Rusi Surti 1936-2013 January 13, 2013

India's answer to Garry Sobers

R Mohan
A fine allrounder, Rusi Surti played 26 Tests, and emerged as one of India's finest fielders of the era

Rusi Surti was India's Garry Sobers. There was something remarkably similar in the languid grace and easy pace at which Surti bowled the new ball. Sobers may have been a greater mover of the ball but Surti could be deceptively sharp. More, there was the same sort of ebullience that he brought to the game; it made him a much-admired figure among youngsters.

Always ready to accept any challenge thrown at him by the game, Surti was a cricketer with a fine attitude. It showed in his fielding too. Sharp at cover or cover point, he could throw down the stumps with an accuracy that may have matched that of his captain, MAK Pataudi.

Indian cricket fans may like to be reminded of those far-off days when India's fielding standards were uniformly high, close to the bat as well as in the deep. In Pataudi and Surti, they had two of the finest fieldsmen on the off side. Australia boasted Paul Sheahan in the covers when they played at home and toured India in the late '60s, but India had two men who could match him stride for stride in their panther-like movements in that lovely fielding position, which offers so much scope to show the full range of the art of fielding. That was the era in which India also had Eknath Solkar, who was beginning to excel at short leg, and Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Abid Ali and Ajit Wadekar close to the bat.

Against the pace bowlers, Surti was as courageous as his captain, even if he did not have half the stroke-making capacity of Pataudi. Surti was at his most fluent at the crease when he was up against pace bowlers. You can well imagine the impact cricketers like Surti and others of his time had in changing the face of Indian cricket from one when the retreating back foot was thought of as the norm. It was on the twin tours of Australia and New Zealand in 1967-68 that Surti made his greatest impression - so much, in fact, that he landed a contract with Queensland.

Surti scored more runs than any other Indian batsman on the twin tours, which began disastrously, with Pataudi unfit and Chandu Borde taking over for the first Test. Wiped out 4-0 in Australia, the tourists went on to create history across the Tasman where they scored their first-ever Test- and series wins for India abroad. Surti topped the aggregate with 688 runs at an average a fraction under 46, and he took 22 wickets at under 36 runs apiece. In the famous Brisbane Test, for which ML Jaisimha had been flown in, India came as close as 40 runs to victory, with Jaisimha making 74 and 101 and Surti chipping in with half-centuries in both innings and three wickets in each innings to boot.

It's a pity Surti did not make a Test century, though he came agonisingly close in the Auckland Test. Bleary-eyed, we would tune in to the radio early to catch the play, so far east of India. If memory serves me right, Surti was twice dropped when in the 90 - perhaps he was 99 on both occasions, and the poor man was dismissed on the same score, caught by Mark Burgess in the slips off the quick Gary Bartlett.

Surti did not play too many Tests after that and was not picked after 1969, by which time he had settled in Australia. (There was never a firm rule about these things: Farokh Engineer would come over from Lancashire to don the blue national cap, but then he would also hurry across to play a first-class game in India to ensure the BCCI selectors would pick him.)

Surti will always be remembered as an uncomplaining person who loved to play the game because he enjoyed it. The comparison to Sobers was not always as pleasant as it seemed: Surti was called the "poor man's Sobers", and until he blossomed on the twin tours of 1967-68, was not seen as a vital component of the team.

And yet, he was not the sort to give bitter interviews about how he was discriminated against in selection. He was a constant for many years in the Gujarat team, although he did move to Rajasthan, before ending up in Queensland, for whom he played his last first-class game.

R Mohan has been writing on cricket for 40 years. He is based in Chennai, where he is currently resident editor at the Deccan Chronicle

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on January 15, 2013, 4:54 GMT

    Mohan - Rusi Surti was a key part of the transformational era of the 1960s. Under Pataudi's bold captaincy, a bunch of uni-dimensional individuals jelled into a multi-purpose team. Surti epitomised the best-of-breed: a fearless all-rounder! He faced up to - Yes, Garry Sobers & Co - in that ill-fated 1962 WI tour. With Contractor seriously hurt, Tiger became accidental captain. India lost 0-5. But from failure comes success. Indian cricket reinvented itself with a "will to win" attitude, courage to face pace bowling & the art of fielding. Success came in 1968 when India won in NZ 3-1. Surti was at his best. But the real tipping point came in 1971 when India beat WI & England on the road for the first time. I was at The Oval to witness the epochal win: Chandra's 6 for 38 match-seizing spell, propped by the superb close-in fielding of Solkar, Venkat, Abid, skipper Wadekar & keeper Engineer. My mind flashed back to Pataudi & Surti. They weren't in the team. Sorely missed then. As now!

  • srinivasan on January 14, 2013, 9:13 GMT

    Sorry to note the sad demise. My heartiest condolence to the beraved family. I was at Chepauk seeing the lightning catch he took to dismiss Bill Lawry of Ramakant Desai and truely such catches win matches. Forget the statistics, Mr, Surti could bowl with the new ball as well spin. He was a great inspiration for us.

  • Dummy4 on January 14, 2013, 6:46 GMT

    I am condolences to the members of the bereaved family..........I had a great admiration and liking for this player..........his fluency and style of play had a mesmerising influence on my mind............He was forgotten till his death reminded us that he was live..............Long live Rusi bhai

  • Mohan on January 14, 2013, 6:33 GMT

    Since i am from Chennai, I can understand R Mohan's style of writing(or exagerating) about Surti. I have watched Surti play albeit once...was very young then....However to compare modern day fielding with the likes of Surti is simply nostalgia. No one employed the slide those days and no one ran so hard as people do now (even those that are considered average fielders). Surti was a journeyman nothing more than that....However we all loved Solkar and Surti because they could bat and bowl which even specialists failed at....

  • Dummy4 on January 14, 2013, 5:33 GMT

    If level of performance should be the justification for comparison, then who could be compared to Sobers? Consistency and dependability are the most valuable qualities of any cricketer. That way Surti was a great player. Interesting that Surti and Sobers were born just two months apart.

  • Subramani on January 14, 2013, 4:57 GMT

    Alex Olson, you are probably a young man. That is perhaps the reason you do not know much about Surti. It was not in terms of his statistics that he was always compared to the great Garfield Sobers. That is impossible. It is in similarity in dimensions of bowling and bowling action that Rusi was called "Poor man's Sobers".It is quite likely that he unwittingly imitated the great Gary early in his life. And when it clicked he probably saw no reason to discontinue this style.Then again he could bowl fast medium, slow medium pace and orthodox left arm spin at the highest level. His run up also bore a close resemblance. Then there was the matter of his shirt collar. It used to be turned up as Sobers used to have. These things we do not see these days and so must surprise.But I can tell you that he was truly courageous. I recall his batting at Headingley in 1967 in England when he was injured. He batted despite all odds and made the English media laud the spirit of the Indian team.

  • Dummy4 on January 13, 2013, 18:43 GMT

    If someone averaging less than 30 with the bat and over 46 with the ball can be compared to Sobers, then Sobers was probably just a mediocre player.

  • Dummy4 on January 13, 2013, 13:24 GMT

    Excellent write up.Any cricket lover should be aware about cricketers of the past and these articles helps in doing that. WIsh I knew more about him before.