Friday, November 14, 2008
I can never forget the experience of playing for Hyderabad Blues before 35,000 paying spectators at Dhaka, in January 1978, long before any Test nation toured the newly-formed Bangladesh. We might have been a loose combination of players from all over India, but as our acting skipper Ajit Wadekar reminded us minutes before the toss, no matter what we were called, we were the Indian team and it was as good as a Test match. The match was played in all seriousness, like the rest of the matches on that tour of Australia, South East Asia and Bangladesh.`
Today, we have the A team concept and India's young hopefuls gain valuable exposure to international cricket in conditions they do not experience at home. In the 1970s, tours by clubs like the Blues or CCI filled this gap admirably. What they also did was to enable young cricketers to mingle with Test cricketers, past and present, and enrich their cricket education. Equally fortunate were cricketers who knew they had missed the bus and would never otherwise visit these nations and play against their Test and first class cricketers in superb cricketing conditions full of history.
An example of the kind of preparation such tours afforded youngsters was the experience of playing in Australia, where even club grounds have 85-yard boundaries. Anyone who has chased the ball to the fence and thrown it back to the keeper on one of these vast grounds is more likely to go home and strengthen his throwing arm than a stranger to those conditions. You also learnt to bowl and bat on wickets vastly different from Indian pitches.Private tours make for greater interaction with people of the host nation than Test tours do. Very often, the visiting cricketers are billeted with cricketers' families and the resultant friendships are sometimes lifelong.
My own unforgettable memories include playing against and sharing a few beers back in 1978 at a Perth clubhouse, with a young Englishman called David Gower, who we thought was not a bad little player! Gower opened the innings for the club Claremont Cottesloe, and treating our medium pacers with scant respect, got away to a flier, making 30 odd in no time. His innings was all too brief, for the wicket yielded some purchase, and the two off spinners of our side, my skipper Jaisimha and I, created serious problems for the young lefthander. To my disappointment, a couple of chances went abegging off my bowling and Gower eventually fell to Jai, though I took five wickets in the innings.
That evening, Gower and the secretary of the club asked me if I would play for the club as a professional the following season as Gower was not returning. This was not only a huge honour but a tremendous opportunity as well, but I refused the offer as it would clash with the Indian first class season. I was at the time close to selection to the Indian team and did not want to jeopardise my chances with the long awaited tour of Pakistan round the corner. As it turned out, I did not even make it to the probables list before the tour, despite my record. Thus are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities missed by those who want to play safe.
That innings was one of the high points of my bowling on that tour in which I led the pack with 35 wickets. Another was my performance under gruelling conditions in Penang against an RAF side, when Jai cursed me fluently after I asked to be taken off (the only time in my life), having run out of shirts and trousers, drenched in perspiration as never before or after in my career, and unable to grip the ball, the sweat simply pouring out from every pore in my body. “Stop giving me f---ing excuses! Can’t grip the ball indeed! God save me from bloody sissies!” he said. I had no option but to go on.
My final figures of 30-8-47-8 leading to a thumping win were more than adequate compensation for all the trouble, but even more pleasurable was the praise Jai dished out over a couple of drinks—again for the first time in my life, because cricketers, especially those belonging to the old school, generally don’t believe in praising you to your face.
If these were some of the high points, I had a few low ones as well on that tour, starting with our first match—against Kowloon Cricket Club at Kowloon, Hong Kong. Both leg spinner Narasimha Rao (Bobjee) and I bowled badly in that game, nearly losing it for us. Occasional medium pacer K Jayantilal, our opening batsman, came to our rescue, bowling an unplayable spell of swing and seam, and picking up some seven wickets for next to nothing. That night, we received our first dressing down of the tour, with Ajit Wadekar telling us for the first time that we were the Indian team, no less. He also confessed how much he had benefited from Jai’s wise counsel on the victorious West Indies tour of 1971.
We quickly recovered from that initial shock on the morrow, when we beat the stronger Hong Kong Cricket Club by a big margin, with my brother Sivaramakrishnan and his fellow left hander P Ramesh scoring hundreds at the top of the order, and me acquiring the only hat trick of my life. Ajit Wadekar took two splendid diving catches at backward short leg, reminding us all what a brilliant close-in fielder he was.
