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February 8, 2002

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Keeper, keeper on the ball

Sriram Veeraragavan

Ratra or Dasgupta? The question would be on the minds of the selectors, and, hopefully, their lips would carry the answer to us soon. I think this is an apt moment to turn our clocks back and take a look at the brave men who have stood behind the stumps. The wicketkeepers occupy an important position and there have been many an acrimonious debate, even voting on them.

On 13th January, 1971, just before embarking on that 'turning point' tour to the West Indies, where Sardesai exploded, Gavaskar emerged and India won under Ajit Wadekar, 13 members of the board had huddled together and voted to keep a man out. That man was Farokh Engineer, India's most famous keeper at that time. He was kept out because Vijay Merchant, as chairman of selectors, had advised the board that only those who played in domestic tournaments should be chosen. Engineer was playing for Lancashire at that time and hence the choice fell on P.Krishnamoorthy and Rusi Jeejeebhoy, both 'virgin' keepers, in that they had never stood in a Test.

Still, the Engineer issue kept coming up, and hence the board went in for a vote to jettison him and adhere to Merchant's advice. The 'election' rather 'ejection' results showed eight members vetoing the other five, and Engineer had to sit out that tour. Both the 'virgin' keepers went and Krishnamoorthy went on to play in that historic tour. But I am getting ahead of my story; let's turn back and start from the past.

Nayan Mongia So, who was our first man, 'man' enough to stand behind the stumps in that historic first Test at Lord's, our country's first Test ever in 1932??. The name is J.G Navle, who also incidentally opened the innings. He snapped up D.R Jardine, off C.K Nayadu, and thus our wicketkeeping dismissals started off.

Navle was there again in our first Test at home, in Bombay (then), against the Englishmen in December 1933, but was replaced by Dilawar Hussain in the very next Test. He top-scored in both the innings but his real claim to fame came in the second innings when B.H. Valentine, in pursuit of just 7 runs that England needed to win, jumped out to Naoomal only to see the ball bidding farewell to him and his bat and seek refuge in Navle's gloves. Navle whipped the bails off to record our first ever such stumping dismissal.

Sujit Mukherjee (a cricket writer among other things, whose book 'Playing for India' from where I have taken lot of data for this piece) notes that wicketkeepers' appointments were made casually; that as many as six persons officiated in four years at our first 11 international appearances (7 official and 4 unofficial).

He says: "Who remembers Abdul Aziz, S.V.T Chari, M.O Srinvasan, .T.V. Parthasarathi, K.Srinivasan, who appeared in just one 'Test' for India?"

The next season saw a Hindu and a Parsi gentlemen come to the fore to Test Dilawar Hussain's spot, namely Hindelkar and Meheromji. Hindelkar emerged as the strongest of these three candidats in the coming years and was forging ahead when the second World War cut him off. He returned later to tour England in 1946 a very tired and battered man -- he had to stand in 23 games in that tour -- as his counterpart Nimbalkar fractured his chances of playing by breaking two of his fingers!. But these two were not the best available candidates that time.

The best young wicketkeeper in our country was Imtiaz Ahmed. He should have been picked by the selectors in that 1946 tour but they made a dead investment in a 29-year-old, named Nimbalkar and a 37-year old, Hindelkar.

In 1945, Imtiaz, playing for North Zone against the visiting Australian team came to the crease with his team tottering at 6 for 106, and he went on to score 138 not out and also kept wickets competently enough to make Lindsay Hasset call him as "one of india's young hopefuls".

And then tragedy struck through Jinnah. The nation split sending Imtiaz of Lahore into the hands of a new country, Pakistan.

Later J.K Irani, a man who didn't start as a keeper for his 'Sind' province and P. Sen were in the team for the Indian tour of Australia (1946). Irani had come out of nowhere and after this tour went back to nowhere. Sen hung on to make eight successive appearances for India, which no Indian keeper had done before. Then more names came up, M.K Mantri, P.G. Joshi and Rajendranath. Still Sen was the best of the four. Even then, Mantri went on to play the first two Tests on the 1952 tour to England, but better cricketing sense prevailed and Sen came back for the remainder of the series. Mantri was not to be denied another chance to play for India though not as a keeper but as batsman at No 3 for one Test match in Pakistan, in 1954-55.

Sen was our first cheerful! keeper, displaying greater ebullience than men who had stood before him, letting everybody know he was there. He was our first modern keeper to do duty in three continents for five different series in four years. The Sen- Mantri duo had kept P.G. Joshi out of the reckoning. Joshi could be called our first really stylish keeper. Fitness and figure conscious, unlike the Hindelkar-Sen-Mantri trio, who were on the fatter side.

