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Pankaj : Bengal’s Forgotten Cricket Legend
By Gautam Bhattacharya. Edited and conceptualised by Pranab Roy. Translated by Soma Das
Supernova Publishers; hardcover. 300 pages; illustrated.
By Gulu Ezekiel
The 1950s can be considered the dark ages of Indian cricket when the national team lurched from one disastrous defeat to another. Having made a promising start in the 1930s, this was the bleakest decade for the game in the country. It was also a time when dissension within the team and conspiracy theories and sabotage reached its peak. It took a Tiger Pataudi early in the next decade to drag Indian cricket out of its morass. Perhaps as a result there is not much writing on that period and so any book that covers it should be welcomed by the Indian cricket fraternity.
Well-known Bengali cricket journalist Gautam Bhattacharya’s tribute to Bengal’s first cricket legend Pankaj Roy, who passed away in 2001, is a valiant attempt to fill that breach. But its major flaws lie in the substandard translation from the original language edition as well in the editing and fact checking.
‘Lost in Translation’ could well be the sub-title and when one comes to the end of the book and reads ‘bells’ repeatedly in place of ‘bails’, Charlie ‘Stairs’ instead of Stayers and Allan ‘Ray’ in place of Rae, one can only despair. There are also many phrases that must have sounded delightful in the original Bengali but have not been effectively translated.
The author too is mistaken when claiming that Indian wicket-keeper Probir Sen stumped Don Bradman twice on the 1947-48 tour Down Under (it happened once) and that Frank Worrell was captain when India toured West Indies for the first time in 1953-54 (it was
A recurring theme of the narration is the neglect of the legend of Pankaj Roy within Bengal’s own cricket fraternity (hence the ‘forgotten’ in the sub-title), something which his family obviously feels acutely about considering it is son Pranab who was behind the idea from the start and has edited the book. Pranab followed in his father’s footsteps by opening the batting for India, though only in two Tests while his father played in 43 and also became the national selector from East Zone like his father. The book therefore is a labour of love from son to father.
Ironically, though Bengal’s neglect is stark, Roy has long been admired in Mumbai cricket circles that is often the target of criticism from the rest of the country, much of it borne out of jealousy of the city’s massive contribution to cricket. Here the author is fulsome in his praise for Mumbai’s recognition of Bengal’s cricket pioneer.
The other recurring theme is the neglect of Bengal’s cricketers (particularly its fine array of pace bowlers) at the national level, from Shute Banerjee and Samar Chakraborty to Subrata Guha and Ranadeb Bose and Ashok Dinda as well as others such as Gopal Bose and Shyam Sunder Mitra. Here though it is accepted that their neglect was largely at the hands of their own selectors from East Zone and Pankaj was not faultless either in this regard during his stint as selector, though there is no mention of this in the narrative. The bitterness and various camps within the Indian team is also elaborated though the conspiracy theories around Roy’s sole Test as captain tend to sound rather far-fetched.
Pankaj playing as many as 43 Tests in an era when there was constant chopping and changing in the national squad is considered something of a miracle though much credit for this is given to Bengal strongman M. Dutta Ray who controlled cricket and football with an iron fist (and apparently an iron heart) in that period. The fact that Roy throughout his career represented Dutta Ray’s beloved Sporting Union Club is seen as the major factor in his keeping his place in the national squad despite the shock of five ducks on the disastrous 1952 tour of England where debutant Fred Trueman traumatized and terrorized the Indian batsman. Many players from outside Bengal have been permanently dropped and forgotten for much less. Two such glaring examples are Gujarat’s Deepak Shodhan and Bombay’s Madhav Apte whose blossoming Test careers were cruelly cut short by politics. So it is not only Bengal that has suffered in that regard.
The author often refers to Bengal’s glorious tradition in literature and cinema and his casual references to places in Kolkata, ranging from Behala (where the other Bengal cricket legend Sourav Ganguly comes from) and Kumartuli (Roy’s stomping ground) as well as the many clubs on Kolkata’s vast maidan may well go over the heads of those not familiar with such matters. Obviously the book is specifically targeted at the Bengali reader.
Another member of the Roy family received national recognition, Pankaj’s nephew Ambar Roy, a dashing left-hander who too played just two Tests and was also a national selector from East Zone. Some of the book’s best insights are when the author draws comparisons between the work ethic of Pankaj and the indolent, laidback lifestyle of his talented nephew who blazed like a comet both in cricket and life (he died at the age of 52).
Invariably there are comparisons between Pankaj and Sourav (who has written an insightful foreword), Bengal cricket’s torchbearers across the generations. Both came from extremely wealthy backgrounds, Roy’s family being one of Bengal’s leading zamindars (land owners). Wealth and fame was never their motivation. Both in temperament and technique, the two were different though.
Roy’s greatest achievements are well chronicled. The highlight of his Test career was the 413 runs opening stand with Vinoo Mankad against New Zealand at Madras in January 1956 which stood as a world record for over 50 years. His other great feat was in the Ranji Trophy quarterfinals against Hyderabad at Eden Gardens in 1963 where he withstood the fierce pace of the bloodthirsty West Indian Roy Gilchrist (who was a guest player in India that season) to score a century in both innings three years after his Test career had come to an abrupt and controversial end.
Despite its flaws, this is a precious book which no student of Indian cricket can afford to miss. The author needs to be congratulated for taking up such a challenging venture and making a success of it.
--The writer is a freelancer sports writer and author of numerous books and is based in New Delhi.