Yesterday was a perfect day. It was my 61st birthday; my kids called me from abroad; I went to a great concert (Sanjeev Abhyankar); my blog started getting noticed thanks to Sriram Veera and Cricinfo; an eccentric informal group I belong to—the Raga-muffins—got written about in the Times of India; and I found out I shared my birthday with Brett Lee as I do with another cricketer, Murtuza Ali Baig.
Yesterday was a perfect day. Or so I thought, until my brother called with the horrible news—our old cricket mate, wicket keeper H Sundaram, had accidentally fallen to his death from the roof of his house.
Sundaram, Sundu to most of his friends, was an unusual left hander among wicketkeepers. His lefthandedness showed in his keeping, as he often gathered with one hand, the left hand. It often produced spectacular results, especially in the form of legside stumpings. He loved to stand up to the medium pacers and remove the bails in a flash. In the 1970s, he was regarded as the best stumper in Tamil Nadu, and even played for the State briefly, until one fine morning, miffed at being overlooked in favour of the young Bharat Reddy, he wrote to the cricket association asking them not to consider him any more for selection.
Sundu was a close friend of my brother Sivaramakrishnan, and a member of a cricket 'gang' who have stayed in touch over the decades. He played for the Indian Overseas Bank team in the local league and later became a state selector. He and I played together for Madras University in Rohinton Baria back in 1969, when we reprieved a young Bangalore University batsman fresh from a tour of Australia with the Indian Schoolboys. The talented Brijesh Patel survived to score a hundred that day, and he and Sundu were among those who went on to play for South Zone University that year in the Vizzy Trophy.
This has been a bad year for cricketers. Not long ago, K Ganapathi, an outstanding off spinner-opening batsman whose career coincided with that of Test off spinner S Venkataraghavan, died in almost identical circumstances. Ganpa was a good friend of mine.
Just when I was recovering from that blow came the news of Ashok Mankad's unexpected death in his sleep. Kaka, as he was known to one and all, had been a cricketer I greatly admired for his phenomenal feats as a batsman in domestic cricket and his astute leadership. And for a few years, we enjoyed a great rapport whenever we met as foes on the cricket field or friends off the field, for example, during a conditioning camp for India's Test probables of 1977-78 at Chepauk. That is when we shared a dressing room, and he kept me and the rest of the boys constantly entertained with his mostly apocryphal cricket stories. One particular anecdote involving 'Nana of Poona', P G Joshi, the late Indian wicket keeper, had us convulsed.
That was the first time I heard the typically Mumbaiyya expression 'leg n' leg' that Kaka repeatedly used to describe our condition after our coach Darshan Tandon put us through the wringer day after day. The Indian skipper Bishan Bedi, away playing county cricket in England, joined the camp only for the last three days or so. Kaka's brilliant impersonation of how Bishan would come into the stadium for training on his first morning in the camp and find no-one there was a brilliant act of mimicry. Imitating the captain, and giving wild vent to his imagination, Mankad went through the whole gamut of emotions—surprise, bewilderment, anxiety, and finally anger—peaking with the dawning of realisation in a sterling show of the adbhuta rasa, when Bishan finds the entire team jogging on the roof of the stadium.
Bishan was part of the audience that stood around Mankad at M L Jaisimha's Marredpally, Secunderabad residence one evening during Jai's benefit match, in which the Indian team led by Bedi played against an 'international' eleven captained by Jai. Asif Iqbal, Sarfraz Nawaz, Imran Khan, Zaheer Abbas and Mushtaq Mohammed formed the strong Pakistani contingent at the match. Most of them gathered around Kaka, who told story after story, embellishing fact with fiction, slowly building up suspense in each tale, like the master raconteur he was.
Mankad was growing redder and redder in the face as the beer kept flowing after a long day in the sun, and the rest of us were struggling to stay on our feet as he kept us all in rollicking good humour.
That morning, Sunil Gavaskar had pulled a long hop from me straight into Mankad's hands at deep square leg, and one of the guests, a police official, who was generally inflicting his company on the celebrity cricketers at the party, now reminded Kaka about that. “Mr Mankad,” he said, wagging a naughty finger at Kaka, “is there an old rivalry between you and Mr Gavaskar?” Not satisfied with Kaka's firm reply in the negative, he said, “Then why did he fling his bat in the dressing room after getting out and mutter, 'Sala, drops catches in Test matches, holds mine in a benefit match'?”
Mankad's riposte was a classic, but one he was quick to stress was just a joke. He said, “Reddy Saab, catch me dropping Sunil Gavaskar! Wake me up at midnight and I will hold his catches!"
We all knew that the two Bombay mates had enormous respect for each other, but that did not mean they could not indulge in the kind of friendly rivalry and banter at each other's expense that make competitive sport so memorable. The laughter that greeted Mr Reddy's unintended, indiscreet humour was loud and long. And laughter is what true sportsmen would want to be remembered with, I am sure.