A meeting with Mendonca

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

HE makes an intense picture, watching the game with the enthusiasm of a youngster, making mental notes and at the end of the day discussing his observations with the young minds in the team. As coach of the Guyana Board Presidents XI team, the veteran Leon Ivor Mendonca has a job to do. And he does it to the best of his abilities.

V.V. KRISHNAN

The Demerara Cricket Club has a glorious background. It has produced some of the finest cricketers in the West Indies but has not lived up to the reputation of the past. It does pain Mendonca but then he accepts it as part of life.

Now, Mendonca may not appeal to cricket fans of this generation but he had a place in the West Indies team when Frank Worrell was at the helm. He has a tale to share with us. "I must introduce myself," he says with all humility.

Mendonca was at the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, watching the Indians play Barbados. It was the 1961-62 series. Sitting next to Mendonca was Worrell. It was a tough contest with the home team at its full strength. On the field were Wesley Hall, Conrad Hunte, Garry Sobers, Charlie Griffith.

As Mendonca recalled, Griffith let go a short one which whistled past Nari Contractor. The batsman was rattled. So was Worrell, sitting in the stands. "He should take him off," Worrell whispered to Mendonca. He had possibly read the mind of the bowler. Mendonca remembered he too had an uneasy feeling once he heard Worrell express his displeasure at the tactics being adopted by the bowler.

The next moment, Mendonca and Worrell were rushing to the ground as Griffith struck Contractor behind the ear. The batsman had ducked into the ball. It was a depressing moment. Worrell was shattered. Mendonca, the incident vivid in his memory, said "I remember Nari uttering paani, paani. Now none of us knew what he was wanting. It was only later we realised that he was asking for water. It was a dreadful experience for us. Griffith lost his composure by bouncing the ball. The West Indies image took a dent because of this terrible act. But Worrell showed the spirit by donating blood. Contractor survived. "It was a great relief," said Mendonca.

It was lovely cricket. As Mendonca travelled into time, he could not resist talking about the stiff competition those days when one had to earn a place in the team. "I could play just two Tests", he said. He made 78 on his debut at Kingston and had five dismissals. It was enough to justify his inclusion but then Jackie Hendriks recovered from an injury and Mendonca lost his place. Despite his impressive credentials, he could never play for the West Indies again. "My career was terminated," he said with a smile, showing no regrets. Because he had been a sporting man all his life.

Even today, Mendonca remembers Erapalli Prasanna, Salim Durani, Bapu Nadkarni, Chandu Borde. "All fine cricketers." Mendonca would never forget the first ball he faced from Prasanna. "I survived because of what I did, just managed to keep it away from crashing into my pads. Pras was a wonderful bowler. I remember Sobers telling me to watch out against Pras and not allow him to strike a rhythm early. He was a crafty bowler indeed. Had to watch him closely maan."

Mendonca, a strong believer of traditions, did not slam the current generation for the cricket they indulged in. "Sometimes I wonder when people say that the game has changed. I don't understand what it is about cricket that has changed. It continues to be a contest between a bat and a ball. So what has changed?"

When probed further, Mendonca did give an insight into how he viewed the current changes. "I think the only change in the game has been in the field of revenue generated by the television. If you ask me, the only change in cricket has been the money that has come into the game. I can't think of anything else to suggest the game has changed. I think it still is a contest between a bat and a ball and will continue to be so."

Throwing a glance at the nets in progress, Mendonca spoke about how he thought there was too much emphasis on practice. It was not to suggest that he did not approve of pre-match preparations but all he wanted was a method to it. "I can't remember players in my time laying so much emphasis on practice. They trained no doubt but did not tire themselves at the nets. It was different than today certainly."

Mendonca played a lot along side fast bowlers like Hall and Griffith? I was keen to know if they bowled a lot in the nets. His reply was quick "not at all. I don't remember Hall and Griffith bowling much in the nets because the skipper wanted to save their energy for the matches. Even on occasions when he bowled, I don't think Hall ever bowled from his full run-up. But, today I see long spells being forced upon the bowlers and that's not good. It can leave them tired for the match."

This over-emphasis on training and long sessions of nets was the key reason for players suffering injuries. "When you play so much something must go. Something must snap. Look at Reon King. He is a very good bowler but has been hit with injuries. One has to be careful these days because there's so much cricket being played," warned Mendonca.

Of course the state of West Indies cricket was the last point of our discussion and Mendonca was candid in saying that he was distressed by the situation. It was alarming, he observed and gave his reasons for the decline. "There's no school cricket in the West Indies. There's little competition for the kids and in turn there's no good stuff for the clubs. The chain has been broken - good talent from schools finding avenue in clubs. We have to look at kids with talent in school and groom them. That's the only way to revive cricket in the West Indies. The talent is there but needs to be guided," Mendonca said, wishing the Indians and the West Indians produce good quality cricket. "Like the good old times," he said with a smile.