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Budhi Kunderan: The trendsetting ’keeper-batsman born ahead of his times

Budhi Kunderan: The trendsetting ’keeper-batsman born ahead of his times
Budhi Kunderan (centre) with two members of the 1971 Indian team that toured the West Indies and England, D Govindraj (left) and P Krishnamurthy. (Photo courtesy: Bharath Kunderan/JK Mahendra Kanaiya).

Budhi Kunderan, born October 2, 1939, was one of the trendsetting wicketkeepers who also blazed away with the bat, often at the top of the order. H Natarajan and Arunabha Sengupta look back at the man who unfortunately played far fewer Tests than his abilities merited.

He was born before his times. Yet he was also a man who could embrace the constraints of his day like no other.

Budhi Kunderan was a precursor of the modern day sensation Mahendra Singh Dhoni, a fascinating template which the current day great seems to have taken to the logical conclusion. He was the trendsetting wicketkeeper who could cross over to the front of the stumps with élan and dazzle the ground with swashbuckling feats of his willow. If one-day cricket had seeped into the cricketing calendar during his days, he could have been one of the superstars of the game.

Yet, the rewards he obtained for his deeds make for ridiculous reading when compared to the benefits raked in by modern men far inferior in quality and achievements. Indeed, when the young Kunderan played his first Test match, the grass was his bed and the starry sky was his roof. As mentioned, he could become one with the circumstances, withstand every challenge thrown at him and somehow emerge squatting behind the stumps and standing upright with the willow in front of it.

His versatility extended to acts without gloves and pads as well. He was a fine fielder even when not ’keeping, and in the final Test match of a career cruelly cut short, he also opened the bowling for India. Yes, he was a prototype for Dhoni in more than one way.

But, not only was he born way ahead of his times to venture in the format of the game which would have suited him to perfection, he was also unlucky to share his prime with another superb keeper, who like him could bat at the top of the order with almost equal nonchalance. In spite of his versatile brilliance, he could never be sure of his place in the national squad. Much of his career was spent in a concurrent game of musical chairs with the equally flamboyant Farokh Engineer.

And then, of course, there was the madness of the traditional Indian way of team selection. 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.

Even in his departure he was ahead of his times. Just before emigrating, he gave an interview in which his disappointment against the then administration of the Indian Cricket Board rang out loud and clear. He dared to speak the unadulterated truth, a territory seldom traversed by cricketers of his day. His contemporaries were less outspoken because of very good reasons. Indian officialdom had a long and vengeful memory. The interview ensured that Kunderan did not get an invite for the Jubilee Test at Bombay held in 1980.

But, by then Kunderan had made his own arrangements. By the time Ian Botham was vanquishing India in the Golden Jubilee Test, he was already playing for Scotland in the Benson and Hedges Cup. That way he was a trendsetter for Rahul Dravid as well — the great Indian batsman represented Scotland in 2003.

Playing for India, sleeping under the skies

Budhisagar Krishnappa Kundaram was born on October 2, 1939, at Mulky, near Mangalore in Karnataka. He changed his name much later, when he was well into his international cricket career.

He was never coached, and his father, a clerk for Voltas Air-conditioners, vehemently discouraged him from playing cricket. The story goes that when the uncoached Kunderan was selected for his school team, his mother surreptitiously altered her husband’s clothes to design her son’s first set of cricketing whites. He went on to hit 219 on his first foray on the cricket pitch. It made very interesting reading for his father when his photo appeared in the next day’s newspaper.

In 1958-59, Kunderan turned out for Cricket Club of India against the visiting West Indies. He batted one drop against Wes Hall and Garry Sobers, with the attack also containing Collie Smith, Denis Atkinson and Sonny Ramadhin. He made 21 in the first innings and three in the second, while taking three catches and effecting two stumpings.

The next season, when Richie Benaud’s Australians came to visit, Kunderan was picked for Board President, and opened the batting with ML Jaisimha, scoring 33 and putting on 68.

This effort caught the eyes of the selectors and Kunderan was drafted into the side for the third Test against Australia at Brabourne Stadium, Bombay.

