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December 4, 1998

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More than a 'keeper

Harsha Bhogle

It is five years now since Kiran More last played for India and frankly, it was a bit of a surprise that he kept going for Baroda for as long as he did. For it is not easy, as all of us must discover at some stage, to have to step down and continue to perform at a vastly lower level.

To do it, you either have to love the game deeply or earn your livelihood from it. In India, you make very good money from playing for your country and virtually none at all when you play for your state. It is a ghastly, demeaning reality here, unlike in England where a player can continue to make a decent living after having played for his country. All of a sudden, travel is less comfortable, hotels are distinctly forgettable, grounds look like deserted relief camps and people and officials give you a look which says `now what are you still doing here?í.

It is fine for a young man to whom the Ranji Trophy is a stage that he had dreamt of and who aspires to go even beyond; to whom a mention in the morning newspaper and a presence in the cricket annuals is a motivation. But for someone who has seen the world, who has competed against the toughest men and who has experienced stardom, it can be a bit like yesterdayís coffee; with just the whiff of what it was, but neither the taste nor the satisfaction.

That is why, in spite of being passionately in love with the game, a lot of Test cricketers rarely survive more than a year outside international cricket. That is perhaps how long it takes for them to realise that chances of a comeback are remote; that the train they saw pulling out of the station was theirs. It can be a traumatic period for cricketers with few interests outside the game. It is like being jilted, like giving your life to someone and being tossed aside.

It is a problem that is more acute in India than in most other places because we have very few openings for cricketers within the game itself. The idea of academies and coaching schools is very new and the manner in which they are mushrooming shows what an attractive alternative it is.

But aside from this, there is very little. Very few can become selectors and anyway, that is certainly not a career option because a selector, like the sunflower, has but a few days in the sun. Coaching the state team often means you have fewer productive hours in which to earn a living, because coaching alone can rarely provide a decent income.

But Kiran More chose to keep going for five years, and while I donít know what that would have meant to him, I am sure it was fantastic for the state side. Without having any stars, because Nayan Mongia was invariably away, the team regularly made it to the knockout and they were always a good team to watch and follow. Like Anshuman Gaekwad before him, who too played Ranji Trophy cricket for a long time after being through with Test cricket, More would have been a huge insipiration for the rest.

I can imagine a youngster hanging on to every word, listening to old cricket tales and imagining he was the star, and just asking questions, not as much about technique and how to play the game as about being tough and learning to seize opportunities. And Kiran More was as tough as anyone that played the game.

In fact, as I watched him revel in difficult situations, I sometimes wondered if he needed one to give off his best. He was a small man but had a completely outsized heart; one that would have been too big for a man twice his size.

Indeed, the overriding impression I have of Kiran More is of someone walking into a crisis. In Australia in 1991-'92 and a year later in South Africa, the top order failed with the same consistency as governments in New Delhi do. Invariably, it was the lower order that put some runs on the book, often outscoring the top half by two to one. And more often than not, More was in the middle of that scrap, fighting bitterly for a couple here, a single there, putting on twenty with the last man, getting the extras to contribute as well. A bowler had to earn Kiran Moreís wicket, it was never available at the corner discount sale.

That a wicket has a value is an idea that seems obvious in print or in words from a radio or television set, but to a young cricketer, it doesnít present itself quite as easily and if I had to pick one man to teach that I would pick More.

I wasnít in the West Indies in 1989 where he and Ravi Shastri had a long partnership, but I saw three others, all on very difficult tracks and where the top order had vanished. At Melbourne in the second Test in 1991, India were 128 for 7, batting first, and reached 263 with More making 67 not out on a wicket that was doing something. The last Test of that series was played in Perth and I have only seen one track bouncier than that one. Chasing 346, India were 159 for 8 with Sachin Tendulkar playing one of the great innings in Test cricket. He got there because More stood by him for over two hours. He only made 43 but India reached 272.

But the best I saw him bat was in Durban where Allan Donald, Brett Schultz and a very nippy Brian McMillan were making the ball fly. At 146 for 7, India not only needed runs, they needed someone to occupy the crease long enough to earn some respect. Pravin Amre was in his first Test and he had never seen a cricket ball go through the air faster than at Kingsmead.

More batted at number nine, a number that presented a flattering, if untrue, picture of the strength of the Indian batting. For five hours he hung in there, getting most balls in the middle, some past the edge and some on the body. He made 55, added 101 with Amre, who himself played an innings of remarkable character, and ensured that even if the last day hadnít been washed out, the match would have been saved.

Behind the stumps and off the field, he loved to chat. The first activity didnít make him very popular with batsmen and umpires. The second made him a wonderful person to meet and share a moment with. I was convinced, and maybe he can reveal it now, that the on-field persona wasnít real; that it was a role that he felt he had to play. The More you met without his cricket clothes on was the real one, was a man who spoke his mind without being rude and was among the most approachable persons in the game.

Those are the two qualities that convince me that he still has a role to play in the game; that he can help in moulding young men across the country and in making them better cricketers and fighters. As a schoolboy, I remember Lala Amarnath went around the country (he certainly came to Hyderabad) conducting cricket camps. For all of us, being invited there was a huge inspiration even though there were too many boys at the camp.

I believe the BCCI should actually contract such travelling ambassadors to conduct, for example, five camps a year in selected cities; for three weeks with a group of twenty. I know nobody would ask me but I would have Kiran More and Sanjay Manjrekar on top of my list. And I know that More would enjoy doing something like that.

I hope he has a lovely life outside the game and with his family. I mention that specifically because my other memory is of him buying more toys than his bag could accomodate! You see, he always had a problem with sizes -- a heart that was always too big and a suitcase that was always too small !!

Harsha Bhogle

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