Prithvi Shaw, Indian cricketer who is presently out of the reckoning for a place in the national squad, was in the news recently for striking a double century off only 129 balls for the English county Northamptonshire in the One-Day Cup match against Somerset. Shaw hit 22 boundaries and 11 sixers during the course of his knock of 244, which, incidentally, is the highest individual score in the history of the championship. This is Shaw’s second double hundred in a List ‘A’ match, with the first one coming while playing for Mumbai against Puducherry in a Vijay Hazare Trophy match in February, 2021.
However, this innings did not win Shaw a place in the national squad for Asia Cup. Nor has this improved his chances for selection to the Indian team for the International Cricket Council World Cup, which is scheduled to start in October. Incidentally, Shaw was diagnosed with a having a grade 2 tear of posterior cruciate ligament of his knee joint, which has ruled him out of active cricket for a few months.
A couple of months back, Cheteshwar Pujara was also in the limelight for his tremendous success in converting fifties into hundreds in the county championship. Turning out for Sussex, he scored 1,094 runs in 2022, with five centuries and struck three hundreds in the first seven innings of the 2023 season. So much so that when he was dismissed for 77 against Leicestershire, it became news as it was a rare instance of the batsman not reaching 100 after crossing 50! But despite this run of tall scores, Pujara did not do well in the final of the World Test Championship and was dropped from the national side following this.
These two instances bring forth the question regarding the quality of cricket played presently in the English county circuit. Are the standards prevailing there so poor that even batsmen past their prime can make tall scores with ease? Or is it that India is having a surfeit of not only talent but also adequate opportunities in our midst that we can afford to ignore big ticket performances in the oldest first-class championship in world cricket? The former cannot be true as England is currently one of the top sides in Test cricket, besides being the reigning champions in ICC World Cup and T20 World Cup. Logic suggests that it is impossible for a country with poor standards in domestic cricket to lead the pecking order in the international arena.
While thinking about this conundrum, one’s thoughts went to the period till a few decades ago, when only the top players got a chance to play first-class cricket in England. Till 1968, counties did not allow foreign players to turn out for them as professionals. Hence only residents and students from other countries studying in the universities could dream of being part of this circuit. Thus, the Indian presence before independence was limited to the royalty, who alone had the resources to go to England, stay there and prove their mettle in the championship there. But to their credit, the British recognised talent and had no qualm about including Ranjitsinhji, Duleepsinhji and Ifthikar Ali Khan Pataudi in their national squad.
In the first decade after independence, players from India played as professionals for cricket clubs during the season there. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who had his entire education in England, became the first Indian to turn out for a county, when he played for Sussex in 1957 while still in school. He also led Oxford University during his college days and it was while playing for this side that he met with the car accident that caused permanent damage to his right eye. He continued playing for Sussex and also led the side during the 1966 season. Abbas Ali Baig too played for Oxford university during his days there as a student.
Farokh Engineer, the flamboyant wicketkeeper-batsman, was the first Indian hired as a professional, when rules were relaxed in 1968 permitting non-residents to turn out for counties. He was approached by many sides but decided to cast his lot with Lancashire. Engineer turned out to be the ultimate pro and was a big hit with both the officials and the supporters of this county. He took such a great liking for Lancashire that he made this place his home and stopped playing domestic first-class cricket in India, on account of which he was not selected for the tour of West Indies in 1971. Despite this, Engineer was very clear where his priorities lay and skipped the first-class matches during India’s tour to England in 1971 to honour his commitments to his county. Not surprisingly, he settled down in Manchester after his playing days and continues to be a popular and revered figure in the cricket circles in this city.
Bishan Singh Bedi was contracted by Northamptonshire in 1972 and played for this county till 1976. Bedi too was a popular cricketer and he quickly adjusted his bowling to the requirements of the one-day game which had gained popularity in England by this time. He had to leave this county in rather unhappy circumstances as they refused to extend his contract in 1977 despite excellent performances during the previous year. It was widely rumoured that his stand during the “vaseline controversy”, when he accused John Lever of cheating by using a cream to polish the ball to get it swing more during the 1976-77 series, angered the county management and led to his ouster.
Srinivas Venkataraghavan played for Derbyshire for three seasons from 1973 to 1975. He equipped himself reasonably well, picking up a total of 189 wickets. However, the county did not renew the contract after 1975 as they had, by this time, found in Geoff Miller a homegrown talent, who could bowl off-spin with reasonable success.
Sunil Gavaskar had made known his aversion to county cricket as taking part in it would have meant playing the game round the year. But he made an exception in 1980 when Somerset sent him an offer to turn out for the side in place of Viv Richards, who could not play for the county on account of his commitments with the West Indies side. Gavaskar’s single year stint with Somerset was not a great one in terms of runs scored. But his regular columns from England, while playing for this county, helped the followers of the game in India to understand about the conditions in which first-class cricket was played in England.
Ravi Shastri and Mohammad Azharuddin also did their stints in county cricket towards the close of 1980s and early 1990s. Shastri was a successful professional for the Welsh county of Glamorgan while Azharuddin played for Derbyshire. Yorkshire lifted their policy of not allowing non-residents to play for them by engaging the 19-year-old Sachin Tendulkar in 1992. Tendulkar has gone on record that his exposure to the county circuit at the beginning of his career and the experience stood him in good stead through the rest of his playing days.
The Indian duo of Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly lit up English county circuit at the turn of the century. Dravid turned out for Kent in 2000 while Ganguly had three stints with three separate counties - Lancashire in 2000, Glamorgan in 2005 and Northamptonshire in 2006. Dravid’s stint with Kent was instrumental in recruiting the services of John Wright as coach of national side. Ganguly was not a popular pro though he pulled his weight with both bat and ball.
All the above players in the post independence era, with the exception of Pataudi, were recruited to play for the counties based on their performances in international cricket. However, there is one player who forced his way to the national side based on his achievements in county cricket. This is Dilip Doshi, the bespectacled left-arm spin bowler who played for India from 1979 till 1983. Doshi began his career in first-class cricket for Saurashtra before shifting base to Bengal. But, more importantly, he started playing for Nottinghamshire from 1973 onwards, where he created an excellent impression as a top class bowler. But a place in the national squad eluded him as Bedi was considered to be better than him in this department. When Bedi lost his place in the side after the tour of England in 1979, Doshi stepped into his shoes with ease. It was reported that his name was recommended by Rohan Kanhai to skipper Gavaskar, as a possible replacement for Bedi, when the two met in London at the close of the series. Doshi picked up 114 wickets in his short career of 33 Tests and was a vital cog in the Indian bowling machine during this period. Doshi later played for Warwickshire also.
It is only in recent years that English counties have started contracting Indian players who are not regulars in the national side. The fact that almost of them have performed creditably speaks about the pool of talent available in India and the ability of the players concerned to adapt to the conditions in England. The attractions that county cricket held on monetary terms might have come down in recent years, especially after the commencement of Indian Premier League, but there is no denying the fact that exposure to the conditions and the players in this tough cricket circuit will help the players to not only sharpen their skills but make them stronger in their mind as well.
Before concluding, one must make a mention about the old world charm of county cricket that prompted people like Raj Singh Dungarpur to spend their summers in England, following the matches played there. The romantics among the followers will forever vouch that there is nothing more beautiful or engaging than watching the game played using a red ball, with the players clothed in their whites. And no place brings out the inherent allure and elegance of this sport better than England, the country where it originated. It is the hope and prayer of old-timers among the fans of this sport that this bastion of conventional cricket continues to retain its majesty and grace in the years ahead.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)