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Cricket news - 'I started to contemplate retirement after my Test debut'

A few months before his Test debut Saba Karim suffered a serious eye injury while 'keeping to an Anil Kumble delivery

A few months before his Test debut Saba Karim suffered a serious eye injury while 'keeping to an Anil Kumble delivery

Saba Karim is in an elite list of batsmen, placed 18th - sandwiched between Geoffrey Boycott and Clyde Walcott. It's one that comprises of the highest first-class averages, not surprisingly headed by Don Bradman, but with the likes of Barry Richards, Ken Barrington, Gary Sobers and many more distinguished names languishing below the Indian wicketkeeper-batsman.

Despite being a prolific run-scorer in Indian domestic cricket in the 1980s and 1990s, Saba Karim was often overlooked in preference of more skilful 'keepers like Nayan Mongia and Kiran More. It took more than 17 years of first-class cricket for him to eventually get his maiden Test call-up, but that too came a little late. Only a few months before that, while 'keeping to an Anil Kumble delivery, Saba Karim suffered a serious eye injury. His vision deteriorated significantly and a few months later he called time on his career - in mid-2001.

When did you realise you didn't want to play cricket professionally?

I started to contemplate it after I made my Test match debut. November 14 (2000) was the last day of the match. After the Test, I informed Sourav [Ganguly] that I won't be able to continue because I realised that I struggled [in that match] because of my poor eyesight. I thought I'll try a season of first-class cricket to see how my eye would behave. In February-March, after playing three-four matches, I realised my eyesight was deteriorating further. It was the first time in my life that I felt scared. Then I thought as long as I have my right eye, the good eye, I should quit playing cricket and focus on something else. That's when I realised, I have to hang up my boots. My intention was always to play for my country and when I realised I could not play for India, I did not want to continue playing first-class cricket. I thought I should allow the youngsters to come through from Bengal.

But even after the eye injury, you played for India...

Till then, my eye condition wasn't as bad. When I had the eye injury, my vision was 6/6. But I came back to India, went to Shankar Netralaya, was there for about a month, had glaucoma surgery and gradually my eyesight improved. I played Times Shield for my club and I felt that I was getting better. That is when my name came for the Test match against Bangladesh, again in the same ground (Bangabandhu International Stadium in Dhaka). I decided to go ahead with it.

You've had bitter-sweet moments at the Bangabandhu Stadium. But what is your lasting memory of the venue now?

[The memory] Of my Test debut. I was waiting for that for years. That is an overwhelming memory I have, the day I stepped on the field for my nation as a Test player.

How long did you think through your decision to retire?

From mid-November [2000] onwards, I started to think on these lines. That's when I started to discuss this with my family. That was a period of transformation for me because I was pondering over it for six to seven months. When I realised my eyesight wasn't getting better, I was thinking how should I take this forward - do I quit playing cricket or should I continue playing club cricket and then try to make a comeback or put my focus on some of the other dimensions of my life? My wife was extremely supportive. She discussed this a lot with me and gave me the confidence that I had the personality and traits to excel in various avenues. She told me that there was no need for me to feel upset or be disheartened by the fact that I had left my favourite sport, there was more to life than just cricket. And I also had the support of my school and college friends.

Did it feel good to know that you don't have to get up early, go for training and live a disciplined life?

Not really, I always enjoyed playing cricket. I loved getting up in the morning to going to train, and then coming back and then going again in the afternoon for another session. I just enjoyed the atmosphere at the ground, enjoyed spending time with my friends in the dressing room - there was so much banter and so much to learn. The whole exercise was so fruitful and satisfying.

So the routine didn't change?

It changed somewhat. I started to go to work after that, in Calcutta. My training schedule didn't change. I would either get up in the morning or go after work to train but I just stopped playing cricket. There was no cricket practice at all. There are so many of my colleagues who even after retiring, continued to play club cricket, exhibition or veterans matches. I never picked up the bat after retiring.

That must've also given you more time to spend with family and listen to ghazals...

Yes, I have so many other hobbies in my life. I love reading, I enjoy music. That was the healthy part of life that I was missing. [After retirement] You end up spending a lot of time with your family to understand the emotions, the sensitivity behind having a family, your responsibilities go up. There is a great time that you want to spend with your friends that you have missed out on - your school friends, college friends. So, you tend to relate more with your friends and family members. Plus, there is so much more to learn. We are so focussed on playing the game that there are times we miss out on various aspects and dimensions of life. This was kind of a revelation for me, to see the other side of life, it was so refreshing.

Did you also get busier with your son's day-to-day activities and school-work?

To some extent, I did because my son had grown up by then. By the time I left cricket, he was already 10 years old. He had his own routine by then. It was mostly done all by my wife. So I had very little to contribute. But yes, that I was able to spend more time with him, I was able to understand him better and we shared a great father-son bond. He also didn't have much knowledge about my cricketing experience. So, it was a good communication channel we opened. I could also figure out his interests and what he wanted to do - whether he wanted to play cricket or football, or wanted to pursue academics. It was wonderful to see, it opened a different kind of a vista, which I relished.

Did you ever regret writing the retirement letter?

Never. I think it was a wise decision and at the right time. I consulted all the ophthalmologists, the doctors who operated on my eye. They gave me a very clear picture. Even now, the kind of injury I had, there is no solution to it. After discussing and speaking to all these experts, I took that decision. And I felt it came at the right time, even with my age. So no regret about the timing of the decision.

When you retired, one of your plans was of becoming a coach. What were the other plans you had in mind?

When I left cricket, I was working for Tata Steel. That was one area I wanted to refocus on, learn management skills and enter my corporate career. Those days, there were only two options available for a person who has retired from first-class cricket [to be involved in cricket] - one was broadcasting and the other was coaching. So I wanted to get active in both these areas. I got a Level 2 coaching certificate from the National Cricket Academy. The other was as a commentator, which I had done while playing cricket itself. I had done Hindi commentary for ESPN way back during the 1999 World Cup in England and later in the home series against New Zealand before I returned to the team. I had some experience.

Did you speak to Mark Boucher after his eye injury?

I did not speak to him but when it happened, I was on television. I remember explaining to the viewers that for this kind of a grievous injury, you cannot make a comeback. Because it had happened to me earlier, from personal experience I was talking about it. Boucher was also not wearing a helmet [like me]. The only difference between his injury and mine was that his injury was off the bail and mine was off the cricket ball.

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