Some years ago I picked an Indian Test XI of players who should, in my opinion, have been selected but never were, for an article for the Wisden India Almanack.
In my team I included the likes of pre-Independence greats Babu Nimbalkar and AG Ram Singh, but here, in this fresh exercise, I am choosing a new squad of ''almost there'' players, only from among those I have watched or followed real time. Basically I leave out those who played first-class cricket before the late 1950s, before I was old enough to appreciate the nuances of the game. Among the other omissions from that earlier team is my brother V Sivaramakrishnan, who I actually believe would be a certainty in such an XI, but I wouldn't want to be accused of nepotism!
Picking a captain is the most challenging task, for there is not much proven leadership material among my automatic choices. So the captain will have to wait just a bit, until we pick the team.
I have a choice of three wicketkeepers for one of the opening batsman slots. AAS Asif, the handsome Hyderabad dasher of the late 1960s, was brilliant behind and in front of the stumps, but he left India for the United States at the turn of that decade, and therefore has to be reluctantly left out.
"[I have omitted] my brother V Sivaramakrishnan, who I actually believe would be a certainty in such an XI, [because] I wouldn't want to be accused of nepotism!"
The two others I have in mind, KR Rajagopal and PK Belliappa opened the innings in the '60s for Tamil Nadu, and both did well enough in first-class cricket to merit the Test selectors' consideration. Of the two, Belliappa was relatively sedate, while Raja was spectacular while batting or keeping - driving, cutting, pulling from the word go, and thinking nothing of standing up to pacemen, even pulling off a first-ball leg-side stumping once. He was popularly believed to have lost out to Inderjitsinhji for the wicketkeeper's place in the Indian team to Australia in 1967-68, despite a run-filled domestic season, because his captain, Belliappa, not he, kept wicket for Tamil Nadu. I choose Raja for his flair, now that Virender Sehwag and others have proved you can succeed as an attacking opener.
The other opener's place goes to Sudhakar Adhikari, a prolific scorer for Bombay and West Zone, who was considered distinctly unlucky not to gain the approval of the Indian selectors in the 1960s. I have preferred him over two Ranji triple-centurions, MV Sridhar and Abdul Azeem, both from Hyderabad, as Adhikari was considered technically more sound. Like Asif, Ramesh Nagdev, another West Zone product and Sunil Gavaskar's opening partner in university cricket, left India when he was at the height of his batting powers and so ruled himself out of contention.
I chose Saad as my one-drop batsman simply because I watched two great innings of his, the second of them for a while from the non-striker's end in a Ranji Trophy match on a rank turner against S Venkataraghavan and left-arm spinner S Vasudevan. The first was his brilliant century against the touring West Indies when he was still a baby-faced 17-year-old who ran into the blistering pace of a young fast-bowling hopeful yet to make his Test debut. Malcolm Marshall was quick in that 1978 game between South Zone and the West Indians, and took eight wickets in the match, but the boy who had come almost straight from a state schools match in Visakhapatnam to the Fateh Maidan in Hyderabad was fearless in getting behind the ball, middled everything, and as he grew in confidence, even hooked the fearsome trio of Marshall, Sylvester Clarke and Vanburn Holder.
Mohanraj was a left-hand batsman who made his debut in the 1975-76 season for Bombay but moved to Hyderabad later. His greatest performance was a double-hundred in the Ranji Trophy final in which Hyderabad defeated Delhi some years later. He was a khadoos player typical of Bombay cricket then, but I had to drop him in favour of Saad, who oozed casual elegance.
One of the contenders for No. 4 was Bhosle, who played for Maharashtra, Baroda and Bombay at various times in the Ranji Trophy. With nearly 6000 first-class runs and his useful legspin, he was frequently in the reckoning when an India team was being picked. His first-class career ended in the early 1970s. Instead of righting the wrong done to him, I have chosen another unlucky cricketer, Bhaskar, whom I have rated higher than Sridhar and Azeem (the aforementioned triple-centurions), because of his greater consistency, his first-class batting average of 52.84, and his several crunch performances in crises. He was, however, a victim of his failures in crucial matches watched by the national selectors. I think players of the calibre of Bhaskar, a fighting team man besides being a stylist, should not be judged on success or failure in isolated instances.
