Who is the best wicketkeeper to have played for India? People who watched cricket prior to World War II might vouch for the efficiency of Dattaram Hindlekar, while those who followed the game during 1960s and early 70s would recall the flamboyance of Farokh Engineer. The fans of the game from the present generation are likely to swear by the brilliance of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. But for those of us who have been following the game from early 1970s onwards, Syed Mujtaba Hussein Kirmani will always remain at the top of the list of stumpers who played for the country.
Kirmani first came into attention at the national level as the vice-captain of the Indian schoolboys side that toured England in 1967. He soon earned a name for having a safe pair of hands behind the stumps and made his first-class debut at the rather young age of 18, turning out for the state of Mysore, present day Karnataka, in Ranji Trophy. He was selected as the third wicketkeeper of the Indian side that toured England in 1971, behind Engineer and Pcohiah Krishnamurthy. When India visited England in 1974, Kirmani was the only stumper in the side other than Engineer.
The presence of Engineer in the national side prevented Kirmani from making his international debut till the selectors decided that they had seen enough of the England-based veteran. Kirmani moved as the first wicketkeeper of the squad when India toured New Zealand in 1976. He started with a bang, snaring six, equalling the existing world record of that time, in only his second Test. But he suffered a drop in form subsequently when the side moved to the West Indies for the second half of the twin tour. But despite this, the selectors did not look beyond him during the home season of 1976-77 when New Zealand and England toured India. He had a splendid tour of Australia in 1977-78 when his work behind the stumps, while keeping to the famous spin quartet of Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (Chandra), Bishan Singh Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan, was hailed by no less a critic than Jack Fingleton as one of the best exhibitions of wicketkeeping that he had seen.
Though he was in top form during the 1978-79 season, Kirmani found himself out of the side when the squad to tour England for the 1979 World Cup and the Test series after that, was announced. It was rumoured that his sacking was due to him expressing a keen interest in joining the Kerry Packer sponsored World Series Cricket (WSC) and keeping the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in the dark about his discussions with the representatives of the WSC. This strong action by the BCCI was not expected and came as a rude shock to him. The WSC also wound up soon afterwards as a compromise was reached by the Australian Cricket Board with Packer regarding sharing of television rights in that country. Thus Kirmani found himself left in the cold, with neither a place in the national squad nor a contract with the WSC.
The lacklustre performances of Surinder Khanna and Bharat Reddy, who replaced him behind the stumps during the World Cup and Tests against England respectively, ensured that Kirmani was back in the side when the Test series against Australia started in September, 1979. This also marked the beginning of a new phase in the career of Kirmani as the spin quartet that had been an integral part of Indian bowling from mid 1960s left the scene and focus of attack shifted to pace bowling. Kapil Dev, who made his debut in 1978, became the spearhead of the Indian bowling attack and he was ably supported in the pace bowling department by Karsan Ghavri and Roger Binny. Dilip Doshi and Shivlal Yadav, the spin bowlers in the side, were reduced to being the support cast to the the fast bowlers, a sea change from what used to exist until a year ago. However, Kirmani showed that his prowess behind the stumps was second to none while keeping to fast bowlers as well. His collections on the leg side were outstanding and this lent an extra edge to the attack. An example in this regard was the catch he took to dismiss Zaheer Abbas during the Chennai Test in January, 1980, when the batsman believed he had played an authentic leg glance but was stunned to see Kirmani diving full length to his left to pluck the ball out of thin air!
Kirmani continued his excellent form when India toured Australia in 1980-81. In the third Test at Melbourne where India came from behind to score an upset win over the hosts, Kirmani showed his mettle by effecting a brilliant stumping to remove Graeme Wood in the second innings. Chasing a target of 143, Australia were rendered an early shock when John Dyson and Greg Chappell were dismissed in quick succession. In the next over, Wood attempted to sweep Doshi and missed the ball only to see Kirmani collecting it from the leg side and whipping off the bails in one swift motion. Richie Benaud, then commentating on Radio Australia and not given to hyperbole, was so enchanted by the speed at which the stumping was executed that he gushed, “this is the best leg side stumping I have seen in my life!”
