Ramachandra Guha
Cricket writer and historian

My Azhar and my Solkar long ago

In which the writer doffs his hat to some great Indian fielders he has watched

Ramachandra Guha

September 22, 2012

Comments: 39 | Text size: A | A

Eknath Solkar takes a brilliant catch to dismiss Alan Knott, England v India, The Oval, 1971
Knott c Solkar at The Oval in 1971 © Getty Images
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A friend recently gifted me a novel called The Art of Fielding. It is about baseball, and the hero is a short stop, a position that calls for sharp reflexes and swift sideways movements, to stop or catch balls hit hard and low by the batter. I am yet to read the novel, but its title led me to recall some manifestations of the art of fielding in that other and more sophisticated game of bat and ball, cricket.

The first Test I ever saw was played between India and England at the Feroze Shah Kotla in December 1972. The last time the two sides had met before then was at The Oval in 1971. A turning point in that match was the dismissal of Alan Knott, caught at short leg by Eknath Solkar off the bowling of Srinivas Venkatraghavan. Solkar had dived in front of him to pick up an inside edge. That catch was widely praised, but even better was a catch Solkar took in this Delhi Test to dismiss the same batsman. At one stage, Knott attempted to sweep Bhagwath Chandrasekhar. Where other short legs would, out of fright, have turned their back on the batsman, Solkar kept his eyes on him. Sensing a mishit, and then seeing an edge onto pad, he jumped forward, catching the ball just before it hit the turf. It took exceptional alertness, and courage, for in those distant days close-in fielders had no shin guards or helmets.

Twenty-six years later I was at Old Trafford, watching India play Pakistan in the World Cup. The two countries were at war in the high Himalaya, and the British press thought that the fans would be at each other's throats at the ground. There was much loud cheering and flag-waving, but otherwise the fans behaved themselves. I remember the day principally for two reasons. These were the biting cold - I was sitting in an open stand and the wind blew fiercely the whole day - and a peach of a catch by the India captain, Mohammad Azharuddin.

India batted first and scored 227, a modest score for a side that had, among others, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Azhar himself. Fine bowling by the all-Karnataka partnership of Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad brought them back into the game. Three wickets fell early. However, Saeed Anwar was stroking the ball fluently at one end.

Anwar had a fantastic record against India; an hour more of his batsmanship and the game was Pakistan's. He had reached 36 when Prasad seamed the ball away, the edge flying fast and low into the slips. As the ball dipped and dropped, Azhar dived away to his right and came up with the catch. It would have been a brilliant catch in any case, but it was made more heroic by the state of the match, and the state of the weather. (When it is 0°C, the last place one wants to be is in the slips.)

The catches by Solkar in Delhi and Azhar in Manchester might be the two best pieces of fielding by an Indian player that I have watched live, at the ground. The second won a match for India; the first could not prevent India losing.

The most consequential catch I ever saw on television was that made by Kapil Dev in the World Cup final of 1983. There have been so many replays of that event that I guess almost all my readers can describe it as well as I can. What remains, after all these years, is the sight of Kapil Dev smiling, running while looking back over his shoulder to chase the lofted pull shot by Vivian Richards. He had 20 and more yards to run, but such was his faith in his abilities that he knew that he would make the ground and take the catch. That smile spoke also to the knowledge that with Richards out, India were in with a very serious change of winning the World Cup. It was as well that Kapil was stationed at midwicket, for the other Indians on the field would have not got within ten yards of the ball.

 
 
The two stood some ten yards apart, with a roller in between. Reddy threw balls hard onto the roller, these then ricocheting at crazy angles in the (very rough) direction of his mate. Venkat went left, right, up and down, picking up the edges cleanly and safely every time
 

Azhar and Kapil were the best all-round fielders to play for India. They were both very good in the outfield, fleet of foot, and with a superb throwing arm. Both could field handily at slip, and Azhar was also outstanding at silly point. In a brief Test career, Mohammad Kaif showed himself to be in the Azhar class in taking close catches and in fielding at cover, and in the Kapil class in judging steepling fliers in the outfield.

Someone who played even fewer Tests than Kaif was Ramnath Parkar, who some old Mumbaikars reckon was unequalled, before or since, when fielding at cover point. I once spent a day at the Wankhede Stadium watching Parkar unfold his skills in a Ranji Trophy match. Cover point is a key position especially for left-arm spinners, and I marvelled as Padmakar Shivalkar bowled, over after over, and Parkar anticipated the drives and cuts to his left and his right, picking up the ball one-handed and throwing it fast and flat to the wicketkeeper.

