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By Suresh Menon
Of the five Indian captains born in July, generous tributes have been paid to three of the more recent ones. Sunil Gavaskar, Sourav Ganguly and Mahendra Singh Dhoni have all been both successful as well as significant captains, and have been feted this month.
Two others did not have long innings at the top but are historically important too. Hemu Adhikari, the older of them, played India’s inaugural Test against Australia, West Indies and Pakistan. He made 63 and 40 in the last of his 21 Tests besides claiming three wickets. That was in the notorious 1958-59 series against the West Indies when four men led India in five Tests. The match, his first and last as captain, was drawn.
But his significant contribution to Indian cricket came over a decade later when he became the national coach and plotted India’s first series win in England (he was the manager of the team, Ajit Wadekar the captain) in 1971. As a fielder he had been top class, a rarity among the Indian teams of his time, and it was this culture of fielding and fitness that he developed in the national side.
As a manager Col. Adhikari was a martinet, as befit a military man, and stories of his chastising players regardless of seniority and skill are legion. This, in the days of the daily curfew during matches – and many a cricketer made his reputation then by the imaginative manner in which he broke the manager’s strict rules.
Decades later, during a benefit series for him in Sharjah, we spent time together in his VIP box during matches. He had mellowed, but even as he approached his 80th birthday, his mind was sharp and his memories clear. He recalled the series in Australia against Don Bradman – but impressed as he was by the Don’s batting and total authority at the crease, it was his fielding that struck Adhikari. “He was quite incredible as a batsman who knew what you were bowling even before you did,” he said gently, “Bradman was such a great batsman that we forget he was a superb fielder too.” This he said of a Bradman approaching 40, with just one more series – the triumphant march through England in 1948 – ahead of him.
India did have the odd good fielder (“Meet Gul Mohammed, India’s greatest cover point,” the great Lala Amarnath once introduced me to one of them in Pakistan), but it was Adhikari who laid emphasis on fielding and fitness from the grassroot level. In this he was a pioneer, just as Gulabrai Ramchand, another Indian captain born this month, was, as the first to lead India to victory over Australia in a Test match.
This was in Kanpur, in the match immortalized by the bowling of the off spinner Jasu Patel who claimed 14 wickets for 124 runs. Ramchand was an all rounder, a fierce striker of the ball, and in another strain that has been developed to a high degree of sophistication today, was among the first Indian cricketers to endorse commercial products as a model.
Before Tiger Pataudi emerged and claimed the title for his own, Ramchand was seen as the ‘bold’ Indian captain who approached a game in a positive state of mind and was not averse to taking risks.
Interestingly enough, he might have led India in the Test where Adhikari finally got the nod but for a ridiculous mix up. The fourth Test in Chennai had finished on Republic Day, after which the selectors met and decided to ask Ramchand to lead in the fifth. But Ramchand and the other Mumbai players had left early for the railway station to avoid the crowds on the national holiday, and by the time the official sent to inform him of his elevation reached the station, the train had left.
Had Ramchand been tardy, he might have led India then, but the selectors decided to ask Adhikari rather than chase after Ramchand. Ramchand was dropped for the final Test, and missed the tour of England – where he might have been captain - which followed. After D K Gaekwad, who led to England messed up that series (India lost 0-5), Ramchand was recalled to lead against Australia. Such were the might-have-beens of Indian cricket those days!
Adhikari and Ramchand died within weeks of each other in 2003, their places in Indian cricket history assured.