His shadow at cover never grew less

Hemu Adhikari receives the Col. C. K. Nayudu Trophy (pix, facing page) from A. C. Muthiah, the then BCCI president. The C. K. Nayudu Award bestowed upon Hemu Adhikari as a vintager sat pat on the ferociously combative head of this leader of men so exemplarily aggressive in his approach on the field of play.


Nearly 60 years ago did I first see him bat with will and skill as he hit 81 (run out) for "The Iron Duke" who was his cricketing idol and ideal. That was my first glimpse of Douglas Jardine and Hemu Adhikari alike — at Bombay's Brabourne Stadium. A forbidding sight (early in 1944 still) was Douglas Jardine, leading Services XI vs Indian XI. Hemu Adhikari — as one here playing under a general who did not know where to draw the body-line — was to emerge as no less a martinet himself later in his career.

The C. K. Nayudu Award bestowed upon Hemu Adhikari as a vintager thus sat pat on the ferociously combative head of this leader of men so exemplarily aggressive in his approach on the field of play. Hemu aimed at one-stump with that deadly swoop of his at cover-point. Hemu almost unfailingly hit that single stump. Never could I forget how, in the June 1952 "Mankad's Test" at Lord's, Tom Graveney (set to hit an elegantly tall 73) marginally stepped out in playing a square drive. As Graveney espied Adhikari descend upon the lightning ball, "Long Tom" regained the crease in a heap. In doing so, Graveney beseeched Hemu, with upraised hand, not to throw down his wicket!

Some tribute, this, to Hemu Adhikari's shadow at cover-point never growing less, as this quicksilver performer turned fielding in that position (for Baroda, Services and India) into a near art form. At a point in time when no segment of the game was more neglected than fielding in Indian cricket. Yet Hemu was no cover-point to the supple manner born. He metamorphosed the state of his body and mind only after something startling happened to turn him into the finished product he became in the field. Less than nine months after Hemu Adhikari came under the February 1944 spell of Douglas Jardine, he turned out, at the same Brabourne Stadium venue, for Hindus (captained by Vijay Merchant) against Muslims (led by Syed Mushtaq Ali). In the November 1944 Pentangular Final.

Vijay Merchant's Hindus had that final match all but sewn up when Abdul Hafeez (later to add Kardar to his name as Pakistan's first Test captain) materialised as the Muslims' southpaw, lower down the order. As Abdul Hafeez dropped fresher anchor, Hemu Adhikari found himself stationed at silly mid-off. For Chandu Sarwate to have Abdul Hafeez spooning up a catch — not once but twice — to Hemu. Both times, horror of horrors, Hemu put down what were sitters. How roundly Hemu came to be reviled that D-Day by outraged Hindus ultimately viewing their team lose by one wicket!

"I couldn't show my face anywhere after that!" Hemu Adhikari ruefully told me, eight years later, when he was Vijay Hazare's deputy on the 1952 tour of England. "As a military man expected to be fiddle fit, I felt all the more ashamed of myself. Those two catches I just let go saw Abdul Hafeez move on to a score of 35 and set the pace for Muslims to win that 1944 Pentangular title in a photo finish. Abdul Hafeez proceeded to add some vital runs with K. C. Ibrahim." (137 not out at the close).

"That day itself I resolved," concluded Hemu, "that I wouldn't return to big cricket until I became absolutely top-class in the field. To this end I practised hard, very hard, trying to throw down a single stump `on the run.' In the process I discovered that fielding is but a matter of striving zealously for peak fitness. It was thanks to Abdul Hafeez (Kardar) that I came to lay down fielding as the first precondition for any player to be in a team I was either leading, managing or coaching. Even Venkat I preferred to Pras only on this count through those three vital Tests in England vs Ray Illingworth's England on our path-breaking 1971 tour of the Old Country."

How Hemu drove his charges at a conditioning camp! As a talent spotter, he was supreme. Maybe Hemu's playing record for India did not quite entitle him to the C. K. Nayudu Award. But his contribution as India's Manager (on that watershed tour of England) and as National Coach is what gave Lt. Col. Hemu Adhikari a rare niche in Indian cricket. That such a diehard for being slim and trim should have breathed his last the way Hemu did is the tender irony of the game. The persona of Hemu's charmingly homely wife (just "Bhabhi" to me) I never could erase from my mindset. For the way she cared for me as an under-17 on my maiden tour of England.

