Sportstar archives: The magic of 'Kiri' behind the stumps

There wasn't another wicketkeeper in India who showed such elan down the legside. Syed Kirmani would take the bails off in a flash.

Former India wicketkeeper-batsman Syed Kirmani was part of the World Cup winning team in 1983.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

They call him 'Kojak'. He loves the sound of it. His bald pate links him irrevocably to Telly Savalas, the evergreen hero of the screen. Savalas may even have slipped downmarket, from the silver screen to the small screen, but Kiri remains in the top bracket so far as cricket goes. Syed Mujtaba Hussain Kirmani loves the feel of the knife on his head as he religiously shaves the few hairs that dare to defy him and rise from his pate.
 

He has grown so accustomed to the Kojak look that he is not self-conscious anymore. And that is a sure sign of his
self-confidence. He just loves life and cricket and, perhaps, his bald pate too. Confidence is the key to the man. He
had every reason to throw it in, "hang up the gloves" as the cricket term goes after the last tour of Australia. A wordy clash with the skipper, Kapil Dev, on a seemingly trivial matter, at the 'Gabba' on the eve of a one-day international led to his disenchantment with the whole system. It was not long before he found himself out of favour.

READ | Sportstar Archives: Tony Greig on World Series Cricket, move to England and Shane Warne

If it was the popular belief that his omission from the tour of England was the eclipse of Kirmani, the stumper was
to stump all with his keenness on a comeback. He had to tear himself away from his roots in his home city of Bangalore to play for the Railways just to prove that he considered himself more than good enough for the first
class game at least.
 

The ad hoc arrangement with a slipshod 'keeper who was around the Indian team for a couple of years in the
guise of being a batsman who could also keep wickets was never likely to succeed. The golden rule of the game
has been to pick a 'keeper for his ability behind the wicket rather than with the bat. But the compromise with
regard to wicket-keeping is so easy to arrive at that many committees have fallen prey to the temptation.


Syed Kirmani (right) with Arun Lal on the eve of the Irani Trophy match against Haryana in 1991.   -  FILE PHOTO/ V.V. KRISHNAN

 

Seeing the quality of those who succeeded him must also have served to perk Kirmani up. If this was the stuff
of which modern Indian 'keepers are made of, why not the guy who is still good and who played and performed
to far higher standards in the past continue? The irrefutable logic of letting performance speak must have egged
Kiri on in those lonely days on return from Australia when the future looked so uncertain.
 

Class will out: It would surprise no one if Kirmani is among the 16 to tour Australia at the end of the year, six long years after his last Test tour. In fact, it would make very good cricketing sense to send him down under along with Kiran More so that India has two 'keepers competing for the vital spot. There is no doubt at all that little separates the two in terms of batting ability. Both are game battlers. Kiri is in a different class when it comes to 'keeping.

READ | Statistics of watching Test cricket

There is no substitute for class, least of all in 'keeping. The super fit may appear to be super competent for a while before lapses of concentration show up the lack of quality. The great struggle for modern 'keepers has been to sustain their levels of performance. This may be due to their deficiency in the most important branch of their
craft. What makes Kiri tick is his never-say-die spirit. As in the case of Savalas, it is not age that matters as much as talent and overall efficiency. Kiri has tons of talent and much of it is intact. To make hundreds in the Indian first class game is nearly child's play, or so it seems given the frequency at which one hears of centuries of the single and double categories. So one does not recommend Kiri because he made a century in the Duleep Trophy and another in the Ranji Trophy knockout. Not at all.
 

Combative: While his runs may go to show that his combativeness is a factor to reckon with, it is Kiri's work behind the stumps which should serve to convince the doubters. There isn't another 'keeper in India who shows
such elan down the legside. The bails are off in a flash if the ball so much as goes an inch beyond the batsman's
front pad. That flashy left hand-dominated collection and the flowing motion to whip the bails off is an instinctive reaction from one of the game's fine performers.
 

Kirmani takes a catch to dismiss Viv Richards in the Chennai Test against the West Indies in 1983.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

Throughout the season Kiri has performed with aplomb. He has taken catches that were seemingly headed for second slip, sometimes just beyond. He has deprived first slip of any number of legitimate catches. A Karnataka attack with J. Srinath and now, Venkatesh Prasad in it has peppered his gloves all season. And Kiri's fingers, once notorious for their crookedness, have taken the beating very well.
 

It is not as if his fingers have, all of a sudden become straight. One of the hazards of 'keeping leads to bent, even
disfigured fingers. But Kiri has kept his ten digits in working shape so well that even today they take the ball with a
'plonk' rather than a 'thud'. His instinct to go for the catch, any catch, has been a part of him for long. He is not
the type to fight shy of a challenge though going for the tough ones heading for slips but likely to fall short of them may, not unoften, lead to spilled catches.

READ | Kane Williamson: Good at heart, great at the game!

"What has age got to do with it?" asks Kiri in reference to cricket skills.
 

Selectors do tend to get obsessed with the future. Sets of them have believed that the present will take care of itself and that they have to prepare the team for the time when the champions of today will grow old. To pick a youngster for the sake of youth might, however, represent a grave mistake because it can often mean an unacceptable compromise with quality. Nothing has happened between 1986 and now to suggest that India has found a 'keeper who can be the official deputy to Kiran More.
 

Going by More's recent form, it would do little credit if a 'keeper is to be named his understudy. Also, much of More's faults can be kept in check if someone good enough to take his place breathes down his neck. Far too much of More's uppity ways stem from his being cocksure about his place. What he needs is the old-fashioned treatment. He has had too much of the carrot and too little of the stick. Perhaps, he is so busy being the cheer leader of the team that he tends to lose sight of priorities, the first of which is to concentrate on 'keeping. Two hundred and ninety seven of the 333 that Graham Gooch scored at Lord's came after More had put down the simplest of catches on the first morning of the Test.
 

Getting away: It will take More sometime to live down such lapses of concentration. There was another that could have been very vital too. He put down Warnaweera in the Chandigarh Test on the third morning when India was extra keen to enforce the follow-on. If not for Raju bowling the same batsman soon, the result of the Test could have been quite different from the win in under four days that India finally achieved.
 

It would suit India to have two 'keepers fighting for the one spot on the long Test-cum-WSC triangular series tour of Australia. It would be possible to accommodate only one 'keeper in the 14 for the World Cup but two 'keepers in competition would be an ideal scenario because the place in the World Cup squad would also be filled on an evaluation of the tour performance.

READ | The romance of cricket as seen by Bishan Singh Bedi

Kirmani is desperately keen to play 12 Tests to his 100 but that might just be a bit farfetched. The two victims to 200 is a realistic target. But it is not in the seeking of records that his comeback campaign has lain. The campaign has been about quality, about old being gold, about matching perseverance with performance.
 

Kirmani's wish to be India's top 'keeper again, even if only for a while, is no idle dalliance with wishful thinking. That he has returned triumphantly to Karnataka cricket may seem a bit fantastic. But that is Kiri in a nutshell. Fantasy and reality have often merged to make him the character that he is. He is cricket's Kojak, the man with a mission to prove how the good always triumph.

This story was first published in Sportstar magazine on 09.03.1991

Support Sportstar


Dear Reader,

Support our journalism — where text and pictures intermingle so seamlessly — and help us scale up your experience as the world changes around us. Your contribution is vital to our brand of uninfluenced, boots-on-the-ground reportage that’s worth your while. Clickbait sensationalism is not for us, but editorial independence is — we owe it to you.

Special Editions

  Dugout videos