How many first-class cricketers would have honed their skills at the official residence of the Prime Minister. A stunning example was Rakesh Shukla. “Lal Bahadur Shastri ji was the PM and his son, Harikrishan ji, had prepared a turf pitch in the house. We would practice there with some grand company (Lala Amarnath, Salim Durani). Our summer camp used to be in the PM’s house,” recalls Rakesh Shukla, an all-rounder of merit.
He traversed an interesting route from Delhi-Bihar-Delhi-Bengal-Delhi. A modest debut and an equally unexceptional farewell marked Shukla’s cricket career, which was interspersed with some robust all-round show that gave him a distinct identity among the top spinners of the country. He was a leg-spinner who loved the googly more than the traditional line of attack which he was quite adept at. At his best, on slightly helpful pitches, the ball would whizz past the off-stump after beginning the arc from outside leg.
Shukla, who for all his awesome talent played a mere Test, was a friendly guy off the field but most competitive on it. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could perturb him, not even when batsmen clubbed a ball that had lethal proportions. “I liked to attack, to explore, basically look to snare than contain,” says the genial Shukla when reminiscing his glorious playing days.
He made his debut for Delhi, played just one match in February 1970, and shifted to Bihar, where his elder brother Anand, a superb leg-spinner too, was an established star. “Anand bhai was my motivation. He was good at football but stuck to cricket. I used to bowl medium-pace but Lala ji asked me to bowl leg-spin. In my first competitive match (for Madras Club) I took six wickets.” He, however, could not hide from his brother that his ‘fantastic’ performance had come off ‘donkey drops’.
Shukla’s first-class debut had come in the illustrious company of Bishan Singh Bedi and Rajinder Goel. And then he travelled to Bihar where he played 22 Ranji matches in five years. He returned to Delhi and stayed for nine seasons, playing 55 matches. A season of five matches followed with Bengal and then he made his final move, two seasons, eight Ranji matches for Delhi. It was March 1986 and Delhi had begun to blood youngsters.
Veteran Delhi batsman Vinay Lamba rates Shukla high. “He always performed at the right time. He was a good middle order batsman and an attacking spinner. He did not turn the ball much but had a lethal googly. He should have got his chance (to play Test cricket) much earlier.”
Shukla was 34 when he played in his only Test, against Sri Lanka, at Madras in 1982. The match ended in an exciting draw with Shukla distinguishing himself with the prized wickets of Roy Dias and Duleep Mendis, both acknowledged for their batting skills against the best. “I played because of Sunil (Gavaskar). I have some lovely memories of that Test. I never got to bat. Bowled to champion batsmen. It was tough pitching up to them. To have shared the dressing rooms with heroes like Gavaskar, GRV (Viswanath) and Dilip (Vengsarkar) was great. I was never picked after that match but I have no regrets.” Shukla retired four years after his Test debut.
The stocky Shukla was part of Delhi’s historic win over Karnataka in the 1982 Ranji Trophy final when Karnataka made 705 and Delhi 707 for eight, the match spilling into the sixth day in warm March at the Ferozeshah Kotla. It was an incredible finish as Shukla (69) and Rajesh Peter (67) added 118 runs for the ninth wicket to script a sensational win.
“I joined Peter with the ball new. I told him to play his normal game, play straight because the bounce was varied. The wear and tear in the pitch was a huge challenge. I told Peter that there should not be a run out dismissal. That would be an unpardonable act. We batted with caution initially and then with controlled aggression. There was divine help too. I gloved (MR) Srinivasaprasad, Kiri (Syed Kirmani) took the catch but I stayed put. It was divine intervention in Delhi’s favour,” smiles Shukla.
Hailed more for his bowling feats , Shukla was a reliable batsman too. “He batted with little feet movement. He could have middle the ball even when batting with a stump in hand. He was not a big turner but made the ball skid and that made Shukla ji a difficult bowler to tackle. There was more of top spin and his high-arm release needed close watch. His accuracy earned him lots of LBW decisions,” recalls Delhi teammate K. P. Bhaskar.
Shukla was a proud member of the 1978 Delhi team when it won the Ranji Trophy for the first time, beating Karnataka at Bangalore, courtesy century in each innings by the dashing Surender Khanna. He figured in five Ranji Trophy finals and finished a loser only once. He fittingly decided to retire after being part of the Ranji Trophy winning eleven at Kotla in 1986. Shukla, 67, lives in Ghaziabad and stays in touch with the game with coaching and commentating assignments.
Rakesh Shukla played 1 Test (294 balls, 2 wkts), 121 First Class matches (16869 balls, 295 wkts at 24.53, best 7/83; 3798 runs, 6 centuries and 17 fifties).
Career span:1969-70 to 1985-86