December 03, 2005

Paddy Shivalkar: Good enough, not lucky enough

H Natarajan

A young man who had gone to meet BR Chopra in the hope of becoming an actor was told by the famed director that he would be better off trying his luck as a radio announcer. The gawky young man was not disappointed; his perseverance catapulted him as Indian cinema's biggest phenomenon and a BBC poll hailed him as “Actor of the Millennium”.

Around the time Amitabh Bachhan was struggling to gain a foothold in Bollywood, another man was battling to gain recognition from the national cricket selection committee. Season after season, match after match, he gave Mumbai’s attack the cutting edge that made them such a potent force. He had it in him to become a Bachchan in his own art, but it’s one of the conundrums of Indian cricket that, unlike the Big B, Padmakar Shivalkar’s talent and performances never got him an India place he so richly deserved.

Mumbai’s supply of quality players to the national team came by conveyor-belt methods, but right from the time of Vijay Merchant, Vijay Manjrekar, Polly Umrigar to Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Ravi Shastri and Sachin Tendulkar, it’s be predominantly batsmen. The one notable exception as specialist bowlers was Ramakant Desai. But no bowler served Mumbai cricket as loyally and effectively as “Paddy”, as Shivalkar is popularly known, had for a long, long time.

Shivalkar’s mechanics as a bowler had the purity of Rolex perfection. Be it his three-step, minimalist run-up or his, relentless and robotic accuracy, precision was the key word. Qualities that made him the most cost-effective bowler – 1.85 run an over - among the top wicket takers in Ranji Trophy. He and new ball bowler Abdul Ismail were twin terrors that successive Mumbai captain deployed to destroy all opposition.

Milind Rege, who played a long time alongside Shivalkar for Mumbai and Tatas, put things in perspective: “If I had to pick all-time great Mumbai XI, my third choice will be Paddy after Sunny (Gavaskar) and Sachin (Tendulkar).”

Shivalkar remains Mumbai’s biggest match-winning bowler with over 100 wickets each at the Brabourne and Wankhede Stadiums. He played 124 first-class matches spanning close to 28 years and got five in an innings 42 times – once in less than three matches – besides twelve 10 wicket hauls. His career tally of 361 Ranji wickets ranks seventh in the list of top wicket takers.

On a crumbling wicket, he was as dangerous as Derek Underwood was on a drying track. Case in point is the 1973 Ranji Trophy final against Tamil Nadu at Chennai. A powerful Mumbai line-up that had the likes of Gavaskar, Ramnath Parkar, Ajit Wadekar, Dilip Sardesai, Ashok Mankad and Eknath Solkar were bundled out for 151 and 113 as S Venkatraghavan and Vaman Kumar took 14 wickets in front of their home supporters. But it took exactly one ball on the third day for Mumbai to wrap up the five-day final by a thumping 123 runs, thanks to Shivalkar who had figures of career-best 8-16 and 5-18. Shivalkar was also effective on good tracks. In the Ranji quarter-final against Bihar in 1973-74, he bowled Mumbai to victory capturing four wickets with Bihar needing just 181 on an easy-paced track.

Mumbai’s Houdini acts in Ranji Trophy are part of stirring cricket history and the magic of Shivalkar had a copious role in many escape to victories.

In the 1971-72 first-class season, Shivalkar captured 64 wickets at 14.18 with a best of 8-19. The following season he did even better, capturing 79 wickets at 15.08. He got nine 5 fors and three 10 fors in that season. Yet, the call never came. Even as late as 1976-77, he got 60 wickets in a season, but he kept waiting in vain.

Mumbai recalled him for the 1986-87 season, seven years after he last played first class cricket, to share the dressing room with players whose fathers were of his age. It was a desperate attempt by the selectors to bolster a team that lacked a quality left-arm spinner. Shivalkar was still fit as ever, but he was not the same bowler at 46 years of age.

Shivalkar gave early indication of his promise when he got five in an innings against an International XI in 1962. His match haul of seven wickets included Everton Weekes (twice), Richie Benaud, Tom Graveney and Raman Subbarow. Three years later, he got another five in an innings against the visiting Ceylon team, but he had to wait till the ’67-’68 season to make his Ranji debut. His was a sustained brilliance, and that included matches against foreign teams. He took six for 77 against MCC in 1973 and 8-81 for against Sri Lanka Board President’s XI, that included all the leading stalwarts of the island nation.

He was painfully getting used to the scurvy treatment. In the early years, there was Bapu Nadkarni’s all-round ability blocking his place in the Mumbai team. When Nadkarni bid farewell, it was Eknath Solkar’s ability to bat, field and bowl seamers that got preference. When Bishan Bedi was suspended for the 1974-75 Bangalore Test against the West Indies, Rajinder Goel got the call. When Bedi was out of the Indian team, in came Dilip Doshi. And when Doshi was injured on the 1981 tour of New Zealand, the SOS went out to Ravi Shastri, all of 18 and with no international experience.