Hemu himself I found to be remarkably forthcoming for one considered distant by most. As India's captain, Hemu put even Sachin in the shade, the way he took his own not so sweet time in setting the field! Meticulously correct in everything he did was this colonial colonel. Yet, as a coach, Hemu was not without comprehension and vision. Hemu and I were together at the Wankhede Stadium as I observed one of Adhikari's pupils to be doing everything wrong. As, aghast, I turned to Adhikari, Hemu said: "Don't look at the boy — I myself don't! Watch not the movement of his feet but the movement of the ball — off his bat — to the boundary! It's his natural game, so I don't want to interfere with it." The youngster in question: Krish Srikkanth.

Hemu Adhikari himself went for his shots with flair and flourish even while being consummately compact in defence. Hemu must rank as one of the finest players of spin India has produced. The moment Vinoo Mankad bowled an armer, Hemu would go down on his knee and dismissively send the ball soaring over midwicket for six. Maybe Hemu played too much across the line to be consistently successful in the higher reaches of the game. To this extent, Hemu might have appeared less inventive against genuine pace. Yet he never flinched from the quicks. Maurice Tremlett worked up tremendous pace on a rain-freshened Taunton track (for Somerset vs Indians). Only to view Adhikari standing firm. Until Hemu was rapped crunchingly on the knuckles and put out of action for two weeks.

Hemu's was a technique worth watching on a wearing wicket. Adhikari's 60 from India's 157 on the third (and final) day of the fourth Test vs Nigel Howard's England at Kanpur (January 1952) I discerned to be an innings of rare character against Roy Tattersall and Malcolm Hilton turning the ball almost at right angles. No less noteworthy (at No 8) was Adhikari's unbeaten 81 (when Lala Amarnath's India had nosedived to 180 for six while batting first) in the October 1952 series-launching Kotla Test vs Abdul Hafeez Kardar's Pakistan. Clearly Hemu here had a score to settle with the Abdul Hafeez part of Kardar.

Hemu had the courage of his convictions as player, manager and mentor alike. As the driving force behind the Ajit Wadekar-led India's winning her first ever Test rubber in England (1-0), Hemu soon felt let down. Even as India began playing Tony Lewis' England at Kotla late in December 1972, Hemu told me: "Raju, we might somehow go on to win this series, too, against an England no longer at full strength. But see how they have already destroyed the disciplined rhythm of the team I so painstakingly built. Believe me, in England during that 1971 tour, no fielder needed to be told where to go. He could already be spotted to be moving as the bowling change that Ajit made took effect. I had nothing personal against Pras. But Venkat at short-leg, alongside Eknath Solkar, was crucial to my plan in catching out Ray Illingworth's England in their classic weakness against tight-quality spin."

Maybe Hemu Adhikari hit but 872 runs from 36 innings in 21 Tests (ave 31.14). Yet he remained an icon at cover-point in the super-athletic way he covered ground in that region. As our first National Coach, it is Hemu Adhikari who planted the sapling of the Cricket Academy movement blossoming in India today. As a Test player, Hemu savoured not so much his first hundred for India — the match-saving 114 not out vs John Goddard's West Indies. In the November 1948 first Test at Kotla. Hemu more cherished the success with which he took hold of a totally morale-shattered Indian team on his early-1959 return to the same Kotla from near retirement. Adhikari then took over as India's 4th captain in the series. During the fifth and final Test in which Roy Gilchrist and Wesley Hall worked up pace even on a flatbed. Not only did Hemu have India regrouping for a well-contested Kotla draw as he hit 63 and 40 in style. Hemu also had the prized scalps of Conrad Hunte (92), Basil Butcher (71) and Dennis Atkinson (37) with his donkey-drops!

His career aggregate of 8628 (ave 41.88) — spread over nearly a quarter-century and flaunting 18 hundreds — invariably witnessed Hemu Adhikari run his first run fast. At cover-point, Hemu came to be feared by the best batsmen in the world.

As a strategist and tactician, he had this gift of uplifting the team into performing beyond its known ability. Hemu Adhikari was nothing if not a one-man army in a game the British military taught us to play.