Our experience against Singapore Cricket Club, later on the tour, was even worse. In a near replica of the Kowloon match, we were again rescued from a fate worse than death by Jayantilal, who picked up six wickets after the regular bowlers had proved to be profligate. Jai was never known to be a gracious loser, and this time was no exception. The hospitality in the barroom of the club was long and expansive, but Jai was quite happy to put our hosts firmly in their places for the crowing they had indulged in earlier when the game seemed to be heading their way. Well past closing time, everyone except Jai and the unhappy threesome of Vinod Reddy, Bobjee and I, had left, after the hosts had offered in vain to drop us home, failing to persuade our angry skipper to get up from his perch. We finally left after the staff started shutting doors and windows pointedly.
Soon we wandered out, walking extremely carefully with the kind of dignity only the inebriated can muster, but soon realised that all our hosts had gone home. There was no taxi in sight either, and Jai was ranting and raving by now, cursing his extreme bad luck that made it necessary for him to play cricket with such nincompoops. Still unable to locate a cab, we walked on, trying not to pay any attention to the captain’s lecture, not realising that we had drifted into a freeway where no vehicle would stop. We saw several taxis fly past us not heeding our desperate pleas and fluent curses in chaste Hyderabadi. All of 90 minutes later, a kindly taxi driver going in the opposite direction, took pity on us, and stopped for us. He of course had to go all the way to where we started before he could take a U turn and drop us at the hotel. It was three in the morning when we reached there!
Coming back to the match at Dacca, Bobjee and I again went wicketless on a white, gleaming clay wicket, which yielded turn but extremely slow turn. Batting first, we made over 400, with Ajit Wadekar making a hundred and Sivaramakrishnan and Jayantilal playing substantial knocks. The Bangladesh team made a decent reply, some 300 plus for seven or eight, batting out nearly two days. It was slow, excruciating attrition and the Hyderabad bowlers had to be content with containment. Tukaram Surve, our veteran wicket keeper conceded 69 byes and was mercilessly teased by Wadekar, leading the team in the absence of Jaisimha, already back in Hyderabad to finalise the arrangements for his benefit match. “You were in great form, Godfrey,’ he said, calling Surve by his nickname on the tour—after the former England great Godfrey Evans. Surve’s retort was quick and angry: “How do you expect me to keep to these spinners? One of them bowls off breaks on the leg stump and the other his googlies outside it!”
Later that evening Wadekar told Surve that both Bobjee and I were deeply hurt by his remarks. A very contrite Surve then sought me out and apologised profusely. “I’m so sorry, Rama. You actually bowled well for the first time on the tour!”
Saturday, November 8, 2008
Yesterday was a perfect day. Or so I thought, until my brother called with the horrible news—our old cricket mate, wicket keeper H Sundaram, had accidentally fallen to his death from the roof of his house.
Sundaram, Sundu to most of his friends, was an unusual left hander among wicketkeepers. His lefthandedness showed in his keeping, as he often gathered with one hand, the left hand. It often produced spectacular results, especially in the form of legside stumpings. He loved to stand up to the medium pacers and remove the bails in a flash. In the 1970s, he was regarded as the best stumper in Tamil Nadu, and even played for the State briefly, until one fine morning, miffed at being overlooked in favour of the young Bharat Reddy, he wrote to the cricket association asking them not to consider him any more for selection.
Sundu was a close friend of my brother Sivaramakrishnan, and a member of a cricket 'gang' who have stayed in touch over the decades. He played for the Indian Overseas Bank team in the local league and later became a state selector. He and I played together for Madras University in Rohinton Baria back in 1969, when we reprieved a young Bangalore University batsman fresh from a tour of Australia with the Indian Schoolboys. The talented Brijesh Patel survived to score a hundred that day, and he and Sundu were among those who went on to play for South Zone University that year in the Vizzy Trophy.
This has been a bad year for cricketers. Not long ago, K Ganapathi, an outstanding off spinner-opening batsman whose career coincided with that of Test off spinner S Venkataraghavan, died in almost identical circumstances. Ganpa was a good friend of mine.
