February 24, 2011

Yes, but is he lucky?

India seems to have had more than its fair share of talented cricketers whom fortune did not favour

When a general of great talent and courage was recommended to him, Napoleon (or so the story goes), would always ask, "Yes, but is he lucky?"

It is a question that could also be asked of cricketers. The history of Indian cricket is littered with players whose careers have been defined by extraordinarily bad luck, so that their opportunities and overall record have been blighted by disappointment and underperformance. Unlucky players are those whose manifest ability has simply not been matched by recognition and reward. Every country has them - think of New Zealand's Rodney Redmond, who hit a century on Test debut and was never picked again - but the Indian experience, as befits a nation conscious of the influences of the planets and other forces beyond an individual's control, accommodates all known varieties of ill luck.

The most obvious kind of bad luck is the accident of birth at the wrong time. Think of the spinners Padmakar Shivalkar and VV Kumar, who had the great misfortune of being contemporaries of the immortal Indian spin quartet of the 1960s - Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan, perhaps four of the greatest spinners in the world at the time. Shivalkar and Kumar were arguably just as good as, and quite conceivably better than, many of those who donned Indian colours before and after their time, but the tragedy of chronology meant that they hardly got a look in for their country.

Shivalkar was undoubtedly one of the finest spinners I have ever seen, as his 589 first-class wickets at an incredible 19.69 will testify. He had the astonishing ability to drop the ball on a precise spot and to turn it like a top. As an enthralled Bombay schoolgoer I watched him repeatedly bamboozle the gifted batsmen of Bengal and Mysore in the Ranji Trophy. But one "unofficial Test" against Sri Lanka is all he got, Bedi having taken a permanent lien on the left-arm spinner's role.

Kumar actually played two Tests, nearly bowling India to victory on his debut against Pakistan in 1960-61 with figures of 5 for 64 and 2 for 68. Injured and wicketless in his second outing, he was never picked again, Chandrasekhar taking the legspinner's slot in the side. Skilled at line-and-length bowling accompanied by prodigious turn, Kumar finished at 599 first-class wickets (his bad luck again depriving him of that final wicket) at 19.98.

The tyranny of the calendar also put paid to the career of the brilliant wicketkeeper batsman AAS Asif. When the all-conquering touring Indian Schoolboys side of 1967 swept their English opponents aside that summer, it was Asif and not his team-mate Syed Kirmani who was the first-choice keeper. A swashbuckling bat in the Budhi Kunderan mould, Asif would have been a natural for one-day cricket had he been born just 10 years later. Stifled in Ranji cricket, he disappeared from the scene after just 13 first-class matches, his Hyderabad place taken by the diligent but less talented P Krishnamurthy, and he never came within sniffing distance of the India cap his friend Kirmani would wear with such distinction in the decade to follow.

The accident of birth had nothing to do with Sadanand Viswanath's ill luck. He was rightly the first wicketkeeper tried out in succession to the redoubtable Kirmani, and demonstrably the most talented of the seven who would play for India in that role in the following decade. In only his third Test, against Sri Lanka, he equalled the Indian Test record of six victims in a Test. Astonishingly he was never picked again. It was said that his batting was not up to the mark, but a wicketkeeper who ended his first-class career with 179 victims in just 74 games (and accompanied them with a century and 23 fifties as well) was hardly undeserving of a more extended run.

The ill luck of selectoral caprice has dogged many an Indian cricketer, so Viswanath is hardly alone. Batsmen of the class of Vijay Bhonsle and KP Bhaskar never got picked for India despite first-class records far more impressive than many who were so favoured. The Kanitkars, father and son, were doubly jinxed, each playing only two Tests before being dropped for good, despite doing well enough to show they were worthy of selection. Hemant Kanitkar's 65 in his first innings against the formidable West Indian pace battery in 1974-75 was in keeping with a career record in excess of 5000 runs at 42.78. Hrishikesh Kanitkar's 45 against Aussie pace in Australia 25 years later went similarly unrewarded; more mysteriously, he was dropped from the ODI team despite at least two match-winning performances in his first few games. He is still chugging away, having led Rajasthan to the Ranji Trophy title this season, and with a first-class average of nearly 55, but his international days are over.

Spare a thought, too, for Mohammad Kaif. Selected for India against the fearsome pace of South Africa before he was quite ready, thrust unfairly into opening the batting in his second Test series, moved up and down the order and in and out of the side almost at whim, Kaif was never given a chance to settle down into his natural role as a dependable middle-order batsman, despite an impressive 148 not out against the West Indies in 2006 in what turned out to be his last series. He was India's most reliable performer in the ill-fated 2004-05 tour by Australia where India relinquished the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, and yet found himself dropped from the Test side. After winning two ODIs for India off his own bat and saving countless runs in the field with his quick reflexes, there has been no place for him in India's one-day plans either. A few years ago I was confidently writing of him as India's next captain; today he would be lucky even to be India's next 12th man. Life is unfair.

And then there is the ill luck of ill-timed injury. If Manoj Tiwary hadn't been unfortunate enough to crash into a billboard while fielding at the boundary on his maiden tour of Bangladesh at the peak of his dream first-class season, he might have made his Indian debut and cemented a place in the side. Instead he has slipped so far back in the selectors' reckoning that he is no longer even mentioned as an Indian prospect. One player who regularly is mentioned, Rohit Sharma, was even more unfortunate: assured of a Test debut against South Africa, he missed the match by spraining a foot playing football at practice, and is now behind both Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli in the running for a place in India's Test batting line-up.

But the all-time Mr Unlucky must surely be the one Indian who has played a Test without being able to claim he has played a Test. Connor Williams of Baroda was picked to open for India in the Centurion Test of November 2001, but the controversy that erupted over India's refusal to accept the designated ICC match referee, Mike Denness, meant that the Test was deprived of official status by the ICC. Williams scored a gritty 42 off 83 balls against South Africa's five-man pace attack, but despite playing a full-strength Test side away from home, his official record shows him to be uncapped. He was never picked again and now clearly never will be.

So the next time a player of promise emerges on the horizon, we might temper our excitement at his talent and potential with that pertinent question of Napoleon's: "Yes, but is he lucky?"

Shashi Tharoor is an Indian MP and a former United Nations Under-Secretary General

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