For close to 20 years, Sanjay Bangar tirelessly did his best for Railways in the Indian domestic circuit, playing a crucial role in helping them win their maiden Ranji Trophy title in 2001-02 and repeating the feat as captain in 2004-05. He also played a pivotal role in the Headingley win in 2002, India’s first Test win in England since 1986. In this chat with Wisden India, the man from Aurangabad talked about his formative years, playing for the unglamorous Railways outfit, his brief India career, Headingley, his retirement at the end of last season and much more. Excerpts:
You retired, after 20 years of top-drawer cricket, at the end of the 2012-13 Ranji Trophy season. How has domestic cricket changed in these two decades?
There have been a lot of changes, but the most important thing is that youngsters today have more opportunities as compared to what we had while growing up. That has, in a way, also altered the attitude of the players. Earlier, our format was such that we had just one team qualifying from the zonal set-up for the knockouts and a player had four games to impress. Unfortunately or fortunately, that more or less used to make or break a career. But these days, the price you put on a particular opportunity is less. But then today’s generation is far more confident, well prepared, physically stronger and much more aware of the circumstances they’re faced with because of various platforms like the IPL (Indian Premier League). Also, the board’s revenue sharing model has helped bring in a lot more money into the first-class game than when I started off. So yes, the game has definitely grown for the better but our challenge is to ensure it keeps growing.
What is your view on the current Ranji Trophy format?
A lot of thought has gone into it. But in my view the Elite-Plate format was the best. There was equal incentive for all teams and also there was this fear of relegation. But thinking from the perspective of a weaker side, they know for sure that they’ve got eight games no matter what. Earlier, the teams in the Plate division only got promoted to the Elite division. Then there was an addition that the top two teams would qualify for the quarterfinals. That is how Rajasthan managed to win twice. But overall, this is a well-settled format and irrespective of whether it is Jammu and Kashmir or Tripura, they have the same chances as Tamil Nadu or Mumbai. We should persist with this format for the next five years at least before analysing any drawbacks. So far, I haven’t seen anyone complain about this. Smaller teams and players from smaller towns are getting more opportunity to showcase their ability as well.
You mentioned small towns; you came from a small town too – Aurangabad, which didn’t have a history of cricket. What drew you to the game?
I clearly remember watching the 1983 World Cup final as a ten-year-old from the staircase of my neighbour’s house. It was such a huge victory and that really inspired a lot of us around in Aurangabad. Till then, we had only heard about the game. We didn’t even know each day’s play consisted of 90 overs or the fact that there were three-day games. The growth of television slowly spread that awareness and we started getting involved much more than we thought we would. Slowly that developed into a passion and I think that is where it all started for me.
You had to move to Bombay to pursue cricket seriously.
I was 15-16 at that time and I must admit I always had this inferiority complex within me. I used to think there were a thousand people better than me and I would stand no chance even if I moved to Bombay. It took me nearly two years to get over that and it was only when people started accepting me as some sort of a player in the Bombay circles, mind you that was big praise then, that I started feeling comfortable.
You joined the Railways in 1993-94 as a 21-year-old. What were the challenges of playing for an employer, rather than a state?
There were challenges, primarily because we were employed there and we had people coming from different parts of the country. That, in a way, made us stronger and responsible, and there was a feeling of togetherness. What worked for us was that nothing came easy. We didn’t have access to the best facilities. Then there was the aspect of dealing on a personal basis with administrators, managers, players, mentors and coaches. Those things toughened us. In a way, I think Railways was like an on-the-job training for me because I wasn’t a finished product. I’m glad they kept backing us through our ups and downs, more failures than success I’d say. There was not so much pressure on us from within the dressing room and I think the Railways dressing room was the happiest.
It took you nearly eight seasons of first-class cricket before making your Test debut, where your batting style worked nicely. Did you at any stage try to change your batting style to succeed in the 50-over format?
I always dreamt of playing Test cricket for India. I didn’t even think of the 50-over game, to be honest. During my formative years, I also realised I wasn’t made aware of the various technicalities of the game. Coaches weren’t equipped technically to advise a youngster. They all just kept saying things like ‘it’s all in the mind’ and such things. It was a major challenge for me to overcome the areas I wasn’t good at. Perhaps that is why I came across as a grafter when I became an established cricketer. The habits you form in your formative years can’t change overnight. I missed out on sound coaching and proper guidance, perhaps that is why my batting style was what it was.
But even after you made your India debut, nothing came easy.
When I was first selected in the Test team, John Wright didn’t rate me highly, so it was important that I accepted whatever role I was given. I tore my hamstring on my Test debut against England but somehow came out with a runner and made 36. I had a four-week layoff after that. In my second Test innings (against Zimbabwe at Nagpur in February 2002), I came in to bat when the team was looking to declare, so I couldn’t really play for myself. I had to throw caution to the winds. I always tried to play according to the team’s needs but somehow after a few failures in New Zealand (December 2002), I was sidelined. I always felt I could play both formats, but I fancied myself in the longer format.
