Who was the first Indian opening batsman to play shots from the word go?
My audience, consisting of journalism students interested in cricket-writing, had no hesitation in answering this question. To a man, they said Krishnamachari Srikkanth. Name an outstanding wicket keeperbatsman, I said. Again pat came the reply: MS Dhoni. Did they know an attacking wicketkeeper-opening batsman? One of them muttered Viru Sehwag, who, according to him once donned the keeper's gloves. "I am as much a fan of Sehwag as you are," I had to tell him, "but I mean a regular wicketkeeper who opened the innings and batted aggressively." We had met in the first week of October and I gave my friends a clue: "One of the players I have in mind was born on October 2, but there was nothing Gandhian about his batting. It was violent, often explosive."
I proceeded to describe Budhi Kunderan's stunning 192 against England at the Corporation Stadium, Madras, back in 1964. Barry Knight and David Larter were the quick bowlers to suffer that first morning of the Test when he hit three consecutive boundaries twice early on in the innings and four of them in a row soon after.
I told them how brutally he smashed the ball square of the wicket with little or no footwork, how he played the falling hook-and-sweep in the best Rohan Kanhai style, how with his rippling muscles and sledgehammer blows he looked every inch a West Indian cricketer. (That Test was also made memorable by Vijay Manjrekar's flawless 108 after he came to know that he was probably playing his last Test match. And Madras had been lucky for Kunderan, who had hammered 71 opening the innings for the first time, against Richie Benaud's Australians at the same venue four years earlier).
One of the students then remembered reading about Kunderan's working-class background, his early life in a chawl (community housing), wearing his father's clothes clandestinely altered by his mother - only for his father to find out about his secret cricket exploits from his newspaper photograph after he scored a double-hundred in a local match.
Budhisagar Krishnappa Kunderan was a superb athlete who proved a brilliant outfielder on the rare occasion he did not keep wicket. In time, he matured into a responsible opening batsman, not averse to playing his shots, but much more circumspect than when he came into Test cricket. Unfortunately, his rise in Test cricket coincided with that of another flamboyant wicketkeeper-opening batsman in Farokh Engineer.
To my young listeners, brought up on the fireworks of Sanath Jayasuriya and Virendra Sehwag, my account of Engineer's 94 not out before lunch on the first day of the 1967 Pongal Test between India and West Indies did not seem to create a ripple. Only those who witnessed that ferocious counterattack against two of the world's great fast bowlers, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith - albeit slightly past their best - can really appreciate the thrill and excitement of that morning.
Starting his cricket career like Kunderan in the competitive environment of Bombay, Engineer made his Test debut during the 1961-62 season against England in Kanpur. He scored his first Test half-century in the same series, in Madras, and his second in Kingston soon afterwards, both batting at No. 9. In the West Indies, he was replaced by Kunderan for the last two Tests.
Engineer and Kunderan often kept each other out of the Test XI. On the three occasions they were both included in the XI, Engineer was the keeper, with Kunderan even opening the bowling in the Birmingham Test in 1967. While Engineer continued to flourish for India, Kunderan left the country disillusioned and disappointed after being overlooked by the selectors once too often.
Returning to the original topic of attacking opening batsmen, I found that none of the students had heard of Mushtaq Ali, the original dasher who loved to dance down the wicket to the quickest bowlers in the world. He was the first Indian batsman crowds flocked to watch in action. He scored India's first away Test hundred (112,) at Old Trafford in July 1936, followed by his partner Vijay Merchant in the same innings, as they put on 203 for the first wicket.
It was swashbucklers like Mushtaq Ali, Kunderan and Engineer who set the stage for other firebrand openers like Srikkanth, Ganguly, Tendulkar and Sehwag to blossom in India cricket. It is a pity that their names seem to have been so quickly forgotten.