Ashok Mankad. Photo courtesy: Rahul Mankad
Ashok Mankad. Photo courtesy: Rahul Mankad

Ashok Mankad, born October 12, 1946, was a prolific scorer at the domestic level, one of the most astute captains and a sparkling character in the dressing-room. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who was sometimes touted to become the Mike Brearley of India.

Magic of strategy

Eden Gardens, New Year’s Day 1983. The Wills Trophy final in progress.

The vaunted Bombay batting line up had been suffocated by the strong Delhi bowling. Sunil Valson, Manoj Prabhakar, Rakesh Shukla, Tilak Raj and Kirti Azad had given nothing away, restricting them to just 158. Only captain Ashok Mankad had stroked the ball decently to top-score with 45.

When the big hitting Kirti Azad came in to bat, Delhi were 44 for 2, the game precariously balanced. A few productive overs could make all the difference, and Azad was just the batsman to make that happen. Only, he was a nervous starter.

Mankad meticulously placed his field. Ghulam Parkar, that veritable livewire, lurked deep at mid-on. The instructions to the bowler were explicit and delivered to perfection. The ball was tossed up. Azad pushed it to the on-side, setting off for an apparently easy single to calm the early nerves. And in swooped Parkar, the celebrated pittu champion. The ball was scooped up and the throw shot through like an arrow and struck the stumps with unerring accuracy. Kirti Azad, panicked into accelerating late in the run, was found short of his ground. The match was turned on its head. Delhi managed just 99.

Ashok Mankad’s ingenious tactics had engineered a run-out.

“It was the usual play between ‘Kaka’ and Ghulam in all matches,” says former Bombay off-spinner Kiran Mokashi. “Ghulam would stand a bit deep at mid-on initially and would lure the batter into a complacent single. Just when the batter thought the easy single was on, Ghulam would pounce on the ball like a panther and hit the stumps.”

It was because of tactics like this that Mankad was often considered the greatest captain in India during his playing days. There were even conjectures that he could assume a Mike Brearley-like role in the Indian team. That never happened, and his less than impressive Test record kept most of his exploits restricted to the domestic scenario. But within those confines, his leadership became legendary with time.

Brother Rahul Mankad played alongside him for much of his career, and he too remembers the celebrated cricketing acumen. “He was a natural and intuitive leader. His greatest strength was to be able to instil confidence in younger players and he led by example. A total team player with a great sense of history and traditions of the game, he really enhanced the Bombay team culture under his leadership. He mainly led by instinct, and he was a deep thinker of the game. He was not afraid to experiment and think outside the box.”

After retiring, Mankad took up coaching, and was also the manager of the Indian team for a short while. When he coached the Mumbai side, the skills of man-management and the strategies were in action away from the field, but the results remained uniformly brilliant. Jatin Paranjape, who played for Mumbai in the nineties, says, “‘Kaka’ was an amazing leader of men.”

However, it should not be assumed that Mankad’s contribution was limited to tactics and strategy. While his success with the willow remained limited in Test cricket, Ashok Mankad was one of the batting giants of the Indian First-Class scene. He amassed nearly 13,000 runs with an average of nearly 51, and had the knack of scoring big on important occasions.

The bat and the brain

Two years before the Wills Trophy final alluded to above, arch rivals Delhi and Bombay had met in the title round of the Ranji Trophy at the Wankhede. After the visitors had been swung out by Balwinder Singh Sandhu for a modest 251, Mankad had batted exactly 10 hours for his career-best score of 265. Bombay had won by an innings and 46 runs.

On many occasions his prolific willow and keen cricketing mind were on display simultaneously.

One of the most celebrated examples is the Ranji Trophy quarter-final against a star-studded Hyderabad in early 1976. Mankad pitted his brains against ML Jaisimha, the latter aided by the added advisory services of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. With Abbas Ali Baig, Abid Ali, Kenia Jayantilal and MV Narasimha Rao also in the side, Hyderabad was teeming with quality cricketers. Mankad was leading a Bombay team with most of the stalwarts away playing in New Zealand.

