The Indian magician
As in the very hub of life, so in cricket, they also serve who only stand and wait. The game is not all about just the star performers at the batting or the bowling crease. The men who stand in positions in the field where few would dare, rarely catch the headlines, even as they make the difference between victory and defeat.
Eknath Solkar, who passed away on Sunday in Mumbai, will ever be remembered as one who had turned the high-risk job of close-catching into a fine art. He was one player who could indeed command a place in the team only on his fielding. That he was a fair bat, tenacious at times, and more than an useful bowler, made him an allrounder in the truest sense of the term.
Sydney Barnes, a member of the fabulous Australian team of the forties, led by Don Bradman, had his team-mates worried, as he posted himself fearlessly at forward short-leg and, when he was taken to hospital a couple of times, hit in the groin, the critics described the perilous field placing as a "suicide" position.
Many years later, "Ekki," as Solkar was fondly called by his chums, had revisited the suicide position and made a great success of it. It was his sharp-reflexes and daredevilry at forward short-leg that actually contributed to the success of Indian spinning quartet of Bishen Singh Bedi, Bhagawat Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivasan Venkatraghavan.
Much of the credit for India's first-ever Test-series triumph over the West Indies in 1971 was laid at the feet of the tremendous batting feats of debutant Sunil Gavaskar and the experienced Dilip Sardesai. Solkar, who barely made the playing XI then, was not exactly heralded a hero. Useful stands with Sardesai, in the face a impending defeat, helped the team turn the tide on more than one occasion. On that Caribbean tour, Solkar showed glimpses of what stern stuff he was made of when he stood barely a couple of yards from the bat, at forward short-leg. Although not much came to Solkar's hand, the leading West Indies batsmen had been psyched into curbing their natural strokeplay.
A couple of months later, Solkar was to come full bloom as world's greatest a close-in fielder. He did not take, but made, catches at forward short-leg. He had opener Brian Luckhurst on no less than three occasions in the first two Tests. Caught by Solkar, Luckhurst said while walking, "Wait you blighter, the series isn't over yet." The same remark came from Luckhurst, the third time that he was picked by Solkar. It was the turn of the Indian to speak, "Mr. Luckhurst, is the series over now?." Though he went on to play the next game, Luckhurst suffered further embarrassment, off Solkar's bowling, when he was dismissed for 1 (c Gavaskar) in the first innings.
Solkar's close-catching in England was, on occasions, "out of this world." I am not saying this, the English critics did that. "He created catches out of thin air, like some Indian magician," said John Arlott, the doyen among the commentators.
In India, Eknath Solkar was called "the poor man's Garry Sobers," which was just a manner of speaking. But indeed, he was a poor man's son who made it big by sheer hard work and dedication. The Hindu Gymkhana at the posh Marine Drive area had a small hut attached to it. That was the abode of the humble groundsman who tended the pitch where the then leading players of the country came for practice. Amongst those who bowled at them was a little boy in shorts and a torn vest. Bombay and India stumper, Madhav Mantri, impressed by his enthusiasm, arranged to send him to school. An average student, Solkar was however an outstanding cricketer and it was not too long before he captained the Indian schools against the visiting English schools.
A two-in-one bowler, left-arm seam and orthodox left-arm spin, and a reliable batsman in any position, Solkar saw his dream turn into reality when he was picked for a Test debut against New Zealand at Hyderabad in 1969.
He may not have had any outstanding performances, but he was undoubtedly the greatest utility player who the selectors found difficult to leave out. A loveable guy, he was a knowledgeable critic of the game. He spoke out as fearlessly as he stood at the dreaded forward short-leg position, sleeves rolled down and a grin on his dark, sweat-covered face. Many a batsman who have fallen to him, will surely remember that face.
SK Sham has covered cricket for more than four decades and is a veteran journalist based in Mumbai.