Solkar never got the credit he deserved in India's cricket Renaissance
By H Natarajan
It was in 1971 when selection committee chairman Vijay Merchant cast his famous casting vote to unseat Tiger Pataudi and make Ajit Wadekar captain of the Indian cricket team for the tour of West Indies. Wadekar’s team included a new face in Sunil Gavaskar, then a curly-mopped, 21-year-old from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. It was on this tour that Gavaskar ushered the Renaissance of Indian cricket with his prodigious batting displays that set him on the path of greatness and his team on way to its first-ever away series victory in the Caribbean.
Gavaskar’s scores back home in Inter-collegiate and Inter-Varsity cricket were reminiscent of Sachin Tendulkar’s run-spree at the Inter-schools level in a later era. He sustained that hunger in West Indies to plunder 774 runs in eight Test innings at a Bradmanesque average of 154.80. Gavaskar apart, the world still remembers Dilip Sardesai as one of the architects of that series victory over Garry Sobers’s team in the West Indies. Sadly, few remember that epoch-making rubber-win of 1971 may not have been possible had it not been for Eknath Solkar, who died a few days back. Ekki, as he was affectionately called by the cricketing fraternity, was just 57.
The 1971 series in the Caribbean gave the first glimpse of this gritty young warrior from Mumbai. With Gavaskar on the casualty list with a painful whitlow, India may well have lost the very first Test of the series at Sabina Park. Vanburn Holder had played havoc with the top half of the batting. The scenario was all too familiar for Indian cricket with the score reading 75 for five. But Solkar walked in and gave an eloquent mastery of crisis management. The two men took the total to 212 and in the process authored the turning point of the watershed tour. Solkar’s innings also inspired tailender Prasanna with the bat as India set up a total that eventually proved good enough to slap West Indies a follow-on.
It was Solkar again with Sardesai in another SOS situation in the fourth Test at Barbados. India were 70 for six replying to West Indies’ 501 for five declared, when the Sardesai-Solkar tandem stringed together a near double-century partnership to thwart West Indies.
People remember Bhagwat Chandrasekhar’s six wicket haul in the second innings of the Oval Test in 1971 that propelled India on the victory path, but how many remember India’s highest wicket taker in the first innings? Was it Bishan Bedi, Chandra or Venkat? It was neither of the three but Solkar who came up with a Test-best three for 28, that included the dangerous Allan Knott, caught and bowled.
After rain had washed out the entire second day’s play, India were in dire straits at 125 for five, replying to England’s 355. But Solkar, in partnership with Farokh Engineer, added 97 runs in belligerent style. Solkar chipped in with an invaluable 44. Those runs, like his 55 in the Port-of-Spain Test that gave India her first Test win in the West Indies, were priceless in the context of the game. Without Solkar’s all-round displays, Indian wouldn’t have been able to create history at West Indies and England.
While Gavaskar and Sardesai were the main architects of India’s series win in the West Indies, both were flops on the tour of England that followed – a tour where Solkar topped the batting averages as well as the bowling averages. Venkat apart, Solkar who was the only Indian who was consistent on both tours to log a combined average of close to 40 with the bat. Besides, he took 12 wickets and topped the fielding charts with 14 catches. Let’s hope history gives Solkar posthumous recognition for his consistency in the Renaissance of Indian cricket.
In the infamous Lord’s Test of 1974 when India crashed to 42 all out, Solkar remained defiant with 18 not out – the only man to enter double figures in the innings where the next highest score was five. One shot that stood out in the Indian innings was a hooked six by Solkar off Chris Old, if am not mistaken.
Short-leg is known in cricket as suicide point, a position where Solkar’s excellence and bravery levels boggled the mind. The risk factor at short-leg could be imagined when standing there to the bowling of Chandra, who was known to bowl an unplayable ball and follow that up with a rank long-hop that could be smashed around by even a No 11 bat.
Solkar’s 53 catches came minus modern protective gears like helmet and shin guards. He knew no fear and was known to shout ``catch it’’ when full-blooded shots ricocheted off his body. He scooped catches off batsmen’s shoelaces with his amazing sense of anticipation. Many of the catches he took cannot even be categorised among possible chances for most fielders, but he not only saw an opportunity but converted them into catches. And all this hiding behind the batsman’s vision making pick-pocketing legal on the cricket field! The catch he took to dismiss Knott in the 1971 Oval Test was among the classics of all time. Indeed, Prasanna hailed it as the “catch of the century”. Solkar truly elevated close-in fielding to an art form.
He was worth his place in the team on his merits as close-in fielder alone as he provided a cutting edge to the famed spin quartet, off whose bowling he got 48 of his 53 catches. He was indeed the Jonty Rhodes of an earlier era. He averaged more catches per match – 1.96 - than any non-wicketkeeper in the history of Test match cricket.
In the days when the spin quartet ruled the roost on Indian wickets, it was two overs from Abid Ali and one from Solkar before the spinners were summoned. But he was a fairly handy bowler, as Geoff Boycott would vouch for. But Solkar could also bowl spin. His multi-talented, left-handed skills earned him the tag of “Poor man’s Sobers”.
Though Solkar hailed from a humble background (he was the son of a groundsman at the PJ Hindu Gymkhana), he honed his cricketing skills under the tutelage of Vinoo Mankad and made his way up the cricketing and social ladder to finally own a flat in the posh, sea-face Sportsfield building that housed some of the greatest names in Indian cricket like Gavaskar, Ajit Wadekar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Ravi Shastri Polly Umrigar among others. It was akin to moving up from the log cabin to the White House.
RIP, Renaissance hero.