The late G.S. Ramchand once angrily remarked: ‘Indian cricket did not start from 1971.’ Having captained India to their first win against Richie Benaud’s Australians at home in 1959, Ramchand may perhaps have had reasons to be miffed that it was the team of ’71 that had grabbed all the glory.
But then winning abroad was an alien concept for Indian cricket, having achieved the feat just once against lowly New Zealand in 1968. The mere thought of beating West Indies and England on their own soil was like dreaming the impossible dream.
There was a virtual smorgasbord of heroes for us to choose from that year. The veteran Dilip Sardesai whose double century in the first Test at Kingston helped the Indians to believe they had it in them after forcing West Indies to follow on; the legendary spin quartet of Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan who proved that spin could win Test matches abroad; the dashing left-handed skipper Ajit Wadekar. And of course the mighty Sunil Gavaskar who showed the world that Indians did not flinch from the fastest bowlers even when opening the batting.
Like any young fan, I had my favourites. Syed Abid Ali was a doughty fighter, Farokh Engineer a flamboyant batsman/wicketkeeper and a ‘Brylcreem Boy’ to boot. But it was a cricketer who seemingly played a bit-part in that heroic summer who captured my imagination. Eknath Solkar was half-jokingly described as the ‘Poor Man’s Sobers’—but then so was pretty much every player of that era who like the peerless West Indian did everything left-handed.
Just as Kapil Dev on Test debut in 1978 gladdened our hearts when he forced Pakistani opener Sadiq Mohammad to call for a helmet—who said Indians can’t bounce?; just as Gavaskar proved Indians did not back off from pace like fire, so Solkar was in his own low-key way a pioneer in Indian cricket.
Not only did he dispel the popular perception that Indian cricketers were born with butter fingers, his unflinching courage at forward short leg—like Gavaskar while batting, head unprotected—opened our eyes to the importance of sharp catching.
Indian teams over the years have never been renowned for their fielding skills. But the team of the ’70s barely let anything through their grasp.
At slip was Wadekar and Venkat, behind the wickets was Engineer and in the ‘leg trap’ Solkar and Abid Ali were ready to pounce on the half-chance as rival batsmen helplessly poked and prodded at a bewildering array of spin bowling.
It was like a spider’s web wrapped round the batsman, ensnaring and suffocating him in its grip.
The English batsmen who were battered and bruised by Lillee and Thomson in 1974–75 may still be having nightmares and the scars from that traumatic tour. But no less traumatic was their tour of India in 1972–73 with huge crowds joining their fielders in appeal every time an England batsman got a nick (or did not).
Solkar hovering like a hawk just a feet from the bat had a mesmeric effect on the batsmen as he snapped up a record 12 catches in the five Test matches.
Also read: From disdain to heroes — the journey of two Dalit brothers in India’s first cricket team
The West Indians may not have been at their strongest in 1971. But they still had legends like Garry Sobers, Clive Lloyd and Rohan Kanhai in their ranks. In the first three of the five Tests, Solkar scored 50s batting low down in the order, propping up an extraordinarily long ‘tail’.
India had never beaten West Indies in a Test match either at home or abroad since their first series in India in 1948–49. The victory in the second Test at Port of Spain had many standout performers. One world record (since broken) though was equaled in the Test and that was by Solkar with his six catches. That plus 55 in the first innings.
Indian cricket fans of my generation can never tire of watching two matches which are shown over and over again on our sports channels, the 1971 Oval Test and the 1983 Prudential World Cup final against West Indies.
One of the memorable images of the Oval Test is Solkar flat on the ground, clutching the ball as if for dear life, Gavaskar with both feet off the ground at slip and a stunned expression, Engineer mouth agape and bowler Venkat standing with arms held aloft and head thrown back in amazement at the wondrous catch.
Solkar had just caught Alan Knott for one in England’s second innings and the removal of India’s bogey man in the series opened the floodgates for India.
Part of Solkar’s charm lay in his humble roots and his rustic English which would force England’s batsmen to turn round to Engineer for ‘translations’ as he tried to sledge them from his vantage point. His fashionably long hair only added to his cult image for us youngsters.
A frustrated Sobers once passed a snide comment at him as he repeatedly played and missed. Solkar snapped back: ‘You play your way, let me play my way.’
Back in India, we could barely suppress shock at this kid’s chutzpah. Our cricketers were not known to stand up to legends.
Time and again over the decades India’s match winning spin bowlers have paid tribute to Solkar’s catching skills which sharpened the edge of the bowling attack. Their predecessors had suffered terribly at the hands of sloppy fielders.
Like Sobers, Solkar too bowled a mixture of ‘pace’ and spin and though his Test bowling record is extremely modest, he had a few notable scalps including England’s opener Brian Luckhurst who fell to his bowling three times in six innings in 1971. With three wickets in England’s first innings in that memorable Oval Test, he was his side’s most successful bowler till Chandra scythed through their second innings with six wickets.
Also read: When Rahul Dravid told Ram Guha to ‘shut up’ about cricket strategy, write history books
In 1974, Solkar’s innocuous dibbly dobblers tormented the formidable Geoffrey Boycott who succumbed to the left hander’s gentle swing four times in six innings on that traumatic tour of England and may have been a factor in England’s leading batsman going into self-exile for three years at the end of the first Test at Old Trafford.
Even as the batting crumbled to a miserable 42 all out in the second Test at Lord’s, Solkar stood defiant with an unbeaten 18. It included a hooked six off India’s nemesis, Chris Old.
His career was sandwiched between two Indian all- rounders of similar skills and abilities, Rusi Surti and Karsan Ghavri, both left handers. Ghavri was the best bowler of the trio by far, Surti marginally the best batsman and Solkar the best catcher. But Solkar achieved something the other two failed to do, a solitary Test century. That came in his home town of Mumbai at the Wankhede Stadium’s first Test match against West Indies in 1975, a laborious effort that could not prevent the visitors winning the Test and a gripping series 3-2.
His final Test against England at Kolkata in 1977 was the second I saw from the stands. But for some years he continued to serve Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy as a winning captain. My one and only meeting with my hero was a very brief one during a cricket function in Mumbai in 1998. I was working for a private news channel at the time and had arranged for our Mumbai correspondent to interview him for the breakfast show where I was the sports anchor. Before the function I arranged for a video tape to be made of the interview and handed it over to him. All I got was a brief handshake and a nod. But that was enough for me.
A shadow spread across Indian cricket with Ekki’s death in 2005 at the age of 57. Fifty-three catches in 27 Tests. Need one say more?
(A version of this article originally appeared in The Cricketer monthly dated August 2013. Reprinted with kind permission).
This extract on Eknath Solkar from My Cricket Hero: XII Indians On Their XII Favourite Cricketers by Gulu Ezekiel has been published with permission from Rupa Publications.