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Probir Sen: The first Bengali cricketer to play for India

Probir Sen shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth; courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Probir Sen shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth II; courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Born May 31, 1926, Probir Sen was the first wicketkeeper to become a regular feature in the Indian side. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the first Bengali to play for India.

When India toured Australia in 1947-48, they brought with them a little wicket-keeper, who was the youngest member of the side. In an interview with The Daily News (Perth), Probir Kumar Sen said: “In Calcutta they call all babies Khokon. The name just stuck to me. In fact, I am not 18 as some seem to think; I am 20.”

The name “Khokon” (a common Bengali nickname, which actually means someone very young) have been somehow distorted to “Khokhan” over time, and is recorded likewise in all cricket documents. His on-field performances, however, ensured he was far from being immature or incompetent. The Daily News wrote that Sen has “limited experience but shows great promise.”

Sen was short (5’6”) and stocky, and was extremely nimble behind the stumps. He flew around to come up with the most brilliant of catches; his stumpings were executed at the speed of lightning; and he was equally competent against both pace and spin. His liveliness was infectious, and his vigour behind the stumps urged his bowlers to lift their performances even after a day’s toil.

The fact that he played 14 Tests after India had six glovemen in their first 12 Tests bears testimony to his skill and consistency. There was stiff competition from the likes of Nana Joshi and Madhav Mantri with Ebrahim Maka and Vijay Rajindernath making an appearance or two in between; but Sen was universally accepted as the first great wicketkeeper till the advent of Naren Tamhane behind the stumps.

Sen’s 14 Tests fetched him 20 catches and 11 stumpings (the ratio tells a thing or two regarding the nature of Indian attack during his time), while he effected 108 catches and 36 stumpings from 82 First-Class matches. Though he had an acceptable batting record of 2,580 runs at 23.24 with three hundreds in domestic cricket, the numbers dipped to 165 runs at 11.78 at the highest level.

Early days

Probir Sen was born in Comilla (now in Bangladesh) on 31 May, 1926 — exactly two years before Pankaj Roy was born. He had three siblings — a sister (Moni) and two brothers (Samir and Ranabir). Ranabir, 19 years younger to Probir, also played Ranji Trophy for Bengal.

A good student, Sen attended La Martinere College in Calcutta, and graduated from Senior Cambridge. He made his First-Class debut in a Ranji Trophy encounter against Bihar at 17, when he was just out of school: he finished with 13 and two along with three dismissals in the match at Eden Gardens.

Promoted to first-down in his next match against Holkar, also at home, Sen smashed 142 in 225 minutes off the bowling of CK Nayudu, BB Nimbalkar, Hiralal Gaekwad, and Mushtaq Ali. Holkar collapsed against Kamal Bhattacharya, and lost by ten wickets.

By the time India resumed international cricket Sen already had three years of domestic cricket under his belt. He was left out for the England tour of 1946, but made it to the Australia tour of 1947-48 as an understudy to Jenni Irani.

Test debut

Little Sen captured the imagination of the Australians as much as almost any of his teammates did. He was not expected to get a chance in the Tests, and his role was supposed to be restricted to the tour matches to provide Irani with the rest he needed. Instead, after India were humiliated at The Gabba and drew the second Test, Sen was drafted in ahead of Irani for the third Test at MCG.

Of course, he had one claim to fame by then: in the tour match against South Australia at Adelaide Oval, Sen had stumped Don Bradman off Vinoo Mankad; he later rated it as the most prized scalp of his career. “My greatest thrill was when I stumped [Don] Bradman at Adelaide because he is the greatest genius we have ever met,” he said later in an interview with The Daily News.

From right to left: Probir Sen, Jessie Bradman, Pankaj Gupta, and Sen's most celebrated victim; courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
From left to right: Don Bradman, Pankaj Gupta, Jessie Bradman and Probir Sen; courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Australia put up 394 after Bradman batted and scored 132. Sen stumped Ron Hammence in the first innings and caught Sid Barnes in the second, both off Lala Amarnath, but did little else as Bradman rushed to his second hundred of the match and Australia won by 233 runs.

Vijay Hazare’s twin hundreds on consecutive days could not prevent an Indian innings defeat at Adelaide Oval. Promoted to three, Sen scored a golden duck in the first innings (as did Amarnath himself at the same position in the second). The final Test at MCG saw India slump to another innings defeat despite Mankad’s fighting hundred. India lost the rubber 0-4. Despite India’s defeat Sen could take pride in the fact that he had conceded a mere four byes in Australia’s first innings of 575 for eight that spanned 128 overs (170.4 six-ball overs).