When Kapil Dev was appointed as captain of the side to tour West Indies in 1983, Kirmani was appointed as his deputy. But he had a disappointing tour repeatedly dropping catches, including a couple offered by the great Viv Richards! This inability of Kirmani to preform well in the West Indies has baffled everyone and the most common reason attributed is that the bounce offered by the wickets there made things difficult for him. But the same holds true for pitches in Australia as well but Kirmani was always in excellent nick Down Under.
The consequence of this bad outing to the Caribbean islands was the loss of the responsibility of vice-captaincy when India went to England for the Prudential World Cup in 1983. Kirmani performed brilliantly both behind the stumps and was chosen as the “Best Wicketkeeper” of the championship. The catch retook to dismiss Faoud Bacchus in the final against the West Indies, when he dived in front of first slip to hold the edge will remain etched in the memory of all those who witnessed it. His efforts with the bat were equally important.
In the game against Zimbabwe at Tunbridge Wells, where Kapil Dev rescued India with his unbeaten innings of 175, it was Kirmani who gave support to the skipper take the score from 140/8 to a respectable total of 266/8. Kirmani’s contribution was an unbeaten 24 off 56 balls, as he played second fiddle to Kapil, who was slaying the Zimbabwean attack at the other end. In the final too, he was involved in a last-wicket stand of 22 runs with Balwinder Singh Sandhu, which was significant in the low-scoring match that India won by 43 runs.
Kirmani was not in his element when England toured India in 1984-85, when the hosts lost a series that many thought they would win with ease. When the side for the World Championship of Cricket in Australia that followed was announced, the slot of wicketkeeper went to Sadanand Viswanath, another stumper from Bangalore. Viswanath performed brilliantly in that championship but was found wanting during the tour of Sri Lanka that followed. Hence for the tour of Australia in 1985-86, Kirmani was brought back and he performed well in the Tests. Unfortunately, he was injured at the start of the tri-nation limited overs championship that followed and his place was taken by Kiran More.
No one would have imagined that Kirmani’s international career would come to an end with this injury. The selection committee did not pick him for the tour of England in 1986 or for any of the 12 Tests and numerous One-Day Internationals played at home during the 1986-87 season. However, Kirmani did not give up and shifted to Railways in domestic cricket as he did not wish to stand in the way of the progress of Viswanath, who also hailed from the same state. Though he was in reckoning for a comeback to the national side for the tour to Australia of 1991-92, this did not materialise. He continued to play first-class cricket till the close of 1993-94 season, a good eight years after his last international appearance.
After his retirement, Kirmani served as chairman of the national selection committee during 2003-04. He was awarded Padma Shri in 1982 and presented the C K Nayudu Lifetime Achievement Award by the BCCI in 2016. He also acted in the movie “Kabhi Ajnabhi The” which had his fellow player Sandeep Patil in the lead role.
Kirmani’s success behind the stumps was on account of the fact that he could read Chandra’s bowling perfectly. Chandra was one of the most difficult bowlers to keep wickets to, due to the speed at which he delivered the googlies and flippers and the unpredictable bounce and turn he could obtain even on seemingly docile wickets due to his unique action. As Kirmani learnt the basics of his art from the practice nets of the Karnataka Cricket Association, he acquired a rare expertise in keeping wickets to both Chandra and Prasanna. This stood him in good stead during the early part of his career while his remarkable agility and powers of anticipation helped him during the latter part when pace bowlers led the attack.
He was a complete wicketkeeper, at home with both fast bowlers and spinners, who went about his task in a quiet and efficient manner. His batting was founded on the basics of grit and determination and the two test centuries stand as proof of his capacity with the willow. He represented India in 88 Tests and 49 ODIs.
In the final analysis, Kirmani was an integral component of the Indian side that came of age during the late 1970s and early 80s. He was an archetypal team man, a doughty fighter who served the cause of his side till the proverbial last drop, besides being one of the best wicketkeepers the country has produced. Efficiency, not exhibition, was his watchword and safety, not swagger, his style during the years he kept wickets for the country and offered the highest security possible behind the stumps to the bowlers.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)