Ashok Mankad with the Ranji Trophy of 1975-76. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan.
Ashok Mankad with the Ranji Trophy of 1975-76. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan.

Off-spinner Venkataraman Ramnarayan bowled Bombay out for 222 in the first innings, Mankad top-scoring with 69. In response, Hyderabad took a 59 run lead, leaving Bombay with no other option but to go for an outright win.

Mankad walked in at 26 for 2 in the second innings and hammered an unbeaten 136. He added 109 with brother Rahul, who scored 50, and then promoted fast bowler Abdul Ismail up the order to get some quick runs before declaring at 275 for 4 on the morning of the fourth and last day. As Hyderabad’s star-studded batting line-up batted again to score 217 for a win, Mankad used young Sandeep Patil to block one end while from the other leg-spinner Rakesh Tandon ran through the side to cinch a 70-run win.

Mankad was indeed a superb general who marshalled his men with panache and led from the front.

The Test career

It did not take much to channel young Mankad towards cricket. If one’s father is the greatest all-rounder of India, that is impetus enough. There was indeed guidance by the legendary Vinoo Mankad, but the young lad did have a lot of natural ability and ball sense from the very beginning. With time, wise counsel from men like VR Amladi, Joe Kamat and the redoubtable Polly Umrigar did a lot to shape the technique. Runs flowed in school cricket — a hundred for Bombay Schools against Saurashtra Schools and then for West Zone Schools against East Zone Schools. He remained as consistent in University cricket and as a 17-year-old scored an unbeaten 58 against the visiting MCC side in 1964.

Mankad took to First-Class cricket with gusto, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ajit Wadekar, Dilip Sardesai, Subhash Gupte, Polly Umrigar, Bapu Nadkarni and other stalwarts. Later, down the years, he would play alongside Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Eknath Solkar, Sandeep Patil and Karsan Ghavri. Never did he look out of place in a dressing room glittering with serious stars and a timeless tradition of winning.

However, the Test world was not as happy a tale. He made his debut against Graham Dowling’s New Zealanders in 1968-69, batting in the lower middle-order, showing admirable spunk in a low scoring game. When Bill Lawry’s Australians came along, he was pushed up to No 3 at the Brabourne Stadium. In the first innings he scored 74 against Graham McKenzie, Alan Connolly, John Gleeson and Ashley Mallett. Sitting in the stands watching his innings was father Vinoo Mankad.

Following this early success, the man who had batted in the middle-order all along was asked to open at Kanpur. Mankad took up the challenge and scored 64 and 68. In the following Test at Delhi, he opened again and stood alone against Mallett’s off-breaks to score 97 in a total of 223. India’s sole victory in the series owed a lot to this pugnacious innings by the young man. Although after this his form deserted him, by the end of the series Mankad was being talked of as one of the biggest hopes of Indian batting along with the new sensation Gundappa Viswanath.

However, he never quite managed to live up to that promise on international stage. Perhaps the early success as an opener proved his undoing, because he clearly did not enjoy the role. In the triumphant West Indies tour, he had a few decent outings, especially while providing solid starts with the rookie Sunil Gavaskar. But, the 1971 summer of England, that glorious chapter of Indian cricket, saw him score 1, 5, 8, 7, 10 and 11. In the face of this slump, Mankad had the unique ability to laugh at himself. He told the England players that they were lucky it was not a five-Test series because he was obviously improving and would have got to 25 by the end.

After this tour he became a fringe player in Test cricket. He remained suspect against the short ball. He did not hook and lacked the quickness to sway away with ease against the fast searing deliveries. Once he was out to a Chris Old snorter, his cap falling on the bails, dislodged from his head after the uncomfortable evasive movement.

He was dropped down the order later on, but things did not change for the better after this shuffling. His final nine Tests were played over six years and yielded 447 runs at 29.80. His Test career amounted to 22 Tests for 991 runs at 25.41 with six half-centuries.

