July 31, 2014

Remembering Ashok Mankad, a domestic giant

The late "Kaka" was a terrific batsman, a shrewd captain, and a wonderful raconteur. But most of all he was a genuine friend

Ashok Mankad played a major role in Bombay's many successive triumphs in the Ranji Trophy © Shailesh Mule

Ashok Mankad died in his sleep six years ago. He was barely 60. Among the greatest batsmen in the Ranji Trophy, with an average of 75 or thereabouts, he was - with Parthasarathy Sharma and Brijesh Patel, both of whom he led as captain of Mafatlal Sports Club - one of a triumvirate of batsmen who dominated domestic cricket but did not quite make the same impact internationally.

He was in my view one of the better captains Indian domestic cricket has seen, not far behind the likes of ML Jaisimha or Hanumant Singh. Unlike the shrewd, cerebral and charismatic Jai, and the contemplative, precision-obsessed Hanumant, Mankad led more by example and skilful man-management, an inspiration to his boys - though tending towards the safety-first strategies so common in Bombay cricket of his time.

Kaka's batting exploits in the Ranji Trophy were legion. He played a major role in Bombay's many successive triumphs in the national championship. He also marshalled his team's resources expertly to lead them to the title in the absence of their Test stars, after his own Test career had come to an end. On one of those occasions, with Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar and Karsan Ghavri away, he led a young Bombay side to victory.

That was a match we lost after gaining a first-innings lead of 59 runs, and Kaka was the star of the counter-offensive that engineered Hyderabad's eventual capitulation. I bowled well in the first innings and to my pleasant surprise Kaka walked into our dressing room and congratulated me. It was the beginning of a life-long friendship, though we had few opportunities to meet socially.

Kaka, who scored 69 in the first innings, decided to hit me out of the attack in the second, and my own brilliant captain Jaisimha, for once out-thought on a cricket field, obliged by taking me and the other spinner, Mumtaz Hussain, off. Medium pace and defensive fields could not check Kaka, who went on a veritable rampage that afternoon. His unbeaten 136 and clever handling of the spinners Padmakar Shivalkar and Rakesh Tandon on a fourth-day wicket ensured a thrilling victory for Bombay.

Kaka was great company in the dressing room as I discovered during a conditioning camp that ran for nearly three weeks. He had a fund of stories, real and made up, about cricketers, umpires and others connected with the game. He opened most of his stories with a lengthy preamble and built up the suspense gradually before reaching an invariably uproarious climax. I hugely enjoyed his stories and truly believed that he had no equal as a raconteur in Indian cricket.

A Mankad tale that brought the roof down involved Padmanabh "Nana" Joshi, the former India wicketkeeper. Nana Joshi was, according to Kaka, in the habit of introducing himself with a flourish, as "I'm Nana of Poona." Kaka told us the story of a friendly match he played in Poona against the redoubtable leadership of Joshi.

Mankad opened most of his stories with a lengthy preamble and built up the suspense gradually before reaching an invariably uproarious climax

Mankad opened the innings after a lunch that had included a large number of shandies - a cocktail of beer and lemonade. Nana, leading the side from behind the stumps, was full of enthusiasm in the hot sun, but Mankad was so far gone that he was seeing not just two cricket balls but two bowlers altogether. He turned round and saw four slips and a gully eagerly eyeing the outer edge of his bat. Hurriedly looking the other way, he spotted forward short leg breathing down his neck. The bowler, with a reputation for genuine pace and a short temper, was a distant speck halfway to the straight boundary.

Alarmed at this prospect of physical danger, Kaka turned to the wicketkeeper-captain and said to him in his most pleading voice: "Yeh kya ho raha hai, bhai? [What is happening here, brother?] This is only a friendly match, and after all those beers, you don't want to kill me on the field, do you?"

Joshi was unmoved. He summoned his best professional manner and said sternly: "Ashok, you do the batting, and I'll do the captaincy. After all, you are a Test batsman. Don't tell me you are scared."

Ashok had no choice but to steel his nerves and try to get out at the earliest to escape injury. He closed his eyes and flashed at the first delivery. It went screaming past gully for four. Nana, who had an impressive talent for whistling, whistled at the gully fielder and, waving his arms furiously, regally dispatched him to deep third man.

Kaka said to himself: That was lucky; now let me try harder to get out this time. Another express delivery, and Kaka followed the same routine. Close eyes. Say a prayer. Slash hard. This time the ball went like a bullet to the point boundary. Nana whistled again, and, waving his arms in a slightly different direction, banished fourth slip to the point boundary.

The next ball was a vicious bouncer and Mankad's flailing bat sent the ball over fine leg off a top edge for six. Predictably, Nana's whistle-wave-arms routine followed as surely as a later-generation Hawk-Eye follows the ball.

By now the paceman was livid with rage. He sent down a vicious toe-crusher, and by the sheer power of self-preservative instincts, Mankad dug it out to send it past midwicket for four.

This time around, there was a slight change in the sequence of events. In trying to deport second slip to midwicket, Nana Joshi got the whistling perfectly right but the arm-waving, for the fourth successive time, obviously proved a bit of a challenge. "Cramp! Cramp!" he shouted, and turning towards the pavilion, screamed, "Paani, paani! Jaldi paani aur Electral lao." ["Water, water! Bring me water and an electrolyte supplement quickly"]

Ashok Mankad was more than an entertainer. He was a genuine friend. In my brief career, I found in him and Anshuman Gaekwad two Test players who took the trouble to be kind to those who did not quite make it to that level.

V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s