Although a batsman of considerable talent, Yajurvindra Singh will be remembered for his record equalling effort of seven catches in a single Test. Vijay Lokapally speaks to the close-in fielder about opportunities seized and missed

Catches win matches. We have heard critics and commentators make this observation countless times. But Yajurvindra Singh, lurking around the batsman, converting half chances, creating victories, was just the player a captain would yearn for.

His was not a stealth operation. It was developed on the firm belief that this was a quality that ensured you were different from the rest. He was athletic, alert, his presence ubiquitous behind the batsman. A flick, a defensive prod, a top-edge, was pounced and pouched, depending on the height of the offering. On many occasions, it would be inches off the ground, sometimes plucked out of thin air as the ball would appear to have passed. Yajurvindra was a delight on the field. Ask the bowlers. For them, he was the most important component of their success.

Yajurvindra was holidaying in Delhi with Test opener Chetan Chauhan when he heard of his selection through Doordarshan News. Maharashtra had not qualified for the Ranji Trophy knockout stage and he had hardly touched the bat for a month or more. It was off-season actually.

“It was a pleasant moment for me (five years after first-class debut in 1972-73),” remembered Yajurvindra. He had been “getting runs” but “missing selection” for reasons not known. It was 1977 and cricketers were not the stars that they are in modern times. “The immediate job was to find my way to Bangalore.” And then find his way to the team hotel. “I guessed they would be at the Taj and the Taj it was,” Yajurvindra’s Test journey had begun.

EAS Prasanna was his room-mate. “He welcomed me and made me feel home. It was a surprise package for me really to be told by the captain (Bishan Singh Bedi) the night before the match that I was in the playing XI. Bedi was a true leader. I doubted myself. If I was ready? If I was prepared? Can I get my bat to the ball? I prayed not to get out first ball. I was in a daze because I had not batted for some time.”

India won that Test against the Tony Greig-led England and debutant Yajurvindra emerged with his reputation enhanced. He took seven catches, five in the first innings, to make his presence felt at backward short leg. His work added teeth to the Indian bowling where BS Chandrasekhar, Bedi and Prasanna formed the nucleus of an attack that had just one seamer, Karsan Ghavri.

His five catches in an innings equalled the feat of Vic Richardson against South Africa at Durban in 1935-36. The two he took in the second put him on the same pedestal as Greg Chappell, grandson of Richardson. Chappell had taken seven for the match against England at Perth in 1975-75. “I was a specialist at the position. (Eknath) Solkar had retired and I got the opportunity.”

Of the seven, Yajurvindra took four off Chandrasekhar’s bowling. No mean feat that for edges flew sharply off Chandrasekhar’s ball and one had to be “very agile” to pick the path of the chance. Two catches came off Prasanna and one off his childhood friend (from Rajkot) Karsan Ghavri.

Said Ghavri, “We played against each during school and then together. He was a utility cricketer, capable of scoring runs, giving breakthroughs with his pace and off-spin and picking catches from nowhere. He was a superb close-in fielder at silly point, forward short leg and backward short leg. He had hands safe as a bank and lightning reflexes. He certainly deserved to play more for India.”

He deserved. No doubt. The catches at Bangalore are vivid in his memory. Dennis Amiss (bat-pad), Keith Fletcher, Derek Randall (diving one-handed), Greig (simpler) and Derek Underwood (sharp edge) in the first innings; Amiss and Fletcher in the second innings completed the list. The Amiss catch in the first innings was the toughest. The ball was falling short and he took three steps and got his fingers to it. It was an inner-edge. “I used to stand close and reduce the angle so that I could reach for more catches. You have to have great reflexes to do it because the ball is not dipping when you are catching it,” Yajurvindra says.

Chauhan who played for the same club (Vilas) and college (Wadia), described Yajurvindra as a very sincere and hard-working player. “He never came late for practice and I always thought he was a decent player. A pity he didn’t play long.”

His debut Test gave Yajurvindra chance to bat alongside G.R. Viswanath. “He was under pressure and responded with a brilliant (79 not out). It was one of the finest innings I ever saw because the ball was turning at right angle. Winning the Test was more memorable than my debut. I was proud to be part of a happy unit.”

Yajurvindra’s third Test (at The Oval in 1979) was marked by his highest score (43 not out) and Sunil Gavaskar’s epic 221 as India almost chased the target of 438. “The teams changed because the selectors changed.” It was tough on him because domestic cricket was hardly six matches, often on matting surfaces. In the Ranji match where Gavaskar was hurt by Pandurang Salgaokar in 1974-75, Yajurvindra hit a century at Nasik. “That was different cricket, uncovered pitches, no helmets, hardly any protective gear. You had to depend on your guts. Gavaskar and Viswanath were the real batsmen for me.”

Yajurvindra’s cricket was not about taking catches alone. He aggregated 3,765 runs with nine centuries in 78 first-class matches with a 214 aganst Saurashtra at Satara in 1979 as his highest with seven for 20, also against Saurashtra at Pune in 1977, as his best in bowling. He made his first-class debut at 19 against Baroda in 1972, batting at No 10. He represented Maharashtra and Saurashtra with distinction.

Few remember Yajurvindra as a member of the Indian team for the 1979 World Cup. Best fielder but never got to play (12th man in all three matches). Oppositions would object to his presence at close-in (when substituting), such was his reputation.

After the seventh catch in his debut, not one came his way as Yajurvindra looked for that record. He stood in all positions in close in but the edge just did not happen. It signified his cricket. He did his best, made runs, took catches, but a comeback remained a dream. Yajurvindra, 61, spends his time in Mumbai now, his marketing management skills keeping him busy apart from some work in the media.