Sunday, March 1, 2009

Farewell innings

"Mr Ramnarayan must have his coffee", the sardonic voice behind me said. When I turned to look at the speaker, however, the gaze was friendly and the smile affectionate. It was 'Tiger' Pataudi, former India captain and now my teammate and mentor, who was making that comment on my habit of asking for the cup that cheers after lunch at the Lal Bahadur Stadium, something my Hyderabadi friends found amusingly idiosyncratic.

He then asked me whether I was planning to go to Madras to watch the Test match against England. When I answered in the negative, this is what he told me in his best solemn manner: "You may well be playing it, for all you know." Though I was bowling well enough that season, my second in first class cricket (1975-76), I found Pataudi's statement a bit farfetched, as both Prasanna and Venkataraghavan were firmly entrenched in the Indian squad.

This was in the middle of a Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup match, and I earned the singular honour of being complimented by Tiger at the end of the day's play for my fielding. When I started my first class career barely a year earlier, fielding was one department in which I needed to improve. I had worked very hard at it, so that I could chase hard and throw flat and accurate, almost as well as my younger colleagues. Coming from the former Nawab, who set a superb personal example in the field himself, and never dished out praise unless you really deserved it, that was a compliment for me to cherish forever. A little later in the evening, I came to know that I had been included in the Rest of India team led by Bishan Bedi to take on Bombay in the Irani Cup match to be played soon afterwards.

The news brought home to me the significance of Pataudi's mysterious remark at the lunch table. Though I never actually succeeded in breaking into the Indian team, despite good bowling in that Irani match and the few times I played for South Zone, I still remember that little gesture with gratitude. I realised that Tiger must have gently nudged the selectors to pick me for the Rest of India team.

Tiger Pataudi had been a great source of encouragement ever since he first saw me bowl at the nets a couple of years earlier, before the start of a Moin-ud-Dowla match. I had clinched the issue a season later by claiming eight for 75 against a star-studded team he led in the same tournament. He was one of two batsmen I did not dismiss in that innings; he was dropped off my bowling.

It was Tiger who ran up to congratulate me on my first Ranji Trophy wicket at Trivandrum, and wish me many more wickets, only to tell me to "stop bowling rubbish, for God's sake", and start bowling in my natural, sharp style. I ended up with six for 33 in that innings and never looked back. Again, at the end of my first season, when I took seven for 68 in the first innings of our quarterfinal match, he seemed thrilled beyond words, and kept muttering almost in disbelief: "Seven against Bombay!" He then warned me that wickets would be harder to come by in the seasons to come, as batsmen began to take me more seriously. He also informed me he had played his last match for Hyderabad, a stunning blow from which I never recovered. It was as if a loved one was leaving me for good. I felt utterly desolate.

Hyderabad cricketers will always remember a marvellous innings Pataudi played in December 1975 against Tamil Nadu at Chepauk. Here is the story behind that knock.

We were staying at Admiralty Hotel, at Mandavelipakkam, Chennai. As we sat on the lawns, enjoying a few drinks, as was customary for the Hyderabad teams of that vintage, a number of fans descended on us, mainly to catch a glimpse of the stars of the team, Pataudi, Jaisimha, Baig and Abid Ali.

Among the autograph hunters was a man originally from Hyderabad, who asked Pataudi some awkward questions.

Fan: Nawab Saab, is it true that you can't play Venkat and Kumar? They say you are Venkat's bunny.
Pataudi: (Mutters under his breath).
Fan: Beg your pardon?
Pataudi: (Aloud) Of course, Venkat is a very fine bowler.
I then politely showed the visitor out.
Pataudi: Jai, I'm opening the innings tomorrow.
Jaisimha: Like hell you will.
Pataudi: I'm dead serious Jai. I'm going to score a double hundred. Venkat's bunny, indeed!
Jaisimha: (By now mellow) Okay, Tiger, have it your way. You open the innings tomorrow.

The next morning, the atmosphere was electric as Jaisimha and Venkataraghavan went out to toss before a capacity crowd. Hyderabad won the toss and elected to bat. The mood in the dressing room was equally electric, with three batsmen padded up to open the innings. Pataudi was all set to go in first, to the surprise of the regular openers Abbas Ali Baig and Jayantilal. It took all of Jaisimha's persuasive skills to get him to agree to bat at No.3, still three places ahead of his usual batting position.

When his turn to bat came, Pataudi turned on the old magic. He started by playing some spanking shots against the brisk pace of Kalyanasundaram. He was equally severe on Venkataraghavan and debutant left arm spinner S K Patel, off whose bowling he was reprieved early. He raced to his hundred, playing strokes all round the wicket.

Pataudi was not satisfied with a century that day. He took fresh guard and dug himself in, his defence studiedly elaborate, as if to give his thoughtless caviller of the previous day a message. When he finally returned to the pavilion to a tumultuous ovation, he had made 198. Just two short of his own prediction.

None of us knew it then, but that was Pataudi's last innings at Chepauk. At the end of that season, he announced his retirement from first class cricket.