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The prodigious new-ball bowler Nirode “Putu” Chowdhury was born May 23, 1923. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at Calcutta’s favourite son who could never shine at the top level.
Calcutta, 1964. India had put up 241, and Colin Cowdrey, summoned from England, was taking them to a lead in an exemplary display of patience (he eventually scored 107 in 380 minutes). There was a strong breeze that blew across the ground from the Hooghly (a distributary of the Ganges).
Ramakant Desai and Rusi Surti tried their heart out, but to no avail. Suddenly Eden Gardens remembered “Putu”, and general murmurs of nostalgia filled the air. One of them, with a British (and Shakespearean) mindset, stood up and recited, his arms outstretched: “Oh Putu, where art thou? India is in need of theeeeeeeee!” The man in question had not played First-Class cricket in five years.
Such was the impact Nirode Ranjan “Putu” Chowdhury had on Eden Gardens. All of 5’10”, he certainly not express, but it did not matter: he could swing the ball with the slightest help from the conditions (as was the case at Eden Gardens or Keenan Stadium). He could move it away from the right-hander viciously and often brought the ball in with an off-break: when the combination worked, he often became unplayable.
He was also a master of adaptation and improvisation. In Playing for India, Sujit Mukherjee wrote that Chowdhury bowled “action-sped off-breaks that snapped off the matting at an awkward angle and pace.” When the match was not played on mat, Mukherjee wrote that Chowdhury “whetted his cutting edge on a damp turf.”
Chowdhury had an excellent First-Class record, finishing with exactly 200 wickets from 58 matches at 25.14; this included 14 five-wicket hauls and two ten-wicket hauls. Despite his amazing talent, he failed to deliver at the top level, and ended up with a solitary wicket from two Tests.
Chowdhury’s records on the two grounds stand out from the rest of his career:
The phenomenal start
Born in Jamshedpur, Chowdhury became a matriculate, and showed early promise as an all-round sportsperson from a very early age. He excelled in cricket, football, and high-jump (it is generally believed he played football for Mohun Bagan, but no documented proof has been found supporting the fact).
Chowdhury had one of the most astounding starts to a First-Class career. All three matches were played for Bihar against Bengal (who acquired the first-innings lead in each match), and thanks to the domestic structure of Indian cricket at that time, he never played a second match in any of the seasons.
Making his debut at 18, Chowdhury had seven for 79 (his career-best) and four for 86 (the match-figures of 11 for 165 also remained his best) at Keenan Stadium in 1941-42. He followed this with seven for 100 and two for 16 at Eden Gardens in 1942-43, and six for 75 and four for 52 at Eden Gardens in 1943-44.
He moved to Bengal the next season, and met with “failure” in his first match. Against United Provinces at Eden Gardens he returned figures of three for 40 and five for 49. This time he had the support at the other end from Mantu Sen, Paul Carey, and Kamal Bhattacharya, and Bengal won the match. In the next encounter, for Bengal Governor’s XI against Services XI (that included the small matter of Denis Compton, Reg Simpson, and Joe Hardstaff jr), he bowled only once and finished with five for 104.
After five matches and nine innings Chowdhury’s numbers read 43 wickets at 13.98 with five five-fors and two ten-fors. It could probably have not got any better from there, but Chowdhury picked out another rabbit out of his hat: in his next match, for Major-General Stewart’s XII against Bengal Governor’s XI, he effected a hat-trick. The wickets? Vinoo Mankad, Mushtaq Ali, and Lala Amarnath.
It thus came as a surprise that Chowdhury never made it to the England tour of 1946, where his style of bowling would have been ideal for the conditions. “(“Putu”) Chowdhury should have been sent in 1946 as a first-change bowler who would come on as soon as the shine was off and be able to take advantage of lively English wickets.”
Despite the surprise omission he never lost heart and continued to perform. When the West Indians toured India, Chowdhury surprised them for Bengal Governor’s XI at Eden Gardens, routing them for 255. His six for 105 included the wickets of George Carew, Allan Rae, John Goddard, and the big fish — Everton Weekes. He was selected for the fourth Test of the home series against the tourists at Chepauk.
Both Rae and Jeffrey Stollmeyer hammered hundreds, adding 239 for the opening stand in 230 minutes before the latter added another 80 with Clyde Walcott. Chowdhury, whom Amarnath had introduced after Dattu Phadkar, Vijay Hazare, and himself, eventually had Stollmeyer caught-behind for 160. West Indies amassed a mammoth 582.
India put up a sorry show against the West Indian seamers, and were bowled out for 245 and 144. Batting at eleven, Chowdhury scored thee not out and a duck. He was dropped for the next Test.
Gover and the comeback
Chowdhury played in five unofficial “Tests” against a touring Commonwealth XI, and later went to Alf Gover’s school — and returned a completely different bowler. Mukherjee wrote: “(“Putu”) Chowdhury had enhanced his pace and dramatised his run-up with a culminating leap for which he flung out both arms wide.”
He was brought back again for one final time, this time against England at Kotla. Opening the bowling, Chowdhury finished with no wickets (though his figures in the second innings read 35-11-45-0). He did not get a chance to bat, and that was that. He finished with a career average of 205.00. He has the eighth-worst bowling average in history at the time of writing this article (second-worst by an Indian after Sunil Gavaskar). He was, however, picked for the subsequent England tour — the horror series of 1952.
As Fred Trueman and Alec Bedser blew India away in Test after Test, Chowdhury’s performances remained confined to the tour matches. He finished with 24 wickets at 31.00 from ten matches, but most of these wickets game against Derbyshire at Chesterfield — where he finished with five for 30 and four for 83.
“Most of his (Chowdhury’s) admirers felt that he had violated nature by trying to bowl faster than he was meant to, and thus lost his inborn gift of bringing the ball wickedly back from the off at unsettling pace,” Mukherjee later wrote.
Here-and-there, and oblivion
Chowdhury never reached his old standards, but he pulled off outstanding performances every now and then. Against Commonwealth XI at Eden Gardens, for example, he finished with four for 117, the wickets being those of Simpson, Roy Marshall, Ken Meuleman, and Des Barrick. In the next match he routed Bihar with six for 37.
In 1954-55, in his last match for Bengal, Chowdhury pulled off one final outstanding effort in the Ranji Trophy semifinal against Tamil Nadu at Madras. He fought a lone battle, finishing with three for 53 and six for 35, but Bengal scored 174 and 155 and lost comprehensively.
Dropped from the Bengal side (who had acquired Phadkar), Chowdhury went back to Bihar the next season, and immediately responded by bowling out Bengal at Keenan Stadium with four for 45. Unfortunately, Bihar found Sunit Shome too hot to handle, and were bowled out for 60 and 135. Thereafter he went back to his one-match-a-year-against Bengal mode.
He made one final appearance against the touring West Indians of 1958-59. Playing for Bihar Governor’s XI he was still good enough to dismiss John Holt, Joe Solomon, and Willie Rodriguez, Roy Gilchrist and Jaswick Taylor were more than a handful for the hosts.
Chowdhury was assigned a benefit match that sadly never happened. He worked for Durgapur Steel Plant as a cricket coach after his retirement. He passed away in the same city at 56 on December 14, 1979.
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