Garry Sobers took a blinder to dismiss Kenia Jayantilal in his first and only Test. The underachieving Jayantilal talks about memorable domestic performances, coaching underprivileged kids and the joys of amateurism
Kenia Jayantilal c Garry Sobers b Grayson Shillingford 5. It was to be his only Test appearance. Only one Test innings for a batsman who played 154 innings in 91 first-class matches. Was it fate that this stocky opener from Hyderabad could never represent India in a Test beyond that heartbreaking day at Kingston against the West Indies?
“There is an interesting story I would like to share,” says Jayantilal, polite to a fault. “I was actually taking my bat away from the ball when it gained a nick and flew to Sobers. He had moved the wrong way when he stopped and came up with a diving catch. Of course it was a fantastic catch but it spelt doom for me.”
Sunil Gavaskar, sitting in the pavilion, nursing a sore thumb, exclaimed “Oh, what a catch!” Yes, it was an incredible catch as skipper of that team, Ajit Wadekar, once told me. “It stayed with me for long,” Wadekar had said. It stayed with Jayantilal too for a long time.
As luck would have it, the same Sobers gave Gavaskar two ‘lives’ in the latter’s debut Test at Port of Spain. We know the history. Gavaskar went on to become one of the greatest batsmen of all times and Jayantilal was lost in cricket wilderness even though he went on the subsequent tour to England.
“I don’t blame anyone and I have no regrets either. I don’t know what would have happened had Sobers not taken that catch. To me, the lasting memory of that match was Wadekar walking up to the West Indies dressing room and asking West Indies to follow-on. Sobers was hardly amused and questioned India’s decision. Little did he realise that we were within our rights to force a follow-on because the Test had been reduced to four days. We were called a club side before the tour and we taught them a lesson by winning the second Test at Port of Spain,” Jayantilal still sounds excited remembering those exciting times.
Jayantilal pursued cricket in days when the game was very much amateur. “The onus was playing for India. Times were such. There was not much money to be made from cricket. It fetched us jobs and this sense of security kept us going. The facilities were poor. Even for big matches, I would have just one pair of pads and gloves and one bat. Sometimes even the bat would be a borrowed one. But it was fun. It was only in 1971 that I had a good bat, a Gunn and Moore, gifted by my brother. I also bought one for three pounds. It lasted long.”
Abid Ali, an electric fielder, was Jayantilal’s friend and well-wisher. “We would practice for hours at the Fateh Maidan (Lal Bahadur Shastri stadium). He was years ahead of the rest in understanding the value of good fielding.” Jayantilal was a batsman to watch out for in domestic cricket and his conquests often came in difficult situations. “Believe me, we never bothered to see the pitch. It never played on our mind. Whatever be the state, nothing would have changed just because we would have seen it.”
It was hard to accept Jayantilal was left in the cold after just one Test innings. “I don’t know why I was not considered on the England tour and later when they tried 12 batsmen but not me. “ When Tony Lewis brought the Marylebone Cricket Club in 1973, Jayantilal produced an unbeaten 103 for South Zone in the three-day match at Bangalore but the selectors preferred Mohinder Amarnath. “I did not know who to go to, what to do, since scoring runs also did not help.”
Job opportunities beckoned him to Bombay in 1974 where he joined Mafatlal. “I would travel a lot, by train, sometimes by air, to play matches in Bombay and Hyderabad. I will always be grateful to Man Saab (P. R. Man Singh) who took teams to Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, United States, Kenya, England. I always found a place in his team.”
Jayantilal made his Ranji trophy debut in 1968 against Andhra in the company of Abid Ali, Abbas Ali Baig and M. L. Jaisimha. His 153 at the age of 20 was an early indication of his batting prowess. His highest of 197 came against Kerala 10 years later at Hyderabad. A brilliant 134 against West Zone in the 1971 Duleep Trophy was a memorable performance by this opener who was good at off-side strokes and the pull shot too.
Jayantilal, 65, now spends his time in Bombay, imparting free coaching to underprivileged kids at the Bombay Gymkhana. “I love it,” he says. He was also coach with Goa, Malaysia, Vidarbha and Jammu and Kashmir. “I am grateful to BCCI for the pension it gives,” he acknowledges. With an aggregate of 4687 first-class runs (eight centuries), he certainly remains one of the underachievers in Indian cricket. “I never got another chance. It was frustrating for a while but I consider it was my fate.” Things may have been different had Sobers not held that spectacular catch at Kingston in 1971.
(Part 6 of a 12-part series on forgotten heroes of Indian cricket)