"I choose Raja for his flair, now that Sehwag has proved you can succeed as an attacking opener"
At No. 5, Amol Muzumdar is an automatic choice, with his phenomenal appetite for runs. Had his career not run parallel to the Fab Five of Indian batting, he might have played for India for a long time. As Mumbai captain, he led the team to the Ranji title in 2006-07, after a halting start to the season. He is one of my nominees for the captaincy in this team (of which more later). Haryana's prolific Amarjeet Kaypee misses out once again.
At Nos. 6 and 7, I will pick two batsmen who were both big-match players. Besides scoring five successive centuries in the Ranji Trophy and 229 against Karnataka for Bihar, Hari Gidwani, who played for Delhi and Bihar, scored 46 against the touring West Indies and a hundred against Sri Lanka in tour matches. Michael Dalvi, who often came good for Tamil Nadu, and later for Bengal, scored 112 for East Zone against the West Indians in December 1978, with the young Malcolm Marshall getting 11 wickets in the match, and still did not get to play for India. The invaluable Abdul Jabbar of Tamil Nadu just fails to make the grade here, as Gidwani and Dalvi, unlike Jabbar who never had the opportunity, scored hundreds against touring sides of quality.
I considered five successful legspinners for inclusion: Gokul Inder Dev, Anand Shukla, B Mahendra Kumar, Rakesh Tandon and KN Ananthapadmanabhan. Anantha has a first-class hundred to his credit, but he was not a genuine allrounder like the other four, though he was perhaps the best bowler of them all. Both Inder Dev and Shukla have well over 300 wickets and tons of runs to their credit, as does Mahendra Kumar. All three played for more than one state, Shukla and Inder Dev in North Zone, and Mahendrakumar in the South, unlike Anantha, who stuck to Kerala. Rakesh Tandon of Vidarbha and Bombay was another fine legspinner who could also bat. Unfortunately, for reasons of team balance, we'll have to go in without a legspinner.
Kanwaljit Singh, my successor in the Hyderabad team in the late 1970s, is my choice for offspinner, even if my peer Noshir Mehta also comes into the reckoning as someone who could bat and field impressively. Kanwaljit wins for sheer longevity and persistence in the state team in the face of competition from two Test offspinners, Shivlal Yadav and Arshad Ayub, in the Hyderabad team. He was a genuine offspinner. Unfortunately I had to leave out some old warhorses like Uday Joshi and Sarkar Talwar.
Of the left-arm spinners I admire, Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar stand out, while B Vijayakrishna, an allrounder of natural ability, loses out to their superior domestic record. Rajinder Singh Hans of UP, Sunil Subramaniam and S Vasudevan of Tamil Nadu were fine left-arm spinners, among the best India has produced, but they have to make way for Goel or Shivalkar whose skill, and record in domestic cricket was extraordinary, though the Test door was shut against them firmly by the world-class bowling of their contemporary Bishan Bedi.
Forced to choose between the two, I have taken the easy way out by leaving the choice open. In case the team decides to go in with three spinners, both get to play in the XI, with Dalvi, a brilliant cover point, doing 12th-man duty.
Pandurang Salgaoncar was the fastest Indian bowler in the 1970s and very unlucky not to play for India. He would be a certainty in my team. I admire two other pacemen of my time, Bengal's Barun Burman and Abdul Ismail of Bombay, but I plump for Ismail for being a good mover of the new ball. He, rather than the express Burman, can complement the pacy Salgaoncar with his swing. I have had to leave out some fine bowlers like Kailash Gattani and Raju Jadeja, AV Jayaprakash, P Jyoti Prasad and K Bharath Kumar.
As for the captaincy, I have made two choices again, with Muzumdar leading a seven-batsman combination and Gidwani a six-batsman XI. The reason: the first was captain of the traditionally batsman-dominated Bombay. So here is how the two alternatives for my final XI look:
I believe this is as good a team as any comprising non-Test players, though it is perhaps not the best fielding side in the world. That too was par for the course as most of the players belong to an earlier era.