Paddy Shivalkar: Good enough, not lucky enough
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)