IN Swahili the word for warrior is askari. In the slim list of askaris in the Indian cricket team, Robin Singh and Ajit Agarkar’s names should be right there on the top. As former India manager and recently appointed North Zone selector Madan Lal says: “Robin is one player from whom you can always expect 100 per cent. And Agarkar has a knack of taking wickets. It doesn’t come to everybody.”
Though he debuted for India against the West Indies in 1989, the selectors immediately went into amnesia about the fourth-generation immigrant from Trinidad & Tobago. Says Singh, with more than a hint of strain and passion in his voice: “It took me seven years of domestic cricket to come back into reckoning.”
But with the new emphasis on grooming all-rounders, keeping in mind India’s chances in the next year’s World Cup in England, a lot perhaps depends on Singh as well as India’s find of this year, Mumbai-based all-rounder Agarkar. Says former Test player Yashpal Sharma about Agarkar: “In my opinion he’s an outstanding player. If it was that easy, why couldn’t Kapil Dev or Srinath get the fastest 50 wickets in one-day internationals? He will be crucial for our World Cup chances.” Adds Mark Mascarenhas, chief of WorldTel which represents both Agarkar and Singh: “One of the reasons we signed these two players, apart from their good performances, was that they play with heart.”
While Singh made his first class debut against the likes of Courtney Walsh and Patrick Patterson in the West Indies when he was just 16 years old, Agarkar made his point to the selectors in the under-19 Test series in Pakistan last year, where he took 16 wickets in three outings.
Says former India spinner Maninder Singh: “I played against Robin Singh in 1981 when I led the under-19 side to the West Indies. He was the only batsman who managed to get runs against us. I think he should have had a regular spot as a batsman in the Indian one-day side a long time ago.”
Coming to India in 1984, Singh got his Indian citizenship in February ’89. The previous year he was in the Tamil Nadu side that won the Ranji trophy. He stuck on in Madras from then on and completed his masters in economics. “I did get support from the TNCA but not that much,” he recalls. “It is important to have your association’s backing to get into games where you get noticed. With the coming of (TNCA chief) Khumbat things started changing.”
In 1996 he became captain of the Tamil Nadu side and the same year he made his comeback for India in November 1996 in the Titan Cup. Says Singh: “I didn’t really know what to expect. All I knew was that I had to be in a positive frame of mind. That made the difference for me. In the kind of batting position that I come in most of the time, I have to somehow make the most of a bad situation. You can’t do that unless you back yourself to perform. When I am bowling, I have to get it right very fast in the restricting job. It was important for me to know my role in the team and play to that.”
If Singh started late and is grateful of the chances that started coming his way once he touched 33, Agarkar has started very young. He turns 21 this December and has already captured the fastest 50 wickets in one-day international cricket (50 wickets in 23 matches at an average of 21.38 runs per wicket). Says Agarkar: “I started playing at the age of 12 in Shivaji Park. ” He had a start to cricket somewhat similar to Sachin Tendulkar’s. “I started out with Ramakant Achrekar in 1989-90. He saw me playing during my vacations and asked my father whether he would have any objection to my shifting to Sharda Ashram school because of its strong emphasis on cricket. My father asked me. I said yes.”
Of course, Agarkar started off as a batsman. He got a triple hundred in school against St Xavier’s but later on branched off to work on his bowling. Says he: “When I played with Sachin for the Cricket Club of India in a match, he told me to concentrate on my bowling.” But as Maninder Singh adds, “He is a much better bats -man than he has shown so far. His 26 in 12 balls against Sri Lanka in Sharjah is the first time he has shown his potential. I think it would help him if he talks to somebody senior on the tour, former players like Ravi Shastri, about improving his batting.” But Manoj Prabhakar, who occupied his slot for a long time, advises: “He’s impressive. From the look of his legs, however, he needs to build more strength or he might be more prone to injury in the years to come.”
Significantly, both Singh and Agarkar like to chalk out bowling strategies with regard to certain players. Agarkar even takes down notes after every match: “I have notes for most of the teams I have played against. I like to plan certain things for batsmen. Against Sri Lanka in their Independence Cup, we had planned something for Sanath Jayasuriya in a match. Basically, I was supposed to bowl a yorker to him first ball. It turned into a boundary over third man. But the strategy worked after three overs when I bowled him.”
Agarkar admits he has found it difficult to bowl to Aravinda De Silva, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Ricky Ponting. “They are good players. You have to be accurate with them.” The Indians he admires: obviously Sachin, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Sanjay Manjrekar, under whose captaincy he debuted in first class cricket.
SINGH’S early memories are more about players like Gus Logie, Phil Simmons, David Williams and greats like Rohan Kanhai. Says he: “In a match in Trinidad when I was around 12, I went in with the drinks trolley. Kanhai was batting. He asked me get a bit of rum for him to ‘calm my nerves’.”
On the field Singh gets along with just a smattering of Hindi. Enough, as he says, ‘to get along’. He’s more proficient in Tamil than Hindi. But his great grandmother who died in the Caribbean at the age of 103 knew only Hindi. Since his comeback in 1996, however, Singh hasn’t had the time between tours to visit his extended family back home.
He’s also generally very quiet. “I have always been like that,” he shrugs. “I am different when I play. I don’t have to show aggression to be aggressive. You have to be subtle. If you lose your cool on the field, you become predictable to your opponents.” Adds Indian vice-captain Ajay Jadeja: “He’s got a very cool kind of aggression. Almost Buddhist or something. When he’s yet to come behind me in the batting order, I tend to take more risks. His presence makes me more relaxed. He’s generally coming in towards the end when the best bowlers are on and his eye is not in. He has done very well for India in that slot.”
Agarkar is more fun-loving. Says Kiran Pawar, his under-19 captain: “I’ve known him since the Sharda Ashram School days when he used to play for the English medium and I for the Marathi medium. We used to have great fun when we used to travel outside Mumbai for matches. If we finished early in the afternoon, Achrekar sir made us practice till late. There was no fun then. What I really remember about him from those days is that he was always confident. Right from when he was 16.” And while Singh listens to just about ‘anything’ as far as music is concerned, Agarkar is into Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi and “any of that kind of stuff”.
A second year student of commerce now in D.G. Ruparel College, Mumbai, Agarkar has hit big time monetarily as well. He has, reportedly, signed a three-year deal with Pepsi worth more than Rs 1.5 crore. Money that, in his own words, “he hasn’t gotten around to spending yet”. Singh too makes in excess of Rs 1 crore a year. Agarkar’s also got a head for books. Says he: “Anything really.” His last read: John Grisham’s The Partner. He’s also recently read The Art of Captaincy by Mike Brearley (it’s yet to be ascertained whether it’s the same copy that a journalist presented Tendulkar with and Salil Ankola borrowed.)
And as far as ambition goes, Agarkar states: “I want to enjoy my cricket. I want to play for India.” Singh is more down to earth. A few months ago he confided to cricket writer Rajan Bala: “Any match I get I am grateful because the game and life have taught me to count my blessings. I would not have been able to make any progress had I given up hope. At 24 I had my hopes but at 33 when the chances began coming my way, I am happy I had never given up. So I was not caught napping.”