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Farokh Engineer: An explosive batsman cum ‘keeper who was born ahead of his times

Farokh Engineer: An explosive batsman cum 'keeper who was born ahead of his times

Farokh Engineer stumps Geoff Boycott in the 1967 Edgbaston Test © Getty Images

Farokh Engineer, the dynamic batsman and the sprightly chatterbox behind stumps, was born on February 25, 1938. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the Brylcreem Boy who was also the last Parsee to play Test cricket for India.

“Who is this brave young batsman called Engineer? Can you bring him to meet me?” Upon meeting Farokh, Wes Hall’s mother told him that not many men had hit his son for a six. She was surprised to have found one.

The cricketer

Farokh Engineer should probably have played cricket in the 2000s. He would probably have been India’s answer to the likes of Adam Gilchrist. He would have been one of the stars, especially in the limited-overs version of the sport. Good enough to be chosen to represent the Rest of the World thrice, his agile movements behind the stumps and flamboyant aggression in front of them would probably have won even more fans than in his heydays.

Engineer played 46 Tests, scored 2,611 runs at an impressive 31.08 with two hundreds. He effected 82 dismissals. The less-than-two dismissals per Test may seem low, but it must be remembered that he played in an era in which Indian bowling relied almost entirely on spin, and seamers who could not bat struggled to find a place in the team.

The numbers do not tell the real story. He was a sound wicketkeeper. The legendary Brian Statham, Engineer’s Lancashire teammate, has often mentioned that he would have had a lot more wickets if Engineer had kept wickets for him throughout his career.
What made him special?

Engineer was brilliant against the famous Indian spin quartet as well. In an era when wicket-keepers find it difficult to adjust to varying spin and bounce, it is hard to believe that the mesmerising guile of Erapalli Prasanna, the crafty variations of Bishan Bedi, the unpredictable destruction of Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, and the relentless accuracy of Srinivas Venkataraghavan did not bother him.

Despite his large structure, he squatted low behind the stumps, anticipated well, moved to either side very quickly, and was deceptively acrobatic. Seldom did a ball go past him, and he was the perfect fulcrum around whom the pack of world-class close-in fielders of the era (Eknath Solkar, Ajit Wadekar, Abid Ali, and Venkataraghavan, among others) crouched, over after over, waiting for the batsman to make that one fatal mistake.

However, it was his batting that really made him stand apart from his rivals. In contrast to most Indian batsmen of his era, Engineer could be really devastating with the bat if he wanted to. He never feared to take the bowling apart, be it pace or spin, lethal pace or turning tracks. Match situation or bowler’s reputation did not make him change his style.

In a way he was what can be called India’s first ‘dashing’ batsman. Everything about him was different — right from the swagger to the wicket, to his unflinching approach towards handling hostile fast bowling. Way before Sunil Gavaskar came to the forefront to take on the West Indians through his trusted defense and temperament, Engineer had taken them to the cleaners on that January morning at Madras.

The Madras mayhem

Engineer had played 12 Tests, and batted in 19 innings till then. In all his previous innings he had batted mostly between positions eight and ten, and had done little of note. Budhi Kunderan, Engineer’s rival as the wicketkeeper-batsman in the Indian side at that point of time, had been batting quite well in the series till then, and was an almost certainty for the third Test at Madras,  more so for scoring a hundred in West Indies’ tour match.

Surprisingly, Kunderan was replaced by Engineer in the third Test. The reason cited was that Kunderan was ‘injured’, contrary to the actual facts. Engineer was not only selected, he was asked to open the innings (for the first time in his life) against an attack comprising of Hall and Charlie Griffith, and backed up by Lance Gibbs and Garry Sobers. According to Engineer’s biographer John Cantrell, “… there were elements within the selection panel who wanted an excuse to dispense him for good.”

It was under these conditions that Farokh went out to bat with Dilip Sardesai. And Engineer, to quote modern-day commentators, ‘threw the kitchen-sink’ at Hall and Griffith from the very beginning. India raced to 72 without loss in 12 overs, Engineer having scored 57 out of them. Hall’s figures read 6-0-35-0, and Griffith’s, 6-0-46-0.