Among the reasons I admire good fielding so much is that I was a lousy fielder myself. In my school and college teams I was usually placed at mid-on, a position the late Australian prime minister Robert Menzies, a cricket nut, described as "the last refuge of mankind". Too scared to field at short leg, I gloried in the dash and courage of Solkar in New Delhi. Having dropped plenty of edges at slip, I could more warmly admire the low catch taken in the Manchester gloaming by Azharuddin. Since in my youth I ran 100 metres in 40 seconds flat, I could more properly appreciate how little time it took Kapil to reach that skier at Lord's in 1983.

Sometime else I might pay tribute to the great foreign fielders I have seen live or on TV - the likes of Mark Waugh and Mark Taylor at slip, Clive Lloyd, Derek Randall and (especially) Jonty Rhodes in the outfield, and David Boon and Gus Logie at short leg. Let me end this column with a memory of watching a great Indian fielder at work, not in a match but at practice before one.

For a Test played in Delhi in 1976, an uncle had got me a pass to the Ram Prakash Mehra Stand. Since demolished, this stood next to the pavilion, and right over the sightscreen. Having previously watched Test matches only from midwicket, I was so excited that I reached the ground two hours early. I sat alone in the stand, shivering, only partly with nervousness (Delhi in December can be as cold as Manchester in June).

I watched the ground staff clean up, and then turned to the kites circling in the sky. Eventually the cricketers walked in and began warming up. On the far side, a net was put up for some players to bat and bowl. Nearer me, in front of the Mehra stand, S Venkataraghavan had decided he rather needed some fielding practice. The man assigned to help him out was his fellow Madras man, and officially the team's reserve wicketkeeper, Bharat Reddy.

The two stood some ten yards apart, with a roller in between. Reddy threw balls hard onto the roller, these then ricocheting at crazy angles in the (very rough) direction of his mate. Venkat went left, right, up and down, picking up the edges cleanly and safely every time. Reddy threw hundreds of balls, but not one went past or through his target. So far as Venkat went, this was a routine, private affair, meant to keep him and his fingers in shape. However, for this accidental, wonder-struck, viewer, it remains - 30 and some years later - one of the most enchanted memories of a cricket-filled life.

Historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha is the author of A Corner of A Foreign Field and Wickets in the East among other books

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Posted by   on (September 24, 2012, 20:13 GMT)

Azhar Is The Greatest Fielder India Has Ever Produced. Period. There Is No Debate About Who Was The Best Of Them All. The debate Starts With The Second Position. If You Have Watched Some Of The Catches Taken By Kaif, You Can Simply Put Him In The Second Place. Eknath Solkar May Come In The Third Place For His Brilliance At Short Leg. Yuvraj Singh Will Definitely Make It To The List At #4 Or He Can Swap Places With Eknath Solkar. These Four Fielders Were The Outstanding Fielders India Has Produced. There Are Some Brilliant Fielders Apart From Them, But These Four Were Outstanding In Their Art. Let Us Not Bring The Fifth Here. So The List Goes Like This 1. MOHAMMAD AZHARUDDIN 2. MOHAMMAD KAIF 3. EKNATH SOLKAR. 4.YUVRAJ SINGH

Posted by jay57870 on (September 24, 2012, 16:26 GMT)

I remember Solkar & that CATCH vividly: I was there! It's all etched in my mind: Chandra's 6 for 38 match-seizing spell, propped by the finest close-in fielders - Solkar, Venkat, Abid & skipper Wadekar - with Engineer behind stumps! As I jubilantly bolted onto the Oval to cheer India's epoch-making series win in England, my mind flashed back to another man: Tiger Pataudi. In many ways this 1971 team was his too. I'd seen him at Eden Gardens. True to his name, Tiger was always on the prowl with his attacking batting, agile fielding & courageous captaincy. All of it with only one good eye! Despite it, he's as good a cover fielder as I've ever seen! He led by example: He transformed Indian cricket from a bunch of uni-dimensional individuals into a multi-purpose team. Batsmen & bowlers had to field & catch too! Solkar was a fine all-rounder to boot. As we remember Tiger on his death anniversary, let's salute him & Solkar for their superb art of fielding & lasting impact on Indian cricket!

