In the Irani Trophy in 1997 between Mumbai and Rest of India, a legspinner named Sairaj Vasant Bahutule took 13 wickets as well as scoring 71 in the ﬁrst innings to take the Ranji Champions to a 54 run victory. This performance earned him a call to the Indian ODI squad and he made his debut in the same year against Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, his performance in that match or the next few ODIs wasn’t much to write home about.
And with Anil Kumble being the ﬁrst choice legspinner, he went into oblivion. But a good performance while playing for Mumbai against Steve Waugh’s men in 2001 brought him back in the reckoning. With Kumble injured, he got his maiden Test call in the third Test against Australia at Chennai. He scored an unbeaten 21 in the ﬁrst innings and picked a wicket each in both the innings. Post this he played just one more Test.
So, while his international career may not have gone the ideal way, he was a giant in first-class cricket. With 630 wickets and 9 centuries at an average of more than 30, he was a regular performer in the domestic cricket.
Post retirement, he has ventured into coaching and has guided various teams like Vidarbha, Kerala, Bengal and the Rajasthan Royals.
But more than that one has to say that he has been a winner in life. For a person who met with an unfortunate car accident (which also saw the death of singer Jagjit Singh’s son Vivek) at the age of 17 which led to a major fracture on his right leg, to come back and represent India is simply incredible.
He was kind enough to agree to our request for a chat on his career, current spin scenario in India and his coaching aspirations. Here are excerpts from the chat.
Born in the house of a first-class cricketer (Vasant Bahutule), was cricket always the ﬁrst choice for you?
In school (St. Xaviers) I played all sports like Basketball, Football, Volleyball, Badminton, Table Tennis. Cricket being in the family, I used to go to Azad Maidan to watch my dad’s games. Lot of cricket was spoken in the house. My elder brother and sister also used to play the game. It was in the family and I think it rubbed on to me. Gradually I started playing the Giles Shield and the Harris Shield. Then I started practicing at the Hindu Gymkhana. Playing school cricket like every other kid was the start for me.
Were you into leg-spin bowling from the beginning?
Not really, I used to bowl medium pace. Those days in school, we used to play on matting wickets and it assisted my medium pace style of bowling. But as time went by, leg-spin is something that came naturally to me from my father who also used to bowl leg-spin. He was more of a batsman and leg-spin was his part time thing. I think I picked it up from him and then started pursuing it.
When did you think that you could play for India?
I played school cricket and then joined Poddar College which was good for cricket as well as education. During that time it had good first-class players like Zubin Bharucha and Jatin Paranjpe among others. It had a good cricketing culture. After that I played Under-19 for Mumbai and then was selected for the Ranji team at an early age. And then obviously as you play along, the desire is there and you want to pursue a higher level of cricket. There is a dream and it's not clear at that time. And then as cricket went by, I thought that playing for India will be my ﬁnal destination. I think once I started playing for Mumbai, I got more determined to play for the country.
Who was your idol at that time?
At that time I think Abdul Qadir was one of the great legspinners. Then in India we had Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Narendra Hirwani. Then later on when Shane Warne came on to the scene, he had a massive impact on all the legspinners around the world. For me also it was a quite an inﬂuence.
Unfortunate accident and comeback
I met with an accident when I was 17-years-old. It was sad and it changed the course of my life. My femur was broken and there was a rod in my leg. I didn’t know if I would every play cricket again or even stand on my feet again properly. I was not sure what was in store for me. Mentally, I was probably at the lowest in my life. All sorts of questions crept into my mind. I didn’t know how to react to it. But with the support of my parents and family, I slowly got out of it. I am very thankful to be alive after that accident and decided to give my 100% everyday. I think that was also one of the reasons that I got more determined to play for the country. Within a year I made my Ranji debut in the 1991-92 season.
Indian team already had good spinners around during that time - Anil Kumble, Venkatapathy Raju, Rajesh Chauhan and Narendra Hirwani was still around. What was your state of mind as you were trying to break into such a team?
All throughout my career, I have never really thought like that. My only thinking was that how can I perform better than my previous outing. How I can just do well in the next match. I was focussed on what I needed to be doing. Yes, back of the mind I was determined to play for India, but I didn’t tax myself too much on all these things.
It was a question of an opening coming in the Indian team because Anil (Kumble) was doing exceptionally well at that time. He was settled in the side, so, for me to breakthrough was diﬃcult. I knew that at some stage I would play for the country. But didn’t know when. So, I just kept going and told myself to perform and be patient. Better not to expect too much and keep on performing. And the opportunity eventually came in the one-day series against Sri Lanka in 1997.
Did you ever think that had you been in some other era, you would have got more opportunities?
No, not at all. I have never had those regrets and will never have. Each cricketer has his own methods and way of playing the game. With Anil around, I knew that a better cricketer was playing for the country. The way he performed and won games for India was amazing. I always had a lot of respect for him. I used to have a lot of discussions with him. Whenever I went to India nets he used to help me and tell me about my bowling action, how I can get better. Whoever performs well is getting the opportunity. Even Narendra Hirwani was very helpful in the camps. I am just glad that I could play this game and get the best out of myself.
Who has been the biggest Inﬂuence in your career?
Obviously my father, he was the person who would daily take me to bowl in the nets. Then when I got into college, VS Patil Sir was there. In the Mumbai team Karsan Ghavri, Ashok Mankad, and Hanumant Singh Sir coached at diﬀerent points of time.