Sobers got prodigious swing, but nothing seemed to deter Engineer. He raced on at a breakneck pace — and suddenly the Chepauk crowd realised that they might witness history: Could Engineer be the fourth batsman to score a hundred in the first session on the opening day of a Test? Unfortunately, he went into lunch on 94 and got to his century soon after resumption.

Engineer had returned to Test cricket with a bang. The joke was on the selectors. Kunderan played only two more Tests as an opening batsman (he also opened bowling in one of them) but he was out of contention for the wicket-keeper’s slot.

Later years

He went to England in 1967. After a decent performance against them, Lancashire signed a contract with him (he also had offers from Hampshire, Worcestershire, and Somerset). Along with the two Lloyds — Clive and David — Engineer changed the fortune of Lancashire Cricket Club. The county not only won matches, they also played aggressive cricket, and drew crowd to the grounds in an era generally known for boring cricket. Engineer married a Lancastrian, and settled down in Manchester after his Test days were over.

He played a key role in India’s first overseas series victory — in New Zealand in 1967-68, scoring 321 runs at 40.12, and kept brilliantly in a series won by India’s spinners. Not only did he take 10 victims, he kept wickets brilliantly, and caught everyone’s attention.

Unfortunately, despite his record against them, he was left out of India’s historic tour of West Indies in 1971. He was replaced by Pochiah Krishnamurthy, who did not do too well.

Naturally, Engineer had to be picked for the England tour that followed later that year. Coming out to bat when India were 125 for five in response to England’s 355 at The Oval, Engineer played an exceptional innings with Solkar for company to top score with 59. The two put up 97, and India managed to reach 284. After Chandrasekhar demolished England for 101 in the second inning, there were a few nerves in the Indian dressing room, first at 37 for two, and then at 134 for five. However, Engineer saw them through with an unbeaten 28. It was India’s first Test and series victory in England.

Farokh Engineer: An explosive batsman cum 'keeper who was born ahead of his times

Farokh Engineer steps out and drives in the Third Test against England at The Oval in 1971. India won the Test and with it a historic series. Engineer played a major role with the bat in the Test victory © Getty Images

Earlier in the series at Lord’s, he took what he considers the most memorable catch of his life. Bedi’s ball caught the shoulder of John Edrich’s ball, and as the ball hit Engineer’s shoulder, he slipped. He did not lose composure, though; he kicked the ball while falling, and somehow found his balance to cover an impossible distance to kick the ball up again and then, finally, leapt to complete the catch. It was an astounding catch for any era.

Then, after the twin series against England — home and away (he was the highest run-scorer in the home series, scoring 421 runs, and also registered his highest Test score of 121) — and the closely-fought home series against West Indies, Engineer retired, somewhat suddenly. He scored a pair in his last Test, and decided it was time for him to hand over the gloves to Syed Kirmani.

He continued to play for Lancashire, where he was so popular that his benefit match yielded a staggering £26,000 – quite sum then.

The person

Being a jovial, good-humoured person, he was often at the receiving end of jokes. Once, Polly Umrigar and Nari Contractor impersonated a lady Farokh fancied, and sent a telegram to Farokh mentioning that she was desperate to meet him and she had wanted to meet him outside the Victoria Terminus. After grooming adequately for the occasion (and Farokh believed in style), our hero found out that he was fooled by his Parsee mates.

He was thoroughly professional, though. Unlike some of his unfortunate predecessors, Engineer always ensured that he had a well-paid day job, and hence did not have to struggle financially. While in India, he worked in the sales department of Mercedes-Benz. After joining Lancashire, he worked at Hawker Siddeley, and is currently the brand ambassador for Jaguar and Lyca Mobile. Right now he serves as the Vice-President of the Lancashire Cricket Club.

Engineer’s debonair, handsome yet rugged looks made him the first Indian cricketer to endorse a product — Brylcreem, no less. It was only fitting that someone as flamboyant as Engineer would follow the shoes of the likes of Keith Miller and Denis Compton to become a Brylcreem Boy. In his days he was Indian cricket’s pin-up boy, despite the fact that he had played alongside other flamboyant cricketers like Tiger Pataudi and Salim Durrani.

Despite the undeniable contribution of the Parsees towards Indian cricket, it is rather unfortunate that not a single Parsee has played Test cricket for India after Engineer.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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