His bowling style sums up former batsman Ashok Gandotra’s career choices, as he picked academics over sports.
He was born in Brazil, one of the three Indian Test cricketers to have been born overseas, Salim Durani and Robin Singh (Sr.) were the other two. But he never played football. “My father was in foreign services and once we returned to Delhi, cricket it was,” says Ashok Gandotra, who deserved to play more than the two Tests that he ultimately figured in.
Indian cricket was experiencing a transition period when Gandotra was knocking the doors of the national team. Vijay Merchant, chairman of the National selection committee, watched Gandotra make runs against B.S. Chandrasekhar and S. Venkataraghavan in a Duleep Trophy match and decided to give him a break. “That was the turning point,” notes Gandotra. He and Eknath Solkar, also a left-hander, made their Test debut in the same match (against New Zealand) at Hyderabad in 1969. Solkar’s career lasted eight years but Gandotra’s a mere two months.
Gandotra walked in at 21 for five. He made 18 as India collapsed for 89 against Dayle Hadlee and Bob Cunis. “I played the fast bowlers well. I thought Dayle was very quick with a superb action. But I got out first ball from a spinner (Headley Howarth). I cursed myself.” His next Test (against Australia) saw G. R. Visvanath make a sensational debut with 137 at Kanpur. “What a gem it was. He had such flair for batting.” In the farcical Australian second innings, 10 Indian bowlers were on view, including Gandotra. Sadly, it was to be his final Test too.
Gandotra, says Bishan Singh Bedi, had “enormous talent” but his contemporaries also add he was a bit “laid back.” If only he had worked hard! Gandotra agrees, “Honestly, I didn’t rate myself very high. I was a left-hander. So that made me look different but I was technically not sound. Generally left-handers look stylish. But I was not very focussed, not very determined.” Few cricketers would make such harsh self-assessment.
Tiger Pataudi, who would visit the St. Stephen’s College to impart some coaching, rated him high. “That was very kind of Tiger but I wasn’t really that serious about the game. I didn’t look at myself as a professional.” Gandotra was spoken of highly for his sterling 51 on Duleep Trophy debut when he excelled against Ramakant Desai and Bapu Nadkarni at Poona in 1967. Fans in Madras would remember him for a brilliant 73 in 1969 against South Zone which had Abid Ali, B. S. Chandrasekhar and S. Venkarataraghavan.
Gandotra was considered explosive at the University level and even led an Indian Universities team to Sri Lanka in 1969 with teammates like Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Doshi, Mohinder Amarnath, Surinder Amarnath, Vinay Lamba, Kailash Gattani, Kenia Jayantilal and Sanjay Jagdale. Of that tour, Gavaskar wrote, “Gandotra did not have a successful tour and disappointed many people who had come specially to watch him.” Gavaskar was right when he once wrote Gandotra was a, “talented player who went out of first class cricket too soon to concentrate on his career.”
Those were days when college cricket in Delhi was hugely popular and the final would be played to finish. For four consecutive years, the St. Stephen’s and Hindu final lasted seven days with 15000-odd spectators cheering. Old timers claim that University cricket would get priority over first-class cricket, for the players, and the spectators too.
His college mate Sunil Dev reflects, “We would move around on his Vespa scooter, playing at different grounds. He was superb at studies and cricket. He could read a situation adeptly and used to bowl lethal Chinaman.” Lamba remembers, “Gandotra had a way with his batting. He was an attractive batsman, could play all shots. Remember, the pitches were not covered those days. He used to bowl too. He was very graceful to watch.”
Gandotra’s first-class debut came amidst a galaxy of stars like Bedi, Akash Lal, Prem Bhatia, Rajinder Goel, Vijay Mehra, Daljit Saxena. “A galaxy indeed,” Gandotra recalls. “It was at Chandigarh against Southern Punjab. I remember the match (1965-66) vaguely but can’t forget the line up of stalwarts. It was a rich experience for me to be playing alongside such fantastic cricketers. Bedi was such a great motivator.”
But 54 runs in four innings was not a true reflection of Gandotra’s prowess. Why did his career not go beyond two Tests? He was not dropped. Here is the truth. “I was the 12th man for the Test at Delhi (against Australia in 1969) but had to pull out for my Rhodes Scholarship interview. I did not get the scholarship and then it became difficult to get back to the Indian team.” Cricket was never a career for Gandotra. “There was no financial security in cricket those days. It is nice to see cricketers make good money today.”
Professional compulsion (tea business) took Gandotra to Calcutta in 1971 and he turned out for Bengal in Ranji Trophy. But fate brought him back to Delhi for his final season, which incidentally, was fruitful too. He made 309 runs in nine innings with a career-best 169 against Gujarat in the Ranji pre-quarterfinals at the Ferozeshah Kotla. He again pulled out in the next match and was replaced by Arun Lal.
With little motivation left, he retired in 1975 with a first-class aggregate of 2121 runs and two centuries, a gross under-achiever. An athletic fielder and brilliant batsman once, Gandotra, 64, is today acknowledged as a fine tea taster in Kolkata where he has been living for the last 42 years.
(Part 4 of a 12-part series on forgotten heroes of Indian cricket)