The Indian team at The Oval, 1971  © Getty Images Back, from left: Ramprakash Mehra (official), EAS Prasanna, D Govindraj, Bishan Singh Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Ashok Mankad, Pochiah Krishnamurthy, Kenia Jayantilal, Abid Ali, Hemu Adhikari (manager) Middle, from left: Dilip Sardesai, Abbas Ali Baig, Ajit Wadekar (c), Srinivas Venkataraghavan (vc), Farokh Engineer. Kneeling, from left: Syed Kirmani, Gundappa Viswanath, Sunil Gavaskar, Eknath Solkar.
The Indian team at The Oval, 1971 © Getty Images
Back, from left: Ramprakash Mehra (official), EAS Prasanna, D Govindraj, Bishan Singh Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Ashok Mankad, Pochiah Krishnamurthy, Kenia Jayantilal, Abid Ali, Hemu Adhikari (manager)
Middle, from left: Dilip Sardesai, Abbas Ali Baig, Ajit Wadekar (c), Srinivas Venkataraghavan (vc), Farokh Engineer.
Kneeling, from left: Syed Kirmani, Gundappa Viswanath, Sunil Gavaskar, Eknath Solkar.

The irrepressible character

However, in domestic cricket he remained a giant. His handling of Padmakar Shivalkar for Bombay was perhaps the best illustration of how a talented spinner should be nurtured. Later he groomed cricketers like Parthasarathy Sharma, Raju Kulkarni and Chandrakant Pandit. While Bombay was always a superb team during his playing days, under his leadership the Mafatlal side, with several national-level cricketers, became a feared unit in the Moin-ud-Dowlah and Buchi Babu Tournaments and the Times Shield.

Mankad amassed 12,980 runs at 50.90 with 31 hundreds from 218 First-Class matches. With his occasional medium pace, he captured 72 wickets. His record was especially phenomenal in Ranji Trophy, with 6619 runs at 76.08 with a then record of 22 centuries. He played in 11 Ranji Trophy winning Bombay sides, captaining two of them.

In cricket and away, Mankad was acknowledged to be a great character. According to Sunil Gavaskar’s first book Sunny Days, Ashok Mankad was “called ‘Kaka’, because it also happens to be the nickname of the film star Rajesh Khanna of whom he [was] a great admirer.” Gavaskar also called him a great storyteller, who would often have the dressing room in splits. During phases of the match when things looked dismal for the side, he could lift the mood of the whole team with inimitable jokes, mimicry and songs.

When he was in good spirits, one could hear him humming Rajesh Khanna hits such as ‘Goon goona rahe hai bhaware’ or ‘Jai jai shiva shankar’. The influence of the actor on Mankad was not limited to watching his movies and humming his songs. Mankad used to wear a black kada on his wrist like Khanna. As the coach of Mumbai he was known to say, “There is only one superstar in this world… Rajesh Khanna.” Mankad’s love for cinema went beyond Khanna. According to Gavaskar, he once stood up in the theatre and started cheering while watching Cromwell.

With his irrepressible personality, Mankad was one of the men instrumental for the infectious joy that mingled with zeal to win in the Bombay team of that era. According to brother Rahul, “We were more colleagues than siblings and we even shared rooms on tours. Touring with Ashok was great fun. There was tremendous camaraderie and happy atmosphere in the Bombay team when Ashok was around. We still talk about those days and remember the happy times when former colleagues meet.”

The tradition of sports handed down by Vinoo Mankad did not stop with the two sons. Ashok Mankad married former Asian tennis champion Nirupama Vasanth, who played in junior Wimbledon in 1965 and partnered Anand Amritraj in the mixed doubles of the 1971 championship. Their two sons, Mihir and Harsh, also played tennis, and the latter went on to represent India in the Davis Cup. Mankad himself was very serious about his golf after moving away from competitive cricket.

In August 2008, at the age of 61, Ashok Mankad died in his sleep — leaving behind a shocked cricketing community.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)