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Laxmi Ratan Shukla: The spark that never got ignited

Laxmi Ratan Shukla © IANS
Laxmi Ratan Shukla © IANS

Born on May 6, 1981, Laxmi Ratan Shukla has put a valiant effort to hold the torch of Bengal cricket aloft in the new millennium with his role as a utility cricketer who leads from the front. He is also Bengal’s most-capped First-Class cricketer. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a spark that never got ignited.

The curious case of Laxmi Ratan Shukla remains an unsolved one in Indian cricket. Having made his One-Day International (ODI) debut at 17 as one of the promising stars of Indian cricket, he disappeared from the scenario almost as fast as he had arrived after three matches (at long intervals), two of them as an opening bowler.

A month before his ODI debut, however, he was expected to make his Test debut at SSC in the Asian Test Championship of 1998-99. Instead, at the last moment, a lean fast bowler from Delhi was roped in: while Ashish Nehra made his debut, Shukla never played a single Test. He still languishes in Indian domestic cricket, in its premier tournaments and otherwise.

Shukla’s First-Class career has spanned 16 seasons at the time of writing this article. From 125 matches, Shukla has scored 5,756 runs at 36.66 with eight hundreds, while his 156 wickets have come at 35.12, and include three five-fors. Additionally, with 105 matches he has made the most appearances for Bengal. Given Manoj Tiwary’s perpetual tryst with injuries, it is difficult to say who Bengal’s current leader is, but for all practical purposes it is Shukla.

It is the shorter formats of the sport that have really showcased Shukla at his best. If 2,775 runs at 30.16 and 135 wickets at 26.84 do not bear sufficient testimony to his potential, his Twenty20 records — including Indian Premier League (IPL) stints for Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) and, of late, Delhi Daredevils (DD) — speak for themselves. Shukla’s batting strike rate of 122.7 and economy rate of 7.19 are quite impressive.

His IPL days, dominated by the glitz of television and sponsorships, have won him a few quirky commercials:

Along with Rajat Bhatia (and perhaps Stuart Binny), Shukla represents that clan of cricketers who had so typified limited-overs cricket in the 1990s, especially in countries like England and New Zealand; they were powerful hitters, they bowled accurately, they fielded well — in other words, they contributed in all possible ways.

Additionally, Shukla has that extra factor that is so characteristic of your ubiquitous Bengal player: he wears his heart on his sleeve, can get a bit too passionate for comfort at times, but, on the other hand, seldom loses his poise. When it comes to leading his side, few have worn the Bengal cap with as much pride.

A recent outing at Eden Gardens

The particular incident is from earlier this year at Eden Gardens in a Ranji Trophy quarterfinal bout between Bengal and Railways. This columnist was there, watching the tourists attempt to chase down 271 after having conceded a slender three-run first-innings lead.

There were no upsets: Ashok Dinda, Sourav Sarkar, Shib Sankar Paul, and Saurasish Lahiri all bowled well, but it was Shukla’s three for 45 that lifted the spirit of the side. One could see that the man was in charge: and when it was all over, he hugged his teammates, and broke into a victory lap, stopping in front of the B- and the L-blocks — the only one where entry was allowed.

Once he reached there, escorted by his teammates, Shukla punched the air in a motion in unmistakable elation that made the spectators stand up and applaud: you could see that this was a man of the earth; a man who had put his wasted international career, a decade-and-a-half behind him; a man who motivates himself day in and day out with only the meagre benefits of Indian domestic cricket to satisfy him; and a man who had gone unsold by KKR for their first five seasons and had yet gone unnoticed.

This was a mere Ranji Trophy quarterfinal, but he had played and led the match with as much fire and passion as anyone who has almost no chance of being selected at the highest level. This was the ardour that has driven domestic cricketers over decades despite their knowledge of the fact that they would never make it big. It is players striving for these small battles that make domestic cricket still worth a watch.

Early days

Born in Howrah, Shukla studied at Ghusuri Sree Hanuman Jute Mill Hindi High School, and continued his studies at Don Bosco High & Technical School, Liluah. The motto of latter read “Virtus et labor” (Latin for “Energy and work”). Seldom has a phrase defined a student so aptly.

Affectionately known as “Bittu” in his inner circle, Shukla broke into the Bengal Under-16s: he started with 56 and five for 35 against Orissa Under-19s at Cuttack, and never looked back. He took the leap to the Under-19s in a year, and made his First-Class debut against Maharashtra at Calcutta Cricket and Football Club (CCFC) Ground before he had turned 17, finishing with 26 runs and two wickets. The next season he migrated to Duleep Trophy.

Though his batting was more of a carefree nature those days, he bowled at a brisker pace, and he was a competent fielder. His all-round ability had earned him a call-up for India A against the touring Pakistanis at Gwalior: opening the bowling, Shukla finished the match with two for 89 and four for 38, including wickets of Wajahatullah Wasti (twice), Yousuf Youhana (twice), and Inzamam-ul-Haq.