He was 20, seeped in poverty, and didn’t have a room to himself. He lived in a chawl in the Bazaar Gate, sharing his room with six siblings, most of whom slept outside on the corridor. But, he did live in Bombay, and this stopped him from availing accommodation provided by the Indian Cricket Board. Local players were not put up in hotels at that time.

So, in search of a quiet night with his thoughts and ambitions for the morrow, Kunderan emerged with his pillow and bed-sheet and made his way towards Bombay Gymkhana from the Victoria Terminus. A gymnasium on the way was his destination. He lied down on the grass of its garden and looked at the stars above before drifting off. Mosquitos and gnats hovered and there was no air conditioner from his father’s firm, not even a fan to battle the Bombay heat. But, Kunderan slept this way for all the five nights and went on to keep wickets for 148 overs in the Test.

He batted at No 8 in his first innings, scoring 19, but was promoted to number three in the second. And he got was hit wicket for three, attempting to pull Ian Meckiff. He kept wickets with the gloves borrowed from Naren Tamhane, the very man he had replaced. The cap he wore was lent by Behram Murzban, principal of the Bharda High School. The bat and pads were properties of his club, Fort Vijay.

In the next Test at Madras, he was pushed to open the innings — that ancient policy of the Indian think-tank to make do with a ’keeper on the sacrificial block when there was no opener of merit in the side. Only Kunderan, who had got his first victim in the Australian innings by stumping Les Favell off Bapu Nadkarni, was not about to be sacrificed. He pummelled the bowling all over the park, hitting 12 boundaries in 71 before being the third out for 111. The rest of the batting wilted in front of Alan Davidson and Richie Benaud, India scoring just 149. The capitulation of the rest underlined the quality of his innings.

By the time he made his debut in Ranji Trophy, he had already played three Test matches — a rarity of sorts in Indian cricket. And when he did play his first Ranji game, it was for The Railways, led by Lala Amarnath, with stalwarts like Nari Contractor, Vijay Mehra, BB Nimbalkar and Dattu Phadkar in the team. He was blooded against Jammu and Kashmir, and coming in at one-drop he hammered 205.

Only Worcestershire batsman George Abell, also a wicketkeeper, had scored a double century in his first Ranji Trophy match when he turned out for Northern India against Army in 1934-35. Only five others have managed the feat since Kunderan.

However, by the end of 1961, Farokh Engineer had also appeared on the scene and taken up the position of India’s premier wicketkeeper with what some reckon to have been slightly better glovework. Kunderan went to the disastrous tour of West Indies in 1962 as an understudy. He played two Tests and the results were quite ordinary.

The dream series

It was in the 1963-64 season that Kunderan made an indelible mark as a batsman at the Test level. Opening the innings against the English attack at Madras, he scored 192 — the highest score by an Indian wicketkeeper till Dhoni went past him earlier this year.

The innings was studded with 31 boundaries, 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. He followed it up with another hundred in the fourth Test at Delhi and ended with 55 in the fifth at Kanpur, thus becoming the first wicketkeeper in history to pass 500 runs for a Test series. Denis Lindsay and Andy Flower are the only stumpers to have achieved this batting feat since then.

Yet, when Bobby Simpson’s Australians arrived in 1964-65, it was curiously KS Inderjitsinhji who was chosen as the first choice wicketkeeper. And when John Reid’s New Zealanders came along, it was back to Engineer. Kunderan played one Test in that series against the Kiwis, as a specialist opener, scoring 36 and 12 in Calcutta.

In 1965-66 he ceased to represent Railways in the Ranji Trophy, and began to play for Mysore. Playing for the South Zone, he honed his wicket-keeping skills while keeping wickets to Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkatarghavan.

However, this entailed lengthy travelling to Bangalore, and his employer, the State Bank of India, often proved unwilling to grant sufficient leave.

Kunderan was recalled for the Bombay Test when the strong West Indian side visited in 1966-67. He came in to bat in the second innings, a simple cloth cap on his head, the score reading a hopeless 193 for seven, the lead just 68. And he made merry against Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Garry Sobers and Lance Gibbs to score 79 in an hour and a half. It was during that innings that he was declared out caught by Sobers, who later withdrew his appeal saying that he had taken the ball on the bounce. Thus reprieved Kunderan hit 15 boundaries as he scored his runs out of just 119 added when he was at the wicket.

