Extracting history from myth
Years ago, when the late Ambar Roy was a national selector, we played cricket in the verandah of a friend's house in Chennai. The back of a door served as the stumps. Few could last against the spinning rubber ball, which did all sorts of tricks on the cement floor. Ambar's defensive technique was a revelation as he was beaten only rarely and played the ball dead. I was in my 20s and it left a lasting impression.
At the end of the session, Ambar brushed aside all congratulations with a simple: "That's nothing, you should have seen Pankajda play. He wouldn't even have been beaten."
Pankaj Roy was Ambar's uncle, and one of the most important Indian opening batsmen of the pre-Gavaskar era. Sadly, his career had already been reduced to three events: the then world-record opening partnership of 413 with Vinoo Mankad, the series of ducks on the 1952 tour of England against Fred Trueman, and a decade later two stunning centuries in the same match for Bengal against Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy, with fast bowler Roy Gilchrist in the opposition.
Till the arrival of Sourav Ganguly, cricketers from Bengal were seen as also-rans in the national scheme of things. Roy himself played 43 Tests and finished with an average of 32.56, the figures skewed by his unusually high number of zeroes, 14. Five of those came in that one series in England in 1952.
Roy made a century in India's first Test win, and had two scores of 150, including one while opening the batting against West Indies in Jamaica. He made his debut in the first great Indian opener Vijay Merchant's last Test.
Gautam Bhattacharya delineates the development of Roy's game through extensive interviews with those who knew him, played with him, and also many who felt that Roy was given a raw deal by the selectors. He deserves credit for bringing to life a fascinating player, who might just have chosen soccer ahead of cricket, and who later served as a national selector himself. Bengal-players-get-a-raw-deal is a recurring theme.
In Wickets in the East, Ramachandra Guha wrote, "The few international successes enjoyed by Bengal players were quickly transferred from history into myth." Here, Bhattacharya goes in the opposite direction, transferring the Roy myth into history, finding reasons for failure. As a first book-length assessment of a Bengal player who made his first-class debut in the 1940s, it is a significant effort.
And yet, some of Bhattacharya's work has been undone by poor editing and a cavalier attitude towards statistics and facts. It was said of Porbander (and not Vizianagram) that he had more Rolls Royces than runs in England; Ajit Wadekar was not the oldest cricketer to debut for India (it was left-arm spinner Rustomji Jamshedji); Polly Umrigar did not make a "pair of centuries" in India's first Test win (in fact, India won by an innings); Farokh Engineer was on 94 (and not 96) at lunch on the first day of the Chepauk Test against West Indies; in the 1958-59 series against West Indies, India had four captains, not five. Such irritants disrupt the flow.
Better editing will make for much tighter, less self-indulgent, future editions of a book that needed to be written but deserved more care.
Pankaj: Bengal's Forgotten Cricket Legend
300 pg. Rs 395
Suresh Menon is the editor of the Wisden India Almanack