Whenever there is a discussion on India’s campaign in the 1983 World Cup, Balwinder Singh Sandhu’s name definitely crops up. The image of him getting Gordon Greenidge’s wicket is still fresh in the minds of the Indian fans. Although his career may not have moved in the direction that he may have wanted, his contribution to India’s World Cup victory is always remembered.
And there is more to him than that famous wicket. Post-retirement, he has successfully coached many domestic teams in India. Currently, he is actively involved in the Bollywood movie ‘83’, which is on India’s 1983 World Cup campaign. He generously accepted our request for a chat on his career, the 83 World Cup, coaching experience and the current state of fast bowling in India. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Did you always want to be a cricketer?
No, I don’t think so. During my childhood, I used to play cricket near my house. That’s all. Then we moved to Nehru Nagar in Kurla, we had a big ground nearby, but it was very dirty. I was around 14 years old and along with my friends, we decided to clean the ground. We also used to guard it so that no one makes it dirty. Once it was cleaned, we prepared a center pitch using the pipe as a roller. We named our team ‘Youngsters’. That’s how I started taking interest in cricket.
But I used to play other sports as well. In the rainy season, I used to play football. If hockey was coming on television, with makeshift hockey sticks from our bats and stumps, we used to play it. My uncle Harcharan Singh had played in the 1975 Hockey World Cup and till 1978-80, I watched hockey more than cricket. I was so crazy about Hockey that I used to bunk school to watch it.
Then in our colony, we started playing badminton in the night. In fact, I think badminton came more naturally to me and at that age, I was a better badminton player than a cricketer. In school, I also used to play table tennis. I represented my college in badminton as well.
When did you decide that you will make a career out of cricket?
My father was a Punjabi writer who played hockey for his school. He was never against me playing sports, but at the same time said that focus should also be on the studies and that I should at least be a graduate. We also had a family business, but my father wasn’t into it. Some liability came on us and we were struggling financially.
When I was around 16 years old, I went to a summer vacation camp organized by the Bombay Cricket Association. The only reason I went there was because all my friends were going, and I didn’t know what to do. I was good at tennis ball cricket and used to bowl off-spinners as well as bat very well. But I wasn’t interested in leather ball cricket and was a bit scared while batting. Baba Sidhaye was the coach at that time, and he was quite impressed by my bowling. Although I got selected, I wasn’t very serious for two-three years.
It was only after I joined Jhunjhunwala College that I became serious about cricket. I started practicing more and saw results coming. During a phase, I took 25 wickets in three matches and that gave me the confidence to continue playing.
I worked with Bombay Oil and Morarji Mills initially. But I wasn’t too happy with my progress and told myself that this is not the life I wanted. I knew that if I got selected for the University team, I would get a good job. I worked hard and was picked for the University team as a spinner which also had Ravi Shastri. After good performances at University level, I got a job offer from Rashtriya Chemical Fertilizers (RCF) at a salary of Rs. 950 per month. I took that up and started working really hard on my game.
How did you move to bowl medium pace?
In one of the matches in the Kanga League, our team’s fast bowler had not turned up, so I thought I will bowl seam. Luckily, I got wickets as well and from then on I used to bowl spin or pace depending on the team requirement. I picked lots of wickets that season. But I was struggling on dry wickets and one of my teammates provoked me that I was only a Kanga League bowler. That’s when I started to learn the skill of swing. I had a natural inswinger but had to work on the outswinger.
How was your experience getting coached by Ramakant Achrekar?
When I was playing in Achrekar Sir’s team, he used to say, “Tumhare paas inswing achha hai, usko develop karo,” [you have good inswing, you should develop it]. In matches organized by Sir, I used to bowl 20-25 overs in a game. That helped in my accuracy. Later on, I came to know that Achrekar Sir had given instruction to all the captains, “Ye Sardar ki bowling band nahin karne ki. Jab tak isko maar nahin padti ya ye thak nahin jaata,” [Don’t stop this Sardar’s bowling till he is hit for runs or he tires out].
After a few years, I don’t know what he saw in me, but he used to ask me to organize the team like a manager, but he never made me captain. He was aware that if he made me the captain, I will bowl both pace and spin. I remember a game in which we had scored 130-odd runs and the opposition was around 70 for five. Since the wicket was turning, I requested the captain to allow me to bowl off-spin. He didn’t agree. But when I got the ball, after one ball with a longer run-up, I switched to off-spin and immediately got a wicket. After that, the captain was convinced and I won the match for my team. While we were celebrating in the tent, the captain said, “Sir ko koi nahin bolega ki Sandhu ne spin daala tha,” [No one will tell Sir that Sandhu bowled spin]. But Achrekar Sir came to know that I had bowled off-spin (smiles).
Tour to Pakistan in 1983
When I was selected for the Pakistan tour, my father was very happy, and he wrote a beautiful letter to me. I wasn’t in the initial team for the fourth Test in Hyderabad (Sind). On the morning of the match, Madan Lal had an injury to his heel and was out of the team. Sunil [Gavaskar] went for the toss and after coming back told me that I was playing. I was caught off the hook. I was both excited and nervous.
