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The Sultan of Kotla at the Taj



ON DRIVE AT THE TAJ: Dilip Vengsarkar charms his way through delectable food at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi. Photo: S. Subramanium.

IT WAS to be an evening of food and music at New Delhi's Taj Mahal hotel's Haveli, the Indian cuisine restaurant. It actually belonged to Dilip Vengsarkar, a tall upright man who has achieved so much yet speaks so little about himself that if another person had combined the twin virtues in greater measure he would have to be the harbinger of a better breed of man. Throughout his 116-Test career, this shy man of few words smiled with the profligacy of a guy in debt. Now, of course, he is a changed man. And smiles often - a belated realisation that it makes the recipient richer without making the donor poorer. All cultivated elegance, all natural modesty, it is not just easy but likely to like Dilip Vengsarkar now. Probably fitter than he was when he donned the India colours - "I did not realise the value of fitness till late in my career. Now I make it a point to exercise for at least 45 minutes a day. Eat everything but score runs, we were told. I wish I had done this fitness regime earlier" - he has the calmness of a patient patriarch standing at a New Delhi junction, waiting for the last vehicle to clear before he saunters across.

Blessed with a memory that has all the virtues of an adhesive without the irritability of a scotch tape, he has not forgotten the eventful tour to the Caribbean islands in the late 1980s. "On the tour to the West Indies in 1989, I can still remember some of the team mates being scared of their fast bowlers, shying away from playing for India. Among them were some who use harsh words for contemporary players. They often feigned injuries to keep their averages intact," he says as he has a bite of steaming seekh kababs - hot and fulfilling, like liquor arousing desire for more but keeping you away from the main course. It happens to be some delectable Hyderabadi biryani in this case.

He seduces the senses of a cricket lover without arousing nostalgia.

"In my playing days there used to be at least one Indian restaurant in almost every city across the world. Today, you walk across Adelaide and you will find a hundred of them! On the tour of England in 1983, many of us who were vegetarians had to survive merely on eggs and sandwiches and some food brought to us by local Indians. It used to be fun watching Yashpal Sharma and Kapil Dev fight it out for the vegetarian tiffin," says the man who last played for India in 1991-92 season and was a proud member of the Prudential World Cup winning team.

"Yes, there comes a time when you can carry on no longer. It is when drives start going into the hands of slips, and balls you despatched to the cover fence end up taking a snick off your bat into the wicket keeper's hands. That is the time to call it quits," he says, surprised that Haveli has vegetarian kababs too. "I am a pucca non-vegetarian,' he states, passing on the vegetarian stuff to the first hand available.

Well, beyond words and smiles, Dilip Vengsarkar is a foodie. And when he does take off the coat of self-effacing modesty, it is to don the hat of a food-lover. He shifts from the talk of on drives and silly point to salt and pepper with relish. "I like Indian food though I have never been to Haveli in the past. I like the non-vegetarian stuff they offer here. I have lots of fish in Mumbai. As I have to maintain my weight, my intake is less. For breakfast, I enjoy idli and upma and batata pole. I like Chinese, Thai, Indian, Japanese, Italian and Mexican food. I went to Portugal after the Wisden awards and had lots of fish. I love hilsa and rau and Indian biryani."

Scarcely a surprise that he can stir together a delicacy or two. "I can cook gosht. I cook at my farmhouse. I took the recipe from my wife and have never encountered any problems of eating when on a tour."

Well, good cook he might be, particularly if he can distinguish one variety of fish from another, a gelawati kabab from shami, Dilip Balwant Vengsarkar's worth lies somewhere else. "We are playing too much cricket. There should not be one-day matches for the under-15 and under-17 lads. Let them get the basics right," says the man who captained the country in the late 80s and wonders how come everybody remembers him as the commander of Lord's where he scored three centuries and not the Sultan of Firoz Shah Kotla where he notched up four tons!

One day when you and I will stoop as we stand; and be able to move without being able to walk, the scientists will pay respect to his art. They will want to clone him. That's the day posterity shall repay the debt. And if Dilip Vengsarkar happens to be around and open to a dinner invitation, you and I know the best place to be in - across the table at the Taj Mahal.

ZIYA US SALAM

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