Despite a lifetime of hard work and success failing to get him that coveted India cap, despite India caps going cheap in the days following his retirement, despite a generation of left-arm spinners that followed playing for the country without having half his ability, Shivalkar never gave public vent to his inner feelings. There was one evening, however, when it all came gushing out in the course of a tête-à-tête in his house. It was an emotional moment hearing him. I hope some day some will explain why India could play EAS Prasanna and Venkat but not Bedi and Shivalkar.

They say time is a great healer, but even passage of time has not made one come to terms with the loss of geniuses like Barry Richards, Graeme and Peter Pollock, Mike Procter, Eddie Barlow to the curse of apartheid. The failure of Indian cricket in not granting Shivalkar a single opportunity to play Tests must rank as a great a tragedy.

Shivalkar may have finished 250 Test wickets short in his career, but he can take pride that he was named alongside greats like Garry Sobers, Dennis Lillee, Viv Richards, Richard Hadlee, the Indian spin quartet by Gavaskar’s in his book Idols and that he was decorated by Tatas with a lifetime achievement honour ahead of hundreds of internationals – including Olympians and world champs - from various sports like Michael Ferreira, Geet Sethi, Dilip Vengsarkar, Sourav Ganguly, Leo Pinto, Eddie Sequeira, Babu Narayan, Ravi Shastri, PK Banerjee, Puella Gopichand, who played with distinction for the country. That, amid the who’s who of Indian sports, was as big an honour as anybody could hope for.

(An edited version of the above article appeared in the Hindustan Times)

December 01, 2005

Farewell, King George VII

By H Natarajan

Britain could witness the biggest outpouring of public grief since Lady Diana’s death when George Best is laid to rest at Belfast on Saturday. Both were victims of premature ends – for Best, it was his football career and for Diana, her life itself – as they tried to escape from the unrelenting hounding of paparazzi enamoured by their very high profiles lifestyles.

There is a commonality to their tragic lives. Diana was barely out of her teens when she
married Prince Charles to emerge as the future queen of England. Best was just 17 when he joined the famed Manchester United and soon raised visions as the future king of English soccer. But the goodness of the two Geminis was overshadowed by their troubled personal lives; Diana battled bulimia, a scandal-scarred marriage, divorce and depression while Best was savaged by his addiction to alcohol, broken marriages and womanizing. Both Diana and Best were suicidal. The paparazzi only heightened their misery. Diana was just 36 when she was killed in a car accident, trying to escape the paparazzi. Best was just 25 when he left Manchester United and on the path of self and career destruction, unable to handle pressures on the field and distractions off it. An inebriated chauffeur contributed to Diana’s death and it was the excessive love for Bacchus that cost Best his life.

It would be a pity if Best is remembered for his dalliance with alcohol and women than for his genius as a footballer. Where would Best rank among the pantheon of football greats? Pele hailed him as “the best player in the world” and Alex Ferguson called him as "unquestionably the greatest”.

Best elevated the game to an art form with his sublime skills in an era when football was more brutal because of permissive officiating. He tore through the field with speed and body swerve and capped his runs with dexterous shooting off either foot. He gave the kind of joy that one got watching the genius of John McEnroe or the artistry of Gundappa Vishwanath. Danny Blanchflower summed it up eloquently: “Best had ice in his veins, warmth in his heart and timing and balance in his feet.”

Best’s foot skills were mesmeric. West Bromwich Albion full-back Graham Williams, a victim of Best’s wizardry, asked him to stand still for a moment on meeting him years later. A puzzled Best wanted to know the reason. “Because all I've ever seen of you is your arse disappearing down the touchline!” was Williams’ reply.

A decade after the Munich air crash in which eight of the "Busby Babes" perished, the troika of Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law led the Renaissance of the Red Devils of which saw them win the League Championship in ’65 and ’67 and the European Cup – the first by an English club - in 1968. Best’s sustained brilliance achieved a crowning glory when he was named “British & European Footballer of the Year” in 1968. He auctioned the latter trophy for £167,250 in 2003 to an anonymous British football fan. However, Best's family have been given a replacement of the trophy which his former United team-mates Law and Sir Bobby collected in Paris on Monday. In 1970, he slotted in six goals in Man U's 8-2 FA Cup victory over Northampton Town. It was then a FA Cup record and it came in his first game after coming out of a four-week suspension for knocking the ball out of a referee's hands.