Posted by Naikan on (September 23, 2012, 23:15 GMT)

Dear Mr. Guha, thank you for this article. There is usually too much attention to batting and bowling and very little is talked of the fielding aspects. I mean Dravid has 210 catches a world record and the first man to cross the 200 mark. However very little is written about his catches. I hope that you will write more about catches and fielding in time to come. In fact Solkar is a bradman amongst the catchers, but not much is known about him outside India in current generations. I ran a stats guru check for fielders with 25 catches or more and Solkar was/is the only test fielder with an average catching of more than 1 per innings! The other fact is while one can see close bunching of the catching average for players at most levels, Solkar has a lead of about 10% on the 2nd placed fielder. As a Solkar fan from my childhood even I was not aware of that.

Posted by Cricket_Fan_And_Analyst on (September 23, 2012, 23:03 GMT)

Suresh Raina is the Indian fielder I have seen and I have seen a lot of Indian fielders. He makes difficult things look easy. In this era of brilliant fielding , he is one of those brilliant fielders. That's why he doesn't get the credit he deserves - Had he played in any other period he would have been hailed as the greatest indian fielder ever.

Posted by Vishal_07 on (September 23, 2012, 18:42 GMT)

I remember Ajay Jadeja for taking that brilliant catch in the 1992 WC against Australia in Australia.

Posted by   on (September 23, 2012, 14:34 GMT)

1. Mohammad Azharuddin 2. Mohammad Kaif 3. Eknath Solkar 4. Yuvraj Singh 5.Suresh Raina 6. Jadeja 7. Robin Singh 8. Suresh Raina 9. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi 10.Kapil

Posted by samrao on (September 23, 2012, 11:50 GMT)

Solkar was the greatest, Abid Ali, Venkat and Wadekar were othrs in close cordon. Pataudi, Ramnath Parkar and Patel in the covers. Sanjay Desai of Karnataka was also very good at forward short leg.

Posted by Ajayvs on (September 23, 2012, 5:31 GMT)

Noel David , offspinner from hyderabad who played a couple of one dayers in west indies was lightning quick in the outfield, also Aakash chopra who is a columnist in cricinfo was an excellent fielder in shortleg, he took some amazing catches in that position on the Australian tour.

Posted by krik8crazy on (September 23, 2012, 3:02 GMT)

To me it is always a joy to watch great fielding - even it is against the team I support! I once watched Chris Harris of New Zealand in action at the stadium. Watching live is so different than watching the action on TV. Harris was so quick in covering ground, sliding and stopping, and throwing the ball back to the keeper. He was like lightning quick and appeared to be doing it effortlessly. Even after all these years, his fielding is my best memory from that match.

Posted by onkar4in on (September 23, 2012, 2:17 GMT)

@ vik56in : Azhar couldnt dive??? !!!!!!!!, MOHAMMED AZHARUDDIN was the man who introduced art of diving before Jonty Rhodes of this world came into picture...

According to Ian Chappel's article, Azhar is amongst the best 5 all round fielders to have played international cricket..

Its just that there is no footage of some of his best catches on youtube like indo-pak series 1989, India -NZ series 1994, Tri series in Aus in 1992, or some of the sharjah matches in late 80's .

Posted by   on (September 23, 2012, 0:17 GMT)

What a wonderful piece. My favorite memory of seeing good fielding skills were that of the Australian cricket team - 2001 Chepauk. I was fascinated by Ricky Ponting. He would NEVER miss the lone stump during the run--pick- up & throw- the- stump- down drills!- at > 30 yards- from all angles

Posted by Chris_P on (September 22, 2012, 22:14 GMT)

I was only very young, but one of my endearing memories was Rusi Surti's fielding when he played for Queensland. He was the outstanding fielder in Australian first class cricket alongside Paul Sheahan. I have always wondered why Indian cricket hasn't produced anything equal to this since. A more than useful all rounder as wall l who couldn't get too many games for India.

Posted by Fine_Legs on (September 22, 2012, 18:23 GMT)

I have read that Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was a very good fielder at Cover - his bad eye notwithstanding. What a man! The other surprisingly good fielder was Madan Lal - I remember watching Richie Benaud-anchored highlights of the 1977-78 series against Bob Simpson's Australians in Australia, during which Madan Lal pulled off an absolutely amazing running effort on the boundary line that contributed to one of our two victories in that series.

