June 29, 2006

Budhi Kunderan - born ahead of his times

By H Natarajan

I never met Budhi Kunderan. I had hoped to meet him when I was in Scotland. Sadly, I could not. I kept telling his younger brother Bharat – he played alongside Karsan Ghavri, Brijesh Patel and Mohinder Amarnath on the 1968-69 India Juniors tour of Australia – to let me know whenever Budhi was in India. Sadly, that opportunity will never come.

Two days before the 23nd anniversary of India’s greatest cricketing triumph – the 1983 World Cup final win over the West Indies – Budhi Kunderan, 66, left for his heavenly abode. His struggle with the ‘Big C’ ended on Thursday last in far away Scotland.

Kunderan was unfortunate to be born before the advent of one-day cricket. Syed Kirmani, who succeeded Kunderan in the Mysore (as Karnataka was then known) Ranji Trophy team, may not have been in the side to win the ‘keeper of the ‘83 World Cup had Kunderan still been around and in his pomp. Even Mahendra Dhoni would have found it difficult to get past Kunderan, who was efficient behind the stumps while being flamboyant in front.

Considering the pop-idol status that Dhoni enjoys today, one feels sad that Kunderan had to almost beg for his due. He could never be sure of his place in the National squad, playing musical chairs with the equally flamboyant Farokh Engineer. When KS Inderjitsinhji was chosen ahead of Kunderan for the 1966-67 tour of Australia, the Mysorean could not stomach the politics anymore. He was just 30 when he packed his bags and left the country to settle down in Scotland, which he represented in the Benson and Hedges Cup in England.

Just before emigrating, he gave an interview where he expressed his disappointment against the then administration of the Indian Cricket Board. What he spoke may have been the truth, but players of those times could ill-afford to be outspoken. Indian officialdom has a long and vengeful memory. It ensured that Kunderan did not get an invite for the Jubilee Test at Bombay.

The plight of the players then may come as a shock to this generation of cricketers who are accorded VVIP treatment. Officials then were cavalier in their attitude towards players, who endured it all for their cricketing survival. Kunderan’s account of India’s 1967 tour of England in Mihir Bose’s, A History of Indian Cricket, gives one an idea of what the players had to cop: “We felt a sense of inferiority even before we got on the field. We knew when the English came to India they were so well treated, everything was provided for them. The day we arrived in England we had to go to a sports shop to get some equipment. I had to save money from the one-pound-per-day allowance to buy a bat. Some other boys got money through friends. In those days bat manufacturers did not rush to give you bats and the Indian board did not provide any equipment. Even the clothes we had were hardly suitable for cricket in England. Our allowances were so meagre that the moment we checked into a hotel. We would have to go looking for a cheap meal. Even in those days you couldn’t get much for one pound. Venkat and Chandra, being vegetarians, could not eat ham or any of the cold meat salads which were served a lot during cricket matches. They were almost starving by the end. The manager, Keki Tarapore, did not help. He did not organise any practice facilities and went around telling the English, ‘We have come to learn, we have come here to learn.’ He was always crawling to the British.”

Kunderan’s talents got noticed early. In fact, he had not yet played a first-class match when was picked to play for India against Australia in 1959-60 – a Test he kept wickets with gloves borrowed from Naren Tamhane, the man whom he had displaced. The Ranji debut came later in the season, for Railways against Jammu & Kashmir. The Railways side, led by Lala Amarnath, had the likes of Nari Contractror, Vijay Mehra, BB Nimbalkar and Dattu Phadkar. Kunderan came in at one-drop and hammered 205.

He later switched over to Mysore. And playing for South Zone, he honed his wicket-keeping skills while keeping wickets to Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, EAS Prasanna and S Venkatarghavan. He was a fine stumper and in the 1962-63 season had 13 stumpings from eight matches. The following season was probably his finest: He played 17 first class matches in which he scored over thousand runs and as a keeper made 16 stumpings and took 20 catches.

Kunderan had exhibited his unorthodox, uncoached and ultra-aggressive batsmanship in his very second Test against the likes of Alan Davidson, Ian Meckiff and Richie Benaud while plundering 71 in a total of 149. But it was only in the 1963-64 season that he made a major presence as a batsman at the Test level. Opening the innings against the English attack, he scored 192 in the first Test at Madras – the highest score by an Indian keeper till this date. He hit 31 fours, which was an Indian record till VVS Laxman supplanted it during his magnum opus 281 against Australia in 2000-01. The Madras Test also saw Kunderan end up with a tally of six dismissals. Kunderan followed that near double century with another hundred in the 4th Test to become the first wicketkeeper in history to pass 500 runs for a Test series.

However, he found himself out of the reckoning for the 1964-65 home series against Bobby Simpson’s Australia and John Reid’s New Zealand. He was back in the team for the 1966-67 Bombay Test against the West Indies where he made merry against Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Garry Sobers and Lance Gibbs by scoring a quick-fire 79, coming in at No 9. Incidentally, it was during this innings that he was declared out caught by Sobers, who later withdrew his appeal saying that he had taken the ball on the bounce.

Kunderan played the next Test at Calcutta – Bishan Bedi’s debut Test – where he was India’s top scorer in the match. But he was dropped for the third Test at Madras Test where Engineer came in and scored 94 before lunch.

Kunderan’s last hurrah came on the 1967 tour of England. In an uncharacteristic show of defiance, he opened the innings and held a tottering India together before he was eighth out for 47 in a final total of 110. The next Test at Edgbaston proved to be his farewell game for India. India went in with their famed spin quartet leaving Kunderan to open the bowling with state-mate V Subramanaya. The end was premature and unfair.

He was full of life and was very friendly. The Indian cricketers of his time had several good-looking men like Tiger Pataudi, ML Jaisimha, Salim Durrani, Farokh Engineer and Abbas Ali Baig. Tall, dark, lean and handsome, Kunderan was certainly part of the good-looking brigade. And it came as no surprise when he fell in love with an Englishwoman, Linda, who remained his loyal wife till his very end.

How does one remember Kunderan? Calling him Dhoni of yesteryear may be correct, but inappropriate. One would rather draw a more appropriate analogy by calling Dhoni a latter day Kunderan. That sums up the brilliance of a man who would have been a superstar in the overs-limit format.

Rest In Peace, Budhi.