In naming five of Best’s most memorable goals, BBC Sport picked one that was disallowed. It came on May 15, 1971 in the Northern Ireland vs England game at Belfast. BBC had this to say of that indelible moment: “Gordon Banks had enhanced his reputation as the best ’keeper in the world the previous summer with what is widely regarded as the greatest ever save - his save from Pele's header in the 1970 World Cup. But Best almost made him look a stooge with a piece of lightning thinking. Best was idling like a street-corner urchin as Banks prepared to punt the ball upfield. The England keeper tossed the ball into the air and in the instant he draw his leg back, Best toe-poked the ball upwards. As a bemused Banks looked around for the ball, Best nodded it into the empty net, only for the referee to disallow the goal for dangerous play.” This was an amalgam of opportunism and magic at its bewitching best.

But the goal which many consider as his greatest came for San Jose Earthquakes against Fort Lauderdale Strikers. It was reminiscent of Diego Maradona’s mind-boggling
solo effort against England in the 1986 World Cup when he dribbled 75 yards to hoodwink the entire English defense and goalkeeper Peter Shilton. Best had described his magical effort: “I set off. I beat one player, then another. By the end I had beaten five of them in the space of 10 yards. I didn't know how I did it and still don't ... When I see it on television, it still dazzles me.”

Tragically, Frank O'Farrell and Tommy Docherty, the men who succeeded
Sir Matt Busby at Old Trafford, were not as sagacious as their predecessor in handling the flawed genius of Best. As Sir Bobby Charlton said regretfully recently: “Instead of being hostile to George, which I was, if we had leaned a bit his way and tried to help him, who knows?”

Best’s missed training sessions, disappearance acts – he once refused to travel with the team for a match against Chelsea and instead spent time with an actress at her home with a battery of photographers outside the house - and an heightened affliction for the brew all contributed to his maladies and distancing from his team-mates.

Parting of ways was inevitable. Though he played for many clubs, Man U held pride of place in his heart. I saw the reverence for Best while talking to members and fans at Manchester United during a recent visit to the celebrated club. It was apparent he has remained special despite his tumultuous past.

The incredibly gifted Northern Ireland international, voted the Greatest British Sportsman of all time by a panel of thousand scribes and sports personalities in 1977, sadly never got the chance to display his skills on a World Cup stage. At the pomp of his career, Best is reported to have appointed three secretaries to reply to the thousands of fan mails he received every week. He never forgot his fans. His ex-wife Alex said that Best used to get annoyed when celebrities refused to talk to people on the street or the pub. He said that it was the people who made celebrities and it was their duty to give something back.

But Best remained an unrepentant rebel. He said what he felt without getting into the niceties of diplomacy. He made no bones about deriding marquee names in contemporary football if they did not fit with his idea of greatness. He pilloried David Beckham in his inimitable style: “He cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn't score many goals. Apart from that he's alright." On another occasion, he said: “I once said Gazza's IQ was less than his shirt number and he asked me, ‘What's an IQ?’ ”

Best was an icon of the Swinging Sixties. He earned the sobriquet of the “Fifth Beatle” as his
flowing mane, chiseled features and bohemian lifestyle earned him rock star-like attention, especially from delirious young females.

He, however, paid a very high price for living a hedonistic life. He endured two broken marriages, bankruptcy, imprisonment for drunk-driving – “I suppose that's fu**ed up the knighthood,” he was to say - and assaulting a police officer and a 10-hour liver transplant following years of alcohol abuse and finally succumbed to it.

One endearing quality about the bohemian was his candidness. He also had a wry sense of humour, especially while talking about the bevy of beautiful women in his life.
He once said that, “They say I slept with seven Miss Worlds. I didn't - it was only four. I didn't turn up for the other three!" On another occasion, he said: "I used to go missing a lot... Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World!" He said he spent 90% of his money on women, drink and fast cars. “The rest,” he added dramatically, “I wasted!"

Best, looking more like Sean Connery towards the end of his life, got more out his
59 years in one lifetime than most people can hope to in three births. He was rarely apologetic about the life he chose to lead. Life was one long celebration for him. Words like regret and remorse were not in his lexicon. Mourning the loss of such a joyous person seems out of sync. Let’s raise a toast in his memory. I am sure that he will do the same from his celestial abode.

Beckham has said that Manchester United should retire jersey No 7 as a tribute to Best while on a nostalgic and poignant Monday night, Old Trafford, The Guardian wrote, felt like a cathedral with something to worship. The electronic board showed "George Best (1963-1974), 470 appearances, 179 goals, 1 genius." But the most unforgettable moment was a poster that had the legend: "Shevchenko, £50m. Ronaldinho, £50m. George Best, priceless. RIP."