Just when I was recovering from that blow came the news of Ashok Mankad's unexpected death in his sleep. Kaka, as he was known to one and all, had been a cricketer I greatly admired for his phenomenal feats as a batsman in domestic cricket and his astute leadership. And for a few years, we enjoyed a great rapport whenever we met as foes on the cricket field or friends off the field, for example, during a conditioning camp for India's Test probables of 1977-78 at Chepauk. That is when we shared a dressing room, and he kept me and the rest of the boys constantly entertained with his mostly apocryphal cricket stories. One particular anecdote involving 'Nana of Poona', P G Joshi, the late Indian wicket keeper, had us convulsed.
That was the first time I heard the typically Mumbaiyya expression 'leg n' leg' that Kaka repeatedly used to describe our condition after our coach Darshan Tandon put us through the wringer day after day. The Indian skipper Bishan Bedi, away playing county cricket in England, joined the camp only for the last three days or so. Kaka's brilliant impersonation of how Bishan would come into the stadium for training on his first morning in the camp and find no-one there was a brilliant act of mimicry. Imitating the captain, and giving wild vent to his imagination, Mankad went through the whole gamut of emotions—surprise, bewilderment, anxiety, and finally anger—peaking with the dawning of realisation in a sterling show of the adbhuta rasa, when Bishan finds the entire team jogging on the roof of the stadium.
Bishan was part of the audience that stood around Mankad at M L Jaisimha's Marredpally, Secunderabad residence one evening during Jai's benefit match, in which the Indian team led by Bedi played against an 'international' eleven captained by Jai. Asif Iqbal, Sarfraz Nawaz, Imran Khan, Zaheer Abbas and Mushtaq Mohammed formed the strong Pakistani contingent at the match. Most of them gathered around Kaka, who told story after story, embellishing fact with fiction, slowly building up suspense in each tale, like the master raconteur he was.
Mankad was growing redder and redder in the face as the beer kept flowing after a long day in the sun, and the rest of us were struggling to stay on our feet as he kept us all in rollicking good humour.
That morning, Sunil Gavaskar had pulled a long hop from me straight into Mankad's hands at deep square leg, and one of the guests, a police official, who was generally inflicting his company on the celebrity cricketers at the party, now reminded Kaka about that. “Mr Mankad,” he said, wagging a naughty finger at Kaka, “is there an old rivalry between you and Mr Gavaskar?” Not satisfied with Kaka's firm reply in the negative, he said, “Then why did he fling his bat in the dressing room after getting out and mutter, 'Sala, drops catches in Test matches, holds mine in a benefit match'?”
Mankad's riposte was a classic, but one he was quick to stress was just a joke. He said, “Reddy Saab, catch me dropping Sunil Gavaskar! Wake me up at midnight and I will hold his catches!"
We all knew that the two Bombay mates had enormous respect for each other, but that did not mean they could not indulge in the kind of friendly rivalry and banter at each other's expense that make competitive sport so memorable. The laughter that greeted Mr Reddy's unintended, indiscreet humour was loud and long. And laughter is what true sportsmen would want to be remembered with, I am sure.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
This is your last chance Taz. You'd better give it all you've got. I don't know what you'll do, but you must get wickets. If you don't, I'll have no choice but to drop you for the next game at Madras.
Abid Ali, the Hyderabad captain, spoke these words in a matter of fact voice, but his heart was heavy as he uttered them, because the man he was addressing was the seniormost player in the eleven after the captain himself. The selectors had told him in unequivocal terms that his senior left arm spinner was on trial.
Mumtaz Hussain, the recipient of the bad news, was close to the end of a distinguished career in which he had taken 173 Ranji Trophy wickets at less than twenty runs apiece. He had been a vital part of the Hyderabad spin attack, forging a successful partnership with off spinner Naushir Mehta, no longer a member of the team, having been replaced a few years earlier by me. The occasion was a Ranji Trophy match against Kerala at Kollam.