In the following Test at Calcutta, Kunderan scored 39 in the first innings, and it was the highest managed by an Indian batsman in the match. However, he was again omitted for the next Test at Madras, and Engineer came into the side to score109 on the first day — 94 before lunch.

Budhi Kunderan: The trendsetting ’keeper-batsman born ahead of his times
Budhi Kunderan (second from left) with his family in Scotland. (From left) son Dhilin, wife Linda and son Kiran. Photo courtesy Bharath Kunderan.

The final tour

In 1967 India embarked on another disastrous series, this time in England. The conditions in which the players had to turn out for the country were preposterous. Officials were cavalier in their attitude towards the national team, and the unfortunate cricketers had to endure it all for the survival of their careers.

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.”

Engineer was the preferred wicketkeeper in the first Test at Headingley, but Kunderan ended up tumbling to make the finest catch of his life. He came across Linda, a receptionist at the team’s hotel, and in time she was to become his wife — loyal till his last day.

In the next Test, at Lord’s, he played as a specialist batsman and curiously had to bat at number eight in the first innings. In the second, with Dilip Sardesai injured, he opened the batting with Engineer. It must have been an odd sight with two wicketkeepers starting off the Indian reply. Kunderan was eighth out for 47 as India folded for 110.

In the final Test at Edgbaston, India went in with all four of the famous spin quartet.  Playing Bishan Bedi, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan meant leaving out pace bowlers. Venkataraman Subramanya was one of those who could turn his arm over at something approaching military medium. On the eve of the match, captain Nawab of Pataudi turned to Kunderan and asked him what he bowled. Kunderan’s honest answer was, “I don’t know.”

Anyway, he did run in with the new ball against Geoff Boycott and Colin Milburn, ending with none for 13 from four overs. He opened the batting too, scoring a gritty 33 in the second innings.

The cruel end

After that followed bitter disappointment. In a shocking decision, he not chosen for the Indian tour of Australia in 1967-68. Inderjitsinhji was selected as the second wicketkeeper to Engineer.  Some of the trouble seemed to stem from Kunderan’s strained relations with the Nawab of Pataudi, whom he later described as aloof and domineering. It was the end of his career as an Indian cricketer. He had no desire to continue.

It was at this point that he negotiated a contract with Drumpellier, in the Scottish League. In 1969 he married Linda and the next year emigrated to Glasgow, where he worked in the technical department of British Roadmakers. He turned out for Drumpellier in the Western Union of the Scottish League.  He was the main force in ensuring that the Coatbridge side were Western Union champions in 1972, 1974 and 1978. Kunderan played for Drumpellier till 1995, when he was 56. It probably made him the longest-serving cricket professional in Scottish history.

In 18 Tests Kunderan scored 981 runs at an average of 32.70. As a wicket-keeper he claimed seven stumpings and took 21 catches in 15 of the Tests. In addition he made two other catches as an outfielder.

While moving to Britain in 1970, Kunderan did not mince his words while describing the conditions of Indian cricket, voicing that the players were made to feel they existed at the mercy of officials.

As stated earlier, his comments were not forgotten. He later sent the Board a fulsome apology, but he was not invited to join other former Indian cricketers at the Golden Jubilee Test in 1980.

However, to his teammates he remained full of life and was friendly. The Indian cricketers of that era were fill of men with dashing good looks. Dark, lean and handsome, Kunderan fitted right there with Tiger Pataudi, ML Jaisimha, Salim Durrani, Farokh Engineer and Abbas Ali Baig.

Budhi Kunderan, died in June 2006 after a battle with lung cancer. He will be remembered as one of the first men to be brilliant with the gloves and flashy with the bat, a keeper-batsman who would have revelled in the modern day of instant cricket.

(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)

(H Natarajan, formerly All India Deputy Sports Editor of the Indian Express and Senior Editor with Cricinfo/Wisden, is the Executive Editor of CricketCountry.com. A prolific writer, he has written for many of the biggest newspapers, magazines and websites all over the world. A great believer in the power of social media, he can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/H.Natarajan and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/hnatarajan)

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