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Kenia Jayantilal — The man who made way for Sunil Gavaskar

Kenia Jayantilal.
Kenia Jayantilal.

Kenia Jayantilal was born on January 6, 1948. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a one-Test wonder whose career faded away in the annals of Indian domestic cricket.

The fist memory that Hirji Kenia Jayantilal’s name brings to one’s mind is the following excerpt from Sunny Days: “[Kenia] Jayantilal withdrew his bat at the last moment, but the ball came back sharply, got an edge and travelled like lightning between second and third slip. There was a flash of movement and [Garry] Sobers came up laughing with the ball clutched to his chest. ‘What a catch!’ I told somebody. ‘Now all I want to see is Rohan Kanhai’s falling sweep shot, and my tour is made.”

Jayantilal himself was perplexed by the amazing catch: “I was actually taking my bat away from the ball when it gained a nick and flew to [Garry] Sobers. He had moved the wrong way when he stopped and came up with a diving catch. Of course it was a fantastic catch but it spelt doom for me,” he later told in an interview to The Hindu. In other words, his Test career came to an abrupt end – not because he failed, but because of a freak fielding performance.

Thus ended the international career of Jayantilal, the dependable Hyderabad stalwart for his state side in from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s; he was a dependable batsman who was successful in the Ranji Trophy, but was perhaps a tad shorter in class as far as the top level was concerned.

Possessed with a solid defence and an excellent array of back-foot strokes, Jayantilal’s First-Class career read 4,687 runs at 36.33 with eight hundreds. 2,384 of these came from 44 Ranji Trophy matches at 40.40 with seven hundreds. Four of these hundreds where scored against poor Kerala, whom he had picked out for special treatment: in his nine matches against them he had scored 781 runs at 97.62.

Early days

 

Born in Hyderabad, Jayantilal made his First-Class debut in the Moin-ud-Dowlah Gold Cup Tournament of 1967-68 at Hyderabad: playing for Hyderabad Blues against Vazir Sultan Tobacco Colts XI. He scored a duck in the first innings, but top-scored with a confident 71 in the second.

He made his Ranji Trophy debut the next season against Kerala at Guntur: after the tourists were shot out for 85 by Devraj Govindraj, Jayantilal scored 153 on Ranji Trophy debut, adding 258 for the fourth wicket with Waheed Yar Khan. ML Jaisimha declared the innings 316 runs ahead before Govindraj took five more to guide Hyderabad to an innings victory.

His performance over the next two seasons was good enough to find him a spot in the Rest of India side in the Irani Trophy of 1970-71. After Bombay scored 418, Jayantilal added 77 with Hemant Kanitkar and was eventually out for 49. Bombay eventually won on first-innings lead. Two matches later Jayantilal almost single-handedly won a match against West Zone at Brabourne Stadium, scoring 134 when no other batsman in the entire match reached 65.

One step higher, in Test cricket, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi’s men were being thrashed by Bill Lawry’s Australians at home. The selection committee, headed by Vijay Merchant, called for a major revamp in the team, including a change in captain in the form of Ajit Wadekar. They also roped in a batch of youngsters for the tour of West Indies; the squad included Jayantilal as a reserve opener.

The twin tours

Gavaskar was, of course, the first choice as the opener, but a finger injury made him sit out the matches against Jamaica at Sabina Park and the Board President’s XI at Montego Bay. Jayantilal failed in the first, scoring a duck and 27, but did a commendable job with 33 and 58 not out in the second. With Gavaskar still unfit, Jayantilal made his debut in the first Test at Sabina Park.

Jayantilal was the first batsman to be dismissed that series: as mentioned above, he fell to a spectacular catch by Sobers off Grayson Shillingford for five. The first five wickets, however, fell with 75 on the board with only Dilip Sardesai standing tall at the other end: they had scored only 35 between themselves.

