The 'Tiny' matter of fast bowling
Remembering the late Ramakant Desai, one of Mumbai and India's early pace bowling heroes, on his 80th birth anniversary
At the start of this World Cup, Sunil Gavaskar expressed his delight at the West Indies bouncing back metaphorically and literally after they won their first game against Pakistan at Trent Bridge.
Today, the cricketing world marks the birth anniversary of a fast bowler, who was not as well built as the current West Indians. In fact, he was nicknamed Tiny, but he could bowl a mean bouncer.
Ramakant Desai, born exactly 80 years ago, gave himself a birthday present a day before he turned 20 by claiming 5 for 89 on the second day of the 1959 Lord's Test which India lost to Peter May's England by eight wickets.
Bill Bowes, the great England fast bowler, covering the Test for The Cricketer magazine, was pleased to see Desai (5-89) and his new ball partner R Surendranath (3-46) hit back with their "antagonistic bowling" after India were bundled out for 168 on Day One. England were bowled out for 226. At one stage Desai and Surendranath had reduced the hosts to 80 for six. After dismissing England's first three batsmen, Desai sent Martin Horton's off stump flying and Godfrey Evans, who came in next, was hit on the side of the head. "He (Evans) shook himself like a wet terrier and prepared for the next ball," wrote Bowes. Evans perished in the next over, bowled by Surendranath but India lost the initiative through an 84-run stand for the eighth wicket between Ken Barrington and Brian Statham.
Another poor batting show by the visitors (165 all out) saw England pounce on an opportunity to win the Test. Desai couldn't come close to achieving what he did at Lord's in the rest of the series which England won 5-0. All the same, John Arlott, the celebrated commentator and writer, was surprised that a man weighing nine stone could bowl bumpers. Arlott, in the Playfair Cricket Annual of 1960, hoped that, "the heavy and unaccustomed labour of the frequent and long spells he was called upon to bowl has not had an adverse effect on his natural nip."
A few months before the England tour, Desai made his debut in the final Test of the 1958-59 home series against the West Indies at Delhi where accounted for JK Holt, Rohan Kanhai, Collie Smith and Garfield Sobers in a drawn game.
The home series against Australia in 1959-60 provided Desai an opportunity to observe his idol Ray Lindwall from close quarters albeit in only one Test. At Chennai, he broke the back of the Australian batting in their first innings by uprooting the stumps of Neil Harvey, Norman O'Neill and Peter Burge. Yet, the strong Australian side managed to win convincingly.
Statistically, Desai's best series was against Pakistan at home in 1960-61 when he claimed 21 wickets which included dismissing the great Hanif Mohammad four times. All five Tests were drawn and in the only Test in which India skipper Nari Contractor won the toss, Desai claimed eight wickets in a game where Pakistan were forced to follow on but still escaped with a draw; India (16-0) falling short of time to achieve their 74-run target. Dicky Rutnagur felt Desai's effort of bowling through a groin injury was heroic.
"He (Desai) was the worst sufferer through dropped catches and the lack of support from his fielders only underlined the greatness of his performance and his stoutness of heart," Rutnagur wrote in The Indian Cricket-Field Annual 1961-62.
His courage came to the fore yet again in the only Test he played on his last tour — the 1967-68 series in New Zealand. While putting on 57 for the last wicket with Bishan Singh Bedi in Dunedin, Desai continued batting after a ball from Kiwi fast bowler Dick Motz fractured his jaw.
Desai claimed 74 wickets in 28 Tests and pundits reckoned that his workload across Test, domestic and club cricket prevented him from enjoying an even more impressive record. It must also be noted that he bowled in an era where a lot of catches were dropped and his post 1961 tenure as a Test player coincided with the MAK Pataudi captaincy era where there was an extraordinary emphasis on spin. Desai also had very little support from the other end.
He spent his post-international career serving his firm, the Associated Cement Companies (ACC). He was also a Mumbai selector who didn't enjoy the same kind of success at the India level. Many of his friends reckoned he should have given up the post of chairman of India selectors much before he did in 1998 due to his heart ailment.
Desai's tenure as chairman had more lows than highs. But when he breathed his last on April 27, 1998, Indian cricket was in a very healthy state, celebrating the Tendulkar-caused Coca-Cola Cup triumph that was witnessed three days before. Talking about soft drinks, Gavaskar in the throes of grief and with a lump in his throat, managed to relate an anecdote at a condolence meeting held at the Wankhede Stadium. It was about a Times Shield match played between ACC (for whom Gavaskar's uncle Madhav Mantri played) and State Bank of India at Parsee Gymkhana where Gavaskar and his mate Milind Rege made their way as kids. Desai offered them a soft drink which they were reluctant to accept, but he insisted with the words, "Take it. I won't tell your uncle about it."
That's how big Ramakant 'Tiny' Desai's heart was!
mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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