When Chhotu and Polly drew the crowds one last time
The difference between cold news and hard reality was brought home like a slap in the face at 4.30pm in Chandanwadi, Mumbai where Hanumant Singh was cremated. Until then he had been merely a former Indian cricketer who had featured in 14 Tests and then faded away in debatable circumstances, through injury. At the crematorium, however, with Mumbai's cricket fraternity coming together to pay their last respects, Hanumant Singh became Chhotu, as even those much younger to him referred to him.
It was a chance for captains of the team then known as Bombay, who had played against Hanumant in as many as seven Ranji finals, to show the respect they had for their Chhotu. Madhav Apte, Ajit Wadekar and Bapu Nadkarni were all right at the forefront, consoling Sangram Singh, Hanumant's son and himself a cricketer, and it was ironic that the one captain who had played against Hanumant who was missing - Polly Umrigar, had died earlier this month.
Bishan Singh Bedi had flown from Delhi to Mumbai to be at the funeral, and the man who would have most wanted to be there, Raj Singh Dungarpur, was away in his home town of Dungarpur, campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of forthcoming legislative assembly elections. He took the first possible flight to Mumbai, but by the time he made it, the funeral was finished, and some said that was perhaps a good thing, for Dungarpur would not have liked the Chhotu he saw.
More than three weeks of being in intensive care, kept alive by machines and given a chance to fight a combination of Hepatitis B and Dengue that had ravaged his liver, kidneys and lungs, had taken their toll, and the Hanumant that lay before the gathering bore no resemblance to the Hanumant who had, till as recently as November 4, been in Rajasthan, his home state, working as chairman of the selection committee.
Those who could be there were there; those who couldn't, showed their respect in other ways. Indian cricketers playing South Africa at Port Elizabeth wore black armbands, as did another set of cricketers at the Bombay Gymkhana. They were trainees of the England and Wales Cricket Board Academy, many of whom Hanumant had coached.
One of the things Hanumant was known for, besides, as Vasu Paranjape so succinctly put it, "driving through the on-side with such comfort that Chhotu was compared to Peter May, was his reading of the game." This would come out when Hanumant chatted about cricket, which was frequently. Some years back, over a cup of tea with some journalists, he made the point that VVS Laxman was repeatedly being dismissed caught on the off side because he was playing across the line. Unable to quite understand what he was saying, he was pressed for more; he summoned a bat and demonstrated how Laxman was actually playing across the line from leg to off, rather than the other way round, the common definition of the term "playing across the line."
When Hanumant's funeral ended, it was fitting, though ironic, that most of the gathering made their way to the CK Nayudu hall at the Cricket Club of India for a condolence meeting to mark the death of Pahlan Ratanji Umrigar. It had been organised much in advance with the Bombay Parsee Punchayat, and today fitted into the mood of things. Those who spoke of Polly kaka, and their audience, both reflected a time when cricket was a different game, and not just in the sense that one-day cricket had yet to be invented or that cricket boards did not measure success by the size of their coffers. The common thread was that Umrigar and Hanumant loved cricket to the extent that neither could give it up once their playing days were done.
Nari Contractor, visibly emotional, demanded that the Mumbai Cricket Association name its indoor school after Umrigar. Piloo Reporter, the former umpire who showed up in sports shoes, black trousers and a white shirt as though he was going to umpire a game, referred to the sobriquet 'palm-tree hitter' that Umrigar had picked up on the 1951-52 tour of West Indies, where he cleared the fence repeatedly. "The palm tree has fallen," said Reporter, in a reference to Umrigar's height and stature.
Apte, who shared a room with Umrigar on more than one tour, spoke of how the big man would carry a saree of his newlywed wife Dinoo, and keep it under his pillow as he slept.
There was no mention of contracts. There was no sign of a sponsor. There was no talk of burn-out. There wasn't an agent in sight. What there was, was a roomful of people saying "thanks for the good times," and good-bye, to two of their own.
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Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo