At 75, Farokh Engineer keeps blasting away

Farokh Engineer is 75 today (February 25, 2013). At heart he is still a very young man, who loves being gregarious, enjoys the changes in the game and is always questioning actions by cricket administrators when he doesn’t agree with something.

Farokh Engineer
Farokh Engineer

He also likes to indulge in some friendly bluff. That said, the Manchester-based Engineer belongs to a rare breed of cricket characters and his cricketing deeds rightfully made him very popular in India and England. He is delighted to be in Mumbai to celebrate his landmark birthday with friends at a South Mumbai restaurant today.

While speaking to MiD DAY at the Cricket Club of India’s poolside last week, Engineer recalled that he contributed to Indian and English cricket by signing up for Lancashire in the late 1960s. “I was the first Indian to be wanted by four counties – Somerset, Worcestershire, Hampshire and Lancashire. No other Indian was offered a contract. India were not doing well at the international level.

We were known for our defensive, dour batting. I went there and blasted away. I would like to believe that I changed the sequence of things. I brought that aggression into Test cricket under Tiger Pataudi and Ajit Wadekar’s captaincy. I encouraged players to be more aggressive in every way. What I said to them was, ‘we are not going to buckle down to foreigners. We are going to show them that we are better than you guys.’ I am glad to see that we have a good Indian team and I reckon we are going to beat Australia easily.”

Pic/MiD Day Archives

The Brabourne Stadium turf just a few yards away from our meeting place evoked some fond memories for Engineer. “I got a hundred against England here in 1972-73 and JRD Tata in his white safari suit came down from the Governor’s Pavilion and gave me a big hug in front of the full stadium. ‘I’m sweating, Mr Tata,’ I said. In the dressing room, he brought me a glass of water while my teammates were congratulating me. When I sat down with a towel over my head, I felt someone taking off the buckles of my pad. It was Mr Tata. ‘Please don’t embarrass me,’ I said. And he replied: ‘ok, lunch at Bombay House?’ and I said, ‘yes sir.’ According to Engineer, the great Tata also liked him because flying was their common interest. “I flew small aircrafts as a hobby in South America and England,” he revealed.

Engineer did his schooling at Don Bosco. His brother Darius was, “a far better player than me, but never really made it,” he reckoned. Actor Shashi Kapoor was his best friend at the Matunga school. “I remember the old rector telling me in his Italian accent, ‘cricket will not pay you in life, son.’ He would hate it when I went for my cricket practice and when Shashi would go for his acting lessons. Thirty years later, we were both invited for a school function and the same priest said to the audience, ‘Don Bosco gave them every encouragement to succeed and look where they are in life now. Shashi and I looked at each other and winked.”

Being introduced to the Queen by skipper Wadekar. Sardesai and Abbas Ali Baig await their turn. PIC/Farokh Engineer testimonial year book 1976

Engineer orders another round of kebabs which he has relished alongwith his coconut water. He sure loves the Indian fare. It reminded me of our first meeting many years ago at the Taj where he said he was on a seafood diet. And before I wondered too much, he said, “ see food… whatever I see, I eat.”

His phone rings and it’s a friend called Tommy presumably from abroad, who is duly informed that his friend is in India and at the CCI. Staying in the United Kingdom for over 40 years hasn’t taken away his Indianness: “You won’t find a bigger Indian at heart than me. I am absolutely desi by heart. I am at times mistaken for being Italian or Greek.”

Talking of being Indian, the former stumper is surprised that the Indian cricket team is coached by foreigners. “I offered my services free of charge to the Indian cricket board (for the 2011 tour of England) and no one took any notice. I know every blade of grass in England. It just hurt me watching our team getting hammered left, right and centre. They were making elementary mistakes and kept repeating them. I could have set things right. I was not going to step on anyone’s toes,” he said.