Sen failed with the bat, scoring 33 runs at 5.60 in the Tests and 81 at 9.00 on the tour. However, his glovework impressed the Australian critics. He sought the advice of Don Tallon, who helped him greatly. A grateful Sen later admitted: “[Don] Tallon changed my stance and his coaching improved me 300 per cent.” An impressed Bert Oldfield gifted Sen with a pair of wicket-keeper’s gloves.

The other glovemen arrive

Sen had his rivals, and the biggest among them was Madhav Mantri — Bombay captain, opening batsman, and gloveman. However, despite being the lesser batsman, Sen kept Mantri out of the side by virtue of his heroism behind the stumps. He was dropped after a quiet home series against West Indies, but kept on delivering at the domestic level.

In 1950-51 Sen scored a career-best 168 against Bihar at Keenan Stadium, adding 231 for the ninth wicket with Jyotish Mitter. It still remains the record ninth wicket stand (also the best stand for any wicket from seventh onwards) for Bengal. He was drafted in for the home Test against England at Eden Gardens, but was dropped for the next at Green Park, which India lost. He was recalled for the last Test at Chepauk.

The Chepauk Test was the first display of Sen’s class. While Roy and Polly Umrigar scored hundreds, Mankad routed the tourists with figures of eight for 55 and four for 53. In the first innings Sen stumped Tom Graveney, Donald Carr, Malcolm Hilton, and Brian Statham — all off Mankad — thus becoming the second wicketkeeper in history to effect four stumpings in an innings after Oldfield. Kiran More is the only other one to do so, and holds the record with five.

There was no escape from the Mankad-Sen combination: Sen stumped Hilton off Mankad in the second innings as well, thus being the first man to effect five stumpings in a Test. The only other person to do so is More, who holds the record with six. His performances made him an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year.

To England, and later

Sen was selected for the disastrous England tour of 1952, and played at Old Trafford (where India were bowled out for 58 and 82 in the same day) and at The Oval after Mantri failed in the first two Tests at Headingley and Lord’s. Once again he impressed the connoisseurs with the big gloves, and impressed with his unbeaten 75 against Glamorgan at Swansea.

With Joshi’s advent the contest became stiffer, but Sen was retained for the first Test against Pakistan at Kotla. Once again he kept well, and scored a career-best 25 out of a 34-run ninth wicket stand with Hemu Adhikari. The selectors tried Joshi, Rajindernath, and Maka in the next three Tests, only to bring Sen back for the final Test at Eden Gardens.

The Test fizzed out to a draw after Waqar Hasan and Fazal Mahmood’s match-saving partnership. Sen scored 13, and took a catch and a stumping off the bowling of Gulabrai Ramchand, but never played another Test.

The hat-trick (and an urban legend)

Sen scored 127 against Orissa at Cuttack the next season, but achieved something more astounding against the same opposition at the same ground two seasons later. On cards it seemed the usual one-way affair with Bengal piling up 329 for four before bowling out Orissa for 58 and 126.

The match, however, is remembered for the way it ended. Sen had Ram Sastry stumped, and Tamayya Sastri and Nimal Padhi bowled off consecutive deliveries. He finished with figures of 3.4-1-4-3, and became the second Bengal bowler to take a First-Class hat-trick (after TC Longfield).

[Note: There is usually an urban legend associated with Sen’s hat-trick. It is generally believed that Sen had taken his gloves before he had taken the hat-trick. The debutant Gopal Chakraborty, who had stumped Ram Sastry to give Sen the first of his three wickets, was the designated wicket-keeper for the match. Sen did not keep wickets. That feat remains with Alan Smith, who had performed this for Warwickshire against Essex at Clacton-on-Sea in 1965].

Later days

Sen continued to play First-Class cricket till 1957-58. Playing for Past XI against Present XI at Kotla in his final season, Sen scored 18 and 39, and more importantly, pouched two catches and effected six stumpings. Two weeks later he played his last First-Class match against Services at Kotla, scoring 57 but going without a dismissal.

Post-retirement

Sen had worked for McLeod & Co. Ltd., and later joined Sahu Jain & Co. before making a move to Tata. He had married Reena, — the niece of Pankaj Gupta, one of the earliest Indian sports administrators — in 1948. Probir and Reena had two children, Abhijit and Madhusree.

He remained active in club cricket in Calcutta throughout the 1960s, and suddenly passed away from a stroke after playing a match on January 27, 1970. He was not even 44. The P Sen Memorial Trophy remains the most glamorous tournament of Kolkata Club Cricket, featuring names like Sachin Tendulkar (East Bengal, 1994) to Chaminda Vaas (Mohun Bagan, 2009).

(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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