He could read the bowler's intentions

HARESH PANDYA

EXPERTS emphasise that the best way to judge a wicketkeeper is to see how he keeps to a leg-spinner. The very nature of leg-spin bowling is such that those who practise it can feel comfortable only when there is a competent man to guard the wickets.

N. SRIDHARAN

The presence of a smart stumper adds substantially to the confidence of a leggie, whether it is Shane Warne or Anil Kumble. Despite all his sublime skills it is doubtful if Warne had been as successful but for the wicketkeeping brilliance of Ian Healy and Adam Gilchrist.

Naren Shankar Tamhane, who passed into ages on March 19, had proved his class beyond doubt against Subhash Gupte, arguably the best leggie to don the India colours, with due respect to Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Kumble. So much so that Tamhane was said to be the only stumper of his time who could distinguish Gupte's googly from leg-break.

In fact, before the advent of Farokh Engineer and Syed Kirmani, he was rightly hailed as the finest wicketkeeper produced by India.

"He could read the bowlers' intentions by just watching the way they gripped the ball. When spinners like Gupte ran into bowl, he would predict the type of delivery about to be bowled. His presence behind the wickets was enough to instill confidence in the bowlers. Having played with him, I can vouch for it," said former India captain Polly Umrigar.

Cricket is fast becoming a television sport today. This has tempted many stumpers to be showy even at the risk of committing minor to major errors when armed with a pair of gloves. But flamboyance was never a feature of Tamhane's work behind the stumps.

"It is better to be a safe wicketkeeper rather than be a showman and miss a lot of chances. A safe and competent wicketkeeper will give a lot of confidence to his bowlers and also to his team-mates," he once said.

Although an amateur, Tamhane was more professional in his approach, coming as he did from the traditional Mumbai school of cricket. It was not his temperament to attempt the impossible. But he seldom or never missed the possible opportunity for a catch or a stumping.

If it is not easy to remember a spectacular piece of wicketkeeping in Tests when Tamhane was behind the stumps, it is also hard to recall an instance when he missed a simple catch or muffed an easy stumping chance. He was such a topnotch stumper that he could keep wickets on bouncy pitches, cracked wickets and dusty bowls with ridiculous ease.

He was purely and simply a top-grade stumper. Needless rolling over after a catch followed by ruckus appeals was never his way of playing cricket. Being a true sport, he always believed in playing the game in the literal sense of the phrase.

He once deliberately appealed in a first-class match and influenced the umpire to give the decision against the batsman. But he confessed that he could not sleep the whole night after the incident. So he apologised to the unfortunate batsman the first thing in the morning.

Today, when cricket has become a big and flourishing business on the subcontinent, such admittance will be considered treason. But then Tamhane played in an era when cricket was respected as a gentlemen's sport.

They say wicketkeepers are born, not made. Tamhane, himself a born stumper, always believed in this theory. "If a youngster shows any inclination towards this position, I feel that he should be immediately encouraged and given proper coaching in the art of wicketkeeping," was his golden advice to the talent scouts of Indian cricket.

"A thankless job" was how Tamhane used to view his discipline. "A fielder is very easily forgotten for misfielding or muffing up a catch but a wicketkeeper is branded as a useless one even for a single miss. I would advise persons with plenty of determination and aptitude for hard work only to take up wicketkeeping, an arduous and yet the most exciting and challenging of all positions in the field."

Tamhane, born on August 4, 1931, was a natural wicketkeeper in the classical mould. Although he was at ease against speedsters, too, he was simply superb when it came to keeping to spinners. His patience and concentration were remarkable.

He seemed to know his job inside out. "You will rarely miss a stumping chance if you think that every ball is coming to you, and if you do not lose sight of the ball and snatch at it. You must also cultivate the habit of watching the bowler's hand," he would suggest to the young aspirants. "Your hands must receive the ball and not snatch at it. The fingers, while receiving the ball, must always be pointed down unless, of course, the ball is very wide or high."

He was lucky in that he was born, brought up and educated in Mumbai, the nursery of Indian cricket. It provided him the much-needed atmosphere and platform to hone his innate talents.