You were initially picked for your bowling, though.
Yes, that’s right. That always helped me keep my place when my batting let the team down. Before my debut, in the warm-up game against England, I picked up seven wickets. I dismissed quality batsmen like Nasser Hussain, Mark Ramprakash, Michael Vaughan and Mark Butcher. From then, right up to the England tour of 2002, I gained a reputation of being a bowling allrounder, so I guess the decision I took very early in my career of being an allrounder paid off.
No conversation is complete without a mention of that England tour in 2002. Is it your most cherished memory?
I clearly remember, in that series, we struggled initially. We lost the first Test and just managed to draw the second. In the warm-up fixtures in between the second and Third Test, I hit a purple patch with the ball and it just happened that our frontline pacers couldn’t quite control the swing. Sourav Ganguly, our captain, was keen on playing me as a bowler, but that meant I had to open the batting so that we could accommodate two spinners (Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh). I was then given a chance to open in a warm-up game against Essex. I didn’t get too many runs in the first innings but got 74 in the second innings. In the same game, SS Das made 250. But I was still lucky to get the nod because I could bowl. It was rather unfortunate that he didn’t play a Test after that.
And that memorable Headingley Test [Bangar scored 68 in a stand of 170 with Rahul Dravid on the first morning; India eventually won by an innings and 42 runs] …
That is unforgettable. I just went in to bat with a blank mind that day. I hadn’t even followed too much history of that pitch. Before the game, I must admit, I knew it could possibly be my last innings if I failed. As it turned out, things fell into place. Rahul was batting beautifully right throughout that series and we just got stuck in. Scoring wasn’t easy but it helped to have someone like him at the other end. I was unbeaten around 25 at lunch and Sourav patted me on the back. I was surprised because I knew it was nothing special. This is what I was doing day in and day out in the Ranji Trophy.
But the reason why that knock was all the more special is because, as a team, we had a lot of distractions around us. We were in negotiations with the board over contracts and Anil was involved in all of it on behalf of the team. It was a tough time but that episode brought us together. In the previous Test, Parthiv Patel played a gritty knock on debut to save us the game. All the build-up and our willingness and desire to win a Test on foreign soil finally helped us achieve it. That was a special day.
What was it like opening with Virender Sehwag?
Incredible! He allowed me to be myself. At times, he joked that I took my role of blocking far too seriously and asked me to just have fun smacking the ball. I used to enjoy batting with him. At that time, I was around 30 and I was mature enough to understand that Sehwag was special and I had to play within my limitations rather than matching him stroke-for-stroke. I enjoyed watching him bat from the other end, and in the five-seven Tests we opened together, we did fairly well.
You led Railways to the Ranji Trophy title in 2004-05, but you were relegated the next season. How disappointing was that?
That was undoubtedly the lowest point in my career. The same year we also won the Irani Trophy. So to get relegated suddenly after winning two major domestic tournaments really hurt. A few of the players got into their comfort zone and our form drifted. As a captain, this promotion and relegation factor was always on the back of my mind and it affected the way I approached the game and the way we played. I’d put it as one of the biggest blots in my stint as a domestic cricketer. But fortunately we had the group to come out of it and turned things around by winning the national one-day tournament in 2005-06 by beating top sides like Tamil Nadu, Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.
You were in your mid-30s then and an India call looked unlikely. What kept you going?
The reason why I could play longer was because of Adrian le Roux, who was the trainer of the Indian team. His guidance helped me to push on even after 40. I always felt since we were relegated under my captaincy, it was my duty to bring the team back to its glory days. The motivation was to win one more Ranji Trophy but the team went through cycles of transition. Certain older players had to be dropped while some retired. Towards the last one or two years, it was to complete the transition and I was still contributing, so I thought why not carry on for a bit.
You became a coach soon after retiring as a player – tell us about that.
You need to be passionate to be a good coach. What worked in my favour was that indirectly I was doing the role of a mentor at Railways even while playing. So I thought I already had that grooming to be a coach. Whether I have that passion to go on only time will tell, because coaching is time consuming. The demands are far more today, even for a coach. How far I go, I really don’t know. Earlier, I had a small stint as assistant coach of Kochi Tuskers Kerala in the IPL. I’ve also earned the Level 1 and Level 2 refresher course from the National Cricket Academy. That has brought about some perspectives like biomechanics, video analysis and technology in coaching. But passion is the most important thing as a coach. I’m still trying to discover myself.
Apart from passion, what are the other prerequisites to be a good coach?
Firstly you need to connect at a human level with your players. Even if you are the best coach with the greatest of experience, if you don’t enjoy the trust of the players under you, no amount of knowledge or experience will help. What I always try to tell people is that they need to value what first-class cricket teaches. You go to Australia, they value Sheffield Shield. I think players who have bypassed first-class cricket to international cricket don’t understand the value of it. But then, as you are taking baby steps towards stardom, without first-class cricket you can’t produce good international cricketers. Once youngsters and upcoming cricketers understand the importance, everything will follow.