Posted by sundoo on (September 22, 2012, 16:59 GMT)

Watching cricket for the last 50 yrs,without doubt the super athlete on the Indian cricket field was only Kapil Dev. Pataudi ,Surti,Abid Ali , and all the others mentioned in your coloumn were excellent but Kapil was the Pitamah. He can throw hard,flat and accurate ,run any distance, fast runing between the wickets ,all in easy motion without any effort.Umrigar was also super but next to Kapil.

Posted by   on (September 22, 2012, 15:58 GMT)

Azhar is the best among all Indian that I have seen. He is the best catcher, I can't forget his catch to dismiss the last West Indian batsman during that World series cup match in 1992.

Posted by khanc on (September 22, 2012, 15:40 GMT)

0 degree C in June in Manchester? Try again, Mr. Guha.

Posted by gujratwalla on (September 22, 2012, 15:32 GMT)

A nice article...yes ..Eknath Solkar was a a great fielder also a man for the crisis.I admired his bravery...sad that he pased away so soon.RIP.By the way all you fans i am a Pakistani.

Posted by vik56in on (September 22, 2012, 13:42 GMT)

There are better fielders in the Indian team now.Azhar couldn't dive and I haven't seen Eknath.Kohli,Raina and Jadeja are the among the best fielders in cricket at the moment.

Posted by   on (September 22, 2012, 12:55 GMT)

Yes Ram, I was the hapless captain in one of those matches, something you have not let me forget.

Posted by vatsap on (September 22, 2012, 10:11 GMT)

Brilliant piece. Thanks for tail piece on Venkat, someone who has mainained his dignity all through the years.

Posted by kharidra on (September 22, 2012, 10:02 GMT)

Fantastic description of courage and joy and skills that brings to the fore some great fielding and catching. Will eagerly look forward to more such tributes. Runout chances are also created through such exceptional fielding. The runs saved through spectacular saves on the boundary and never say die chasing by fielders should also be part of the tributes that are likely to be extolled. There is no dearth of such personalities in the Indian cricket panorama in particular and on the world cricket map in general.

Posted by   on (September 22, 2012, 9:25 GMT)

RSD, being a brilliant slip fielder, denied India the opportunity of being India's best ever short-legger. Watch the highlights of the '98 home series against Aus and you would know!

Posted by Cric_Tic on (September 22, 2012, 9:23 GMT)

Mr.Guha's article brings back those lovely memories when there were very few "daring & swift" fielders in most teams. Azharuddin has been the stand out among all these. His throws hardly misses stumps.. and his fielding at point with a precision flick of his hand sideways ..never seen anyone doing tht consistantly.He saved so many runs in each match. Unfortunately his greatness is not highlighted by media or commentators. His batting has always been elegant n dependable..! thanks to Guha..due credits to one of India's best fielder & Batsman.

Posted by   on (September 22, 2012, 9:15 GMT)

Thanks for bringing up the genius of Solkar and that memorable catch at the Oval. I was nine years old, in a boarding and listening to the commentary from an old valve radio in Pondicherry. The description of the catch and the excitement of the comentator's voice made Solkar a hero of our times. If I am not mistaken he has the best catches per match record of all time.

Posted by sansun2111 on (September 22, 2012, 8:32 GMT)

No mention of Rahul Dravid , in the best fielders list Dravid along with Laxman were instrumental in India winning so many matches with their catching alone.I agree they were great Close in fielders , but one cant deny the contribution they have made for Indian slip catching .

Posted by   on (September 22, 2012, 8:20 GMT)

Ijndia was proud to have some of the finest fielders in early 70's - Surti, Solkar, Venkat, Pataudi, Abid Ali. Each excelled the other - Venkat in the Gully, Pat in Covers, Surti and Solkar in Forward Shortleg and Abid in slips.

Posted by   on (September 22, 2012, 8:10 GMT)

@US_Indian...r u referring to ajay jadeja...bcz according to me he was one of the fittest fielder india has produced before the likes of yuvi n rainas...

Posted by vishnuas on (September 22, 2012, 7:50 GMT)

@US_Indian Gundappa Viswanath?

