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Fate of captains on our native `Heath'

THE LAST thing you expected to view on your set was Australian captain Steve Waugh's refusing to lead his team on to the Lord's centrestage for the presentation ceremony. Yet this was but the climax to a Saturday afternoon of no sunshine and no laughter. A Saturday afternoon that saw Heath Streak at the eleventh hour (as we switched on our TV at 12 noon) shed the mantle of national skipper - just before the one-day triangular series was set to open in Harare with what, in the result, turned out to be a `mismatch' between Zimbabwe and the West Indies. Had we seen anything like this in India? Of course we had! My reference is not to that melodramatic Wednesday of December 11, 1974, the opening morning of the second Test between the West Indies and India. The captaincy happening in that Kotla Test is a byword in our cricket annals by now, so just a recap of how it all transpired.

The first Test (at Bangalore) of that see-saw 1974-75 series had witnessed debuting captain Clive Lloyd's West Indies (following that Black Blaster's 163) thrash Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi's India by 267 runs. Midway through that Test of temperament, Tiger Pataudi had injured his finger in catching hold of Keith Boyce (4), off S. Venkatraghavan, in the second innings. As our Tiger skipper came off the field, none of the other ten Indian players in the middle knew who was to take over! Indeed, the Indian team, already rudderless, went leaderless through a couple of overs at a point when Clive Lloyd was wielding the willow with the biceps of a boxer. This was when 12th man Rajendra Goel rushed on to the field to communicate to the team's seniors the not-so-glad tidings that Sunil Gavaskar was India's new vice-captain. As news filtered through that Pataudi would not be available for the second Test (beginning two weeks later) Sunil was naturally expected to lead the Kotla way as opener. Opening bowler Pandurang Salgaonkar felt stung to the quick by having been, by then, put out of the Indian team selection reckoning, so (in that very two weeks' interrugnum), he handpicked a Ranji Trophy match to injure Sunil and put Gavaskar, too, out of the Kotla captaincy picture.

That is how (on the evening before the second Test), at the Kotla function to welcome the two teams, Delhi cricket supremo Ram Prakash Mehra came to congratulate Farokh Engineer upon his having emerged as India's emergency captain! But our selectors (pre-empting Heath Streak) had other ideas as they met an hour before that Kotla Test finally got going. They promptly named S. Venkatraghavan as India's captain, showing Farokh his place behind the sticks. To accommodate Venkat as captain, they resorted to the astonishing ploy of leaving out, from that Kotla Test eleven, B.S. Chandrasekhar. A Chandra who had run rings around debutant Vivian Richards (4 and 3) during the first Test at Bangalore. Maybe Chandra's Bangalore Test figures of 28-5-112- 4 and 23-3-102-2 were, on paper, inferior to Venkat's 30-8-75-4 and 21-4-79-2. Yet the fact remained that the `India Rubberman' had made Viv Richards, as a first-timer, look a batting novice.

I will not tax your mind further by noting that Venkat (with Erapalli Prasanna already there) should not have, logically, played that Bangalore Test I got to view as AIR's `expert' commentator. For the then Cricket Board President, Purshottam Rungta (as a ``disciplinary measure''), had stood down Bishan Singh Bedi from that first Test at Bangalore. That in fact was how Rajendra Goel, as a left-arm performer, had taken the third spinner's spot in the Indian 15. That Vivian Richards (in Chandra's absence) made his international breakthrough by `Kotlambasting' his way to 192 not out is by now as much a part of West Indian as Indian cricket lore. To think that Venkat had Vivian `caught' by who else if not Farokh when that ``batsman's batsman'' was but 12! Umpire Madhav Gothoskar admitted as much in his book: `The Burning Finger'. Wrote M.V. Gothoskar: ``A drifter, which moved outside the off-stump, had possibly nicked the bat as Vivian Richards played a defensive shot. I declared him not out. If Vivian Richards had been dismissed in the 20s, or even in the 50s, the incident would have been forgotten.''

Forget Venkat, for the moment, after all it was our selectors who pitchforked him into India's captaincy an hour before that Kotla Test. While here we had Heath Streak counting himself out in the very moment in which he should have been reflecting upon whether to call ``Heads'' or ``Tails''. Well, even for such an eventuality, there is a precedent in Indian cricket. Maybe I narrated this in these columns years ago, but the parallel is so strikingly topical that I feel sure readers would not mind their memory's being refreshed. Cast your mind back, then, to the scene that prevailed at the civic reception (to the Indian team) at Madras' Corporation Stadium on the evening of Tuesday, January 20, 1959 - less than 15 hours before the fourth Test against Gerry Alexander's awesome West Indies was due to begin. Remember the incoherent little speech that Polly Umrigar (set to captain India) made then? Having made it, Polly returned to his ground- floor room at Madras' posh Connemara Hotel and announced his decision to write out his resignation, as India's captain, to the Cricket Board President.