Each coach has had some sort of inﬂuence on me as they passed on their knowledge. The best thing was to take learnings from all of them and see what suited my game. Senior players like Ravi Shastri and Sanjay Manjrekar were also helpful. Dilip Vengsarkar was also there to support. In that way I have been very lucky to be in the Mumbai dressing room as there is so much to learn from all the players. They were very courteous to share things and that culture had an impact on me every time I played for Mumbai. Each one played their part to a great extent.
What has been your best moment on the cricket ﬁeld?
Test debut against Australia (at Chennai in 2001) was the highlight. Every time you feel that you want to play for the country, but when it actually happens, you are there, receiving that cap. With all the great cricketers around you and you are sharing the dressing room with them, it is a spectacular feeling. And when you play against Australia, which was the best team in that era, with so many great players, it was a nice experience.
Then playing for Mumbai has also been special. But the honour of representing the country in spite of all the competition is something else. I am thankful to everyone, the board, the selectors, Sourav (Ganguly) and the senior players.
Leading Mumbai to the Ranji title in 2003-04
As I said earlier, playing for Mumbai was always special. There was always a strong desire to win and leading Mumbai was also special. To have this group of great guys playing under me felt nice. I was more than happy to be the captain and win the Ranji trophy.
Who has been the toughest batsman to bowl to?
(Brian) Lara was hard to bowl at. He was a ﬂamboyant player and it was also diﬃcult as he was a left-hander. Then Mahela Jayawardena was also a good player of spin bowling. I won’t name the Indian players like Sachin and all, as they very good players of spin.
What prompted your move from Mumbai to other teams?
I think it was a time when youngsters were coming in, that was one of the reasons. As well as I had Ito support myself professionally. It was a professional move more than anything. That era did not have as much money as today with the IPL. I had to think for my family and move ahead ﬁnancially. Not that I wanted to move from Mumbai and go away.
Do you regret having not played the Indian Premier League (IPL)?
I again want to say that I don’t have any regrets. There is a change in the game or the way it is played every few years. Those are ‘ifs and buts’ and there is no point in thinking about it at this stage of my life. I am just glad that I came back from the accident and went on to play this much cricket. I am thankful to god, my family and the cricketing fraternity. From the position that I was in a bed in hospital, half-dead to go on and play cricket, I am just happy with whatever little I have achieved. No regrets one bit.
I am very happy that due to the IPL that cricketers are getting money. Thankful that even post retirement, I have got coaching assignments. Everyday I am on the ground is in itself a big thing for me. That satisfaction is very important.
How has been your coaching experience so far?
I think each state has got its own culture and diﬀerent approach to the game. As a coach, the opportunity to work with these 3-4 states has been very good. You get to learn a lot of things about every player approaches the game.
Coming from Mumbai, where with so many international players the culture is diﬀerent altogether. In certain states you have to create that culture, that little base to make it happen as not many players have gone on to play international cricket. It's a challenge overall to handle lot of things, but I think that’s what coaching is all about. But it gets the best out of you. It teaches you a lot. I have learnt a lot by coaching in diﬀerent states.
Do you have aspirations of coaching the Indian team?
Deﬁnitely I would love to. But for me I would prefer to have a department, like on spin bowing where I look after them. That's where I would like to specialise in. It is very much needed at times. Like you have a fast bowling coach, you need for spinners as well. The spinners have to be looked after and taken care of. Spin bowling coach for the Indian team would be an ideal opportunity for me. Although I can do the job of head coach as well, but would like to focus on one particular area i.e. the spin department.
Current spin scenario in India
It's great. I think Rahul Dravid is doing a fantastic job at the NCA where he is looking after and nurturing young players. He has got people at the right places. His experience is helping the NCA. I always feel that foundation is important. If the foundation is strong then everything else falls in place. I think spinners are deﬁnitely developing and more spinners are coming in. We are going in the right direction.
Who is the most promising spinner in the country?
I have always felt that Shreyas Gopal is a good spinner. From leg-spinner’s point of view, he had good IPL seasons. He has performed exceedingly well. He is one player whom we can look into especially for white ball cricket.
How do you ﬁnd Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav?
Chahal has got better and better. His conﬁdence level is outstanding. The way he is approaching the game is very good to see as he is very brave. He is giving the ball lot of air and he has got lot of self-belief.
Kuldeep is also a very good bowler. As a spinner you are going to have the odd bad series. But I think to have a chinaman bowler in our system is so much of bonus. We need to groom them and take care of them and give them as much conﬁdence as possible. Look at their strengths rather than waiting for them to fail. Give them enough chances. You need to develop them to be successful overseas also. Anil has been so successful overseas, that also happened later on in his career because of the experience. You have to persist with our spinners and be patient about it. Don't draw conclusions very early.
What will be your message to young players during the COVID scenario as a coach?
These are diﬃcult times. It is very uncertain and nobody expected it to happen. At times, I also don’t know how to react. All we can do is to try and meditate as much as possible. So that you train your mind to be calm and then focus on your ﬁtness. Keep yourself physically ﬁt and just be in a good space of mind. There would be days when you will feel a bit low or sad. But there is no point in thinking. Do what is there in your hand. Try spending time at your hobbies. The more you sit and think, the more stressful it would be. Instead of being sad, just be positive and see how you can come out of it stronger.