Slow, left-arm orthodox. This could be a very fact-of-matter introduction for Bapu Nadkarni, who passed away in Mumbai on Friday.
That he was also a more than a useful batsman, with a Test century to his credit, was often forgotten by critics, especially those who had not watched him. His contemporaries, however, presented a contrasting image of Nadkarni.
Rameshchandra Gangaram Nadkarni was his name but he became popular as Bapu. Even he could not recall when and why he became Bapu from RG. It did not matter. Nadkarni loved being addressed as Bapu.
Nadkarni should have been a badminton player. He was very good at it. He also excelled at table tennis, kabaddi and kho kho when growing up in Nasik and Pune and it was Prof DB Deodhar who persuaded Nadkarni to stick to cricket. “He was convinced that my footwork on badminton court was more suited to cricket,” he had told this reporter.
“He was a very good badminton player. He did represent Maharashtra and I am sure he would have been a decent badminton player. Good he opted to pursue cricket,” remembered Chandu Borde, who was Nadkarni’s teammate at Maharashtra and India.
“We shared room on many tours. He was a very reserved, soft-spoken person. I can’t remember Bapu hurting anyone. In fact, he would hardly celebrate a dismissal. He was a very reliable cricketer as a bowler and a batsman and was liked by everyone.”
When Bapu saved Borde's place
Borde also fondly recalled the 1964 Test against Australia at Calcutta. “It was a critical match for me. I was close to losing my place in the team and this was one innings I had to do well. I saved my place with a 68 (batting at No 8) and was happy at the end of the day.
"Only when I returned to the room did Bapu disclose that he had received news of my uncle passing away in the morning itself but he hid the telegram from me because he wanted me to bat without any worries or pressure. He was a great team-man.”
For Chandu Patankar, who played a Test, Nadkarni was a “dear” friend. “He had crooked fingers, not from bowling, but the catches that he took at close-in position for other bowlers. He was a sincere cricketer with no airs.
He has followed Ajit Wadekar and Madhav Apte, who also were dear friends. As a cricketer, Bapu was very valuable. He could bowl, bat and field. A complete package. Yes, he was accurate and that was his greatest asset.”
Nadkarni could bowl a middle-stump line all six balls an over. His 21.5 maiden overs performance against England at Madras in 1964 is well documented. His spell read 32-27-5-0. Against Pakistan in 1960-61, he returned figures of 32–24--23-0 at Kanpur and 34-24-24-1 at Delhi.
“Not that he did not bowl to get the batsman out. He did not like conceding runs. Not even a single. Call him miser or niggard or whatever but Bapu hated being hit for runs. He was, to my understanding, a bowler who could win you a match and that is what I remember the best about him,” said Patankar.
His first-class debut at 18, against Baroda at Kolhapur in 1951, was eventful. He went wicketless from five overs in the first innings.
In the second he had reason to feel elated. He earned two wickets and one of them was Vijay Hazare, who was out hit-wicket. But Hazare had 179 runs on the board by the time he became Nadkarni’s victim. “Getting Hazare’s wicket will always be a special moment of my career,” Nadkarni would say.
He did not appreciate critics referring to him as a defensive bowler. “It is an art. I am forcing the batsman to make a mistake. I am challenging him to hit me. How can that be defensive? There are batsmen who play hardly 10 good strokes in a day. Are they not doing their job,” Nadkarni told this reporter at event in Mumbai.
A memorable performance from Nadkarni came against Australia at Madras in 1964 when he picked five for 31 and six for 91 but failed to prevent a defeat. Typical of his style, Nadkarni ended his Test career against new Zealand at Auckland with spells of 14-6-16-1 and 2-1-1-1.
'The 09:10 fast train'
Old-timers remember Nadkarni taking the morning train from Dadar to Churchgate. “The 9.01 fast train,” tweeted former Bombay off-spinner Kiran Mokashi. It was a celebrated group of Madhav Mantri, Ramakant Desai, Naren Tamhane, Nadkarni and Balasaheb Thackeray, who was working with Free Press Journal. Long after he retired from the game, Nadkarni was a regular at Shivaji Park Gymkhana.
Nadkarni played 22 matches for Maharashtra before shifting to Bombay in 1960. His final Ranji Trophy appearance came in October 1967, against his parent team Maharashtra. He signed off with three catches, a knock of 47, but ended without a wicket. The batting show highlighted his ability to make runs, as demonstrated in the Kanpur Test against England in 1964.
India, faced with England’s 559 for eight, followed-on with Nadkarni contributing an unbeaten 52 at No 9. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, recognising Nadkarni’s batting form, sent him at No 3 in the second innings and the all-rounder did not disappoint him by making 122 not out.
India drew the Test and Nadkarni’s reputation as an all-rounder stood confirmed at the highest level. His 283 not out against Delhi at the Brabourne Stadium in 1961 remained his best batting show in first-class cricket.
'A good soul'
Recalling his association with Nadkarni, former India captain Bishan Singh Bedi said, “He was a good soul. Did not speak much could sing very well. He gave the impression of a contented person, very dignified, very cheerful.”
Batting great Sunil Gavaskar rated him a most helpful person. “Indian cricket has lost a real champion. He was a gritty cricketer and very helpful in terms of strategy, always guiding the bowlers during breaks.”
After his retirement from first-class cricket, Nadkarni continued to play in the Lancashire League until 1972. he also served as a coach, manager and National selector, playing a role in appointing Dilip Vengsarkar as India captain.
“He wore many hats and I remember playing against him in 1976 (in Times Shield). It was my first match for Tatas and he had turned up for ACC with Ramakant Desai because they were short of players. When I hit my first Test century, he presented me with a watch. He was a generous man,” said Vengsarkar.
For Ravi Shastri, knowing Nadkarni was a privilege. “He was one of our finest. He was also my first team manager. He epitomised khadoosness. Never liked giving up.”
“Not seen a more accurate bowler,” remarked Rajinder Goel, the Haryana left-arm spinner who finished with 750 first-class wickets. “Batsmen would get out from frustration at not being able to score off him.”
There are many tales of Nadkarni’s accuracy but this one from Vijay Manjrekar is remembered the most at Shivaji Park. “The day Bapu is able to turn the ball it would be declared a National holiday,” he had remarked in Nadkarni’s presence.
Nadkarni, the affable student of the game, was 86 when he breathed his last.
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