In February 1988, two boys from Mumbai’s Shardashram Vidyamandir shared a 664-run partnership in the semifinals of an inter-school cricket tournament. Vinod Kambli, 16, and Sachin Tendulkar, 14, were unrelenting, till their stern coach, Ramakant Achrekar, forced them to declare. Kambli was on 349 and Tendulkar on 326. It would be a while before it became known that the two had created a world record.
At that point, it seemed almost impossible to talk of one without mentioning the other. More than 30 years later, their partnership is still rock solid, says Kambli, seated on a leather-bound brownish red sofa, in his plush apartment in Bandra, Mumbai. “We still remain thick and strong, albeit, off the field now,” he says with a warm, wide grin. The years have made the former cricketer more sober, introspective and withdrawn of late.
Amid the cricket frenzy of the 1990s, Kambli was famous for his aggressive batting and his flamboyant lifestyle. As those who have known him recount, he would ride into Mumbai’s iconic Taj hotel on his Kinetic Honda and ask the valet to park it between his peers’ Mercs and BMWs. Kambli’s energy on the field, too, was strikingly palpable. But that was then. When he was in the best of his health, when calories burnt faster than they were consumed and workout was routine. Cut to the present, and Kambli is sailing through life cautiously.
Early middle age retirement brings with it a number of opportunities. But it also causes a certain void, which many find difficult to fill. After his cricket career, Kambli dabbled in a number of roles, including that of a television anchor/commentator, a talent hunt lead and actor. He also tried his hand at politics, contesting in the 2009 assembly elections from Vikhroli, where he spent a good number of days as a teenager. “So hectic was my life back then, that I almost completely ignored my health,” says Kambli. “Junk food, alcohol, tobacco, everything featured in my scheme of things. But there was no time for workout because the routine was so erratic.”
In 2014, he got his first jolt. Kambli remembers being at home with his wife Andrea and their two children—newborn daughter Johanna and six-year-old son Jesus—when he suddenly felt a throbbing pain on the left side of his chest. “I was sweating profusely and almost fainted to the floor, just when Andrea got me, and admitted me immediately to the nearby Lilavati Hospital.” He got diagnosed with two blocked arteries, 100 per cent blockage in one and 60 per cent in the other. He underwent angioplasty and upon coming home about a week later, Kambli was put on Sorbitrate 10, a blood thinning tablet, which he would have to continue for life with other medicines for blood pressure and diabetes (he has a family history of diabetes).
Thereafter, life continued as normal and Kambli was back on his feet in no time. “I think I did not really get the message even then,” he says. “Since I had to travel extensively across the country for work, my food timings and other things would simply go off track. I continued smoking and drinking, although I had reduced it.” And then, it struck again. This time the attack was more pronounced and near-fatal. “I was driving from Chembur towards my home in Bandra; I was alone and stuck in peak-hour traffic when suddenly I felt the exact same kind of pain again,” says Kambli. “In fact, it was so bad that I could barely move and I had forgotten my tablets at home. I was getting breathless when I started banging the window to call the traffic cop. He immediately recognised me and took me home.” Barely a few moments into his reaching home and taking the tablet, Kambli collapsed on the floor. “It was hazy, and to live was the only thing I wanted at the time,” he says. “I looked death in the eye and pleaded to God to give me just one more chance. I wanted to live for my family, with my family. I did not want to die.”
Today, Kambli admits to be a changed man. Born a Hindu, he converted to Christianity after his second marriage to Andrea, and is a firm believer in the power of prayer. “Life has given me one more chance and I have to make the most of it,” he says. “I am sure God has kept me alive for some reason.” Every morning Kambli gets up at 5am. He works out in the gym for almost two hours daily and for four hours every evening, he hits the ground, to train budding cricketers. He has turned into a conscious eater and has managed put a full stop to drinking. “I had my last drink one and a half years back and I have almost stopped smoking completely, just take one or two in a month. That is also rare,” he says.
Kambli avoids oily and sugary food, eats plenty of salads and makes sure to limit his intake of gluten. “I stick to homemade food as far as possible and also experiment with newer and healthier stuff that hits the market every now and then, such as quinoa and different varieties of oats. I feel much healthier and energetic now than ever before and it is all thanks to my wife, who kept motivating me to stretch myself and to get back the fitness of my youth, seeing which she married me in the first place,” he says with a chuckle.
As we chat, I see little Johanna, four years old now, slowly sneaking into the living room from behind the curtains of the bedroom, where Andrea and Jesus are napping. Jesus has been unwell for the past few days, and Kambli, being the hands-on dad that he is, had settled Jesus into bed, made an appointment for his blood tests and arranged snacks for him, before settling to talk to me. Johanna plonks herself neatly into her daddy’s lap. “I have been there, done that. Now it is all behind me. I am very happy to settle down with my wife and kids and want nothing else but this peace from life right now,” he says, looking into the distance, at the Gulmohar tree outside his window.