The boys of endless summer
On a cricket field, at any given moment there are 11 fielders, two batsmen and a couple of umpires - and yet, the eyes of the crowd usually keep getting drawn to a few of those individuals, while gliding over the others. For those of my generation who came of cricketing age in the late 1960s, a trio of Indian cricketers - in rather different ways - embodied charisma: Farokh Engineer, Salim Durani and ML Jaisimha.
There was something about those guys - a combination of good looks, a way of carrying themselves, some intangible quality - that drew you. There were others who were better cricketers, by statistical or other measures, but this brief essay is about the different ways in which these three seemed to epitomise what draws us to sport in the first place.
With his outrageous sideburns, deep dimples and eyes that sparkled at all times, the handsome Engineer was the original dasher. He was bustling and hyperactive - whether it was behind the stumps or when at bat. As an opener, there was for him none of this nonsense about getting your eye in and playing within the V with a straight bat for the first few overs. Engineer would set off like a rocket, and when it came good, it was breathtaking stuff. Many in Chennai still talk of his unbeaten 94 before lunch on the opening day of a Test match (he went on to make 109) against a West Indian attack comprising Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Garry Sobers and Lance Gibbs. He was India's second-highest run scorer in the memorable 1971 series in England, and stayed until the end in the incredible win at The Oval. In the next series, at home against the MCC (as it used to be called back then), Engineer was in the form of his life, making the most runs by any player on either side.
A little research on ESPNcricinfo produced a surprising finding. I had always thought of Engineer as a bit of a happy-go-lucky batsman, but his Test batting average (31.08) is significantly better than nearly all of his wicketkeeper peers: Rod Marsh (26.51), Deryck Murray (22.90), Wasim Bari (15.88), and even Engineer's successor, Syed Kirmani (27.04). The only keeper of his era who bests Engineer's average is Alan Knott, by a shade, with 32.75. None of those others, however, opened the batting, whereas Engineer routinely did so. (Take a look at the difference in the batting averages of Kumar Sangakkara and Alec Stewart when they kept wicket versus when they didn't and you'll get a good sense of the toll that keeping takes on your batting. You can possibly double the adverse impact when you send your keeper in to open the batting, as happened with Engineer). And it needs to be mentioned that Engineer, as an opener or lower-order batsman, never got to face the friendliest new-ball bowlers in the entire world - his own countrymen.
Behind the stumps, his job was way more demanding than any other wicketkeeper's, as India's mainstay has always been spin and there are no easy catches to be had that close to the stumps, nor are there as many snicks as you get with fast bowlers. Standing up to someone like Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, who was fast, fizzy, often wayward, and impossible to read out of the hand, must have been a nightmare for any keeper. You'd never have known that while watching the ebullient Engineer pull off a blinder down the leg side or take the bails off in a flash as the batsman overbalanced.
Adding to Engineer's lustre was the obvious esteem in which the rest of the cricket world seemed to hold him. He was Brylcreem's poster boy. (Though I must confess that the few times I tried the unctuous stuff in Chennai's heat, the results were less than stellar.) He was lionised by fans in Lancashire, for whom he played county cricket for many years, and he was the wicketkeeper for the World XI when they played Australia in the early 1970s. Engineer was one of those players who simply made your pulse quicken, no matter what he was doing on a cricket field.
"Lazy elegance" would pretty much summarise Salim Durani. The tall, well-built, light-eyed Pathan, with a jawline that made the Marlboro Man look a wimp, looked bored most of the time. He seemed to have an inordinate amount of time to play his shots, and his languid three-step approach to the crease belied a bowler of immense guile and flight. Durani is possibly best remembered for that magical spell that secured India their first Test match win in the West Indies. In a space of a few balls, he spun out Clive Lloyd and Garry Sobers (the latter bowled for a duck) at a critical time in the second innings. And he conceded as few as 21 runs in the 17 overs he bowled. Durani's 1.63 wickets per innings in a Test match comfortably outdistances another left-arm spinner (of a later generation), Ravi Shastri, who averaged 1.20 wickets per innings. And while Shastri conceded as many as 41 runs a Test wicket, Durani got his wickets at just over 35 runs each.