Sujit Mukherjee writes: "Joshi gave a impression of sartorial elegance because of his well-cared for equipment. He moved quickly in whatever he did on field, including the walking across between overs which in his case was a smart trot. His was a craft, which balanced itself on the knife edge of speed and perfection. Its achievements were marvellous but its failure frequent."

A perfect sample of that observation came to light in his very first appearance for India. Joshi impressed one and all on the first day of the first Test against England at New Delhi in November 1951. Two catches snatched from the bat and two stumpings at high speed, done with lot of style. But on the fifth day, when England were fighting for a draw through knocks from Lawson, Carr and Watkins, Joshi helped them along the way by giving each one of them at least one 'life'.

Later on, Naren Tamhane came up rapidly to challenge the glove work of Joshi. He was the opposite of Joshi -- not flashy but reliable. The Joshi and Tamhane battle went on till '60-61, which was the last year for both of them.

Sen bagged 29 victims while Tamhane went on to bag 47 but Sen's wicket per Test was higher than that of Tamhane. After this duo Indian cricket witnessed arrivals of keepers who loved batting more than keeping. People like Kunderan and Engineer. Both crowd pullers, Kunderan 'hooked' them on while Engineer 'drived' them crazy.

Kunderan rose to fame with a run-a-minute, 71 at Madras against the Aussies in '59-'60, playing outrageous strokes. He also scored a double century on his debut in the Ranji Trophy match for Railways against Jammu-Kashmir. Engineer rose to fame with a seven catch haul in a Ranji match in '60-'61 (Bombay vs Delhi), equalling Limaye's '57-'58 record. Both Engineer and Kunderan were similar in the sense that they both had a knack of taking difficult catches while dropping easier ones.

1962-63: The China war put Kunderan temporarily out of business as the team which he represented -- Railways and Services were withdrawn from the competition; he just played one Ranji match. Engineer forged ahead; he even started to open. But in 1964, when England toured India, Kunderan came back due following an injury to Engineer, where he had a chipped finger, and scored nearly a double century as a opener (194) and also hit a 100 and 55 to take his series tally to 525 runs. His keeping though slipped a bit. But our selectors kept him out of all the three Tests against Australia in 1964!.

Infact, the man to play was Inderjit and not even Engineer. Inderjit was very neat in his movements and in his equipment also and didn't lack keeping skills but was outbatted out of the contest by Kunderan and Engineer. In that series against Australia he kept reasonably well and also stayed at the wicket for half an hour in Bombay, helping Borde to take India to victory. Inderjit sometimes sported a beard, thus becoming our first keeper to have done so!.

Syed Kirmani Engineer resumed battle with Kunderan in the 1965 series against New Zealand. Kunderan played in only one Test as a opener, with Engineer performing the role of wicketkeeper. Kunderan's chance came again in '66-'67 against the West Indies when he blasted 79 runs with 15 fours in the first Test! Next Test he opened and hit 39 in 45 minutes before Hall yorked him. The selectors felt that his keeping was not upto the mark and inspite of Kunderan scoring 104 in 2 hrs with 4 sixes and 11 fours two days after the second Test in a tour match against the West Indies, it was Engineer who played in the next Test in Chennai. Engineer silenced the critics and the public outcry against Kunderan's exclusion by nearly scoring a century before lunch (94). He went on to score 109 and thereafter he never looked back at Kunderan, who he had left behind. Of course, until that 'ejection' that was discussed at the top of this piece.

He came back in that historic tour to England in 1971, with Kirmani as his understudy and was with Abid Ali who square cut Luckhurst to take India to a historic victory over England, their first in England.

Kirmani came to rule our keeping spot after Engineer and was hailed very highly by people like Gavaskar. Kiran More and Chandrakant Pandit battled in the 80s, with More ruling. But in the mid 80s, it was Sadanand Vishwanath who attracted everybody's attention with his skills, attitude in that Rothmans Cup in Australia which India won. But soon, much to chagrin of one and all, he slowly disappeared, allowing More to occupy centrestage.

Nayan Mongia was our best 'keeper in the 90s, and now the selectors, to look beyond him, have tried out numerous players but with little success. Now the selection eye is focussed on Ratra and Dasgupta, probably the latter would play in Tests and the former in one-day matches.

Time will tell who rules that spot behind the stumps, where many a name has come and gone.

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