He was ready to work hard for hours on end but he needed guidance and encouragement which came in plenty from those who had first-hand experience of playing cricket for Mumbai and India.

Young Tamhane had been secretly nursing a dream to play for the country and his cricketing ambition was fired when he saw many stalwarts of India and England in action on the playing fields of Mumbai.

Those were different days. It was not easy even for the most talented of players to gain the India cap. But Tamhane graduated from university cricket to full Test standing in an astonishingly short time of only three years.

Of course, playing for Mumbai had its own advantage. Not only did it give him plenty of exposure to "discerning eyes"; it also gave him more opportunities than any other wicketkeeper to handle Gupte.

His first big match was for the Combined Universities side against the MCC team led by Nigel Howard in 1951. While still a Mumbai university student, he caught three and stumped four batsmen in the first unofficial Test against the Commonwealth Team at Delhi in 1953-54.

Meanwhile he made his Ranji Trophy debut for Mumbai and celebrated it by dismissing seven Baroda batsmen behind the stumps. It easily paved the way for him to get picked in the Indian team for the tour of Pakistan under Vinoo Mankad in 1954-55.

He played his maiden Test at Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) and made an immediate impact. His first victim behind the stumps was the great Hanif Mohammad whom he caught off the bowling of off-spinner Ghulam Ahmed for 41 in Pakistan's first innings. In all, he caught four batsmen in the first essay and stumped one off Gupte in the second.

It is a vital piece of statistics that of his 19 victims in his very first series, 8 were in collaboration with Gupte.

In only his second Test, at Bahawalpur, he played a crucial knock of 54 not out (his highest score in Test cricket) batting at No. 9 and helped India post a respectable-looking total of 235 after they were tottering at 107 for 7 at one stage. For someone with very limited batting ability, this was quite a remarkable innings.

If he had not been a contemporary of Nana Joshi, he would probably have got to represent India pretty earlier and also played more Tests than he did. Tamhane's outstanding performance on the Pakistan tour helped him cement his place in the national team for a considerable time.

But just when he appeared to have been going on unchallenged came the "unexpected rejuvenation" of Joshi during the 1958-59 series against the West Indies. It marked the beginning of a true rivalry which lasted until 1961-62 when both Tamhane and Joshi played their last Tests for the country.

Tamhane, who played at home against New Zealand in 1955-56, Australia in 1956-57 and 1959-60, West Indies in 1958-59 and Pakistan in 1960-61, also toured Pakistan in 1954-55 and England in 1959.

Interestingly, on his only tour of England, where India lost all five Tests under Dattaji Gaekwad, he dismissed 49 batsmen behind the stumps. Joshi, five years older than Tamhane, was preferred in three of those Tests. But Tamhane accounted for 6 of the 18 wickets to fall in the two Tests he got to play.

Although he was still considered the best of his kind in the country and was capable enough of playing Test cricket for a few years more, the selectors went for Engineer's flamboyance behind and in front of the wicket and Budhi Kunderan's prolific, pulverising batting even though he was far too inferior a wicketkeeper to Tamhane, Joshi and Engineer.

But Tamhane had his moments and as a neat, clean and compact wicketkeeper his place is secure in the history of Indian cricket. He had played a silent but stellar-role with his excellent work behind the stumps on a matting wicket in Kanpur where off-spinner Jasu Patel (9 for 69 and 5 for 55) devastated Richie Benaud's mighty Australians in 1959-60 and gave India a famous Test win against heavy odds.

In all, he played 21 Tests and held 35 catches and effected 16 stumpings. He also made 225 runs at an average of 10.22. In a first-class career spanning nearly two decades, Tamhane played 93 matches, made 253 dismissals (175 catches, 78 stumpings) and scored 1459 runs at 18.35. His highest first-class score was 109 not out against Baroda in 1959-60.

A quiet, unassuming fellow, Tamhane emerged as a successful administrator after his playing days were over. He served Mumbai Cricket Association as its vice-president. He became a national selector from 1980 to 1989. He rose to become the chairman of selectors in the early 1990s.

Tamhane, who knew how and when to exercise his authority, was respected for his ability to make his points very clearly but politely most of the time. Above all, he was always ready to help, guide and encourage those who wanted to master the art of wicketkeeping.