October 1, 2013

For the love of Brijesh Patel

You aren't always drawn to the game by superstars. Sometimes players who couldn't quite make it are the ones who turn you into a lifelong fan

Brijesh Patel dismissed for 5 in his debut innings, at Old Trafford, 1974 © PA Photos

Every cricket fan comes of age at a certain point in time: a match or series that captures your imagination and renders you a cricket lover for ever after. More often than not, however, it's a particular player who triggers the transformation into a passionate aficionado of the game. For me, as a schoolboy in Bangalore and Madras in the 1970s, there was one player who epitomised everything I loved about the game, and who showed me that it also had a cruel and merciless side: Brijesh Patel.

Brijesh was a dashing batsman and electric fielder at cover-point. With his lithe physique, improbably light eyes, and a Zapata moustache that would have been the envy of any self-respecting pirate in the Caribbean, Brijesh was a contrast to many of his rotund Karnataka and South Zone team-mates who looked exactly what they were - bank officers.

Even as a high-school player in Bangalore, Brijesh was marked for bigger things. People spoke with awe of towering sixes hit with a nonchalant flick of deceptively slim forearms; of flat throws rifled in from the boundary, scattering stumps and bails with direct hits; of a sense of timing that was unreal - forward-defensive pushes that raced to the long-on fence.

When Tony Lewis' visiting MCC side played South Zone, Brijesh burst onto the national scene with a breathtaking 93. His partner that day, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who was making a comeback after a self-imposed exile, got a century. As the Noob and (in my fervid imagination) his heir-apparent cut the English attack to ribbons, the future seemed limitless and bright. Brijesh was destined for greatness, and I would follow in that wonderful slipstream with my collection of photographs and statistics.

Brijesh was selected for the tour to England in the summer of 1974. He began with a hundred that included two sixes and umpteen boundaries, against Derrick Robins' XI. As the first Test neared, I could barely contain my anticipation. A century on debut seemed to be there for the taking. I could already hear John Arlott, Brian Johnston and Trevor Bailey rhapsodise (well, as much as their English reserve would permit) about this new star.

In his first four Test innings Brijesh scored 5, 3, 1 and 1. The first half of an exceptionally cold and dank English summer, and the swing and seam of Geoff Arnold, Chris Old, Mike Hendrick and Tony Greig was too much for the Indians. It turned out that my hero, like most of his team-mates, lacked the technique to counter such conditions. Brijesh was dropped for the third Test and the Indians returned home after having "copped a mother and father of a hiding" as the ebullient Greig put it at the end of the 3-0 shellacking.

Back in India, as Clive Lloyd's West Indians arrived, my hopes resurged. Surely Brijesh would triumph in home conditions? It was not to be, and by the third Test he had been dropped again. He returned for the final match, at the Wankhede, and in the fourth innings of a Test that was already as good as lost, he smacked a couple of sixes on the way to an unbeaten 73. When he reached his 50, a young saree-clad woman from the stands outran policemen to reach the wicket and plant a kiss on a blushing Brijesh. More than an augury of things to come, it soon came to be a sad reminder of what could have been.

The rest of Brijesh's brief Test career remained stuck in mediocrity. A single century (in a drawn Test on a slow wicket), a few dashing fifties (mainly at home), and a brisk 49 not out as India chased down 403 in Port-of-Spain, stood as glimmers of light. A career of 21 Tests with an average under 30 speaks for itself. Perhaps even sadder is the fact that he hit seven sixes in his entire Test career; I had hoped for as many in his debut innings.

My final memory of Brijesh's brief Test career is poignant. I remember watching a recorded telecast of the infamous Sabina Park Test of 1976 (the one that followed the historic win in Port-of-Spain), where Lloyd's all-pace attack battered the Indians to a crushing defeat. As Michael Holding and Wayne Daniel (with support from Bernard Julien and Vanburn Holder) peppered the Indians, a helmetless Brijesh kept edging away towards square leg, taking his eyes off the ball. Soon enough, a delivery caught the edge of his hanging bat and crashed into his upper lip. As Brijesh dropped his bat and frantically waved to the dressing room for help, I realised, rather sadly, that physical courage was not my hero's strong suit. The contrast to the efforts of Gaekwad, Amarnath, Vengsarkar, Vishy and Gavaskar in the same conditions was too obvious to ignore, even for a wide-eyed schoolboy. Though he played another ten Tests (eight of them at home), and his final two Tests were in Brisbane and Perth, the promise that had been Brijesh came to an end at Sabina Park.

As I remember those sun-dappled early days when he would walk out to bat for Karnataka or South Zone, take his time to get his eye in, and announce his readiness for battle with a straight drive for four, or an effortless pull over midwicket for six, it is hard not to treasure that sense of anticipation, of good things to come, of brilliance unfolding. It is a sense of possibility that Brijesh once represented. That it was not to be is as much our loss as his. There is, after all, no love quite like your first one.

Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu