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Opinion

India's might-have-beens

India's Karun Nair plays a shot (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)
Roar Guru
10th June, 2021
15

‘What might have been?’

I love these words.

At times the facts become a bit dreary, often the same story just gets repeated. In these times, I love to imagine things that actually go against the facts.

Also, while writing on cricket, I find it easier to discuss the players who could have achieved a lot more, if only luck was on their side.

Here, I have formed a 12-player team consisting of such players from India. War, health issues, head injuries, selection injustices and many other factors led to such stories.

I’ll start with a legend who only had limited opportunity at the highest level.

Vijay Merchant
War and his poor health conditions meant that Merchant only played ten Tests in a career spanning 18 years.

While his Test average of 47.72 is good, his first class average of 71.74 is brilliant and his Ranji average of 98.75 is Bradman-esque. And there is no reason to believe that he was just a flat track bully scoring freely in the sun baked pitches of the subcontinent.

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During the summer of 1946, he averaged 74.53 in England. It’s a great pity that he never toured Australia; he was supposed to lead the team in 1947-48 but illness denied him the chance.

He is mainly credited for forming the ‘Bombay School of Batsmanship’ which has played a big part in Bombay dominating Indian domestic cricket for so long.

Nari Contractor
An average of 31.6 over 31 Tests isn’t a great record, but the late 1950s was an unstable time for Indian cricket, and Contractor did his best to add some stability up the batting order.

His technique against fast bowling wasn’t perfect, but he never lacked courage. His best years seemed ahead of him when a serious head injury ended his career.

He first impressed against West Indies at Delhi in February 1959, scoring 92 against Wes Hall and Roy Gilchrist. He impressed again the next season against Rcihie Benaud’s men and in the process scored his only Test hundred at Bombay.

He was appointed the Indian captain at the age of 26. The highlight of his captaincy period was leading India to their first ever series success against England, 2-0 in the 1961-62 season.

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But the tour to WI that followed proved a great disaster for both the captain and his team. India was ‘whitewashed’ 5-0. As for Contractor, he was hit in the head by Charlie Griffith, during the tour match against Barbados, requiring successful emergency surgeries before he regained full consciousness after six days.

He was only 28 at the time. He showed great bravery in returning to first class cricket within a year, but never played for India again.

A Merchant-Contractor opening partnership would have been a dream ticket for the commentators.

Vinod Kambli
While his high school buddy Sachin Tendulkar made his Test debut in 1989, Kambli had to wait until January 1993 to get his chance. Once given the chance, he wasted no time in utilising it.

Two double-hundreds and two hundreds in his first seven Tests saw his batting average become 113. After that it was all downhill and he finished his 17-Test career with an average of 54.20.

On-field, his problem was short-pitched bowling. Off the field, his issue was discipline – or the lack of it.

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(Steven Paston – EMPICS/Getty Images)

Surninder Amarnath
Like Kambli, Suri mostly batted at No.3 for India.

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A batting average of 30.55 over ten Tests is disappointing, but only two of those Tests were at home.

He made a sensational Test debut at Auckland in January 1976. His 124 in the first innings, combined with a hundred from skipper Sunil Gavaskar and an 11-wicket haul for EAS Prasanna resulted in a comfortable win for the tourists.

The Kiwi response was to produce two green tops in the next two Tests and Suri, like a few other Indian batters, struggled. A couple of failures in the Windies later, he was a forgotten man.

After getting a recall for the last two Tests of the home series against England (after the series was already lost), he showed excellent technique against Derek Underwood, scoring two half-centuries.

But luck wasn’t on his side. He had to return early from Australia in 1977-78 due to an injury. Although he played in the difficult three-Test series in Pakistan, he was dropped permanently prior to the home series against the second-string WI team.

With Kapil gradually showing his batting skills, the selectors opted to play an extra bowler and Surinder became the victim.

He remained a consistent run scorer in the domestic circuit, but never got a recall.

Karun Nair
He is only 30, but all the signs are that the chances of him returning to the Indian Test team is pretty slim. His last Test was in March 2017.

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His average of 62.33 over six Tests is mainly due to his 303 not-out against England at Mumbai in December 2016. In fact, his aggregate Test score is only 374.

There was controversy when Hanuma Bihari was preferred over him for the England tour in 2018 and Nair didn’t do much good to himself by criticising the selectors.

He seems to be a triple-century specialist. He first made his mark in first class cricket during the 2014-15 season playing for Karnataka and in the final against Tamil Nadu he scored 328, a Ranji Trophy record.

Amol Muzumder
When Sachin and Vinod shared their world record stand of 664 in a Harris Shield match, Muzumder was the next man in and waited patiently for his chance which never came. This incident pretty much sums up the story of Muzumder.

He made his first class debut in style, smashing 260 for Bombay against Haryana in 1993-94. But he failed to impress while playing for India A in early 1995 against Alan Wells’ England A.

There were a number of highly-talented middle order batters available and the ‘new Tendulkar’ never represented the main Indian team.

He remained a prolific run scorer in Ranji cricket and in late 2009 he became the leading run scorer in tournament history. But there was irony even here.

Everyone had expected him to get the record the previous season. But he had a poor season with Mumbai and was dropped from the team in the final.

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The signs were there that he wouldn’t get any more chances with Mumbai. So, he moved to Assam, one of the minnows of Indian cricket, for the next season.

And it was with Assam, against Rajasthan, in the remote North East Frontier Raliway Stadium in Assam that he created the new record.

He had all the talent in the world but somehow the spotlight never focused on him.

Budhi Kunderan (wk)
Budhi, along with Farokh Engineer, was India’s best wicketkeeper in the 1960s. And both were capable batters as well.

Budhi’s 192 at Chennai in January 1964 was an Indian record for a keeper-batsman for a long time. EAS Prasanna once commented that he “took batting into a different dimension”.

There was a simple solution to the Budhi-Farokh conundrum: play one as an opener and the other as a keeper cum middle order bat. But somehow the Indian management didn’t like such solutions.

In the end, it was Budhi’s poor relationship with skipper Pataudi (Jr) that settled the issue in Engineer’s favour.

In 18 Tests, his average was 32.70. He averaged 41 in the 21 innings in which he opened the batting. He even opened the bowling in his final Test against England in the summer of 1967. He moved to Scotland with his British wife in the early 1970s and later represented Scotland.

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Like Amol Muzumder, Budhi also scored a double ton on his Ranji debut.

Mohammad Nissar
Nissar from Punjab had the honour of bowling the first ball for India in Test cricket, and he also took the first wicket – Herbert Sutcliffe (bowled). They don’t come much bigger than that.

His 5-93 restricted the home team to 259 all out; although in the end, England men were just too strong for the new boys. To prove that his Lord’s effort was no fluke, he took 5-90 at Mumbai against England in his next Test.

And his third five-for in Test cricket came in his sixth and final Test at the Oval, in 1936. Earlier, in 1935, he had taken 32 wickets (at 13 apiece) in four unofficial Tests against Jack Ryder’s Australians.

His employment with the Indian Railways meant that he played cricket only occasionally after 1936. Still, he remained a much feared name among the batters in India’s domestic cricket.

Ladha Ramji
Like Nissar, he was an out-and-out fast bowler – and he had the mindset of a genuine quick bowler.

Unfortunately, he frequently carried his enthusiasm a bit too far and on at least two occasions he upset influential princes. So, it’s no surprise that he ended up playing just one wicket-less Test at Bombay in 1933-34. His first class bowling average is 17.37.

His brother Amar Singh, also a pacer, played seven times for India. In one first class match, in 1931-32, Ramji with 12 wickets and Amar with the remaining eight wickets destroyed Nizam State Railway’s batting line-up.

Subahas Gupte
Along with Rcihie Benaud, Gupte is generally considered as the best leg spinner of the 1950s. Sir Gary Sobers, Jim Laker and EAS Prasanna all rated him very highly. He inspired Bishan Bedi to become a spinner.

But his Test career ended abruptly at the age of 32, following an unpleasant incident in a Delhi hotel, during the third Test of the England-India series of 1961-62.

Rustomji Jamshedji
A slow left-arm spinner, he made his Test debut at the age of 41 against England at Mumbai in December 1933.

Perhaps the Indian selectors were encouraged by the success of Clarrie Grimmett in Australia. Sadly, Rustomji only played one Test, where he had the chance to bowl in only one innings as England won by nine wickets. He did okay, taking 3-137.

His best performances in first class cricket came in the highly controversial Bombay Quadrangular (it later became a Pentangular event). There he represented the Parsi team with great distinction.

Sudhir Nayik (12th man)
Nayik first came to prominence in the 1970-71 season as he led the Bombay side missing half of its key players to Ranji Trophy success.

A double-century against Baroda in 1973-74 season caught the attention of the selectors. He was picked for the summer tour to England, and was one of the few successes in a disappointing tour.

At Edgbaston, he became the third different opening partner for Sunil Gavaskar in the series. His first experience in Test cricket was to watch from the non-striker’s end the first ball dismissal of Gavaskar.

He himself soon followed, bowled by Geoff Arnold for 4. But, he top scored in the second innings with a gritty 77 which received rich plaudits from the pundits.

But just days before his Test debut he was involved in the infamous socks incident. This badly dented his future prospects and after a couple of failures against a fast and furious Andy Roberts at the Eden Gardens the next season, he was permanently dumped.

Honorable mentions: Syed Mushtaq Ali, Raman Lamba, VV Kumar, Padmakar Shivalkar, Rajinder Goel, Amar Singh.

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