He also played against the Pakistanis for the Indian Board President’s XI at Kochi, a match where he finished with three for 55 and one for 32 (including Shahid Afridi, Inzamam, Azhar Mahmood, and Youhana); there was no doubt whatsoever that he would get a Test call-up soon.

Only that it never happened.

Meanwhile, Shukla had performed brilliantly in the Wills Trophy: four for 30 against Tamil Nadu at Eden Gardens in the quarterfinal, a blinder of an innings (136 in an opening stand of 212 with Nikhil Haldipur) in the semifinal at Jamshedpur, and four for 26 in the final against Madhya Pradesh at Eden Gardens in the final were enough to earn him a call-up.

International career

With the selectors experimenting with a few new faces ahead of the World Cup, Shukla got picked in the Pepsi Cup at home that also featured Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Other youngsters included Amay Khurasiya, Sadagoppan Ramesh, Gyanendra Pandey, and the only one of the lot who made it big — Virender Sehwag.

Shukla made his debut against Sri Lanka at Nagpur and did not get a chance to bat as the hosts piled up 287 for four. He also went for runs, conceding 32 off four overs. Fortunately for India, Sourav Ganguly’s spectacular display (130 not out and four for 21) won the match easily for India.

Dropped for the next match, Shukla made a comeback in the Mohali match that followed: demoted to nine he fell to Saqlain Mushtaq for five as India were bowled out for 196. As Venkatesh Prasad dented the Pakistan top-order, reducing them to 34 for three, Shukla turned out to be the perfect foil. He conceded 37 off his ten overs, but once Prasad and Shukla were through, Ijaz Ahmed and Inzamam led Pakistan to an easy seven-wicket victory. He was dropped for the final at Chinnaswamy.

He was not considered for the World Cup, but was retained for the Coca-Cola Singapore Challenge later that year. Once again he opened bowling in the only match where he played — this time with Debasis Mohanty — and had Jimmy Adams caught by Robin Singh. He finished with one for 25 off five overs, which were commendable numbers, given the fact that the match had been reduced to a 30-over encounter and West Indies had put up 196 for seven.

India lost their way in a match that is usually remembered for Ramesh and Wavell Hinds both taking wickets off their first ODI balls. They finished on 154 for eight; going for the wild slogs, Shukla was cleaned up by Mervyn Dillon for a ten-ball 13. He never played another international match.

Back to domestic cricket

Laxmi Ratan Shukla (right) with Ashok Dinda © IANS
Laxmi Ratan Shukla (right) with Ashok Dinda © IANS

Shukla returned to domestic cricket, and has continued to perform commendably over the past 15 years. With age his pace has reduced, and with the advent of the likes of Dinda, Ranadeb Bose, Paul, Sarkar, and Mohammed Shami, he has adopted the role of a support bowler in the longer format, though he still continues to be a partnership-breaker.

In 2010-11, he registered his career-best — a 481-ball 250 not out against Assam at Eden Gardens — in a 417-run partnership with Wriddhiman Saha against Assam. It remains the sixth-highest score by a Bengal batsman (and the highest by a number seven). It also remains a record partnership for any wicket for Bengal.

Shukla also played a key role in Bengal’s maiden Vijay Hazare Trophy win in 2011-12. Jharkhand had posted what seemed to be a formidable 280 for six, but Shukla played a whirlwind innings, scoring 151 not out in only 96 balls with 16 fours and eight sixes out of 206 scored during his stay. The total was chased down with 71 balls in hand.

“Having suffered heart-break in three consecutive finals, (Laxmi Ratan) Shukla looked like the man possessed. He was desperate to get the monkey off the back since he led the team on all the three occasions.” It was not an exaggeration: after Bengal were surprisingly bowled out for 198 at Jadavpur University Complex, Shukla bowled out Tripura for 168 with four for 37.

He continued to deliver throughout the season, but saved his best for the final at Kotla: after bowling out Mumbai for 248 with figures (Shukla finished with four for 38 including Wasim Jaffer and Ajinkya Rahane) Bengal were in trouble of sorts at 145 for four. It did not matter to Shukla: he flailed his bat against Ajit Agarkar, Dhawal Kulkarni, and Iqbal Abdullah, scored 106 not out in 90 balls, and Bengal won their maiden Ranji Trophy with 23 balls to spare.

Shukla finished the tournament with 291 runs at 58.20 and 11 wickets at 24.36 with an economy rate of 4.59. It has certainly not been his last effort at this level. The Bengal workhorse, now at the helm, continues to deliver. “I’m just 32 and will play for at least five more years,” he had said six months back.

For those who have known Shukla, one can never rule that out.

(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)

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