man. I have remained friends with so many people – Bishan is a close friend, and he was a wonderful bowler.

The dacoit’s hero: “Please accept my congratulations for taking 600-plus wickets in the Ranji Trophy. I am writing this letter to express my pleasure at your achievement, and hope to god that you achieve more success with every passing day.” Signed: Surrendered bandit Bhura Singh Yadav, Central Jail, Gwalior (MP). © Akshay Goel

The dacoit’s hero: “Please accept my congratulations for taking 600-plus wickets in the Ranji Trophy. I am writing this letter to express my pleasure at your achievement, and hope to god that you achieve more success with every passing day.” Signed: Surrendered bandit Bhura Singh Yadav, Central Jail, Gwalior (MP). © Goel family

The toughest conditions he has played a game in
None. I have never played a match in a place where I haven’t picked up wickets. And if I haven’t, it’s not because of the conditions. My job was to bowl and pick up wickets; nothing else mattered. A good bowler should pick up wickets everywhere.

The toughest opponents
Whichever match I didn’t get wickets was tough (laughs). No, Bombay was always tough, Hyderabad was tough. Karnataka also. It was tough to play in Bangalore.

In 1980, we played in Bangalore and we beat them. Kapil (Dev) was our captain, and they had a wonderful team: (R) Sudhakar Rao, Vishy, Brijesh (Patel), Chandra (BS Chandrasekhar) … I picked up 4 for 107 and 5 for 55.

Bangalore was good for me. I used to go there two-three months every year to play in different tournaments, so it was like a home away from home. And the city – kya baat thhi. It was a beautiful city. I loved playing there.

Life after retirement
Cricket! I have been junior national selector, and I have been a selector and a coach in Haryana. I worked and played for State Bank of India. What else do I want? I have been leading a peaceful life in Rohtak for many years. I have no problems.

Born at the wrong time …
It has often been said that Goel would have played for India had he been around in a different era to Bedi. Goel himself has said it in the past too.

So many times I have been India’s best bowler for the season. But India’s best bowler was not selected for India! These days, kids get into the Indian team after playing just one or two seasons. I have got a lot of awards, enough money … I have all the awards, but no Test match. It was my fate, nothing to do with Bishan. In fact, Bishan has said many times that I should have played Test cricket. Kismat ki baat hai (it’s destiny).

… but a villain’s hero
The selectors didn’t support me, but a dacoit once wrote me a letter, when I got my 600th wicket in the Ranji Trophy. Daku Bhura Singh Yadav. He was in Central Jail in Gwalior at the time, and he wrote me a letter congratulating me and wishing me well. I must be the only cricketer to get a letter like that.