Initially depressed and dejected, Mumtaz decided on calm reflection, that it was time to unveil the rare bag of tricks he had kept hidden from public view for over a decade. In his Ranji Trophy career, he had stuck to bowling left arm orthodox spin, never attempting the bizarre variety he had unleashed on unsuspecting batsmen in the inter university matches for the Rohinton Baria Cup in the late 1960s. He then had the standard left arm spinner’s stock delivery which left the right hand batsman, bowled a chinaman using his wrist, a googly from the back of the hand, and both these deliveries with a finger spin action for variety. Batsmen were completely foxed by his changes of grip and action, or the lack of either, as they misread ball after ball, until they were bowled, caught, lbw or stumped, simultaneously looking very, very foolish indeed.
One famous victim was Sunil Gavaskar of Bombay University in 1970. He describes in his autobiographical 'Sunny Days' how he shouted to his partner Ramesh Nagdev that he had learnt to read Mumtaz, only to be completely fooled by one that looked like a perfect Chinaman but went the other way.
Wicket-keepers were not immune to the Mumtaz magic either. They had to resort to secret signals to anticipate what would come their way from a Mumtaz Hussain in midseason form.
The first innings was over at Kollam and Kerala was heading for defeat. Not bringing Mumtaz on even for a solitary over in the first innings, Abid Ali tossed the ball, barely seven or eight overs old, to the left arm spinner in the second. He dearly wanted his old teammate to perform well today and save him the embarrassment of being dropped.
In his very first over, Mumtaz attempted a chinaman, despite the newness of the ball. The ball pitched short, but the batsman did not take advantage of the long hop. Very soon, Mumtaz’s length improved reasonably but more important, he bowled a few unplayable deliveries and ended up with a bag of six wickets, though his loose deliveries were hit to the boundary.
The next stop for the Hyderabad team was Chepauk, Madras. The Tamil Nadu batting line-up was formidable, with V. Sivaramakrishnan, V. Krishnaswamy, T. E. Srinivasan and Abdul Jabbar prominent in it. Once again Mumtaz displayed his wares, for the second time after his university days. He was now up against a foe of great talent. There would be no meek surrender this time. He would not find the edge or a defensive blade as often as he encountered in the previous match. Still, Mumtaz claimed five utterly bamboozled batsmen, including Sivaramakrishnan, who went chasing a delivery outside the off stump like one hypnotised, and Krishnaswamy, who was bowled trying to withdraw his bat.
There was a brief moment in cricket history when fame and fortune flirted with Mumtaz Hussain, teasing him and cheating him in the end. He had just completed taking 48 wickets for the season in Rohinton Baria, a record until then, and had been included in the Board President's team to play against the touring West Indies led by Gary Sobers. The other left arm spinner in the squad answered to the name of Bishan Singh Bedi, a young bowler of immense promise. The chairman of selectors was former India captain Ghulam Ahmed--who belonged to Hyderabad--intent on being seen to be scrupulously fair as a selector. When it came to a choice between Bedi and Mumtaz, the local boy naturally lost out, or so the story goes.
Ghulam Ahmed's decision was justified by subsequent events, as Bedi took six wickets in the match and went on to become arguably the world's greatest left arm spinner of all time. But had fate been kind to the Hyderabadi in selection terms, what might have been his future in the game? When Indian batsmen found him practically unreadable, what chance did batsmen overseas enjoy of surviving his wiles and tricks? Had he played against West Indies at Fateh Maidan the day Bedi made such an impressive showing, could the Hyderabadi have made a sensational impact on the world stage?
These questions are merely hypothetical and not for a moment is it being suggested that Mumtaz was a greater bowler than Bedi, but it remains an unsolved mystery of domestic cricket why the former gave up his delightfully mysterious wares, and toed the line as an orthodox spinner in Ranji Trophy cricket, untouched by the greatness that might have been his, had he chosen the other path. Did his captain and seniors tell him to do so in the interest of economy and accuracy, as claimed by his teammates or did he do so of his own volition, as some others have suggested? What heights might he have reached had he continued, considering the way he resumed his old magic from where he left off after a gap of ten years, without any substantial loss of effect?
