November 11, 2013

Andy, Vishy and me

Flashback to 1975, when the mighty West Indians came up against a pint-sized giant at the Chepauk
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Andy Roberts took seven in the first innings at the Chepauk, but one man in the opposition was the equal of everything he threw at him © Getty Images

I could barely sleep all night. My alarm was set for 6am and I rose about a minute before it went off.

I was 15 years old, it was January 11, 1975, and Madras was abuzz. The beloved annual harvest festival, Pongal, was a day or two away, and cricket was in the air. On my study table - laden with books on trigonometry, physics and chemistry- lay a small booklet: a five-day ticket to the fourth Test between India and Clive Lloyd's West Indies, beginning in few hours' time at Chepauk Stadium.

Unlike previous occasions, I did not have to share this Test with anyone - it was all mine. I lived and breathed cricket in those days. Like many, my interest in the game was inversely proportional to my ability at it. Despite trying very hard, it seemed impossible for me to get in line against that hard red ball on a zippy matting wicket, facing bigger schoolmates who could bowl seriously fast. My bowling was not so much military-medium as civilian-slow. And the best that could be said of my fielding was that it was safe. But I could - and did - fantasise about metamorphosing from a bespectacled and scrawny "substitute" into an athletic and swaggering allrounder.

By 7:30am, armed with a tiffin-carrier, whose layers contained a breakfast snack, lunch, and a tea-time treat, I joined the serpentine queue to enter Chepauk Stadium. And once in, duly settled onto a thin white cotton thundu (towel) spread on the hard concrete rafters.

After having lost the first two Tests, India had stormed back to win the third at the Eden Gardens, riding on a brilliant second-innings 139 by GR Viswanath. The elegant left-armer Bernard Julien quickly removed India's openers (Farokh Engineer and Eknath Solkar) but it was Andy Roberts who wrought havoc. On a slow and turning pitch, he was fast and furious.

One sequence was emblematic. The pink and portly Ashok Mankad pulled a bouncer to the square-leg fence. As Roberts turned at the top of his run-up for the next ball, the entire stadium knew retribution would be swift in coming. With just a floppy canvas hat for protection, Mankad looked the sitting duck he was. With the barest hint of extra effort, Roberts got the ball to rear off a good length and straight at Mankad's jugular. As the batsman frantically fought to get his bat up in time, the ball flew off the gloves in front of his face and looped gently into the palms of a waiting Roy Fredericks. I suspect Mankad was quite relieved to be walking back to the pavilion on his own two feet.

It was barely after lunch and India were reeling at six down for 76. And soon thereafter were eight down for a little over a hundred; Roberts had grabbed six straight. His fielding station was right in front of my stand, and the sporting crowd cheered Roberts back to us after every successful over. He was reputedly the youngest of fifteen siblings. As we stared in awe at his impressive physique, the irrepressible wit of the Madras cricket fan surfaced: "Machan, if this is what No. 15 looks like, can you imagine how big the first one must be?"

As the predictably furious bouncer arrived next, Vishy tucked his head down an inch or two into his barrel chest - the way a tortoise pulls back into its shell - and the ball whistled a hair's breadth above his blue-felt India cap

When Bishan Bedi walked in to join Vishy, you sensed the end might be two balls away. And yet, over by over, the pair gritted it out to add over 50 runs. Vishy cornered the bulk of the action, and seemed to win most of the tactical games he and Lloyd played, from about the fourth ball of each over, to retain the strike. I remember one over by the bustling Keith Boyce in which Vishy hammered him for three boundaries, and an incredibly powerful square-cut drive off Roberts that singed the grass as it sped to the boundary.

While others have rhapsodised about Vishy's innings that day, and talked of the many marvellous shots he played, 40 years later what I remember most vividly are two moments - both defensive. The first one followed the rasping square drive off Roberts that I just described. As the predictably furious bouncer arrived next, Vishy tucked his head down an inch or two into his barrel chest - the way a tortoise pulls back into its shell - and the ball whistled a hair's breadth above his blue-felt India cap. Vishy nonchalantly walked down the pitch to pat down a bump or two, seemingly oblivious to how close to serious injury he had been seconds ago.

The second one was also to a ball by Roberts that reared off a good length. Vishy, on the back foot, behind the line, met the ball right in front of his chin, and - this is no exaggeration - it seemed to flow down the length of the dead-straight bat and drop like a blob of lead at his feet. You could hear an audible gasp from the crowd at what they had just seen. A ball travelling at what must have been in the high-80s or low-90s mph, hitting a bat and coming to an almost complete stop in a matter of a few feet. If you ever want a definition of technique, or the superhuman things Vishy could do with those wrists, this was it. In my mind's eye, I can see Roberts wryly smiling and shaking his head at Vishy, and the murmur of appreciation from the slip cordon.

Of course, as everyone knows, Vishy was left stranded on 97 that day. Last man out was the genial Chandra, who gingerly ramped one from Roberts into Lloyd's capacious hands at slip. The two Karnataka stalwarts walked off, in conversation. I presume Chandra was apologising for not being able to hang around long enough for Vishy to get to that hundred, and the latter assuring him that it was perfectly all right and that he had done marvellously well to stick it out for as long as he had - about 40 minutes. Neither man ever placed much store in landmarks in any case. As they neared the pavilion, I cannot remember whether the West Indians slowed down to let Vishy lead them back in - or whether Andy Roberts with his 7 for 64 led them off. Talk about a tough choice.

Fifteen-year-old schoolboys, even of the more bookish and introspective sort, cannot be counted on to appreciate the long-term significance of events that they witness. And yet I, like almost every one at Chepauk that day, knew I had seen something I would remember for the rest of my life.

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