Classic: Eknath Solkar (right) dives to catch England’s Alan Knott off Venkat for 1 at the Oval in 1971. PIC/Getty Images

Engineer is no BCCI-basher though: “I don’t want to be critical of our Board of Control because they have done some marvellous things for cricket and cricketers. Hats off to N Srinivasan. I was with him at the Pataudi Memorial Lecture in Chennai and he knows his facts and figures. He has been a fantastic Board president.”  Engineer, who played 46 Tests for India between 1961 and 1975, was rewarded with Rs 60 lakh in the Board’s one-time payment scheme last year.

While Engineer has no problems with the current powers that be, he was not exactly friends with the administration in his playing days. In the third Test of the 1966-67 series against the West Indies at Chennai, Engineer fell six runs short of becoming the first Indian to score a Test century before lunch. He was not out on 94 at the interval and eventually got 109. Another century effort - from Chandu Borde – helped India post 404, India’s highest score in the series. The hosts nearly won that Test with West Indies finishing on 270 for seven. However, Engineer did not play the previous two Tests. There was a school of thought that the selectors picked him so that he could fail against the most formidable fast bowling attack in the world. This ‘plan’ went awry as the brilliant Engineer showed what he was made up of. “Yeah, I had something to prove (in Chennai). The selection committee was awful… totally biased. I was deprived of captaincy too. Our selectors ought to have been ashamed of themselves those days. They did so many wrong things,” he said.

Engineer was not part of the tour to the West Indies in 1971. When he returned to India from England, he was told by a selector: ‘What can we select you on – the newspaper reports?’ However, Engineer didn’t miss out being a member of the victorious 1971 team in England.  He fumed, tucking into another kebab: “They were a bunch of clowns frankly; bunch of idiots. I was penalised for suggesting that we fly from Mumbai to Kolkata on one occasion. I was even appointed captain once and was struck off the list for insubordination.”

Eknath Solkar’s brilliance at short leg was too close for Engineer to ignore from where he stood. He revealed that India’s greatest fielder was never sure of his place in the team. “Eknath didn’t deserve such treatment. He would be frightened about not being picked for the next Test and as a senior player I had to guarantee him a place. I said to him, ‘Ekki, we will not take the field without you. You are a star. You are the one who is catching all of them. ’

“He was a real hero. After a game, while we enjoyed our beer, poor Ekki would be in a corner with ice in his hands, rubbing his knees. He got whacked continuously (while fielding). We didn’t have physios in those days – only a man who would do some champi,” he said.

Unfair selection and high-handed officialdom led to a drop in team spirit, he admitted. “It was bound to affect team spirit. Tiger was too outspoken for some of those people and our personalities were similar. Some of the BCCI officials didn’t like our attacking approach. We sort of gave out a playboy image and most of it was media-exaggerated. I am not saying we didn’t have a good time, but we knew our responsibilities and we gave it our best shot on match days.”

Engineer has lived an exciting 75 years – right from his childhood days at Dadar to enjoying his evenings at CCI far away from his Manchester home. He is eternally grateful to a lot of people - his parents Manecksha and Minnie, brother Darius and above all to the One above. “Every morning I wake up and say, thank you to God. Somebody up there likes me; he has been very good to me,” he stressed.

With the clock inching towards half past 10, we bid goodbye. Engineer is not ready to leave the poolside for his room at the CCI Chambers across the road. He won’t have another plate of kebabs, I am convinced. Maybe some dessert, I reckon. Or probably, just spend time with himself, staring at the calm swimming pool to reflect on his life’s journey.

Well played FM Engineer… not out 75!

What they said about Farokh Engineer…

Throughout the years I’ve always enjoyed Farokh’s entertaining batsmanship and the way he enjoys the game of cricket. He’s one of the game’s great ambassadors and, off the field, is always a delight to talk to.
- Sir Don Bradman

Farokh has always been a favourite cricketer of mine. Everything is a challenge to him, whether it is batting or wicket-keeping, or in controlling the game.
- Richie Benaud 

Courtesy: Farokh Engineer Testimonial Yearbook 1976

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