As I was tying my shoelaces, I told myself that this is what I wanted to do i.e. play Test cricket. With that in mind, I went to bowl. I wasn’t able to get my rhythm in the first few balls. Then I thought, I have got the opportunity, let’s do it, jo hoga dekha jayega [will see whatever happens]. I got the first wicket of Mohsin Khan and the next ball I got Haroon Rasheed. He had been flicking the ball well in a tour game, so I bowled an outswinger pitching on leg and middle. He went for a flick and it hit the off stump. I think that is one of the best balls that I have bowled in international cricket, not the one that got [Gordon] Greenidge out (laughs).
No discussion with you can be complete without talking about the famous dismissal of Gordon Greenidge in the World Cup Final. Can you tell more about it?
This ball became famous because the stage was so big, and the batsman was bigger. It was a huge occasion. I am thankful to god that on such a day I was able to execute my skills effectively. Many people told me that it was the ball of the tournament.
Was it planned?
Yes. I had Gordon in trouble against my inswinger in the West Indies. I realized when I am bowling close to the stumps, he is not picking my inswingers. I had got him out on a few occasions earlier. I had taken his wicket with a similar delivery in the second Test at Port of Spain in the same year (although he had gone for a shot then). I got him out again in our first match against West Indies in the World Cup.
Many years earlier, I had foxed left-hander Abdul Bhai with an in-coming delivery (outswinger to right-hand batsman) in a domestic game by bowling away going delivery to his partner Salim Durani. So, here also, I didn’t bowl a single inswinger to Desmond Haynes till that moment. Gordon would have observed this from the non-striker’s end.
And the first ball I bowled to Gordon was an inswinger pitched two stumps outside off. I think I deceived him; he didn’t expect the ball to come in so much. That wicket gave us the hope that we can win the game. We thought that we had got a foot in the door and now let’s open it up. Then Kapil’s catch turned everything around.
How was the mood of the team prior to the 1983 campaign?
Before going to England, I gave an interview to Lokesh Pratap Sahi and he asked me about our chances. I said that we will do well provided our batsmen gave us 230-240 runs on the board as we have a good seam attack who will be effective in English conditions.
We carried the confidence from the West Indies tour. The spirit was good and also the core team was the same. We were gelling together very well. Then we won the first game quite convincingly and our goal was to reach the semi-finals. But Kapil's brilliant 175 got us back into the tournament.
By the semi-finals, we were not feeling the pressure as we had already performed beyond the expectation of the fans. But because it was England, in my mind it was that these guys have ruled us, now is the time to hit them down. We went into the game with that spirit. Although, I didn’t bowl well in that game (semi-finals) because of some personal issues.
You were also involved in a crucial tenth wicket partnership of 22 runs in the final
I was a decent batsman then. When runs were required, I used to get those runs. Although I wasn’t thinking like a batsman, I knew I could bat decently. I knew how to block the ball and hit the ball. That was my simple philosophy. I wasn’t bothered if my technique was good or how I was looking as a batsman. But I used to get the runs. Achrekar Sir once told me that my flick was like a Test player.
In the final, when I got hit on the head, I told myself that I am not going to show any emotions. Though I was hit on the ears, I didn’t show that I was injured. The wicketkeeper came to me to check, but I told him that I was fine. I was looking at (Malcolm) Marshall and I passed the message with my reaction that you bowl, I am ready. I didn’t want to give him that moral victory. Pretty soon, I flicked him and got three runs. I feel very proud of the 22 run last wicket partnership with Syed Kirmani. I stayed not out.
Any other memory from the World Cup that you would like to share?
There was this guy named Bal Kishan Baichu from Trinidad who was my friend. In one of the games that we were losing, he got drunk and started shouting ‘India will win the World Cup’. All the time he was talking like this. After a point, it became embarrassing as we were losing the game. So, I asked him to shut up. I told him that I was not going to talk to him if he behaved this way.
So, he stopped. But still went to say that his money was on India and India will win. I don’t know from where he got that confidence or maybe he was just saying to boost my spirits. He used to chant, “Ballu my bhai my Sandhu, Ballu my bhai my Sandhu, India will win the World Cup”. After the first few games, he went back to West Indies. That’s one incident I remember.
Then after coming home to India, my friends told me stories about what they did that night. Then I thought I should have been there to celebrate with them (smiles). It (the magnitude) hit me then. Even now I hear from people about what they were doing when India won the World Cup. It makes one feel happy that you gave an opportunity to a lot of fans to be happy. It was a turning point in Indian cricket.
Post your playing days, you took up coaching. How has that experience been?
