Remembering Ramesh Saxena: Spin and other turns

The story of domestic cricket star Ramesh Saxena and his challenging times which led to his death

The final chapter of Ramesh Saxena, the child prodigy, who ironically ended up playing only one Test for India in 1967, reflects the ebb and flow of cricket -- adversity, recovery and a crushing defeat. Saxena died on August 16 this year, failing to come out of a coma. He left behind wife Karuna and two sons, Saurav and Vineet. Yesterday, he would have celebrated his 67th birthday.

Classy: Ramesh Saxena at the Eden Gardens during the 1960s.
Pic Courtesy: Saxena family

In May last year, Saxena travelled from his home in Jamshedpur to Kolkata en route to Sikkim for a holiday. At Howrah Station, he told Karuna that he was unable to move the hand he put into his pocket to pluck out some money. Within a few hours, his family was told that he had suffered a stroke.

The Sikkim holiday was cancelled and after a few days at Ruby Hospital in Kolkata, Saxena returned to Jamshedpur where he made a steady recovery. The stroke did not cause any memory loss, but speech was an issue. "He used to get stuck for words especially when it came to long answers," said Saurav. He was fit enough to attend a few cricket-related meetings too. However, earlier this year Saxena and his wife suffered from fever at a time Jamshedpur was filled with cases of chikungunya. According to Saurav, his father suffered from hospital phobia, but getting admitted was inevitable when one evening, he fell off his chair and lost consciousness.

Getting a room in the Intensive Care Unit was not easy because the epidemic ensured that the hospital was full up. The following day, the family managed one but Saxena went into a coma and lost his fight for life. There were too many factors to fight -- infection, vital organs not responding to medicine, damage to kidneys and brain. Bihar lost a famous cricketing son. Jharkhand carved of Bihar as separate state in November 2000, but competed in the Ranji Trophy as Jharkhand only from the 2004-05 season. India captain MS Dhoni hails from the capital, Ranchi.

In his prime, Saxena was one the finest players of spin bowling in the country. To be hailed in this respect in the land of the turning ball was testimony to his willow wielding powers that fetched him 8155 first-class runs in 149 games. His left-arm spinning Bihar teammate and friend MR Bhalla recalls Saxena lofting Karnataka captain Erapalli Prasanna for a straight six when the two teams met in 1977-78, the season Karnataka won the Ranji Trophy.

Bishan Singh Bedi, who knew Saxena since his junior cricket days, said he, "never saw anyone in Indian cricket who could jump out to spinners like Saxena. He could create terror for the opposition. Unfortunately, Ramesh lacked in mental application and he had no one to guide him." Saxena played the Leeds Test against England in 1967 without success. He toured Australia and New Zealand in 1967-68, but couldn't find a place in the XI.

Saxena's Bihar skipper Daljit Singh, who led the team in the 1975-76 Ranji Trophy final loss to Mumbai, has no doubt that Saxena was in his small group (Hanumant Singh, ML Jaisimha and Gundappa Vishwanath) of the most naturally gifted Indian batsmen.

"We played junior and senior cricket together. Ramesh was a sprinter too and that helped him in running between wickets. He was swift and I don't recollect him refusing a single when we were batting," said Daljit, better known to the cricket world as the curator at the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium in Mohali. "Ramesh was a very warm and loving person. When he passed away, I felt I lost my brother," said Daljit.

Bhalla recalled how Saxena would never talk about his domestic cricket exploits. "We would pester him to speak about them, but he wouldn't. To us, he was an icon, but he never gave us the impression that we were inferior. Ramesh would go out of his way to talk and make juniors comfortable in our team," said Bhalla.

Hari Gidwani, who played for Delhi before Bihar, recalled how Saxena never believed in staying at the crease. "He danced down the pitch to the best spinners in business and it was a thrill to be at the other end while he did that," said Gidwani. The prolific domestic scorer remembered their 1980 Ranji game against Mumbai.

"Ravi Shastri made his debut in that match at Jamshedpur and I was mesmerised at the non-striker's end as Ramesh got 87, taking on Paddy Shivalkar. Ramesh was a compulsive driver of the ball and he reminded me of Rohan Kanhai � even in his looks," said Gidwani, who also spoke about Saxena's hundred against Saurashtra in 1982: "I walked into the Tata Main hospital and discovered Ramesh with a huge, swollen face. He was suffering from cellulites.

A few days later, we were preparing to face Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy quarter-finals. We wanted Ramesh to play, but he hadn't held a bat for a while. I tried to convince him by saying that for a player of his class, he didn't need practice, but he still hesitated. The next day, he came to the Keenan Stadium, played the game in which he got a hundred against a decent Saurashtra attack of Uday Joshi, Dhiraj Parsana and Rajendra Jadeja." That game against Saurashtra was Saxena's penultimate first-class one.

Six years later, Saxena was part of Raj Singh Dungarpur's selection committee which picked Sachin Tendulkar as a 16-year-old for the tour of Pakistan in 1989. It is not certain whether Saxena belonged to that part of the committee that didn't agree to Tendulkar's selection. Son Saurav said that his father did not talk about his little role in the batting maestro's career.

"He used to mention the talent of Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli. He had high hopes for both and said that they would be highly successful if they kept their heads on their shoulders. Papa never spoke about himself, but rejoiced in the cricketing ability of others," said Mumbai-based Saurav. This year, there will be no Papa to send a birthday card and flowers to. Saxena's fighting innings didn't result in a victory.

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