Posted by ut4me87 on (September 22, 2012, 7:41 GMT)

Mr. Guha I was fortunate enough to have seen cricket from 1974 live or TV. You have forgot to mention the name of Abid Ali - one of the best at backward short leg and all round fieldsman. Also Yajuvendra Singh was amazing at short leg.

Posted by   on (September 22, 2012, 7:41 GMT)

Mohammad Azharuddin is the greatest Indian Fielder Of All Time. Apart from all the fielding capabilities and ability to hold difficult catches in slip, he had an impeccable throw at the wicket. He often hit the target with his back towards the wicket, just picking the ball on the go and hitting it back to the stump. Someone who has seen him early in his career would remember those stump shattering and the batsman fearing taking the run when the ball was around Azharuddin. The second best Indian Fielder is Mohammad Catch. Some of the catches he held were breathtaking. Eknath Solkar was known to be exceptional at short leg. May be he deserves a place at #3. Yuvraj Singh would come next in the list. The #5 slot would be taken by Kapil Dev, Jadeja, and Robin Singh. All of them were brilliant fielders.

Posted by   on (September 22, 2012, 7:26 GMT)

Got to love it when ever Kapil's catch is mentioned. I would put it as probably the best ever catch in Indian cricket. Keeping the context of the game ( first WC final ) and the batsman involved, it should be the very best.

Posted by SSRajan on (September 22, 2012, 7:22 GMT)

Lovely piece of writing Mr Guha. Always been a fan of your writings, though I have not always agreed with your point of view. This one I wholeheartedly do. For those who write that he has missed out on this fielder and that, please note before commenting that he has specifically written about fielders whom he has seen live at the ground. Did it ever occur to anyone that the people whom you name may not have been seen by him live? Oh.... and @US_Indian, you can stop being an insufferable know-it-all. No one cares what you know!!

Posted by Dr.DeepakPatil on (September 22, 2012, 7:04 GMT)

@US_Indian, are you talking about Tiger?

Posted by   on (September 22, 2012, 6:26 GMT)

Oh Mr Guha, you write so well that it wells up my eyes. Cricket is this woman with whom the love affair lasts a lifetime. I would suggest you to please hold a lecture on cricket history preferably Indian cricket history, i would love to attend that.

Posted by Nipaos on (September 22, 2012, 6:17 GMT)

I have only heard about Eknath Solkar, never seen him but my Dad says he was a brave fielder rather then quick one. Anyways the job of fielding for India has always come in bits and pieces. Azhar was of course the man who Indians looked towards and the Ajay Jadeja. Sachin was never a entertaining fielder but all throughout his years he exhibited a high commitment towards fielding, had safe hands and few could beat his throw from boundary. then came kaif, yuvi, kohli and rainas.

Posted by US_Indian on (September 22, 2012, 6:15 GMT)

Sorry Mr.Guha, I am wondering at your short sight or lapse of memory or a deliberate attempt at ignoring the greatest if not at least one of the greatest fielders India has ever produced and even the world has ever seen, a Hawk in the close in positions from slip to silly point to forward short leg to backward short leg you name it he has been there and taken some awesome catches and in the outfiield he was a cheetah. If you have not guessed the name by now and I hope my fellow countrymen who have followed cricket would have arrived at the name and if not, I am really sorry for such a short memory. If some one has guessed it please mention in your comment if not, i will write another comment and i will reply in that.

Posted by buntyj on (September 22, 2012, 5:33 GMT)

rusi surti was as good n perhaps a better allround fielder than solkar or azhar; lala amar singh was also highly regarded; tiger pataudi was brilliant close in prior to his injury;

Posted by Kunal-Talgeri on (September 22, 2012, 5:19 GMT)

Mr Guha, even as you age, your writings stay young. Been reading your cricket columns and reflections since 1995, when you wrote for 'The Hindu' Sunday supplements. Thank you for another wondrous piece! Look forward to your column on foreign fielders. Roger Harper is another name that comes to mind, though I have only heard commentator Richie Benaud use him as a reference-point in the slip cordon/gully, and for his athleticism.

Posted by   on (September 22, 2012, 4:44 GMT)

Azhar redoubtably one of the best fielder India ever produced. His reflexes are so nice to watch and he is very sharp in taking low catches specially in slip position. His pick and throw is very fast and he can throw the ball in different angles. Not only his fielding his flicks also really nice to watch.

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