September 22, 2012

My Azhar and my Solkar long ago

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

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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