Barbadose by dose

RAJU BHARATAN

SACRILEGIOUS it was - the "pitch report" by Michael Holding getting Mervyn Dillon to accompany him, to the middle, before start of play on the fourth morning of the first Test at Georgetown! How on Bourda Oval earth could it be permitted, what action did senior umpire Daryl Harper take to pre-empt Dillon's untenable presence here alongside Holding? Or was it not unlike what Ray Robinson, in the preface to my 'Indian Cricket: The Vital Phase', noted: "To pick out just one from many well-turned phrases in Raju's book: "To expect Umpire Ralph Gosein to stop Michael Holding in his native Jamaica was like asking an ant to halt an elephant." Yet here we were, not in Jamaica, but in Bourda, as Mike Holding pointed to a spot on the pitch for Merv Dillon to exploit. The next thing we saw, as India resumed at 237 for 4 on that fourth Georgetown Test morning, was Rahul Dravid (57 overnight) being felled by Merv Dillon. How Rahul got up to 144 not out (347 balls: 23 fours), even 'going to Georgetown' vis-a-vis Merv Dillon, is the saga of a comeback turning the focus firmly back on the only genuine 'character' actor in a team of superstars.

Sunil Gavaskar, as commentator, had even drawn pointed attention to "a certain Michael Holding" as the galvanising force in Merv Dillon's working up that extra yard of pace - as the yardstick by which to rib-cage India's top-drawer order. Wrote Gavaskar: "What would encourage the West Indians to leave some grass is the way the Indians reacted when Merv Dillon, with the second new ball (at Georgetown), banged in a few short and made them climb towards the ribs. There was visible discomfort and there is no doubt the West Indies think-tank will want to do that more in the remaining Tests."

Especially in the core Test of the series now at Barbados - a venue acting as a traumatising reminder of Nari Contractor face to face with Charlie Griffith. I ran into Nari Contractor at an MCA function just the day after Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi had emerged as a STAR baiter by zeroing in on where exactly India lost out abroad. Nari now dropped a bombshell by averring that the Junior Nawab of Pataudi was never serious about playing, early 1962, in the first two Tests that Tiger missed owing to "groin trouble" in the West Indies under Contractor. "You know, Raju," observed Nari, "arising from Tiger's attitude towards that 1962 series in the West Indies, there actually was a banner headline in a Trinidad newspaper saying: 'Fit Enough To Dance All Night - Not To Play'." As I wondered if I had heard Contractor right, Nari repeated, verbatim, the wording of that heading. "But what about the 'groin trouble' that kept Tiger out of those first two Tests?" I demanded to know. Nari's counter: "What could you, as captain, have said in those days of total lack of medical facilities if someone came up to you and pointed to his groin? You just took him at his word. It was all a matter of will, the battle on that 1962 tour was to be able to field an eleven for even a colony match. Man after man 'excused' himself on one pretext or another."

Nari was unimpressed by my submission that Tiger's entire reputation rested on his enviable ability to negotiate genuine pace. "I'm telling you what happened during the West Indies tour while I was captain in 1962," persisted Nari, "Tiger just was not keen to play. Playing the fastest bowling in the world is not pleasant. But it is a job that has to be done." Contractor (139), having closely watched the Junior Nawab of Pataudi (84) from the other end - during India's total of 434 for 7 (decl) in the colony match vs Jamaica at Kingston (sandwiched between the first two Tests) - was certainly in a vantage position to speak on Tiger. As Nari so held forth, my mind went into a lurid recall of how Tiger Pataudi (then barely come of age playing for India) had indulged in a prank that frightened the life out of more than one Indian player on that 1962 tour of the Caribbean. Late in the night, Tiger would knock on a fellow Indian player's door, sporting a macabre skeleton's mask in white! Upon my querying Bapu Nadkarni on this, that southpaw shuddered at the memory, saying: "Horrible - it wasn't funny at all, it was scary beyond words!"

Antithetically to the fun-loving Tiger, Nari was the no-nonsense Bill Lawry style of pro who played the game hard enough to be razor keen to stage a return to Test cricket even after being laid low by Charlie Griffith. "True I never caught sight of that Griffith ball that struck me down while playing Barbados," soliloquised Nari. "Still I have always wondered if I could not have, in the nick of time, got out of the way - but for the accident of a revolving-window, just above the sightscreen at Kensington Oval, opening in the very split-second in which that Griffith delivery 'stood up'. It is possible, just possible, that the ball might have escaped hitting the side of my head if that window had not revolved in the instant it did."

Nari went on to narrate how he became a near vegetable after the incident. Then his physician, Dr. Chandy, called up Nari's wife to tell her: "Look, your husband can become normal again only if he starts playing cricket. The injured part of his head is already protected by that steel plate inserted, nothing could possibly happen to Nari if he were (God forbid!) to be hit in that region now. For the rest, it's a game he's played all his life, so let Nari bat again." Whether the wife entirely concurred or not, Nari came back strikingly enough to hit 130 for West Zone vs South Zone on October 28, 1967 - during the needle selection match that was the Duleep Trophy final at Bombay's Brabourne Stadium. As Nari announced himself ready to square up to Graham McKenzie & co in Australia, the Junior Nawab of Pataudi (by then well entrenched as India's captain) belatedly sprung the name of the discarded Vijay Manjrekar as the nation's seasoned new opener! "Why not?" Tiger sought to know from me. "Vijay's throw from third man, even today, means only a single. Plus Vijay still faces the new ball better than all of us!" This line, subtly fed by Tiger to the selectors, certainly ensured that neither Nari nor Vijay made the 1967-68 trip to Australia and New Zealand!

Nearly 35 years later, in 2002, Nari Contractor - still articulate with not a trace of rancour - is clear-headed in his viewpoint that Tiger was escapist in his outlook during those first two Tests he did not play in the West Indies. My own reading is that Tiger Pataudi at international level was (in February 1962) not entirely feeling assured - given his only eye - about confronting the fastest bowlers in the world (Wesley Hall, Chester Watson and Lester King - with Charlie Griffith in frightening reserve). Remember, the just-turned-21 Tiger Pataudi (up to that early-1962 Windies tour) had played in but three Tests for India and that on our own sleeping beauties. Batting on them was no real challenge to his Oxford blue blade, so that, in the December-January 1961-62 frame, Tiger Pataudi came up with scores of 13 in the Delhi Test, 64 & 32 in the Calcutta Test, 103 & 10 in the Madras Test vs Ted Dexter's England. Tiger had encountered the likes of but David Smith and Barry Knight in international cricket till then, so that a face-off with the game's superfast bowlers in the West Indies was no piece of pancake.

If Tiger did indeed studiedly stay out of those first two Tests in the West Indies, the idea boomeranged on him. Tiger, just 70 days after turning 21, found himself pitchforked into the piquant position of India's captain for the remaining three Tests - as Contractor was numbingly put out of action by Charlie Griffith. Pataudi himself mirrors his limited vision of the game, at that turning point in his career, in Tiger's Tale as he writes: "By now I had found the best way to play. This was to pull the peak of my cap right over my right eye to eliminate the blurred double image I otherwise saw." Left with only one eye to negotiate peak Windies pace, it is entirely conceivable that Tiger Pataudi was not too confident about measuring up in the forbidding Caribbean setting. Let us have Tiger Pataudi himself narrate how he reacted to Griffith (before Charlie was no-balled for throwing by umpire Cortez Jordan from square-leg) in the Contractor-led India's ill-starred colony match vs Barbados - after having missed the first two Tests at Port of Spain and Sabina Park. Writes Tiger:

"I am not normally, I think, a nervous batsman but I will admit to feeling a certain apprehension that day, as I crouched in front of the stumps, at Bridgetown, ready to receive my first delivery from Charlie Griffith. Less than 12 months earlier, I had been involved in a car accident which cost me most of the sight in my right eye. But my good one now provided a vivid picture of Charlie Griffith charging towards me, as if meaning business. I saw him land at the crease at a wide angle, his chest square and his foot splayed outwards. Down came his arm - then nothing. I completely failed to pick up the ball at any point in its flight. I also failed to pick up Griffith's next two deliveries, but just caught a glimpse of the fourth. It seemed to come towards me from mid-off and I could do nothing to prevent the ball from shattering my stumps. When Griffith bowled to me in our second innings, I found it impossible to pick up the ball, just as I had in the first innings. So again he bowled me out for nought. It was my first 'pair'. Few players can have achieved such spectacular promotion (to the captaincy of India) after bagging a 'pair' in an important game. I think I had been made vice-captain, in the first place, because it was envisaged that Nari Contractor would lead India for another five or six years."

Fortuitously, following the Nari nightmare in that colony match vs Barbados, the West Indies' gracious captain, Frank Worrell, directed his quicks to go easy in the three Tests to come. Tiger Pataudi's scoreline of 48 & 0 in the Bridgetown Test, 47 & 1 in the return Test at Port of Spain; 14 & 4 in the additional Test at Sabina Park might look okay on paper. But Tiger himself would be the first to admit that Wesley Hall was not going flat out in Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi's first three Tests as India's captain. Tests in which Frank Worrell had, by then, publicly ruled out Charlie Griffith's playing - after having donated priceless West Indian blood as part of his prayer for Contractor to recover.