Kenia Jayantilal with the Indian team that won 1971 Oval Test and with it  a historic series: Standing (from left) – Ramprakash Mehra (official), EAS Prasanna, D Govindraj, Bishan Singh Bedi, BS Chandrasekhar, Ashok Mankad, Pochiah Krishnamurthy, Kenia Jayantilal, Syed Abid Ali and Hemu Adhikari (Manager). Kneeling (from left): Syed Kirmani, Gundappa Viswanath,. Sitting (from left) – Dilip Sardesai, Abbas Ali Baig, Ajit Wadekar (captain), S Venkataraghavan (vice-captain), Farokh Engineer. Kneeling (from left): Syed Kirmani, GR Viswanath, Sunil Gavaskar and Eknath Solkar © Getty Images
Kenia Jayantilal with the Indian team that won 1971 Oval Test and with it a historic series: Standing (from left) – Ramprakash Mehra (official), EAS Prasanna, D Govindraj, Bishan Singh Bedi, BS Chandrasekhar, Ashok Mankad, Pochiah Krishnamurthy, Kenia Jayantilal, Syed Abid Ali and Hemu Adhikari (Manager). Sitting (from left) – Dilip Sardesai, Abbas Ali Baig, Ajit Wadekar (captain), S Venkataraghavan (vice-captain), Farokh Engineer. Kneeling (from left): Syed Kirmani, GR Viswanath, Sunil Gavaskar and Eknath Solkar © Getty Images

Sardesai’s 212 helped India reach 387, and Sobers, surprisingly ignorant of the laws, was asked to follow-on. They saved the Test comfortably, and Jayantilal was dropped for the second Test at Queen’s Park Oval in favour of Gavaskar. He never played another Test.

Gavaskar famously scored 774 runs from the series — still the highest by anyone in his maiden series as India pulled off their first series win against West Indies, home or away. It must be remembered here that Gavaskar’s maiden Test hundred — the 116 at Bourda — involved Sobers dropping two sitters and a difficult chance. Had Sobers caught Gavaskar for six and dropped Jayantilal instead, the latter might have got more chances.

Despite playing a single Test, Jayantilal batted brilliantly on the tour. The epoch came in the match against Guyana at Bourda when Rohan Kanhai had set India 337 for a victory; Jayantilal began in dramatic fashion, adding 121 with Ashok Mankad for the first wicket. India eventually finished on 277 for three with Jayantilal unbeaten on 122.

Jayantilal scored 506 runs on the tour at 56.22. He came third on the batting chart after Gavaskar (1,169 runs at 97.41) and Sardesai (883 runs at 67.92). He was retained for the tour of England as well.

Wadekar’s team had another triumph, this time on English soil, but Jayantilal failed completely, unable to cope with the conditions and finishing with a paltry 237 at 16.92. He had top-scored with 84 against Surrey at The Oval and with 57 against Sussex at Hove, but that was about it. He never made another international tour, but back home he was named an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year.

Back to domestic cricket

On being dropped, Jayantilal started the long way uphill with 65 and 64 against Bombay in the Irani Trophy at Brabourne Stadium, but did little else of note that season. When Tony Lewis’ England toured India in 1972-73, Jayantilal was selected for South Zone to play them in their tour match. Jayantilal scored 103 not out in the second innings when nobody else crossed fifty, but a Test spot remained elusive. “I did not know who to go to, what to do, since scoring runs also did not help,” he later commented.

Jayantilal continued to play on Hyderabad. With the likes of Dilip Vengsarkar and the Amarnaths coming up to join Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath, his opportunities were limited, but that was certainly not due to lack of effort. He continued to play on till 1978-79.

His last season saw him score a career-best of 197 against Kerala at home before Shivlal Yadav routed the tourists to help his side to an innings victory. Two matches later, his off-breaks came into play, this time against Tamil Nadu at home: called on to bowl by Abid Ali he picked up the wickets of P Ramesh, Abdul Jabbar, and Srinivas Venkataraghavan. The career-best spell of three for 47 doubled his career wicket tally. In the next match, the last of his career, Jayantilal scored 18 and 20 against Karnataka at Bangalore.

In his later days Jayantilal told in an interview to The Hindu: “I never got another chance. It was frustrating for a while but I consider it was my fate.” However, in another interview to the same daily he lamented that he “did not have a godfather”.

Post-retirement

Jayantilal became a coach after retirement, taking over responsibilities of Goa, Vidarbha, Jammu and Kashmir, and Malaysia. Having moved to Bombay in 1974 after taking up a job at Mafatlal, Jayantilal currently resides in the city. He had tried for the post of the Bombay coach in 2006 but eventually lost out to Pravin Amre.

The same year, Orra and Kiah had organised for a star-studded floodlit benefit match for Karsan Ghavri and Jayantilal at the Police Academy. These days he provides free coaching to underprivileged children (and enjoys it) at Bombay Gymkhana.

(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 Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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