The Mumbai school of batsmanship had traditionally been associated with putting a high price on one’s wicket. The foundations of this edifice was laid by Vijay Merchant, the structure built by the likes of Polly Umrigar and Dilip Sardesai and finishing touches provided by Sunil Gavaskar. The style of batting popularised by them placed focus on defence by eschewing all risks, tiring the bowlers down and taking advantage of loose balls. These batsmen seldom lifted the ball or played the lofted shots. Their head was kept down and strokes were played along the ground leaving little scope for adventurism or excitement. It was dour batting, custom made for the longer version of the game.
Hence, it made news when a new batsman from Mumbai, with a penchant for big hitting, made his arrival on the national scene. Sandeep Madhusudan Patil came into the national reckoning on accounting of his prowess for hitting huge sixes in the league matches in Mumbai. He used to clear the grounds with ease and there were stories to the effect that one his shots struck from Wankhade Stadium landed in the Brabourne, located across the street! His name did the rounds for selection to the national side for the 1979 ICC World Cup, but he was not considered, probably due to the general antipathy prevailing in the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) on account of the dalliances of Sunil Gavaskar with representative of Kerry Packer.
Looking back, it appears possible that Patil could have made it to the squad for this championship had Gavaskar been retained as captain by the BCCI.
However, Patil could not be denied his due and he became part of the national squad during the 1979-80 season, when India played six Tests each against Australia and Pakistan, besides the Golden Jubilee Test against England. He was in the squad from the beginning of the series against Pakistan but could break into the playing eleven only in the fifth Test at Chennai. He did not set the Cooum River on fire with his exploits with the bat in the only innings he batted as he was dismissed for 15. But he made amends in the next Test at Kolkata as he made 62 and 31. He did not score too many runs in the Golden Jubilee Test, but his scores in the Tests prior to that and, more importantly, his style of batting sealed his place in the squad to tour Australia and New Zealand in 1980-81.
Making a statement
This twin tour saw Patil’s transformation into a frontline batsman, who came to the rescue of the side when the going got tough. He started the tour by scoring heavily in the One-Day Internationals and was thus an automatic selection to the playing eleven for the Test matches. In the first Test at Sydney, India lost early wickets and were on the ropes when Patil arrived at the crease. He chose to counter attack and played a blistering knock that left the Aussie bowlers stunned. He crossed the half-century mark and had reached 65 when a bouncer from Len Pascoe struck him behind his ear, forcing him to retire hurt. This brought an abrupt end to a fine innings, which could have taken India to a safer score than the total of 201 that the side finally managed. He came out to bat in the second innings despite the injury and struck a boundary before being dismissed. For the record India lost this game by an innings and four runs.
Helmets had just started becoming a part of the cricketing gear at that time and many a batsman considered wearing one to be infra dig, as it amounted to admitting fear of physical injury.
Incidentally, Patil had toyed with the idea of wearing a helmet before the match started but finally decided to bat wearing his panama hat. But this injury forced him to change his mind and a helmet adorned his head when he walked out to bat in the next Test at Adelaide, in the midst of another crisis. Australia had batted first in this match and scored 528 and, in reply, India were in the dumps at 130/4, which included the wickets of Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath. When Patil joined opener Chetan Chauhan, who was batting with grim resolve, observers expected the duo to mount a dour rearguard action and take the side to safer waters.
But Patil had other ideas. Once again, he launched into a blistering counter attack that left the Aussie bowlers bruised and battered. He waded into the Australian attack comprising Dennis Lillee, Pascoe, Rodney Hogg and Bruce Yardley with gay abandon, treating them like a bunch of club bowlers and carted the ball to all parts of the ground in a cavalier manner. He was in top form and the helmet gave him an added self confidence that he put to full use to play an innings that would be rated among the best played by an Indian batsman in Australia. He cruised past the century mark with barely a pause and finally fell with his individual score at 174, which had come off a mere 240 balls, with 22 boundaries and one six. He had single-handedly pulled the side out of the woods and saved them from the ignominy of being asked to follow on.
India managed to save this match and then proceeded to inflict a shocking 59-run defeat on Australia in the last Test at Melbourne. Here, Patil superbly tackled the Aussie speedsters bowling with the second new ball on a crumbling pitch to score a 26-bal 36, that helped India post a target of 143, which ultimately proved beyond the reach of the hosts.
