Feb 10, 2010

Eknath Solkar

In the 1970s, when Indian cricket was hovering near the top of the world, the image of Eknath Solkar diving for a catch was as firmly embedded in the collective consciousness of a nation as Sunil Gavaskar's straight drive or the skills of India's spin quartet. "We would never have been as effective without Solkar at short leg," Bishan Bedi once said.

Eknath Dhondu Solkar, who died of a heart attack aged 57, was sometimes called the `poor man's Garry Sobers' because he could bat anywhere, and bowl both medium-pace and spin. As a fielder, however, he held his own. When India beat West Indies for the first time ever, at Port of Spain in 1970-71, Solkar equalled the then world record of six catches in a Test.

His 53 catches came at almost two a match, the best ratio among fielders with over 50 catches. He toured the Caribbean and New Zealand in 1975-76 on the strength of his fielding alone, for by then Solkar the bowler had virtually ceased to exist, and as a batsman he was no longer `Mr Dependable'.

So assured were Solkar's hands - he made catches where other fielders might have seen barely a half chance - that, like a Bradman zero, a Solkar miss made the headlines when he was in his prime. His best catch was the running, tumbling effort that ended Clive Lloyd's fiery 163 in a Bangalore Test. "The ball was dipping away from me," he explained.

In the 1972-73 home series against England, he caught 12 batsmen in the first three Tests and needed only three more to equal Syd Gregory's long-standing world record. He dropped Graham Roope in the fourth Test, and didn't get another chance. While Lloyd made 242 in the Mumbai Test two years later, he dropped him early. Towards the end the stress of fielding in the `suicide position' unprotected (no helmet or shin guards) began to tell on him.

The stress in the early days, when he shared a single room with his parents and five siblings, was of a different nature. Solkar's father was a groundsman at the P J Hindu Gymkhana in Bombay. The legendary allrounder Vinoo Mankad first encouraged him to play a more organised game. He was a left-arm spinner and a batsman good enough to lead Indian Schoolboys. Four years later, he made his Test debut against New Zealand.

The `Mr Dependable' tag was earned early. In the first Test of that successful 1970-71 West Indies series, India were 75 for 5 before Solkar's 61 helped Dilip Sardesai add 137. Three Tests later India were 70 for 6 when the same pair put on 186. In the next series, Solkar's 67 helped India win at Lord's.

Solkar will also be remembered for the fact that he dismissed Geoff Boycott four times in 1971, infuriating the English opener with inimitable sledges like "I'll get you, bloody". Boycott was so disoriented by his gentle and wobbly medium-pace that he withdrew from the Tests. Earlier, he had the gumption to tell Garry Sobers to mind his business. "You play your game and I'll play mine," Solkar told Sobers who was trying to needle him.

A resident of Sportsfield, the building that houses many prominent Indian cricketers including Sunil Gavaskar, Ajit Wadekar and Ravi Shastri, Solkar will be sorely missed in the Mumbai cricket circles where he was a jovial, and sometimes outspoken, presence.

Solkar was 28 when he played the last of his 27 Tests, ending up with 1,068 runs at 25.42. Better counselling may have extended his career, and better planning might have seen him concentrate on batting alone. But 30 years ago cricket teams did not travel with psychologists and other assorted gurus, and a talented player was allowed to wither away.