Former England Test cricketer Basil D'Oliveira first showed signs of his class on a tour of the West Indies with Derek Robins's team. Young Kapil Dev impressed senior Indian cricketers with his phenomenal talent on a private tour of East Africa and not long afterwards, he was in the Indian team that toured Pakistan. Teams like Cricket Club of India and Hyderabad Blues have been excellent ambassadors of India, not only in the regular Test playing nations, but in other countries where a small minority pursue the sport with passion. They take young cricketers - and veterans - to some unusual locations of stunning beauty.
I can never forget the experience of playing for Hyderabad Blues before 35,000 paying spectators at Dhaka, in January 1978, long before any Test nation toured the newly-formed Bangladesh. We might have been a loose combination of players from all over India, but as our acting skipper Ajit Wadekar reminded us minutes before the toss, no matter what we were called, we were the Indian team and it was as good as a Test match. The match was played in all seriousness, like the rest of the matches on that tour of Australia, South East Asia and Bangladesh.`
Today, we have the A team concept and India's young hopefuls gain valuable exposure to international cricket in conditions they do not experience at home. In the 1970s, tours by clubs like the Blues or CCI filled this gap admirably. What they also did was to enable young cricketers to mingle with Test cricketers, past and present, and enrich their cricket education. Equally fortunate were cricketers who knew they had missed the bus and would never otherwise visit these nations and play against their Test and first class cricketers in superb cricketing conditions full of history.
An example of the kind of preparation such tours afforded youngsters was the experience of playing in Australia, where even club grounds have 85-yard boundaries. Anyone who has chased the ball to the fence and thrown it back to the keeper on one of these vast grounds is more likely to go home and strengthen his throwing arm than a stranger to those conditions. You also learnt to bowl and bat on wickets vastly different from Indian pitches.Private tours make for greater interaction with people of the host nation than Test tours do. Very often, the visiting cricketers are billeted with cricketers' families and the resultant friendships are sometimes lifelong.
My own unforgettable memories include playing against and sharing a few beers back in 1978 at a Perth clubhouse, with a young Englishman called David Gower, who we thought was not a bad little player! Gower opened the innings for the club Claremont Cottesloe, and treating our medium pacers with scant respect, got away to a flier, making 30 odd in no time. His innings was all too brief, for the wicket yielded some purchase, and the two off spinners of our side, my skipper Jaisimha and I, created serious problems for the young lefthander. To my disappointment, a couple of chances went abegging off my bowling and Gower eventually fell to Jai, though I took five wickets in the innings.
That evening, Gower and the secretary of the club asked me if I would play for the club as a professional the following season as Gower was not returning. This was not only a huge honour but a tremendous opportunity as well, but I refused the offer as it would clash with the Indian first class season. I was at the time close to selection to the Indian team and did not want to jeopardise my chances with the long awaited tour of Pakistan round the corner. As it turned out, I did not even make it to the probables list before the tour, despite my record. Thus are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities missed by those who want to play safe.
That innings was one of the high points of my bowling on that tour in which I led the pack with 35 wickets. Another was my performance under gruelling conditions in Penang against an RAF side, when Jai cursed me fluently after I asked to be taken off (the only time in my life), having run out of shirts and trousers, drenched in perspiration as never before or after in my career, and unable to grip the ball, the sweat simply pouring out from every pore in my body. “Stop giving me f---ing excuses! Can’t grip the ball indeed! God save me from bloody sissies!” he said. I had no option but to go on.
My final figures of 30-8-47-8 leading to a thumping win were more than adequate compensation for all the trouble, but even more pleasurable was the praise Jai dished out over a couple of drinks—again for the first time in my life, because cricketers, especially those belonging to the old school, generally don’t believe in praising you to your face.
If these were some of the high points, I had a few low ones as well on that tour, starting with our first match—against Kowloon Cricket Club at Kowloon, Hong Kong. Both leg spinner Narasimha Rao (Bobjee) and I bowled badly in that game, nearly losing it for us. Occasional medium pacer K Jayantilal, our opening batsman, came to our rescue, bowling an unplayable spell of swing and seam, and picking up some seven wickets for next to nothing. That night, we received our first dressing down of the tour, with Ajit Wadekar telling us for the first time that we were the Indian team, no less. He also confessed how much he had benefited from Jai’s wise counsel on the victorious West Indies tour of 1971.
We quickly recovered from that initial shock on the morrow, when we beat the stronger Hong Kong Cricket Club by a big margin, with my brother Sivaramakrishnan and his fellow left hander P Ramesh scoring hundreds at the top of the order, and me acquiring the only hat trick of my life. Ajit Wadekar took two splendid diving catches at backward short leg, reminding us all what a brilliant close-in fielder he was.
Our experience against Singapore Cricket Club, later on the tour, was even worse. In a near replica of the Kowloon match, we were again rescued from a fate worse than death by Jayantilal, who picked up six wickets after the regular bowlers had proved to be profligate. Jai was never known to be a gracious loser, and this time was no exception. The hospitality in the barroom of the club was long and expansive, but Jai was quite happy to put our hosts firmly in their places for the crowing they had indulged in earlier when the game seemed to be heading their way. Well past closing time, everyone except Jai and the unhappy threesome of Vinod Reddy, Bobjee and I, had left, after the hosts had offered in vain to drop us home, failing to persuade our angry skipper to get up from his perch. We finally left after the staff started shutting doors and windows pointedly.
Soon we wandered out, walking extremely carefully with the kind of dignity only the inebriated can muster, but soon realised that all our hosts had gone home. There was no taxi in sight either, and Jai was ranting and raving by now, cursing his extreme bad luck that made it necessary for him to play cricket with such nincompoops. Still unable to locate a cab, we walked on, trying not to pay any attention to the captain’s lecture, not realising that we had drifted into a freeway where no vehicle would stop. We saw several taxis fly past us not heeding our desperate pleas and fluent curses in chaste Hyderabadi. All of 90 minutes later, a kindly taxi driver going in the opposite direction, took pity on us, and stopped for us. He of course had to go all the way to where we started before he could take a U turn and drop us at the hotel. It was three in the morning when we reached there!
Coming back to the match at Dacca, Bobjee and I again went wicketless on a white, gleaming clay wicket, which yielded turn but extremely slow turn. Batting first, we made over 400, with Ajit Wadekar making a hundred and Sivaramakrishnan and Jayantilal playing substantial knocks. The Bangladesh team made a decent reply, some 300 plus for seven or eight, batting out nearly two days. It was slow, excruciating attrition and the Hyderabad bowlers had to be content with containment. Tukaram Surve, our veteran wicket keeper conceded 69 byes and was mercilessly teased by Wadekar, leading the team in the absence of Jaisimha, already back in Hyderabad to finalise the arrangements for his benefit match. “You were in great form, Godfrey,’ he said, calling Surve by his nickname on the tour—after the former England great Godfrey Evans. Surve’s retort was quick and angry: “How do you expect me to keep to these spinners? One of them bowls off breaks on the leg stump and the other his googlies outside it!”
Later that evening Wadekar told Surve that both Bobjee and I were deeply hurt by his remarks. A very contrite Surve then sought me out and apologised profusely. “I’m so sorry, Rama. You actually bowled well for the first time on the tour!”