The early 1970s were a great time to come of age for an Indian cricket fan. After decades of futility, recounted with corrosive clarity by elders, India had suddenly won back-to-back Test series, and on the road at that, against West Indies and England. Ajit Wadekar's men were feted all over the country, and schoolboys pasted pictures of Gavaskar and Viswanath, Bedi and Chandra, and Engineer and Solkar into their albums. In the late autumn of 1972, as an inexperienced MCC team, whose captain, Tony Lewis, had not even made his Test debut, made its way to India, a third series victory on the trot seemed a foregone conclusion.
The Duleep Trophy semi-final
between South and West Zone in mid-November featured many of the stars of those recent Test victories. Farokh Engineer (by then a rarity on the domestic circuit, as he lived most of the year in Lancashire) was West Zone's keeper. And even more enticingly, Nawab Mansur Ali Khan of Pataudi was returning to cricket after a self-imposed exile from the game. He joined Vishy in the middle order of South Zone's batting line-up. Still others (Ramnath Parkar and Michael Dalvi, for instance) were knocking on Test cricket's doors. Today's fans might be taken aback to know that Chepauk was filled to the brim for a domestic encounter.
With such an all-star cast, the show was stolen by a relatively unknown West Zone player: a strapping young fast bowler with a disarmingly toothy smile, called Pandurang Salgaoncar
In those days, Chepauk was a square turner of a pitch, where nearly all the wickets accrued to spinners and most matches were low-scoring thrillers (if you were into that sort of thing). In South's first innings, Salgaoncar finished with 5 for 55 off about 18 overs, but it was in the second innings that he really lit up the place. When South began their second innings 83 runs in arrears, and we were well into the final day's morning of a three-day match, a draw loomed as the most likely outcome.
As the shocked Chepauk crowd dispersed, our partisan disappointment at losing the match was greatly tempered by the thought that maybe, just maybe, we had finally unearthed a genuine fast bowler
Yet barely 38 overs later (17 of which were bowled by Salgaoncar), South had been skittled for 97 runs and West won the match outright by ten wickets shortly after tea. Salgaoncar ran through South's line-up like a freight train crashing through a picket fence, timber flying all over the place. He picked up another five-for, this time for 56 runs, to make it ten for the match. Watching from behind the bowler's arm, it was obvious that he was seriously quick; besides, I had never seen Engineer stand that far behind the stumps to any Indian bowler ever.
Two memories stand out from that spell. The first was the sight of Vishy's stumps cartwheeling through the air - beaten for pace and clean-bowled for a nought. The other is that of Engineer exultantly throwing the ball high up in the air after catching Kenia Jayantilal and the Nawab off Salgaoncar. As the shocked Chepauk crowd dispersed, our partisan disappointment at losing the match to West Zone was greatly tempered by the thought that maybe, just maybe, we had finally unearthed a genuine fast bowler.
Less than a week later, Salgaoncar was at it again. In the Duleep final
he grabbed 7 for 72 in the first innings as Central Zone careened to an innings defeat. You would have thought all this might have earned Salgaoncar at least a place in the reserves for the first Test against the visiting MCC, beginning December 20th, if not in the actual XI. But you would have been wrong: Salgaoncar was nowhere in the picture. India's new-ball "attack" plumbed the depths by the third Test, at Chepauk
, when Eknath Solkar and Sunil Gavaskar took the shining cherry in the first innings, and (dispensing any pretense at all) Bishan Bedi joined Solkar to open the bowling in the second.
Though Salgaoncar was strongly tipped to catch the flight to England as India's tour got underway in May of 1974, he again, inexplicably, did not make the cut. In fact, Salgaoncar never played for India. His career seems to have carried on for almost a decade: ending with 214 first-class wickets from 63 matches at 26.70 isn't bad for a fast bowler on Indian pitches. Yet the numbers also show that the only time he ever took ten wickets in a match was that magical day at Chepauk.
I sometimes wonder what might have been had he been selected to play for India when he was clearly fast, brimming with promise, and unbent by disappointment. The cliché about timing being everything is true for life in general, but perhaps especially so for sportsmen. For all we know, that disastrous tour to England in the bitterly cold summer of 1974, when (among myriad humiliations) India were bowled out for 42 at Lord's
, may have been leavened by Salgaoncar ripping a few snorters past the English batsmen, sending some of their stumps cartwheeling, and giving Farokh a chance to throw the ball high into the air after snaffling a snick. India may have found their first genuine quickie after Mohammad Nissar.
Of course, none of that came to be. And at least for one schoolboy that day at Chepauk, the real tragedy was not that Salgaoncar may have been found wanting at the highest level of the game. It is that neither we nor he will ever know how good he might have been.
Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu