Never felt ashamed of being called ‘bhaiya’ from UP: GopalUpdated: Jul 13, 2020 23:11 IST
Former Test off-spinner Gopal Sharma has said he could have played many more Tests if he had agreed to represent Mumbai in the 1980s when he was given an open offer to do the same by Mumbai’s top cricketers who were calling the shots at the time.
Sharma, who took 20 international wickets, 10 each in five Tests and 11 ODIs, was the first cricketer from Uttar Pradesh to play Tests in the post-Independence era. In the pre-Independence era, Pusapati Vijaya Ananda Gajapathi Raju (Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram) had captained India during the 1936 tour of England.
“They (including a former captain) always wanted me to play for Mumbai, but I turned down the offer as I was keen to make a name for myself as well as for Uttar Pradesh. I faced many challenges during my career, but I never felt ashamed of being called ‘bhaiya’ from Uttar Pradesh,” Gopal Sharma said on Monday, 30 years after his retirement from the game in 1990.
“I never lost my cool and always tried to live up to expectations. Even though my performance was up to the mark, I was dropped from the side,” said Sharma, who turns 60 on August 3.
Kanpur’s Sharma said he also felt there was favoritism in Team India selection those days when he was denied the chance to play for India against New Zealand in New Zealand in the 1981 series.
“I was named the first stand-by and I was supposed to leave for New Zealand the next day to replace an injured Shiv Lal Yadav, but the team management chose to call Ravi Shastri then,” he said, adding, “My name was announced by Raj Singh Dungarpur during commentary and I had my bags packed for the tour while playing in a Ranji Trophy game against Mumbai in Kanpur. But suddenly I came to know that Shastri, who took just one wicket in that game, was going in my place.”
“Today, I feel that if I had accepted the offer to play for Mumbai, I would have played many more matches for the country,” said Sharma.
As a member of the national selection committee from the Central Zone in the 2003-04 season, Sharma played a key role in getting at least four Uttar Pradesh cricketers drafted into Team India.
The cricketers included RP Singh, Mohd Kaif, Suresh Raina and Piyush Chawla from UP and Railways’ JP Yadav, who made a comeback during Sharma’s tenure. “All cricketers selected by me did well for Team India and I still remember that the four other members in the committee, including the then chairman Kiran More, used to ask me ‘Gopi tu kahan se laata hai yaar such brilliant cricketers?’ (from where do you get such fine players?).”
Sharma, who had to wait for four years to play his debut match in 1985 despite being selected for Team India in 1981, said he became a victim of a fight in the cricket board in 2004. “As soon as one group came to power in the BCCI, I lost my position in the selection panel. I am sure that if I had been in the committee for a few more years, many more cricketers from central zone could have played for India.”
Sharma made his Test debut against England on his home turf at the Green Park Stadium in Kanpur, where he bowled long and hard, sending down 60 overs for 3/115.
“It was always difficult to get into the Indian side as a spinner as I had to compete for the off-spinner’s spot with Shivlal Yadav and later Arshad Ayub. Other spinners of different varieties also in the fray were Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, Maninder Singh, Narendra Hirwani, Ravi Shastri and youngsters like Anil Kumble and Venkatapathy Raju, but I kept performing well whenever I got a chance.”
For the record, Sharma did play in Sri Lanka in 1985-86 and then against Pakistan in 1986-87. When he bowled alongside Yadav against Pakistan at Jaipur, he was the more successful one, taking four wickets while Yadav took one. The next innings in the Ahmedabad Test, however, saw him pick up one and Yadav four. After that he was in the wilderness for three years.
Sharma, who was very accurate, still recalls the day when he came to know about his selection for Team India. “It was announced on radio and I was told by someone. I could believe it only when I saw my name in the next morning’s newspapers. It was a dream come true,” said Sharma who took 353 wickets in 104 first-class matches, besides hitting two fighting centuries with the willow.
FIRST A PACER
In fact, very few know that Sharma was originally a medium pacer and only a tricky situation forced him to become an off-spinner. In 1974, he was selected for the UP government’s first-ever cricket hostel in Lucknow as a medium pacer after doing well in the Under-19 team. Within a few days, he developed a backache and found himself unable to bowl quick at the nets.
“I was just wondering what to do and I started bowling slow deliveries then and I felt no pain. My first coach Rohit Chaturvedi then advised me to stick to spin bowling and I did that,” he said.
“I could have been kicked out of the hostel had I not changed my bowling style. After a year, the Lucknow hostel was shut down and I was shifted to Kanpur hostel (Mohd Kaif belongs to same hostel),” he said.
However, Sharma sounded disappointed over the below par standard of government-run cricket hostels across the state. “Cricket is almost finished in the hostel and sports colleges. The concept of joint training is no more prevalent. Now, private academies have taken over the system,” he said.
“There was competition amongst us when we were in the hostel. But now fata-fat cricket has become the key attraction for UP cricketers.”
He said if UP cricketers won more matches at the national level, they would attract the national selectors’ attention. “UP cricketers need to play good cricket. Both the UP Sports Directorate and the UP Cricket Association should come out with a plan jointly so that the standard of state cricket could be raised. Once it is done, our cricketers would be an automatic choice in Team India.”
“Through ‘jugar’ system, one can play up to the state level. But to play for India in any format of the game, you need to have a special quality. Infrastructure has been raised to top standards in the state. But we still need good coaches as well as dedicated cricketers,” he said.
While Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram represented India only in Tests, Gopal Sharma and Mohd Kaif (2000-2006) did so in Tests and ODIs, Rudra Pratap Singh (2006-11), Piyush Chawla (2006-12), Suresh Raina (2005-18), Praveen Kumar (2007-12), Bhuvneshwar Kumar (debut in 2013) and Kuldeep Yadav (debut in 2017) have played in Tests, ODIs and T20s. Three others i.e. Rudra Pratap Singh Senior (1986), Gyanendra Pandey (1999) and Sudeep Tyagi (2009) have played only ODIs.
The team was formed in 1934 under the name of ‘United Provinces’. The team’s best performance in the Ranji Trophy in their early years came in 1939-40 when they finished as runners-up. In the 1950-51 season, the team’s name was changed to ‘Uttar Pradesh’.
Uttar Pradesh have not been strong in the Ranji Trophy cricket for any prolonged period in their history. Their only victory in the Ranji Trophy Elite Group was in the 2005-06 season. The Ranji Trophy win was one of the most spectacular comebacks in cricketing history, since at one point of time in the season Uttar Pradesh were on the brink of relegation.
They have finished runner-up twice before, once in 1997-98 against a strong Karnataka side, and once in 1977-78 against the same team under the captaincy of Mohammad Shahid and the team manager was Abdul Karim Chishti, former captain of Uttar Pradesh. They finished runners-up in the 2007-08 season, reprising a performance, similar to the one witnessed in the 2005-06 season, when they came back from the brink of relegation to win the championship. This time though, they lost to Delhi in the final.
Their best performance in the Vijay Hazare Trophy came in 2004-05 when they were joint-winners with Tamil Nadu. In 2006 they won the Nissar Trophy, defeating Sialkot cricket team in Dharmasala. Their only appearance in the Irani Trophy came in the 2006-07 season in which they lost to the Rest of India team.