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June 20, 2000
By 1959, at the end of a sorry decade for Indian cricket, not only were there no bowlers in the country who could bowl anything above military medium, but the batsmen also were getting bombarded by pacemen from other countries. Through the decade, bowlers like Ramchand and Phadkar gamely had carried on the Indian new ball attack but their effectiveness had gradually declined. The days when the Indian opening attack included names like Pataudi, Kunderan, Gavaskar, Wadekar and Subramanyam were still ahead but the scenario was pretty desperate by the end of the fifties.
It was at this stage that Ramakant Desai burst upon the scene. Not yet 20, only around 5 feet, 6 inches in height and slightly built, he seemed an unlikely prospect. But somehow from that comparatively tiny frame, he was able to unleash pace and bounce that disconcerted the best of Indian batsmen. A series of wicket taking performances in his maiden season in first class cricket in 1958-59 saw him pitchforked into the Indian side to play West Indies in the final Test of the series. The visitors had already wrapped up the series by winning three successive Tests and it was taken for granted that they would record a fourth straight triumph at the Kotla ground in New Delhi.
The selectors had cast the net around in trying to build a team for the tour of England in 1959 and Desai got the nod for the last Test. The heartless Kotla ground is not exactly the best pitch for a fast bowler to be making his debut. But even as the West Indies piled up the runs, Desai was the only bowler who was not collared. Not only that, he surprised the much vaunted batting line up - Holt, Hunte, Sobers, Kanhai, Butcher, Solomon, Smith - with his pace and lift and even was bold enough to bounce the ball at them. And at the end of the West Indies innings which lasted two days and realised a total of 644 for eight declared, Desai could walk back to the pavilion with his head high for he had taken four wickets for 169 off 49 overs. His victims were Holt, Kanhai, Smith and Sobers - a dream bag especially on one's debut. To put Desai's feat in proper perspective, it must be pointed out that the two great spinners Mankad and Gupte finished wicketless after bowling 55 and 60 overs and conceding 167 and 144 runs respectively.
So Desai had arrived and it did seem that Indian cricket had discovered a medium fast bowler of quality. He finished with 50 wickets in his first Ranji Trophy season, a record that stood till 1972-73 and embarked on his first tour with confidence. He played in all five Tests in England in 1959 but his inexperience showed and he was quite expensive. But he did enjoy a golden moment in the second Test at Lord's when he took five wickets for 89 runs in the first innings. He fared better against Australia in 1959-60 taking four wickets in the first innings of the fourth Test at Madras and repeated the feat in the final Test at Calcutta.
By the time Pakistan came over the next season, Desai was at his peak. He had even the great Hanif Mohammed hopping at times and the legendary opening batsman was generally all at sea as Desai troubled him with his pace and bounce. He finished the series with 21 wickets. But he had a less happy time against England the following season as also in the West Indies in 1962.
By the early sixties, the Indian pitches had become so spin oriented that pacemen were used for just a few overs. It was sad to see a bowler like Desai reduced to this state and indeed he was more out than in the team for some time. Still whenever he was given a chance, he showed he still had a lot of fire in him as proved by his four for 128 in New Zealand's first innings at Calcutta in 1965 and his six for 56 against the same opponents in the next Test at Bombay. But by now, the Indian pitches were heavily loaded against pacemen and he missed many matches - the entire series against Australia in 1964-65, the entire series against West Indies in 1966-67 and the tour of England in 1967. He was however recalled for the tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1967-68 but by now, he was no more the force he had once been. The continued neglect by the selectors and the benign nature of the pitches had discouraged him and with his own slight frame not being able to take the load further, his effectiveness had been greatly reduced and it was a matter of time before he called it a day. Desai's tale is one of the tragic episodes in Indian cricket.
Desai was no rabbit with the bat. He was good enough to get a century in the Ranji Trophy final against Rajasthan in 1962-63. And against Pakistan at Bombay two years before, he hit a brisk 85 dominating a ninth wicket partnership of 149 with PG Joshi, which still stands as the Indian record. A popular team man, Desai's premature retirement was still a loss to Indian cricket. Many years after his playing days were over, he emerged as the chairman of the national selection committee. But it was a far from happy tenure. By this time he had health problems and died following a heart attack shortly before his 59th birthday. Today on his 61st birth anniversary, it is worth recalling the deeds of `Tiny' Desai who strove manfully in uphill conditions.
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