It’s been a great learning process. I have coached many teams like Mumbai, Maharashtra, Head Coach of NCA, India U-19, Orissa, Baroda and Madhya Pradesh. During my tenure, Baroda came in the top four in Ranji Trophy. But then I realized that despite having so much of experience, I was not selected as the bowling coach of the Indian team. I was a bit disappointed and took up the ICL opportunity. Then I also got an opportunity to train Akshay Kumar for Patiala House which was a challenging experience. Another challenge came when I was asked to coach Mumbai Heroes, Salman Khan’s team. All this while, I kept on working in the NCA.
Do you have future aspirations of any coaching assignment with the Indian team?
If it comes fine. I have reached a stage where I take things as they come. I am not obsessed with coaching an Indian team now. At one point I wanted to. Now, if any challenging assignment comes, I will happily take it. Somehow, I never got an opportunity with IPL as well, neither did I try. Probably I didn’t have the right connections to approach. I know I can contribute to the IPL. If it comes to me fine, otherwise it doesn’t bother me. As long as I am enjoying whatever stint I am getting, I am happy.
What is your take on having foreign coaches in the Indian or IPL teams?
If you had asked me this question 15 years back, I might have said yes, we need foreign coaches as the Indians were not trained as coaches back then. But after 2004-05, we have trained Indian coaches. Currently, there would be more than 10 trained Indian coaches to take up the job at the top level. We now have people who know how to analyze data. We have good physios working with NCA and Ranji teams. NCA has played a big part in the development of Indian cricket especially at the junior level.
I am of the opinion that if you are bringing in a foreign coach for the IPL teams then the assistant coaches should be Indian. It will give them an opportunity to learn. We shouldn’t have foreign support staff. I think the reason that the IPL team takes foreign coaches as it also adds to their marketing value. They speak good English; give good presentations and after a loss, they will just say ‘one bad day at the office’. We Indian coaches are more emotionally involved with the team.
You have been deeply involved with the movie ‘83’. Can you tell more about it?
When the movie 83 started, I was roped in to train the actors. Cricketing-wise I was always consulted. I was involved in all the planning and training of actors. I was as an assistant to Kabir Khan. Earlier I was a consultant to the movie and then they made me Associate Director Cricket. I don’t know what it means though, I will be happy as long as we have done a good job. I am sure the people of India will like the movie. It will make you laugh, cry, overall a nice enjoyable and entertaining movie.
The position of Mumbai in Indian Cricket is not what it used to be. Where do you think they went wrong?
We didn’t work on the development of Mumbai cricket. I always believe that if your supply line is good, then you can’t be defeated. It’s an army philosophy that if you want to beat someone then you cut off the supply line. If the supply line is cut, then it is easier to beat the people at the front. It holds good for the army as well as sports. We got to work on the supply line and that’s where we are lagging. By supply line I mean junior cricket. We need to work on the quality of coaching in junior cricket. Better teachers will create better students. Have patience with talented players. We need to work at the grassroots level. We need to work with their cricketing and mental skills.
There are some administrative drawbacks as well. We need to have the right people at the right job. Overall revamp is required. This corona crisis has given time to think for everyone and I hope something good happens. I am looking at the generation which played in the 1990s and 2000s to bring about the changes.
Of late, India has produced many good fast bowlers. How pleased are you with this scenario?
Right now, we have the best fast bowling side. Not only those who are playing in the team but also those who are sitting out. We have good fast bowlers even at Under-19 and Under-21 level. I think again the credit should go to the NCA. The program that they have has worked wonders. NCA has not been given the credit that they should get. They have played a huge role in the development of cricket. People give credit to foreign coaches but not to the ground level workers at the NCA. It used to hurt me. But now I don’t think much. I still give credit to my coaches Hemu Dalvi, Ramakant Achrekar, Vasant Amaladi and Baba Sidhaye.
Among the current crop of fast bowlers in India, whom do you find the most promising?
I don’t want to name one guy. They are a good bunch doing well. There are 6-7 fast bowlers who are really good. But if the team is in trouble, then I will throw the ball to Mohammed Shami. He is all the time looking to get the batsman out. Despite having issues in his personal life, he has been performing well. Hats off to him. And when Jasprit Bumrah gets into the rhythm, he is very devastating. Ishant Sharma has also improved a lot over the past few years. Umesh Yadav has been good in patches. But still, I think the bowler to watch is Shami. At the same time, I would say that others are not far behind.
Any regrets that you have from your career?
Not really. I do not have regrets. When I performed, I was selected and when I didn’t do well, I was dropped. I don’t carry the baggage (like Vikram-Betaal) if I am not able to achieve something that I wanted to. I just do my job and move on. The only regret that I have is that if we had the video technology or support staff during our time, we would have definitely been better bowlers.
Overall, I am thankful to God that he has been kind to me. I used to drive between Bombay and Pune in 100 minutes at a speed of 150 kmph. Once the tyre of my car burst and the car lost control. It was a major accident, but I didn’t get a scratch. That day after surviving the accident, I felt that God still had some mission for me.
Finally, what would be your message to youngsters?
I believed in one thing, if you are good, then no-one other than god can stop you from going up. So, work hard on your performance and don’t think about the rest. God will take care of you.