December 07, 2006

Hanumant Singh – a tragic loss in more ways than one

By H Natarajan

September 1969: A school boy outside the Brabourne Stadium walks up to a cricketer coming out of the club and requests pass for a Test that is under way at the venue. (Adulation for the players then was nowhere comparable to what it is today, so players then could walk out on the street after a day’s play go about like any ordinary citizen). “I wish I had one to give it you, son,” replied the cricketer. The boy was not disappointed; in fact, the humility and the warmth that the player exuded left a lasting impression on the young boy.

Circa mid-90s: Inside the Brabourne Stadium dining hall, a former cricketer is playing host to a cricket writer. The two men share bonhomie, mutual respect and friendship.

The cricketer in the first story is Hanumant Singh – the same player who plays host in the second story. And the boy in the first story? Well, it’s none other than yours truly - the cricket writer in the second story.

I have had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and interacting with the finest cricketers in the world. Hanumant may not rank in that elite list, but he would rank as a fine human being – certainly among the finest that I came across in any sports.

Hanumant was a blue-blooded cricketer - the Prince of Banswara, a place in Rajasthan. But the humility that I noticed in him as an impressionable young schoolboy was still in tact when I got to know him at a personal and profession level. Humility apart, the two other things I respected enormously about Hanumant were his work ethics and his cricketing acumen.

And it’s these two factors which made me offer him what was probably his first assignment as a newspaper columnist. Those were the days when players spoke to professional cricket writers for five to 10 minutes and got their name, photograph and byline in the newspaper while the cricket writer did the work of writing the actual column – many a times adding his own facts and figures to make the copy more meaty and meaningful.

The respect I had for Hanumant’s brains and work ethics made me offer him the opportunity to write alongside me for my newspaper during a Test series against England, but in doing so I made it on the condition that I was not going to write his copy. Hanumant was willing to take up the offer, but he told me: “I don’t know typing.” (This was before computers became common place and the typewriter was still ruling the roost in offices.)

I told him to write his own copy which I would get the office typist to type it out.

Not only he agreed but not once he broached the topic of compensation for lending his name and offering his views on the Test for my newspaper.

As a cricket writer, I took copious notes during a match, but Hanumant beat me hollow in that respect. It was the kind of commitment that I have not seen in any player turned writer. In fact, he used to come to the Express Towers office at Nariman Point, Mumbai, and write his copy with remarkable concentration. He even shared the chai served in glass by the office canteen boy. He was a prince by birth and commoner at heart.

He was very passionate about the game. I still vividly remember the 1989-90 Irani Trophy between Rest of India and Delhi. The two teams were to arrive for their nets at the Wankhede Stadium at 9.30 pm a day before the match. I was at the ground by 9.00 am as the two teams had several players who were in contention for a place in the Indian team to tour Pakistan that was to be picked during the Irani Trophy itself. Among those in contention were Vivek Razdan, Atul Wasan, Venkatapathy Raju, and of course, Sachin Tendulkar. I had not seen some of the youngsters and hence arrived early at the ground to watch them at close quarters. There was just one gentleman at the nets even before the players had arrived – Hanumant Singh! He came there purely as a keen student of the game to see the youngsters at the nets.

Hanumant was the rock on which Rajasthan built their cricketing fortunes. In seven seasons between 1960-61 and 1966-67, Rajasthan clashed with Bombay six times in the National Championship final, with Bombay emerging supreme on all six occasions. But the biggest thorn in Bombay’s flesh was Hanumant – his finest efforts coming in the 1966-67 final in Bombay where he led from the front to score 109 and 213 not out against the likes of Ramakant Desai, Bapu Nadkarni, Baloo Gupte and Sharad Diwadkar. In both innings he shared hundred partnerships with his older brother, Suryaveer Singh, adding 176 for the third wicket in the first innings after Rajasthan were 17 for two and then 213 for the third wicket after Rajasthan had lost two second inning wickets for 40 runs.

For all his valiant efforts, Hanumant could not help Rajasthan annex the Ranji Trophy – named after his famous uncle. However, he had the satisfaction of helping Central Zone winning the Duleep Trophy – a trophy named after another uncle – in 1971-72.

Hanumant continued to be a giant on the domestic scene. He came close to breaking Vijay Hazare’s then all-time high run aggregate; he bid farewell to Ranji Trophy with an aggregate of 6170, tantalizing behind Hazare’s then championship record of 6312.

Hanumant clearly did not get the opportunities he deserved at the highest level, thanks to the selection quirks of the time. Tiger Pataudi, his former captain, underlined that unfairness when he opined, “It would be fair to say that he was stopped by a not very forward looking selection decision.”

He was the fourth Indian royal to get a hundred on Test debut (105 vs England in 1963-64) but the first to do it for India – the efforts of the preceding three, Ranji, Duleep and Pataudi (Sr) , came for England.

He got 94 in an Indian total of 193 at Madras, in what was just his fourth Test, against a rampaging Graham McKenzie of Australia. He then scored 75 not out against New Zealand at Bombay, adding an unbeaten 193 for the sixth wicket with Dilip Sardesai. That partnership, after India followed-on, brought about a dramatic transformation to a Test that India just narrowly failed to win. In the very next Test, the ninth of his career, Hanumant scored 82 and added 123 for the third wicket with Sardesai.

When the West Indies came to India in 1966-67, Hanumant hammered a hundred for the Prime Minister’s XI against an attack that included Charlie Griffith, Garry Sobers and Lance Gibbs and top scored with a half century for the combined Central and East Zone XI against an Wesley Hall & Co. It was a match in which Subroto Guha got 11 wickets besides scoring an unbeaten 46 to help the unpretentious combined forces beat the powerful West Indies by an innings. Hanumant did not find a place in the first Test of the three-Test series against the Windies, but played in the second Test at Calcutta and the final Test at Madras – top-scoring in the second innings of both Tests.

He was in the Indian team for the tour of England that followed, and in the very first Test he scored 73 against an English attack spearheaded by John Snow and added 134 with his Pataudi. Yet, he played only more Test in that series and one against New Zealand at home before his international career was sadly and inexplicably buried. Here was a batsman who had scores of 107, 94, 75* and 82 in his first nine Tests and who did reasonably well even after. Yet, his career lasted just 12 Tests! Juxtapose that against the zillion opportunities some of today’s players get despite repeated failures to appreciate the enormous wrong done to a talented cricketer.

Hanumant’s cricketing acumen was put to relatively better use after his retirement, during which time he also became an avid golfer. He was the first-ever director of the National Cricket Academy. Prior to that, he was chairman of the national selection committee. A very suave man, Hanumant nevertheless could be tough and uncompromising when it came to principles and discipline. Evidence of that was when he packed off Harbhajan Singh, Murali Kartik and Nikhil Haldipur after the first NCA semester in the inaugural year on disciplinary grounds.

As a respected ICC match referee between 1995 and 2002, he was in charge for 54 ODIs and nine Tests, bringing in a sense of authority without being officious. At the time of his demise, he was the coach of the Rajasthan Ranji Trophy team.

His death in Mumbai last Wednesday after a valiant three-week battle against renal and lung failure caused by Hepatitis B and Dengue, is not just the loss of a cricketer but a personal friend and a man whom I hugely respected.

Rest in Peace, Hanu. Will miss you.