My most vivid memories of Durani date back to the third Test between India and the MCC in Chepauk over Pongal in 1972. He scored 38 in each innings in a relatively low-scoring thriller, with one six in the first innings and two in the second. In that second innings, India were making heavy weather of chasing the 86 runs they needed to win (they lost six wickets in doing so). At one point during the tense chase, the crowd began to yell "Sixer, sixer" every time Durani was on strike - and he obliged by twice launching the English spinners over the fence. You cannot imagine how thrilling it was for an 11-year-old schoolkid to watch an Indian batsman hit a six on demand, and then repeat the feat. With 15 sixes in 50 Test innings, Durani's rate is right up there with Kapil Dev (61 sixes in 184 innings), who was possibly India's most frequent six-hitter in Tests in the long era before bionic bats, gym-buffed bodies and small cricket fields.
My other memory from that Test is of a piece of fielding. Durani's laconic demeanour suggested someone not exactly renowned for speed. Yet when Chris Old hoicked one from Chandrasekhar and the ball steepled high over midwicket, Durani, who was a good 30 yards away, loped around and completed a stunning catch at full pelt. Once again, it was proof that Durani could simply turn it on when needed, or when he could be bothered to do so.
I never got to watch Jaisimha bat in a Test match, but I did once see him play for South Zone in the Duleep Trophy. With his sleeves rolled fully down, shirt open with rakishly upturned collar, and a kerchief knotted around his neck, Jai cut a lissome and handsome figure.
As every Indian fan of my time knows, he was flown in to Australia as a replacement for Chandrasekhar (no, don't bother trying to figure that one out) after the first two Tests in a four-Test series had been completed. Barely two days after a humongous flight, Jai scored 74 in the first innings and was last man out, for 101, in the second innings in Brisbane as India fell an agonising 40 runs short of the 395 they were chasing in the final innings. With their usual flair for exaggeration, the story was presented by various elders as if Jai had grabbed a taxi on arrival at Brisbane airport and been driven straight to the stadium, changing into his cricketing whites in the back seat.
The day I watched Jai at bat in the Duleep Trophy, he seemed bent, for no reason anyone could discern, on defending everything that was thrown at him. One copybook front-foot defensive dead bat after another was essayed, and maiden after maiden was bowled by the opposition. Instead of being becalmed or becoming restive, the crowd at Chepauk seemed to appreciate the technical perfection on show. And then, literally out of the blue, he danced out of the crease and unfurled one of the most gorgeous on drives I've ever seen. The ball didn't lose contact with the turf for even a moment, and yet it seemed to pick up speed as it neared the fence. His innings ended soon after. Whenever I watched Azharuddin or VVS Laxman bat in later times, that on drive of Jai's would immediately come to my mind's eye.
These distant impressions of Jai's elegance and bearing were substantiated in later years, when I watched him as an expert commentator on TV. The fine mind that dissected the game, the generous and sporting take on the day's events, and the crisp diction all bespoke the class of the man.
Old-timers invariably assert things were better in their own time, and this affliction is perhaps more acute among sports fans than in others. Yet, as I watch the sheer excess of cricket and am bombarded with images of current superstars like Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Kevin Pietersen and others, I cannot help feel that even charisma is not what it used to be.
The long gaps between Test series back then, the unavailability of television coverage in India, the black-and-white photographs, the detailed newspaper reports, all made for a rich and textured reality, one renewed through conversations with fellow aficionados through acts of imagination. The enchanted aura that surrounded the likes of Engineer, Durani and Jaisimha, their charisma, has given way today to celebrity, which is something of a rather different, and lesser, order.
Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu