Comeback: a flashback

RAJU BHARATAN

Coming together... former captain Sourav Ganguly and coach Greg Chappell exchange notes during the conditioning camp in Chennai.-PTI

FOLLOWING that Ranji Trophy 159 for Bengal, `Souravenously' hungry for Test runs should have been Dada Ganguly. Remember, Chennai was where Sourav humbled the world-championing Steve, 2-1. So that Chepauk, as India's legendary Australia-humbling venue, should logically have proved a happy hunting ground for a Ganguly Test comeback. But then a return to centrestage has never been easy in cricket, Test cricket. "They never come back!" is a maxim applying not only to show business.

Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, among Indians, was perhaps the last one to give the lie to this axiom. As Tiger Pataudi astonished one and all by agreeing to play under Ajit Wadekar in the January 1973 Third Test against Tony Lewis' England. The 73 that Tiger Pataudi sculpted on the occasion remains etched in the mindset. For the style and substance this vintage virtuoso helped raise an India total of 316 against which our spin troika could bowl. "Give us 200 runs and we'll bowl out the opposition!" was no idle Erapalli Prasanna boast then. Indeed, Pras's figures of 15-3-47-2 and 10-5-16-4, in that January 1973 Chepauk Test, set India on the slippery path to a four-wicket Wadekar victory. A head-spinning win that saw Ajit Wadekar's India, crucially, lead 2-1 — the very margin by which we finally won the five-match series. But this only after Tiger Pataudi, though injured, had stepped on, afresh, to the Chepauk middle to notch 14 not out in the moment that mattered.

If Tiger Pataudi made such a Test comeback, could Vijay Merchant have been far behind? Come November 1951, Vijay Merchant, rising 40 by then, had been out of Test cricket for over four years. Again like Sourav vis-a-vis Rahul, Vijay Merchant had lost out on the India captaincy (12 Cricket Board votes-to-5) by the time he returned to the Kotla Test scene on November 2, 1951. That very first day, Nigel Howard's England was bowled out, just before stumps, for 203. So that, first thing the following morning, Vijay Merchant stepped out with debutant Pankaj Roy to open the India innings.

Pankaj Roy (lbw b Derek Shackleton 12) was later to tell me how illuminingly Merchant guided him through his maiden Test innings. No more than five hours of play there would be in a Test-day those days. In those five hours, on the second day of the November 1951 Kotla Test, India made 186 for 2 — Vijay Merchant, 106 not out. A Merchant thus hard to recognise as someone returning to Test cricket after a four-year lay-off. Why then, after that, did Vijay Merchant plod the morning after? Because the one Vijay (Merchant) by then knew that the other Vijay (Hazare) was under strict instruction to pass whatever be the personal score India's master opener finally attained! Merchant thus took well over seven hours to reach 154. Hazare needed just an hour more to finish on 164 not out! Shades of Sourav in action during his `legendary' century in the recent Bulawayo Test!

From Sourav Ganguly to Tiger Pataudi to Vijay Merchant have we moved. Let us now go from Vijay Merchant to Hanumant Singh. Go to the first Test of the late 1969 series between Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi's India and Graham Dowling's New Zealand. At Vijay Merchant's Brabourne Stadium, the Bombay ground that, if dug up, was expected to yield only bat oil! Vijay Merchant, by this stage, was Chairman of Selectors. In that key position, instrumental now was Vijay Merchant in bringing back Hanumant Singh to the India team. Reasoning that we had been near-obtuse in leaving out such a pedigree performer from India's 1967-68 Siamese-twin tour of Australia and New Zealand.

What Vijay Merchant evidently did not know was that Hanumant Singh, just then, was going through an acute crisis in his personal life. On Hanumant's own admission, his mind then was on anything but cricket. As Hanumant Singh thus looked a goldfish out of water in confronting the pace of Dayle Hadlee — caught behind off that quickie in both innings (for 1 & 13) — all media hell broke loose. Vijay Merchant faced no end of flak for having ventured to bring back a batting prince on the mere evidence of his having been a performing aristocrat. Yet to suggest that Hanumant Singh's return had something to do with the eventual exit of Tiger Pataudi sounded far-fetched even then. If only because Hanumant Singh himself had already noted that "Tiger was doing a good job."

Maybe Hanumant Singh did deserve to be forgotten after that lacklustre (1 & 13) comeback to Test cricket vs New Zealand in September 1969. Though Hanu continued to bat like a true-blue in the highest grade of Bombay club cricket. But then Vijay Merchant himself, did his bat really merit being totally forgotten after that flawless 154 on his return to the India team, following a stay-off of over four years? No doubt Vijay Merchant injured his shoulder, during that November 1951 Kotla Test, in diving (at age 40) to effect a stop on the boundary-line. But, even as India came out to field on the opening day of that series-launching Kotla Test, Vijay Merchant was viewed to be falling back. So as to stay put at third man, if only because Vijay Merchant knew they were going to insist upon his fielding in a boundary-line position! So Vijay Merchant just did not want to embarrass the mild-mannered Vijay Hazare by moving further forward with the team.

In the January 1973 Chepauk Test, Ajit Wadekar wanted Tiger Pataudi to go squarer in the outfield at one stage. Even as Ajit started signalling, Tiger was seen moving, divining precisely what his `Jitya' wanted. Tiger and his `Jitya' shared fair vibes even after all that had happened through 1971-73. Tiger even agreed to be Ajit's vice-captain from that January 1973 Chepauk Test.

That precisely should have been the spirit animating Sourav and Rahul, alongside Laxman, during the Chepauk Test. Sourav and Rahul started out as India freshers in the same (1996) Lord's Test. The two could still share a meaningful on-field interaction. If Gary Sobers could sublimate his ego to offer full cooperation to Rohan Kanhai as his new West Indies captain, why not Sourav in the Test case of Rahul? What Sourav has instinctively to recognise is that cricket is the great leveller — for Dada to be able readily to accept the end-2005 reality out there. Sourav, in fact, should be considering himself lucky to have won a Test recall. No matter how Sourav, since, might have fared in the Chepauk Test vs Sri Lanka. Remember Sourav how Vijay Merchant, by contrast, was expediently forgotten after that brown-masterly 154 vs England? So much so that Vijay Merchant proceeded to announce his retirement from first-class cricket (with an average of 71.64 — next only to that of Don Bradman's 95.14) only because this compleat opener knew that they would never let him play for India again.