Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Vaman Kumar

When Sir Garfield Sobers came to Chennai ten years ago to assist former India leg spinner Vaman Kumar  at the MAC Spin Academy, he was obviously impressed by the energy and dedication of the veteran who was already well into his sixties. During an informal dinner some of us were privileged to attend at the Madras Cricket Club at the end of the camp, Sobers was therefore not very surprised when we named VV the best orthodox wrist spinner in India after Subhash Gupte in reply to his query if Subhash’s younger brother Baloo would have fitted that description.

Like many cricketers of my generation from the south, I have been a life-long admirer of VV Kumar the leg spinner, and an equal fan of his sense of humour and eccentric, unpredictable ways on and off the cricket field.

Long before I saw him in flesh and blood, Kumar had excited my imagination with his heroic deeds in Pakistan as a member of the Indian Starlets team that toured that country circa 1960 under the captaincy of Lala Amarnath, by then retired from Test cricket. It was a great opportunity for young Test hopefuls on both sides of the border to impress the national selectors. On the Indian side, Kumar and fellow Madras cricketer AG Milkha Singh were the undoubted successes of the tour. At my grandfather’s Trivandrum residence, I excitedly awaited the arrival of The Hindu around 4 pm everyday from Madras bearing all the cricket news of the day. VV and Milkha rarely belied my expectations that summer.

I first saw VV in action when he made his Test debut not long afterwards at Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla and my father, then working in the capital, took me and my brothers to the match. I was barely 14 then and my memory of the action is clouded by the passage of time, but I can never forget the thrill I experienced when VV snared his first victim—Imtiaz Ahmed, the Pakistani wicket keeper. Kumar went on to take five in the innings and seven in all in the match.

Unfortunately, Kumar’s dreams of prolonged success as a Test bowler were crushed after his second appearance for India. By a strange coincidence, I happened to be one of the spectators at the Brabourne Stadium, Bombay, next season, as my father had by then joined Bank of India there. It was a miserable match for Kumar, as he finished with none for 70 in the first innings, did not bowl in the second and did not distinguish himself in the field. There were murmurs about a hidden finger injury leading to this debacle, and even though only one of the four Indian spinners, Chandu Borde, was among the wickets, VV’s failure was highlighted by his critics. 

One of the other Madras players in the Indian team, left-hand batsman AG Milkha Singh—who had a decent outing at the Kotla versus Pakistan—failed too and was booed by an unsporting crowd, while his elder brother Kripal Singh scored 38 and 13, both not out. Neither VV nor Milkha played for India again despite sterling performances in the Ranji Trophy for several seasons, and Kripal came back into the side under Tiger Pataudi’s captaincy. It was all so depressing for the young fan from Madras.

Returning to Madras in 1962, I had several opportunities to watch Kumar bowl in the local league and the Sport & Pastime (later Hindu) trophy matches and eventually play with and against him—with him in the BS Nets organised by the cricket association, and against him in league games. 

He was a master bowler who was constantly improving, adding new weapons to his armoury while perfecting those he already possessed. He did not believe in exaggerated flight, but tossed it up in a tantalizing arc, varied his pace, bowled two different types of googlies and bowled an effective flipper, though it was not yet known by that name. He was accuracy personified, as was his younger spin partner in the state team, S Venkataraghavan. Both were workhorses, wheeling away in the nets for three hours every evening. 

I once made the foolish mistake of charging VV in the nets with some success, and he made my life miserable forever afterwards by switching over to the net I was batting in from wherever he was bowling in the practice complex of half a dozen wickets. He did this day after day for a whole season, even though I was a miserable tailender, not a frontline batsman. He was really intent on testing himself against someone who seemed to master him for a solitary session of practice. It is this competitive streak that made him such a successful bowler against all the top batsmen in the country.

Kumar  some 12 years my senior, was always kindly disposed towards me, as he knew my father as a banking industry colleague. As I left Madras soon after my first full season in the First Division, I did not get to play too often in his company, but vividly remember the few occasions I did. The first instance was a warm-up game for Madras Cricket Club Mr Annadurai of the cricket association arranged against a young eleven of future state prospects to be led by VV in a mentoring role. I bowled a few blistering overs to PK Belliappa, the state captain who seemed all at sea against me. Frustrated by the several near misses, I lost my patience and tossed up a couple of lollipops which the experienced Belli promptly dispatched to the boundary. That is when my captain walked up to me and said, “Don’t ever do that. You had the batsman in trouble. You should keep him under a tight leash, never offer him free hits.” It was the exact opposite of the advice I received at the Brabourne a few years earlier; and the captain kept me on as well! This is a piece of advice I never forgot in my cricket career, and it also gave me a glimpse of VV’s own cricket thinking.

I also witnessed another side of the VV Kumar persona in that game. Once when stand-in umpire CS Dayakar (our own teammate) negatived an lbw appeal by VV, the bowler reprimanded him sharply, and then carried on as if nothing happened. He’d actually snapped “Idiot” at Dayakar but, made of sterner stuff, Dayakar was unmoved. It was one occasion when Kumar’s gamesmanship had no effect on the umpire, unlike the occasion when he barked at KB Ramaswamy.  He caught the umpire nodding away at the crease and waking up startled by his appeal for leg before. “Told you not to stuff yourself with curdrice at lunch,” he admonished. “Come on VV, mind your tongue,” the umpire retorted. A couple of balls later, VV rapped the batsman on the pads again, but though the ball was clearly missing the leg stump, he nonchalantly turned to the umpire, and said: “How about this one, I say?” This time, up went the umpire’s finger (This story appears elsewhere in this blog).

No batsman in domestic cricket mastered Kumar, with the solitary exception of V Subramanyam of Karnataka, who in the course of a double century in 1967, punished his bowling severely. In the South Zone, the leading lights of Hyderabad and Karnataka, like Pataudi, Jaisimha, and Vishwanath always found him a handful. He had more than 400 Ranji Trophy wickets and 599 first class scalps in all in his long career. He took part in two hard fought Ranji Trophy finals against Bombay in 1967-68 and 1972-73, both of which Madras lost despite Kumar’s splendid bowling. Despite all his consistent successes, his return to Test cricket was blocked by the emergence the unorthodox but match-winning leg spinner BS Chandrasekhar.

I was lucky to win Kumar’s approval for my off spin bowling—he even mentioned me as a Test prospect in a newspaper article. He and I were teammates in the SBI side in the Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup, when I enjoyed his company on and off the field. To cricketing matters, he always brought an original perspective, as when he said Rakesh Tandon bowled brilliantly in a particular match between Bombay and Hyderabad, though he did not watch the match and two of us who played in that game insisted that Tandon had been extremely lucky to get six wickets in the final innings of the match despite bowling full tosses and long hops galore. VV just dismissed our version of the story as baseless!

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