Column | A tale of two talented cricketers forced to migrate

Column | A tale of two talented cricketers forced to migrate
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The statement of former Australian captain Michael Clarke recently that present day Australian players “sucked up” to Virat Kohli and India so that their million dollar Indian Premier League (IPL) contracts were protected, attracted considerable attention and a fair deal of controversy. Though the veracity of whether Aussies were scared of sledging Kohli would remain a matter of debate, the statement conveyed an important message regarding the standing of India and their captain in international cricket- that even the battle scarred Aussies think twice before picking a fight or rubbing them the wrong way. A rich tribute indeed to the financial power that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) commands these days!

At this point of time it might appear inconceivable that there was a time when Indian players used to migrate to foreign nations in search of employment as well as better opportunities for playing the game. The whims and fancies of the selectors, poor amenities provided, and lack of financial security were the main reasons that prompted even cricketers who had played for the country at the international level to move abroad in search of greener pastures. Some prominent examples of those who made this move were Farokh Engineer, Budhi Kunderan and Rusi Surti, all of who played for India in the 1960s, with the first named alone extending his career to the next decade. Among these three, Engineer and Kunderan had a running battle for the slot of wicketkeeper in the side, while Surti was a left-handed all-rounder, who was nicknamed “poor man's Gary Sobers” as he could do all that the great man could, albeit with lesser success.

So much has been written about the career of Engineer and his flamboyance, both with the bat and while donning the big gloves, that anything further would amount to tedious repetition. He was awarded a contract to play for English county Lancashire in 1968 and he continued to play for them till his retirement in 1976. He was not selected for the tour of the West Indies in 1971 despite being the best stumper around as the selectors decided that he should not be considered since he did not play any match in domestic cricket circuit. But three months later, he was selected for the tour of England, despite his county making it clear that he would be released to play only in Test matches, forcing India to include two extra wicketkeepers in their squad!

Engineer was one of the most popular players at Manchester, the headquarters of Lancashire cricket, and crowds used to travel long distances to watch him play. After retirement, he decided to settle down there with his wife Julie.

Farokh Engineer
Farokh Engineer. File photo

Budhisagar Krishnappa (Budhi) Kunderan was born in Karnataka but brought up in the chawls of Mumbai. Legend has it that his father forbade him from playing the game and he was helped secretly by his mother who stitched his cricketing whites. It was only when he saw Budhi’s photo in newspapers for scoring a double century in a local match that Kunderan Senior came to know about his son’s cricketing prowess. After that his move up the ladder was lightning quick. He was selected to the Railways on sports quota. Lala Amarnath, the then chairman of the national selection committee, saw Kunderan batting in the nets of Railways and was so impressed that he selected him straight to the Indian team playing against the touring Australia in the winter of 1959-60.

Kunderan made his debut in Test cricket at Mumbai at the age of 20. Since he was a local, the BCCI did not provide him accommodation and he was forced to stay at home and travel by train in the morning to reach the stadium! After a rather sedate debut in his home town in which he was dismissed hit-wicket in the second innings, Kunderan stunned the Aussies in the next Test at Chennai. Asked to open the batting, Kunderan put the Australian attack consisting of Alan Davidson and Ian Meckiff to sword by batting in a cavalier fashion. The bowlers did not know how to react as Kunderan scored a stroke-filled 71 which was the top score in the Indian total of 149. The Aussies tried to sledge him but Kunderan was so naive that he could not follow what they were saying and wondered why there was so much muttering on the field! He followed this with a knock of 30 in the second innings and though India lost the Test, a new hero was born.

Musical chairs

However, in the series that followed, he played only in the last two Tests and was dropped after the first Test of the series against the touring England in 1961-62. Engineer, who replaced him, cemented his place as India’s first choice stumper during the tour of the West Indies as well. But when Engineer suffered an injury prior to the start of the next series, against England in 1963-64, it was Kunderan’s turn to make the most of this chance. He started with an innings of 192 in the first Test at Chennai and followed this up with another hundred and a half-century in the last two Tests.

Yet, when the next series started, neither he nor Engineer were considered; it was a rookie stumper named K S Indrajitsinhji who kept wickets for India!

Kunderan played in the first two Tests of the home series against the West Indies in 1966-67 and was top scorer in one innings each in these two matches. Yet, he was dropped to make way for Engineer in the last match.

During the tour of England that followed, he played in the last two Tests and performed creditably. He even opened the bowling in the third Test at Birmingham. However, he was axed when the squad for the tours of Australia and New Zealand were picked later in the year. Exasperated by this repeated acts of injustice on the part of selectors, Kunderan negotiated a contract with Drumpellier, a club side in the Scottish league and emigrated to Glasgow in 1970. There he continued playing for this club as a professional before hanging up his boots in 1995. He passed away in Scotland in 2006, after losing a battle with lung cancer, at the age of 66. Kunderan's knock of 192 remained the highest score by an Indian wicketkeeper in Tests till M S Dhoni smashed 224 in the 2013 Chennai Test against Australia.

MSD
M S Dhoni holds the record for the highest Test score by an Indian wicketkeeper. File photo

Rusi Framroze Surti was a lion-hearted cricketer, who could bat at any place in the order, bowl both medium pace and spin and field brilliantly, both close to the wicket as well as in the deep. He made his debut against Pakistan in the first Test of the series at Mumbai in December, 1960. After this match, he played in the last Test of the series where he scored his first half-century. He was not considered during the series against England in 1961-62, but made it to the squad for the tour of the West Indies that followed.

He was one of the few players in the side who stood up to the fast bowlers on that tour and returned with his reputation intact. But he found himself in the sidelines when England visited India during the next season. After that he was in and out of the side during the next three years, playing the odd Test or two but never becoming a permanent member of the playing eleven.

Surti finally hit his peak during the twin tours of  Australia and New Zealand in 1967-68. He started the tour with knocks of 70 and 53 and figures of 5/74 in the first Test at Adelaide and did not look back. Along with M L Jaisimha, he took India to the verge of victory in the third Test against Australia at Brisbane, where they lost the match by a mere 39 runs. He amassed 688 runs in the eight Tests played in Australia and New Zealand and picked up 26 wickets. This included six half-centuries and Surti missed out on his maiden Test hundred against New Zealand at Auckland by one run.

After such an outstanding run with both bat and ball, one would have expected Surti to be an automatic choice for the side when New Zealand and Australia visited India in the winter of 1968-69.

Shabby treatment

However, Vijay Merchant, who was heading the selection committee, decided that the series against the Kiwis should be used for trying out youngsters, which proved to be a disaster as India suffered a shock defeat in the second Test and came every close to losing the third. Surti was dropped after the second game but brought back for the first Test of the series against Australia. He did not have a good match and was dropped again. At this point of time, he received an offer from Queensland to play first-class cricket in Australia. He grabbed the offer and moved to Brisbane, where he became the first Indian to play in Sheffield Shield, the domestic first class cricket championship of Australia. He performed creditably for Queensland till he retired from first-class cricket in 1972 and settled down in that country. He passed away in 2013 at the age of 76.

It would be seen that both Kunderan and Surti were outstanding players who came good in the limited opportunities that they got. It is also noteworthy that both of them would have made excellent cricketers in the limited overs version of the game, given their penchant to play attacking cricket and the wide range of strokes at their command. It is a pity that their worth was not fully recognised in the country of their birth and they could win due respect and regard only abroad.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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