Keeping the faith
Mahendra Singh Dhoni or Dinesh Karthik? India's selectors avoided the dilemma by including both of them in the playing XI for the past few Tests. It's nothing new, though, even in the Indian context: Budhi Kunderan was included as a specialist batsman with Faroukh Engineer behind the stumps; Chandrakant Pandit did the same with Kiran More acting as the main wicketkeeper. Neither, however, could hold on to his place for any length of time. Time will tell whether Karthik does; meanwhile, let's rewind to some of the colourful characters who stood behind the stumps for India.
Janardhan Navle is a name known probably only to trivia buffs. He was India's wicketkeeper in that historic first Test at Lord's in 1932 and snapped up Douglas Jardine off CK Nayudu to begin the tally of dismissals by Indian wicketkeepers. Navle, who incidentally opened in that game, also played in India's first Test at home, in Bombay, against the Englishmen in December 1933 but was replaced by Dilawar Hussain in the very next match.
In his debut game on a green track in Calcutta, Dilawar, in a decision emulated recently, was sent to open. He retired after being nailed on the head by Morris Nichols. He returned with a bandage over his head and was promptly hit on the thumb by Nobby Clark. He retired again but came back to top score with 59. He was the top scorer in the second innings, too, with 57. However, his place in Indian wicketkeeping lore was sealed in England's second innings when he stumped Bryan Valentine who, in pursuit of the 7 that England needed to win, had jumped out to Naoomal Jaoomal. It was India's first stumping dismissal.
Sujit Mukherjee, author of Playing for India, notes that wicketkeepers' appointments were made so casually that as many as six persons officiated in the first 11 international appearances (7 official and 4 unofficial) over the first four years. He wrote: "Who remembers Abdul Aziz, SVT Chari, MO Srinivasan, TV Parthasarathi, K Srinivasan, who appeared in just one Test for India?"
Imtiaz Ahmed was the best young wicketkeeper in the country in the 1940's. While playing for North Zone against the visiting Australian team in 1945, he came to the crease with his team tottering at 106 for 6, and not only hit an unbeaten 138 but also kept wickets competently enough to prompt Lindsay Hasset to hail him as "one of India's young hopefuls". Not for long, though: Come Partition, and Imtiaz went over to Lahore.
|Who remembers Abdul Aziz, SVT Chari, MO Srinivasan, TV Parthasarathi, K Srinivasan, who appeared in just one Test for India?|
His place was taken by Probir 'Khokon' Sen, who displayed as much spirit as skill. When Australia piled up 575 at Melbourne, Sen conceded only four byes. He had a sense of humour too; Ramachandra Guha's Spin and other turns relates how Sen, when asked about conceding just four byes, shot back that just four balls had been allowed to reach him. Sen's other claim to fame is that he once removed his wicketkeeping pads and took a first-class hat-trick for Bengal against Orissa in 1954-55.
Timir Baran Sarkar, his Kalighat club team-mate, gives us a flavour of the man. "In those days Khokonda didn't 'keep'. He would just bat. On occasions when we were two-three wickets down, suddenly he would go missing from the dressing-room. After a while we would find him coming back along Park Street. He, in fact, had rushed to the pub just opposite the club tent, had a few pegs and returned to the tent to pad up. We could see a great man slowly sinking. It's that love for alcohol which ultimately took away the life of a great keeper." He lives on in Kolkata's memory through the city's premier one-day tournament with the trophy named after him, the P Sen Trophy.
PG 'Nana' Joshi could be called India's first really stylish wicketkeeper. Mukherjee notes: "Joshi gave an impression of sartorial elegance because of the care he took with his equipment. He moved quickly in whatever he did on field, including the walking across between overs which in his case was a smart trot. His was a craft, which balanced itself on the knife edge of speed and perfection. Its achievements were marvellous but its failure frequent."
After Joshi and the man who jostled with him for a Test spot, Naren Tamhane, came the crowd pullers who loved batting more than keeping: Kunderan and Engineer.
The 1962 China war put Kunderan temporarily out of business as Railways, the team he represented, was withdrawn from competition. Engineer forged ahead; he even started to open. But in 1964, when England toured India, an injury to Engineer opened the door for Kunderan and he made the most of it, scoring two centuries and a fifty to end with a series tally of 525 runs. His keeping, though, wasn't up to scratch and the selectors kept him out of all three Tests against Australia in 1964.
The man who replaced him was Inderjit Singh, India's first bearded wicketkeeper, who had neat movements and adequate keeping skills but who was outbatted by Kunderan and Engineer. In that series against Australia he kept reasonably well and also stayed at the wicket for more than half an hour in Bombay, giving great support to Chandu Borde who took India to victory.
Kunderan's chance came again in '66-'67 against the West Indies when he blasted 79, with 15 fours, in the first Test. He opened in the next Test and cracked 39 in 45 minutes but the selectors were not satisfied with his keeping and despite his 104 in two hours with 4 sixes and 11 fours, two days after the second Test in a tour match against the West Indies, Kunderan was replaced by Engineer for the next Test in Chennai.
Engineer silenced the critics and the public outcry against Kunderan's exclusion by almost scoring a century before lunch (94). He went on to score 109 and never looked back. However, in keeping with India's penchant for drama, he was voted out on the insistence of Vijay Merchant, the chairman of selectors. Merchant had advised the board that only those who played in domestic tournaments should be chosen; Engineer paid the penalty for playing for Lancashire.
Syed Kirmani came to rule the keeping spot after Engineer, and was followed by Kiran More and Chandrakant Pandit battling for the spot in the '80s, with More eventually prevailing. Sadanand Vishwanath created a flutter in the mid-1980s with his skills and attitude in the famous World Series triumph in Australia in 1985. However, he disappeared almost as soon as he came on, allowing More to reoccupy centrestage.
Nayan Mongia was India's best wicketkeeper in the 90's and the selectors, to look beyond him, tried out numerous players but with little success. Until Dhoni arrived, with Karthik following.
Sriram Veera is an editorial assistant on Cricinfo