Ashok Gandotra. Photo Courtesy – Bewley’s website
Born November 24, 1948, Ashok Gandotra was an all-rounder in every sense of the word. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the only Test cricketer to be born in Brazil.
Ashok Gandotra’s father was in foreign services. He was posted in Rio de Janeiro when Ashok was born; in a subsequent decision by the Indian Government, the Gandotras returned to Delhi. The move possibly changed Ashok Gandotra’s sport of choice for good.
Gandotra was not a tall man (5’6½”), but could implode on his day, which got him runs at school and University levels; however, he never got going at the higher levels. Though rated as an “enormous talent” by Bishan Singh Bedi, Gandotra was candid when it came to self-assessment. In an interview with Vijay Lokapally for The Hindu, Gandotra admitted: “Honestly, I didn’t rate myself very high. I was a left-hander. So that made me look different but I was technically not sound. Generally left-handers look stylish. But I was not very focussed, not very determined.”
Vinay Lamba, his teammate at University level, said of him to Lokapally: “[Ashok] Gandotra had a way with his batting. He was an attractive batsman, could play all shots. Remember, the pitches were not covered those days. He used to bowl too. He was very graceful to watch.” Sunil Dev, his college teammate, recollected: “We would move around on his [Gandotra’s] Vespa scooter, playing at different grounds. He was superb at studies and cricket. He could read a situation adeptly and used to bowl lethal Chinaman.”
He was also an athletic fielder and was more than handy when it came to left-arm spin: he could turn the ball either way. His First-Class tally read 21 wickets at 26.71, while he scored 2,121 runs at 28.66 with the bat. He also played two Tests, but quit from First-Class cricket at 27 to pursue academics.
As mentioned before, Gandotra was born in Rio de Janeiro, and remains the only Test cricketer born in Brazil. In fact, barring those born in Guyana, he remains the only South America-born Test cricketer barring Freddie Brown [who was born in Peru]. A top-quality student, Gandotra went on to do an MA [Hons] from St Stephen’s College. It was at Stephen’s that Tiger Pataudi, appointed a coach, had spotted his talent. Once again, Gandotra shrugged it off with characteristic modesty to Lokapally: “That was very kind of Tiger [Pataudi] but I wasn’t really that serious about the game. I didn’t look at myself as a professional.”
Before that, he had made his mark at school level, playing both for Delhi Schools and North Zone Schools, his first moment of glory coming in the Cooch Behar Trophy quarter-final of 1962-63 at Ahmedabad, when he routed Central Zone Schools with figures of four for six. He followed this by top-scoring with 58 and match figures of four for 31 against Southern Punjab Schools, and top-scoring again with 83 and getting three for 16 against Northern Punjab Schools, both at Patiala. The transition to India Schools was a swift one, and shortly after he came back from Sri Lanka, he scored 53 and 158 and got nine wickets from three innings.
He was still in school when he made his First-Class debut against Southern Punjab at Chandigarh, scoring 24 and taking a wicket. The first moment of glory came in the 1967-68 Duleep Trophy semi-final against West Zone at Poona. Batting at seven against Ramakant Desai, Rusi Surti, and Bapu Nadkarni, he scored a polished 51. It was not a big score, but his dazzling score captured hearts.
Vijay Merchant, the Chairman of Selectors, was on the lookout for fresh talent for the upcoming home series against New Zealand and Australia. After South Zone acquired an 11-run lead in the Duleep Trophy semi-final at Chepauk, Merchant saw young Gandotra handle Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Venkataraghavan with ease. He top-scored with 73 on a rank turner, and North Zone won handsomely despite Gundappa Viswanath’s excellent batting against Bedi.
Merchant had already liked what we had seen, but there was more to follow. When he played for Indian Universities against the touring New Zealanders that season at Brabourne Stadium, Ambar Roy promoted Gandotra to three, above Parthasarathy Sharma and himself. He scored 32 and 53 not out, took a wicket, and found himself in the side for the third and deciding Test at Hyderabad alongside Eknath Solkar.
The series was levelled 1-1 at that stage. Graham Dowling decided to bat, and helped Bruce Murray add 106 for the opening stand. However, nobody else reached 20, and Erapalli Prasanna shot out the tourists for 181. Dayle Hadlee bowled with fire in response: India were seven for 27 at one stage, when the onus came on Gandotra [who had walked out at 21 for five] and Venkat to put up a fight-back of some sort. Gandotra hung around for 71 minutes, scoring 18; he had seen off the triple menace of Hadlee, Bruce Taylor, and Bob Cunis, but when Hedley Howarth came on to bowl, he was caught-behind first ball. “I cursed myself,” he later said. India were bowled out for 89 [largely because Venkat and Bedi added 40 for the last wicket], but rain ensured that three days had been taken away.
Dowling set India a near-impossible 268 [or worse, bat out a single day]. India were in tatters 76 for seven in the 47th over [Gandotra was cleaned up by Cunis for 15] when it rained again, and the Test ended in a farce. Wisden wrote: “No real effort was made to get play started again. Instead of the covers being removed, a few workers with rags, some of them women, were given the task of removing the water from the covers and although there were official denials later, it looked very much like a deliberate go-slow policy. For perhaps the first time in cricket history a Test captain [Dowling] was on the field in bare feet, helping to remove the water.”
Gandotra was dropped from the first Test against the Australians at Brabourne Stadium, but was brought back for the next at Green Park — a Test usually remembered as the one where Viswanath scored 137 on debut. Gandotra scored 13 and eight, and never played another Test.
Gandotra was also appointed 12th man for the next Test at Kotla, but opted out for his Rhode Scholarship interview. In the process he missed out on both, but he never regretted. As Lokapally wrote, “cricket was never a career for [Ashok] Gandotra.”
Back to domestic cricket
Gandotra worked for Bush Tea Company, and later moved to Calcutta for business commitments. He made his debut for Bengal in 1971-72, and scored 107 — his maiden hundred — against Bihar at Jamadoba in his second match. After Bombay had piled up 377 in the final that season at Brabourne Stadium, Gandotra walked out at 133 for three and stood amidst the ruins, playing a lone hand. Even at 239 for eight he fought back, adding 40 with Dilip Doshi, but once he fell to Abdul Ismail for 92, the match was over.
The next season he scored 51 not out against Orissa at Sambalpur, but more importantly, routed the hosts for 110 with figures of five for 17 — his only five-wicket haul. He went back to Delhi the season after that, scored a career-best of 169 against Gujarat at home, and hung up his boots after scoring 28 and 12 against Rajasthan at Jaipur. After his retirement, Sunil Gavaskar mentioned that Gandotra was “a talented player who went out of first class cricket too soon to concentrate on his career.”
Gandotra settled down in Calcutta after retirement and continues to do so. He pursued his tea business, and is currently one of the more renowned tea-tasters in the city.
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(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)