Engineering entertainment

Former India captain Nari Contractor and wicket-keeper Farokh Engineer at the Gymkhana Ground in Secunderabad recently.-V.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

The flamboyant Indian stumper of yesteryear, Farokh Engineer, recounts the past and takes stock of the present. V. V. Subrahmanyam is all ears.

Farokh Engineer was known for his flamboyance — both with the willow and behind the stumps. And, at 73 — 37 years after he retired from Test cricket — he is still a magnetic personality.

“I have a strong belief that I scored the fastest century off just 46 balls in a Test match against the West Indies in Chennai in the 1966-67 series,” he insists in typical style. “That was against an attack comprising Wesley Hall, Charlie Griffith and the great off-spinner Lance Gibbs,” he goes on to remind us.

But, no one can deny the daredevilry of Farokh Engineer at the top of the Indian batting order. “Those were the days when live telecast was not the order of the day. Or else, may be, I would have been more popular,” he says with a big smile. “Look at the way all you people go crazy at Aussie opener David Warner's attacking 180 against India in the Perth Test. I remember vividly I was on 94 at lunch against the West Indies. And, in the first over after the break, I was surprised to see Gibbs being given the ball. It was such a hell of a different feeling after having faced the fast bowlers Hall and Griffith. And, I immediately launched into a huge six to reach the century. I still feel as if the ball is still flying,” he says with his typical, mighty laugh. “It is a pity that innings never got its due in terms,” he says in a low voice of discontent.

Former England great Sir Colin Cowdrey had this to say about Engineer: “In all my cricket years, and I mean this most sincerely, I have not known anyone who has embodied the true spirit of cricket more completely than Farokh Engineer.”

“Well, we played for pride and with a great sense of responsibility. The fact that we were the chosen ones to represent India was the biggest driving force. We were paid Rs. 50 per day for the five-Test matches,” says the articulate stumper of yesteryear. “Well, even the bat manufacturers in those days used to give us only two or three bats for a two-year contract. It was very difficult then,” he added.

“Exactly for this reason, it hurts to hear about this match-fixing scam and more so when they are paid so well now. How can one ever even think of such dubious things? It is shameful and disgusting. We played the game in its true spirit,” insists the former dashing India opener who played 46 Tests for 2611 runs (2x100, 16x50) and 66 catches and 16 stumpings between 1961-75.

At the same time, Farokh Engineer takes pride in the fact that he was the first Indian cricketer to do an endorsement for a cream. “I remember being paid a handsome 2000 Pounds. It was huge money then. My whole house was full of those boxes and my mother used to crib as to where to keep them,” he says with a big smile.

The talk, which took place minutes after Australia had thrashed India in the Perth Test to take a 3-0 lead in the four-match series, had to veer around to India's dismal showing.

“To say the least, Team India was disappointing. The major blame lies with the openers' failure and the ageing batting line-up. It is time to brush aside reputations and look ahead,” he says with typical nonchalance.

“No one doubts the contribution of the seniors of the Indian batting line-up over the years. But, the fact that they were struggling and committing the same mistakes really hurt us all,” says Engineer.

Does it mean that the seniors should make way for the juniors? “Definitely, but we have to be careful, for experience is always a necessity. So, we missed somewhere down the line the real process of phasing out the seniors even while giving the young talent a chance to settle down,” is his argument.

How does he sum up Mahendra Singh Dhoni as captain and wicket-keeper? “Quite honestly, Dhoni was never a natural and great wicketkeeper. He is very athletic and more of an attacking batsman who can also keep wickets. Well, keeping standards have gone down across the world of late. And, what surprised me with Dhoni is his negativity of late in Test cricket. Mind you, he is an inspirational leader in the one-day format because he performs well with the bat,” says Farokh Engineer. “It is a pity that he was not playing his natural game. The confident strides to the crease are missing now,” he added.

Why the debacle in England and Australia? “Well, in England it is understandable to some extent because of the conditions which favoured swing bowling a lot. But again, it is the batting which has let us down on both the tours, to England and Australia. I don't think the current Aussie fast bowlers like Peter Siddle or Ben Hilfenaus are as unplayable as say Alan Davidson, Lillee or Thomson were in their prime. The current Aussie bowlers are essentially length bowlers. We failed because, I stress, of the ageing batting line-up and the inability for some strange reasons to avoid committing the same mistakes.”

What is the role of Duncan Fletcher then? “I think me and Nari (Contractor) even now would do a better job. A coach has to essentially work on some odd flaws. The seniors don't need coaching. Only some free and frank talk to sort our minor flaws that creep into your game for different reasons,” explains Engineer.

“You cannot claim to be the world champions unless you start winning matches in Australia, England and South Africa. Get runs on those pitches,” is his take.

Is he ready to take up any assignment in Indian cricket? “In fact, when the team was in England and the morale very low, I did offer my services in my individual capacity by having long chats with many senior players and some youngsters too. That was because I know each and every blade of grass in English cricket,” says Engineer. “If the BCCI wants my services, I am always available,” he asserts.

What have been his most memorable moments? “The winning moments of that unforgettable 1971 Oval Test when Chandra (B. S. Chandrasekhar) stunned England, the century against West Indies in Chennai stands out for obvious reasons and the privilege of keeping to the famous spin quartet of Erapalli Prasanna, Bishan Singh Bedi, B. S. Chandrasekhar and S. Venkataraghavan. When we talk of spinners, they should be there (pointing to the sky) and then talk about the rest,” he says with all sincerity.

“Then, that great honour when Sir Donald Bradman took me to his home in Adelaide in 1971 when I was playing for the Sir Garfield Sobers-led World XI,” says a beaming Engineer.

“I remember Sir Don walking up to me and asking me why I was wearing rubber-sole shoes (with which I was more comfortable than the poor quality spike shoes available for me then). Then, he asked me: ‘What are you doing this evening?' When I said, ‘nothing', he went off saying that he would come back to pick me. And, to the surprise of my lifetime, he took me to his home and showed a lot of his collections including some pics of his playing days. I don't think there are many who have had such a privilege. I was left wondering — of all the people why me, Sir Don? Anyhow, it was a great honour to spend some time with him and we kept exchanging greeting cards for a long time,” concluded a nostalgic Engineer before going with his wife Julie to the historic Charminar in Hyderabad.