Before the Dravids and Pujaras, it was Dilip Vengsarkar who held fort at the No. 3 position with great distinction for many years, scoring centuries against tough opponents like the West Indies on a consistent basis. In fact, Vengsarkar was a versatile batsman and was juggled quite often in the middle-order, where he excelled more often than not, to become one of India’s most prolific batsmen in an era that also had classy batsmen like Sunil Gavaskar, GR Viswanath, Mohinder Amarnath, among others.
Vengsarkar was just eight First-Class and four List A matches old when he made his international debut in a Test against New Zealand in Auckland in 1976. His First-Class career had included a duck on Ranji Trophy debut against Gujarat followed by a century – 110 – in the next game against Rest of India in the Irani Cup, which included 11 fours and seven sixes off India’s spin legends BS Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna. This was the first real glimpse of the immense talent he had possessed. However, Vengsarkar never showed off such an attacking masterclass in his international career. As far as his 50-over career goes, he managed just one fifty-plus score in four innings and also scored 35 against Wellington just before making his One-Day International (ODI) debut.
However, at the international stage, he did not taste success right away, starting off as an opener in both formats.
Vengsarkar’s career took an upward curve from the Australia tour in 1977-78, where he got off to starts in all the five Tests and finally ended it with a 78 in the final Test at Adelaide as India lost a closely fought series 3-1, after initially being 2-0 down.
His true test of temperament would however be seen in 1978 when he put on an unbeaten 344-run stand for the second wicket with Gavaskar against West Indies , a record that stood till Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay bettered it with 370 against Australia in 2013.
It was a double special for Vengsarkar as he went on to score his maiden Test ton – a mighty 157 not out – in the same match. A string of consistent performances followed but one of the most memorable performances was when he scored an unbeaten 146 against Pakistan in Delhi in ’79, which almost helped India chase down 390, but the Mumbai batsman ran out of partners and eventually had to settle for a draw with India just 26 runs away from a victory.
However, his love affair with Lord’s is well documented. No visiting batsman has scored more centuries (3) than Vengsarkar at Lord’– a venue where greats like Sachin Tendulkar have failed to score even one. He is also one of the leading run-getters at the venue among visiting batsmen.
He was also the player of the series in 1986 when India won their first series in 15 years in England after finishing with 340 runs at 90 from six innings. India have won a series in England just once since.
Injury limited his participation in India’s triumphant 1983 World Cup and he took over as captain from Kapil Dev after the 1987 World Cup. End of 70’s to almost the entire 80s, Vengsarkar was considered among the best batsmen in the world, especially for the way he got his runs in tough conditions and against very good opposition. Especially between 1986 and 1988, he was at his peak, slamming 1,800 runs at 90, which included eight hundreds and six fifties from 29 innings. Only Allan Border with 1,836 runs had scored more, having played three Tests more than Vengsarkar.
In fact, when the rankings were introduced for the first time in 1987, it was Vengsarkar who was ranked No. 1 in Tests – such was his form in that phase. Known for his graceful drives off the front foot, Vengsarkar led India in 10 Tests and 18 ODIs between 1987 and 1989. He was later sacked in 1989 and subsequently was banned for two years - which was later overturned - for travelling to the United States of America without BCCI’s approval. When he returned, he could not replicate his best days.
However, he was still going strong on the domestic front, which included a near match-winning century in the Ranji Trophy final against Haryana in 1990-91, in which his attacking unbeaten 139 went in vain as the Kapil Dev-led team snatched a narrow two-run victory. His duel with Kapil included smashing him for a couple of sixes but was even more severe on off-spinner Yogendra Bhandari, who he hit for 6,4,6,6,4 in an over. While Vengsarkar broke down in tears on the field, that showing was good enough to earn him a place back in the side for the tours of England and then Australia – which turned out to be his final series.
Among Indian cricketers, only Gavaskar had scored more runs and more centuries than Vengsarkar when the latter called it quits.
After retirement he served as the chief selector of the Indian team between 2006 and 2008 and his stint produced mixed results for India. While India had won a Test series in England for the first time in 21 years in 2007, they crashed out of the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean in the group stages, which included an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Bangladesh. However, they went on to redeem themselves later that year by winning the inaugural World T20 held in South Africa.
His tenure lasted less than two years, as he believed that N Srinivasan arm-twisted the BCCI in appointing Kris Srikkanth as the selector after Vengsarkar decided to pick Virat Kohli over S Badrinath for the 2008 tour of Sri Lanka.
“I knew that they were keen on keeping S Badrinath in the team because he was a Chennai Super Kings player. If Kohli would have come in, Badrinath would have been dropped. N Srinivasan was the BCCI treasurer at that time. He was upset that Badrinath was dropped because he was their player,” Vengsarkar said on the controversy.
In 1995, Vengsarkar started the Elf Vengsarkar cricket academy in Mumbai and now has two in the city and one in Pune. His playing days might be over, but the ‘Colonel’ still continues to serve Indian cricket with great distinction, yet does not make a big fuss – just like his playing days.