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Stumped by the 'keeper


Karnataka has produced great bowlers and batsmen. No other State has fielded such a line-up of highly talented wicket-keeper-batsmen.

ONCE or twice a year, I take what must be done of the loveliest short drives in the country, 50-mile road that runs from Mangalore's Bajpae airport to the university town of Manipal. Keeping the sea on the left, the road passes through acres of paddy fields, interspersed with areca gardens and the odd patch of remnant rain forest. Every five miles or so we drive over a river, a leisurely boatman in the water. The artefacts of man that one encounters include mosques, churches, Jain monasteries and Hindu temples. Here, in western Karnataka, cultural diversity matches ecological diversity, the D'Souzas mixing with the Alis and the Raos, the forests with the fields and the ocean.

Sadanand Viswanath ... rose and fell like a meteor, but left plenty of memories behind.

The names of the towns en route are charmingly quaint too. There is Padbidri and there is Kapu and, exactly halfway between them, there is Karnad. Whenever my taxi enters this settlement the driver will surely tell me: "Saar, Girish Karnad coming from here." I can sense and share his pride in the achievements of the writer-actor, a man who has brought lustre to his town, his State, and his country. But I wish I could, at least once, summon up the wit to tell the driver, as he passes through the next town on our way: "Saar, this is Mulki. Budhi Kunderan coming from here."

No rivalry in Indian cricket was as intense yet as free from rancour as that between Kunderan and Faroukh Engineer. Both kept wickets very well, to pace and spin alike. Both opened the batting and set as their working target a 50 in the first hour and a century before lunch. Both were superb athletes and better team-men. This indeed is the time to remember them, when Indian wicket-keepers divide themselves equally into two camps: those who can bat but not keep and those who can keep but not bat. Budhi or Faroukh, were either of them playing now, would have been automatic second choice in the Indian team, their name to be pencilled in by the selectors immediately after Sachin Tendulkar's. But since they played in another time, and, most crucially, played together, one among them had always to be on the sidelines.

Kunderan was playing for the Railways when he was spotted by that sage chairman of selectors Lala Amarnath. He appeared for India against Australia in 1959-60, and over the next decade alternated in the test team with Engineer. Sometime in the early 1960s Budhi shifted allegiance to his home State. It was as a Mysore man that he replaced Faroukh when the latter was injured just before the first Test of the 1963-64 series against England, which was played in New Delhi. India batted first, and Kunderan was off from the first ball. At close of play he was still there, a blistering 170 runs to his name. He scored another century in the series, and over 500 runs in all.

Two years later the compliment was returned. Kunderan played the first two Tests of a home series against the West Indies. Engineer replaced him for the third, and was 98 not out at lunch on the first day. The next summer the duo at last played a Test match together, at Edgbaston. Engineer kept wickets, and Kunderan opened the batting as well as the bowling!

Before Budhi, another gifted cricketer had kept wickets for both Mysore and India. His name was K. Srinivasan, but he was then, and still is, known as "Balaji". Behind the stumps Balaji Srinivasan was studiously safe. Before them, he was a bobby dazzler, the cuts and drives and lofted shots taking comfortable precedence over the defensive prods. Intriguingly, in the mid-1950s Srinivasan opened the batting for Mysore with Faroukh's elder brother, D.M. Engineer. It is not inconceivable that some stories of Balaji's prowess were passed on to the kid brother in Bombay.

Balaji Srinivasan is the nicest cricketer of my acquaintance, and also the best read. He knows more about modern literature than most literary critics. He is willing to offer you his views on Rushdie or Pound, yet absurdly reticent about himself. Ask him about his time in the game, and he will tell you about Garfield Sobers — against whom he played in the Lancashire Leagues or, admiringly, about the famous Bangalore hitter Benjamin Frank.

It was left to the distinguished energy scientist A.K.N. Reddy to speak to me about Srinivasan the cricketer. Sometime in the early 1950s, Reddy went with his college mates to watch South Zone play a visiting Commonwealth side in Bangalore. The match took place at the R.S.I. ground, a lovely piece of turf maintained by the army malis, with a row of trees ringing the outfield. Balaji, Professor Reddy tells me, scored a rapid-fire 40, and even hit that great googly bowler Bruce Dooland for a six. I can almost see the stroke: a quick step or two down the track, a clean swing of the bat, the ball clearing long off to land outside the ground on Cubbon Road, its second bounce striking the tall hard wall of that charming colonial bequest to Bangalore, Bairds Barracks.

After Balaji came Budhi, and after Budhi came Syed Kirmani. This man I saw myself, and much of — though it could never have been never too much. I saw him bat and keep wickets for his club, the State Bank of India, and saw plenty of him for his State and country too. I cannot believe that a better 'keeper ever played for India. His always outsize pads did not deter the dive sideways or in front. His anticipation was brilliant, not least while keeping to the unpredictable B.S. Chandrasekhar, a bowler as good as but twice as difficult to keep to as our own Anil Kumble. And "Kiri" could bat vigorously in the lower middle order, scoring 2,759 Test runs in all, including eight 50s and two centuries.

After Kirmani, there was Sadanand Viswanath. "S. Vishy" was more orthodox in front of the wickets — he began life as an opening batsman — but equally electric behind it. He rose and fell like a meteor, but left plenty of memories behind. No one who saw him stump Javed Miandad at Melbourne will ever forget it. That was in the World Championship of Cricket in 1985, a tournament in which his contribution to India's win was as considerable as anyone else's.

A future historian of Karnataka cricket will pay proper attention to the State's great tradition of spin bowling, to Kumble and Prasanna and Chandrasekhar and, before them, to the now less known but perhaps equally gifted pair of B.K. Garudachar and V.M. Muddiah. He will write a chapter on how this spin-saturated State has begun producing decent new ball bowlers: such as Dodda Ganesh, David Johnson, Venkatesh Prasad and, above all, Javagal Srinath.

Something like half of this historian's book will be about batsmen: a chapter apiece on G.R. Viswanath and Rahul Dravid, with a consolidated account of the more talented among the rest: C.J. Ramdev, V. Subrahmanyam, Brijesh Patel and, of course, B. Fank.

Somewhere in the middle of the book will be a chapter on the best of the State's wicket-keepers. This will start with Balaji and carry on through Budhi and Kiri to S. Vishy.

There will, in the future, be other such men, but even as it stands one can safely say that no other Ranji Trophy team — no, not even Bombay — has produced such a line of high quality wicket-keeper-batsmen.

The writer is the editor of The Picador Book of Cricket.

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