During the tour of New Zealand that followed also, Patil was the highest run-getter for India (186), though the side lost the three-match series 0-1.
Then England under Keith Fletcher came to India in the winter of 1981-82, Patil mysteriously lost his golden touch with the bat. He looked so out of form that the selectors were forced to drop him after the first four Tests. His misery with the bat continued during the tour of England in the summer of 1982 and he could scarcely put the bat to the ball in the first class matches that preceded the Tests.
But the failure of Indian middle order in the first Test forced skipper Gavaskar to draft Patil into the playing eleven for the second game at Manchester. He suddenly regained his form and came to the rescue of the side with a stroke-filled unbeaten 129 that helped India reach 379/8 in reply to England's 425 when rain brought an early end to the contest. This was also the game in which Patil smashed England pace spearhead Bob Willis for six fours in an over, which included a no-ball.
However, he could not cement his place in the side despite these top class performances against the best sides in difficult conditions. He had an ordinary tour of Pakistan in 1982-83 as India lost the six-match series 0-3. Patil managed 173 runs at an average of 24.71 from four Tests and chose to opt out of the tour of the West Indies that followed, citing personal reasons.
He was a key member of the squad that won the ICC World Cup of 1983 and it was his unbeaten 32-ball 51 that swung the semifinal against England in India’s favour. He again lost his touch when a second string Pakistan side toured India in 1983 and was dropped after the second Test. But a brilliant innings in a one-dayer convinced the selectors to recall him for the last Test at Nagpur, for which the message reached him only on the morning of the match. He rushed to Nagpur on a special plane kept at his disposal by Chief Minister of Maharashtra, but again failed with the bat. His form plummeted further and he played only in two matches in the six-Test series against the West Indies that followed.
Exit from Test team
Thus, Patil’s career was at a crossroads when the 1984-85 season started. He scored a century in the second Test against Pakistan at Faizalabad, indicating that he was in good touch. However, disaster was to strike soon afterwards when England toured India. Patil had not scored much in the only innings of the first Test that India won with ease. In the second Test at Delhi he looked in good nick, but, unfortunately, played a loose shot in the second innings when the game was evenly poised on the last day. Kapil Dev also got out playing a rash shot and Indian collapsed suddenly, leaving England a modest target of 125. The visitors went on to win the match by eight wickets. This Test would go down in history as one that India threw away by bad batting alone.
Both Patil and Kapil were dropped from the side following this. Worse was to follow as an article appeared in the Marathi sports magazine “Ekach Shatkar' of which Patil was the editor, where Kapil was criticised for not sharing the prize money received on terms agreed upon by the side. This created a furore and the general impression was that Patil had fired the gun sitting on the shoulders of Gavaskar. Thus, he got dragged into the vortex of one of the worst inter-personal feuds in Indian cricket - the one between Gavaskar and Kapil. Thus, though Kapil returned to the side after one Test, Patil found himself out in the cold yet again.
After spending a year in the wilderness, Patil was picked for the tour of England in 1986. He played in the ODIs, but could not get a chance to play in any of the three Tests that followed. He was not considered when Australia toured India at the beginning of 1986-87 season, at which point he announced his retirement from international cricket.
Patil continued to play first class cricket and led the Madhya Pradesh side with elan during the late 1980s. He was considered by the selectors to lead the side to Pakistan in 1989 when a revolt by players originally selected almost prompted the BCCI to sack the entire side.
He later qualified as a coach but his tenure with the Indian side in 1995-96 in this capacity was a failure. However, he met with success when the Kenyan side coached by him made it to the semifinals of the ICC World Cup in 2003. He would later become the National Cricket Academy's director and the chairman of the national selection committee.
Patil also found time to act in a 1985 Bollywood movie “Kabhi Ajnabi The”, which failed at the box office, despite his dashing looks and the vivaciousness of the heroine Debasree Roy. He also penned his autobiography “Sandy Storm” and made some music albums.
In final analysis, Patil emerges as a player who could not convert his potential into consistent performances on the international arena. He belonged to the rare breed of Indian batsmen who performed well in difficult conditions abroad while battling against the best of bowlers, but failed in the easier surroundings at home. Patil remains in public memory as a meteor that brilliantly lit up the Indian cricketing horizon for a brief period during the 1980s.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)