Mumtaz Hussain is no more today, a victim of cancer. Essentially happy go lucky, he had more than his share of woes in his short life of 52 years. The loss of a daughter a few years earlier was a grievous blow. Yet the enduring image of my old team mate and colleague is that of a man of a cheerful disposition, given to grinning wickedly at batsmen he had fooled.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
‘T.E.’ The initials can mean only one person in Madras: not the English genius T E Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia, but T E Srinivasan, one of the better batsmen Tamil Nadu cricket has produced over the decades. And like ‘El Aurans’, our own TE is not your conventional hero but a man of quite a few parts, each of them as intriguing and eccentric as the other.
But first things first. TE was a brilliant player of fast bowling in his time, whose better innings were reserved for the big occasion. And he was completely self-made, an original who honed his batting technique on the concrete wicket at the Nungambakkam Corporation School ground. Even as a youngster playing for Vivekananda College when I was turning out for Presidency College—for that’s how old TE is, though he hardly looks it—TE had the foresight and ambition to realise that he had to play pace well if he wanted to play international cricket. Towards this end, he regularly hired bowlers from the neighbourhood to bang them in from 15 to 18 yards on the fast surface.
In first class cricket, TE was a bit of a late bloomer, mainly because he was very uncomfortable against spinners who hounded him along the way. I remember a string of poor scores in the Duleep Trophy before he hit the big time, when he would complain bitterly: ‘Ennada, what kind of cricket is this, you have to face bloody slow bowlers all the time!’ I think he first broke the jinx by scoring a brilliant hundred against North Zone at Bangalore in the 1977-78 season. TE went on to play many more attractive innings in the Duleep Trophy, against touring teams, and an all important Irani Cup match which earned him a berth in the Indian team that toured Australia under the captaincy of Sunil Gavaskar.
That TE had a reputation as one of the characters of the game, whose big mouth cost him quite a bit, is constantly brought home to those of us who played with him in our interactions with the cricket watching public. Even today, at cricket conversations, people ask me if it is true that TE told Gavaskar during the Australia-New Zealand tour what was wrong with his (Sunil’s) backlift, and if that is what cost him (TE) his career! I find it difficult to believe that even TE was capable of such effrontery or that it could have made any difference to Sunil Gavaskar’s attitude to his cricket. Of course, another story that has done the rounds since that tour, is even more spectacularly funny: that of TE landing in Australia and informing the press, ‘Tell Dennis Lillee TE has arrived!’
Whether either of these stories is true or not, I can confirm that TE successfully riled another Australian fast bowler Rodney Hogg by confronting him on the lawns of a hotel in Hyderabad during a tour game and begging him ‘to please stop bowling flipping off spinners.”
If the other TE was known to seek anonymity following his high pressure Arabian adventure--he once enlisted as an ordinary soldier in the army under the assumed name of Ross, the central character of the eponymous play by Terence Rattigan--our own TE loved playing the fool with officials by pretending to be someone else, just to prove that some of them did not watch cricket. Sure enough, no sooner had he once introduced himself as Sivaramakrishnan to a national selector than he asked him, “And how is TE Srinivasan?” TE’s response was classically zany. He said, ‘That fellow TE is thoroughly irresponsible, he’s always smoking and drinking and neglecting his cricket.’ On other occasions, he has passed himself off as a visiting overseas dignitary at five star hotels, even sung ‘Ceylon bailas’ on stage as Cheena from Colombo, all totally impromptu, and with no intent other than that of having some fun.
This is what I wrote a few years ago about TE: “Today, Cheena runs a coaching clinic. The way his bat comes down whenever he demonstrates technique to his wards is still a purist’s delight, though his advice may often be unconventional. In his mid fifties, he looks decades younger and has the waistline of a teenager. He has even become a grandfather recently, but a less credible senior citizen it is hard to imagine. TE will always be TE!”
I must have really tempted fate with those words, for not long afterwards, came the bad news of a major setback to TE's health. His battle with cancer, a saga of courage, has been told elsewhere (Nirmal Shekar, for instance, paid him a moving tribute in The Hindu) and I am one of many friends and admirers who pray for his recovery. No praise is too high for his wife Mala who has looked after him devotedly. God bless them both.
