February 4, 2001

Pankaj Roy - Courage and determination were his hallmarks

Pankaj Roy, who passed away in Kolkata in the early hours of Sunday, was the foremost Indian opening batsman throughout the fifties. The best tribute to him would be to point out that his tally of runs was the best for a specialist opener till a certain Sunil Manohar Gavaskar came along.

Adjectives like stylish or elegant were hardly used to describe Roy's batting. The qualities associated with him were generally dedication, determination and concentration. A short, rather stocky figure, Roy had a solid defence but he could also attack when the need arose, being particularly forceful off the back foot. His famous first wicket partnership of 413 runs with Vinoo Mankad - still a Test record - was the jewel in his crown. But there were many trinkets along the way too.

Roy's obdurate qualities were just what Indian cricket required during the time he opened the innings, for the batting was generally weak. As he came on the scene, players like Vijay Merchant, Mushtaq Ali, Lala Amarnath and Vijay Hazare were on the way out. It was impossible to replace these greats overnight and the Indian batting in the fifties was generally brittle. The opening slot particularly had gaping holes. Roy's stubborn batting, built on a rock solid defence, helped at least to fill these holes in part.

Roy was one of those who lived up to the early promise he held out. By scoring a century on debut in the Ranji Trophy in 1946-47, by tall scores in the inter-university matches and by hitting an unbeaten century against the strong West Indian team of 1948-49 while still at college, Roy made it known very early that here was an uncommonly gifted batsman. And yet in his first series, he exceeded even the highest expectations. Against England in 1951-52, he scored 140 in his second Test and followed this up with 111 in the final triumphant Test at Madras. Two centuries in his maiden series saw Roy hailed as the new boy wonder of Indian cricket. He went on the 1952 tour of England with his confidence level on a high but came from the trip with his technique and temperament being questioned. On that disastrous tour, Roy was one of the main failures. In seven Test innings, he got five ducks, four of them in a row.

Shrugging off the shocking run, Roy rediscovered his touch in the West Indies in 1953, proof of this being cemented with his double effort of 85 and 150 in the final Test at Kingston. With Vijay Manjrekar, he added 237 runs for the second wicket, an Indian record that stood for almost 26 years.

No one questioned Roy's technique and temperament after that. Sure, the cynics pointed out certain flaws in his batting especially against fast bowling. But runs are the final result that no one can argue against and Roy kept scoring them consistently. After all, no one can finish with a tally of 2442 runs from 43 Tests at an average of 32.56 with five hundreds if he is lacking in technique and temperament.

There were doubts whether wearing spectacles - which he resorted to in the mid-fifties - would affect Roy's batting. It did not in any serious manner and he played with reasonable success. He answered charges that he was vulnerable to fast bowling by scoring 334 runs in the series against West Indies in 1958-59, in the face of a barrage of bumpers and beamers from Wesley Hall and Roy Gilchrist. Whatever the cynics might have said about his technical limitations, even they did not question Roy's courage. For example in the first Test at Bombay, he batted 445 minutes for 90 in an effective rearguard action.

On his second tour of England in 1959, Roy did better both in the Tests and first class games. Still, it was not a record in keeping with his reputation of one of the side's most experienced batsmen. In first class matches he scored 1207 runs at an average of 28.73. In the Tests he started off well by top scoring with 54 and 49 in a losing cause in the first game. Thereafter however memories of 1952 haunted him and in eight subsequent innings he got only 76 runs. Back home he was more successful against Australia scoring 263 runs including a heroic 99 in India's defeat at New Delhi. But the fact that he fell five times in the series to the left arm swing of Alan Davidson did seem to indicate some technical deficiency against the fast, moving ball.

Yet in 1960, Roy was still where he was at the start of the previous decade - more or less entrenched as India's opening batsman. No one could have guessed that the end of his career was round the corner. But this did come about suddenly when after scoring 23 in the first Test against Pakistan in 1960-61 he was dropped - never to be considered again. Determined to make a comeback Roy made a packet of runs in the Ranji and Duleep Trophy competitions to show that he still had something to offer Indian cricket. But he never got a look-in again and his heroics were limited to playing for Bengal for whom he remained a tower of strength. His tally of 5149 runs at an average of 66 with 21 hundreds still makes for impressive reading.

In later years, Roy served on the national selection committee, watched his nephew Ambar and son Pranab play for India and became one of Kolkata's prominent citizens including the Sheriff of the city. But in a crowded, eventful panorama, there is little doubt that Roy in retirement, would have frequently remembered Indian cricket's proudest statistical achievement - of which he was a partner.