Like Heath Streak on June 23, 2001, Polly Umrigar on January 20, 1959, let it be known that his services, as a player, continued to be available to India for that Madras Test. Plus for the final Kotla Test to come. Polly Umrigar (while scoring 55 and 36 in a purely defensive mould against the electric pace of Roy Gilchrist and Wesley Hall) had already led India in the first Test at the Brabourne Stadium - the Bombay venue from which Ghulam Ahmed (appointed captain for the series) had, not for the first time, stayed away. Ghulam Ahmed now returned to captain India in the Green Park Test at Kanpur, a game we managed to lose by 203 runs after Subhash Gupte had figures of 34.3-11-102-9 to flaunt in the West Indies' 222 all out by the end of the first day. As, next, India was whipped by an innings and 336 runs (Rohan Kanhai 256) in the third Test at Eden Gardens, such was the public indignation at the manner in which our men were mowed down by the superfast West Indies that skipper Ghulam Ahmed peremptorily announced his retirement from cricket itself.

That landed back Polly Umrigar in the `electric chair' for the fourth Test in Madras. Lala Amarnath (as Chairman of Selectors) sought to reassure Polly by asserting that the void left by Ghulam Ahmed's quitting would be filled by either Kripal Singh or Jasu Patel, depending upon the skipper's preference. Haplessly, two more key Indian players dropped out of that ill-starred Madras Test (fated to be surrendered by 295 runs). C.D. Gopinath (injured four days before that big game while turning out for South Zone vs the West Indies at Bangalore) reported unfit just before the Madras Test. Then came the body-blow to Polly, as Vijay Manjrekar (after having stood up on his classical toes to hit 58 not out on the final day of the preceding Eden Gardens Test) sent telegraphic word to the effect that a heel condition prevented him from making the trip to Madras. Vijay Manjrekar's thus crying off, just a day before that Madras Test, turned Polly into a near mental wreck. True, all-rounder Kripal Singh had taken the slot vacated by Ghulam Ahmed, while Chandu Borde (as India's `fresher' 12th man unafraid of pace) had occupied the place opened up by C.D. Gopinath. But how to substitute a player of Vijay Manjrekar's calibre? Polly wanted at least another brave negotiator of pace, Manohar Hardikar (resolute while putting up 13 and 11 in the second Kanpur Test), as some kind of a technical shield in the team. But our Cricket Board, predictably, could not manage a plane ticket for Manohar Hardikar from Bombay to Madras, so that Polly had no go but to settle for a stripling in reserve A.K. Sen Gupta (35 and 100 not out for Services at Khadakvasla in the tour's opening game vs the West Indies). But even Sen Gupta was now arbitrarily denied to Polly. In the face of C. Ramaswami's being present in Madras as a selector, Polly was informed by Board Secretary A.N. Ghose that, at the instance of BCCI President Ratibhai Patel, it had, willy-nilly, to be Jasu Patel for Vijay Manjrekar! This was when Polly (after having made that little speech) wrote out, to Ratibhai Patel, his resignation as India's beleaguered captain.

In vain did the Cricket Board bigwigs then plead with Polly that, if only he remained captain, he could have Sen Gupta or anyone else he cared to name! But the events of that grim January 20-21 night stretching to morn had (as a Board official observed later) ``excited Umrigar to a state of nervous collapse''. Polly said there was no way they could get him to withdraw his resignation, since ``I don't consider myself in a fit state of mind, any longer, to do justice to my duties as captain''. That left the Cricket Board with no choice but to name, at Polly's instance, Vinoo Mankad - a personality it detested for the man's defiantly demanding `professional' guts - as captain. We were (as in the case of Heath Streak on Saturday, June 23)) into the morning of the Madras Test by the time the Vinoo Mankad captaincy decision came to be reluctantly made. You think the West Indies empathised with Polly in his plight now as a mere player? ``The very first ball that Wes Hall sent down to me,'' Polly told me, ``was the fastest bouncer I faced in my life. How fast you may judge from the fact that, after pitching some three yards in front of me, it sailed over 'keeper Alexander's head and hit the Corporation Stadium sightscreen first bounce!'' Outcome: Umrigar left soon after - c Alexander b Hall 4. Polly Umrigar (unlike Heath Streak) was never to captain India again. The Night of the Long Knives in Madras thus underlined a short memory as never the strong point of our dictatorial Cricket Board.


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