Monday, November 3, 2008
"Kya bole?" (What did you say)? Abid is credited with asking this classic question of Viswanath, when they met three quarters of the way down the pitch, with GRV rooted to the spot and repeatedly shouting "No!" at the top of his voice, and Abid still charging down regardless for a run. This no doubt apocryphal story of an incident in a Test match was told with much relish by the Karnataka batsman, at the expense of the Hyderabad all rounder, who had a reputation for getting mixed up in run outs. Abid Ali was about twice as swift between wickets as most other batsmen and was always on the lookout for quick singles. He was more than once stumped off the first ball he faced, because he had taken off for a single even before playing the ball.
I was fortunate in the number of self-appointed mentors I had in Hyderabad soon after my arrival there in 1971. My State Bank of India teammates spread the word about me in cricket circles, and that is how Abid came to watch me in action in the practice nets behind the bank's local head office at Kothi, Hyderabad. Abid straightaway decided to take me under his wing. For the next few years, I was to enjoy that protective umbrella and benefit from his willingness to share his experience and knowledge with me.
His way of helping me become a better off spinner was to hit my best deliveries repeatedly out of the ground during net practice, so that I would learn to adjust my flight when confronted with batsmen who could do that to me in matches. He was of course completely innocent of the damage to my morale he was actually doing . Even in matches in which we were pitted against each other, the lessons continued, ruining my bowling analysis in the process. Of course, on the rare occasion I got him out, he had a perfect explanation for the accident that had nothing to do with good bowling!
Abid Ali was a genuine character among cricketers, an original in many ways. For instance, he set high standards of physical fitness for a generation of cricketers known for its lackadaisical attitude to such matters. The punishing regimen of training he followed was often the subject of anecdotes, perfect entertainment in the evening after a long day at the ground.He practised his fielding with devotion and became an acrobatic close-in fielder and an athletic one in the outfield, with an unerring, flat throw. He developed enough variations in his military medium pace bowling to keep the batsmen guessing. He also had the knack of making the ball skid on most wickets. He was demonstrative in an age when most bowlers tended to hide their emotions. His appeals to God when he beat the edge, and his sardonic grins at batsmen blessed by the Lord - unfairly in Abid's opinion - were sights to see and remember.
When Abid took over the Hyderabad captaincy from the cerebral and celebrated M L Jaisimha, he was determined to make a strong impression. He was solemnity personified as he addressed the team just before taking the field in his first Ranji Trophy match as captain. "Boys, I want you to play tight, mean cricket. I want us to give not LESS than 40 runs in the first hour." He had meant to say "not MORE than 40 runs," and the giggles and suppressed guffaws that interrupted him, spoiled his speech somewhat, but it was a happy Hyderabad team that took the field that morning.
When the mood captured him, Abid could be the life and soul of the party. He was great company while travelling with the Hyderabad team, taking part in crazy card games devised by M A K Pataudi, or singing calypso songs he learnt in the Caribbean. His favourite line was "Great India bowler Abid Ali" which he sang with gusto.Few cricketers exploited their talent better. Abid Ali was an honest-to-goodness medium pacer, who could also bat aggressively. He made a sensational Test debut in 1967 when he took 6 for 55 against Australia at Brisbane, following it up with two brilliant innings of 78 and 81 opening the innings in the Sydney Test.Abid took his cricket with him when he migrated to the USA by the end of the 1970s. There, he was an active participant in the local cricket scene in Los Angeles and coached many Indian, Pakistani and other immigrant groups still passionate about cricket. He always wanted to come back to India on a coaching assignment and even had stints as the coach of the Andhra team. He has also coached the UAE team.
When I look back on those treasured days of essentially amateur cricket with gratitude for my good fortune in getting to rub shoulders with the likes of Abid, I tend to remember the lighter moments rather than the grim ones of toil in the sun. Especially memorable was a team meeting at Bangalore after Abid had launched a typically unorthodox assault on Karnataka’s world class spin attack of Prasanna and Chandrasekhar, pulling the straight deliveries from off stump, cutting vicious off-breaks leaving all three stumps completely unguarded for boundaries, and randomly charging down the wicket without regard to length or line. “I was very relaxed today, Skip,” he told Jaisimha at the meeting. Pat came the retort from one of his senior colleagues: “Of course, you were relaxed. Only for us watching you was the tension unbearable.”