A flashing blade, a canny mind
For the sheer pleasure that he gave the world as a batsman, Rohan Bholalall Kanhai is my favourite cricketer. Averaging fractionally under 48 in a distinguished Test career that saw him rise to become the captain of West Indies, Rohan had Bradmanesque qualities. This implies that he was ruthless, uncaring of the reputations of bowlers, and daring in his strokeplay. But at the same time he was a crafty batsman who understood the finer points of technique better than most. The great Sunil Gavaskar shares my view that he is the best he has watched and learned from. How many people know more about batting than Sunil?
Rohan was by no means a big man. He had a feline grace about him, rather like a leopard stalking its prey. Suddenly he would spring into action and devastate a bowler, taking him completely by surprise.
He scored in excess of 6000 runs, with 15 centuries and 28 half-centuries, and had the capacity to make batting look very easy. I first saw him in 1958-59 when I was a schoolboy and he caned the rather elderly Indian attack for 256. Garfield Sobers and Basil Butcher too made centuries in that Test, but Rohan's strokeplay was almost incandescent. I was not very old then - in my 13th year and already a cricket addict - but I remember his batting to this day. It was in vivid contrast to his scratchy effort of 90 in 1966-67, in Calcutta again, when he could not do a thing right. The pitch at the Eden Gardens was one of uncertain pace and bounce; the ball would stop after it hit the ground and Rohan's timing was all awry. He was dropped a couple of times.
However, there was one incident that remains engraved in my memory. He was playing the final over before lunch on day one. It was from the debutant Bishan Singh Bedi, whose first over in Test cricket it was. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, the Indian captain, had brought the new boy on for the first time, thinking that he would be able to ease himself into the big league. Rohan played defensively the first five balls and it seemed almost certain that Bishan would start his career with a maiden. It was not to be. Rohan hit the last ball straight for six and walked away to lunch. Later he said to me: "The lad looked good from the beginning. I was not going to give him a maiden to start with. He must have been thinking of what I did to his final delivery during lunch."
There were numerous occasions when Rohan and I chatted, both in the West Indies and in India. We have a common friend in Tony Becca, a respected Jamaican sportswriter. Rohan can be garrulous when the mood seizes him. And from various conversations, one could understand the depth of his knowledge. I remember asking him about his batting and he explained, "You have to develop a sound technique and, especially, a tight defence. It is not that the defence should be the basis of your game, like it was in the case of a couple of Englishmen. A defensive stroke can get you a single if you learn to place the ball. As far as stroke-making is concerned, you have to put every poor delivery away to the boundary and sometimes even hit a few good ones too. It is when you do the latter that the bowlers are made to think. The odd risk is worth taking, provided the percentages are on your side."
He played a stroke that is unique in the annals of the game - the falling sweep. After hitting the ball, he would fall to the earth as the ball flew out of the ground. "I suppose I played it to waken myself," he remarked with a chuckle. "There was no risk at all but I had to do something different."
Rohan initially played with the three Ws, all knighted by the Queen of England - Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott - and was said to have had a lifelong rivalry with another knight, Garry Sobers.
"My rivalry with Sobie might have been there initially but then Frank Worrell talked to us about how we were both bulwarks of the batting," Rohan said. "Sobie is the greatest allrounder ever. But I like to think I had a role to play in influencing batsmen like Clive Lloyd and Alvin Kallicharran.
I loved to hear tales about Rohan's batting. And one I heard in Guyana is the best. It seems he got a double-century for Guyana against Barbados in a four-day Shell Shield tie. Barbados had an attack comprising Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Sobers, offspinner Tony White, and left-arm spinner Rawle Brancker. It was a formidable line-up on what was a lively pitch. An old cricket fan said, "The way Rohan hooked Hall and Griffith, maan, was spectacular. They were after him but our Rohan was just too good."
Contrast the daredevilry of his batting with his sedate and thoughtful effort in the World Cup final against Australia in 1975. His half-century in the company of Lloyd, who eventually made a punishing hundred, steadied the ship. It was an almost white-haired Rohan who played his lone World Cup and finished on the winning side. A match-winner, the best player I ever saw, and a friend.
The late Rajan Bala was one of India's best-known cricket writers. This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine