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Rakesh Shukla: A Ranji Trophy stalwart

Rakesh Shukla was a fine leg-spinner in domestic circuit for Bihar. Photo Courtesy; Facebook
Rakesh Shukla took 295 First-Class wickets at 24.53 in domestic circuit. Photo Courtesy: Rakesh Shukla’s Facebook page

The Delhi all-rounder Rakesh Shukla was born on February 4, 1948. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a Delhi stalwart who remained a one-Test wonder for India.

There have been legends of the sport that have captured the imagination of fans all around the world. There have also been others who have held fort for the team when the big guns were away on international duty. They seldom made it to the front age, but still kept on toiling year after year, serving their team that was a level below the international rung. They were small heroes, but were heroes nevertheless.

Rakesh Shukla was one of them.

Primarily a leg-break bowler with a deceptive googly in his repertoire, Rakesh bore the burden of the Delhi Ranji Trophy side after having a stint with Bihar and playing a season for Bengal towards the end of his career. He was also a more than handy batsman — good enough to classify as a bowling all-rounder.

From 121 First-Class matches, Rakesh finished with 295 wickets at 24.53 with seven five-fors and a ten-for; he also scored 3,798 runs at 31.91 with six hundreds and 17 fifties. Despite his phenomenal First-Class record he played only one Test. Had One-Day International (ODI) gained as much popularity in India as they did five years after his time, he might have been a regular member in the side.

Early days

Born in Kanpur, Rakesh was seven years younger to Anand Shukla, another leg-break bowler and handy batsman who played domestic cricket for a long time. A study of the careers of the two brothers will reveal how close their records have been. Anand’s numbers are better, but that has a lot to do with the fact that he played for Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which were in the ‘weaker’ zones of Ranji Trophy.

Player M R Bat ave 100s W Bowl ave 5WI
Anand Shukla 98 4,312 33.68 9 386 21 31
Rakesh Shukla 121 3,798 31.91 6 295 24.53 7

Rakesh initially wanted to become a medium-pace bowler when he went to Madras Club (that has produced international cricketers like Vijay Mehra, Ashok Gandotra, and most famously, Virender Sehwag) in Delhi for the first time. Their renowned coach TP Bharathan (commonly referred to as Ustadji) helped him change course and become a leg-spinner instead.

Rakesh had a rather innocuous debut for Delhi against Railways at Kotla in 1969-70, scoring three and bowling three overs without a wicket. Aware of the stiff competition, he moved to Bihar next season and picked up four for 27 in his second match against Orissa at Patna.

The runs and wickets kept coming, though it took sometime for the milestones to arrive. By now both brothers were playing for Bihar, and in 1973-74 Rakesh scored a match-winning 44 and 101 not out (his maiden hundred) against Orissa at Baripada, but the real performance came in the quarter-final at Jamshedpur.

In what was a shocker of a start Rakesh picked up four for 41 to rout Bombay for 200; Bihar looked comfortable at 141 for three at the end of Day One and extended the lead to 102. Then began a struggle to die for: the Bombay batsmen tried to grind in as much as possible, but Rakesh was relentless from one end.

In a marathon battle of attrition Shukla removed Sunil Gavaskar, Ramnath Parkar, Sudhir Naik, and Ashok Mankad (the first four wickets to fall) and later picked up Karsan Ghavri as well: had he received support at the other end Bombay might have been eliminated; however, Rakesh’s five for 116 was not good enough. Set to chase 182 Bihar reached 59 for two before collapsing to 122.

Rakesh finished the season with 308 runs at 44.00 and 19 wickets at 22.57. He had finally arrived, but despite his batting skills he was kept out of the national side by Bhagwat Chandrasekhar. When India needed an all-rounder the selectors preferred Srinivas Venkataraghavan, which meant that just like there was almost no chance for Rakesh to break through.

Return to Delhi

Rakesh returned to Delhi the next season and started on a high note. He celebrated his comeback with five for 38 and three for 48 against Services at Palam A Ground and followed it with 55 not out and five for 29 against Jammu and Kashmir at Kotla. Thereafter he played on for Delhi for several seasons, and probably deserved a chance in the national side when Chandrashekar, Bishan Singh Bedi, and Erapalli Prasanna had all performed abysmally on that ill-fated Pakistan tour.

When the selectors eventually tried to replace Chandrashekar they roped in ‘Bobjee’ Narasimha Rao, overlooking Rakesh. It might have been Rakesh’s last chance at a Test slot, but Bobjee won the battle of the all-rounders. The previous season, however, he had picked up three for 55 and seven for 83 (his career-best) to rout Rajasthan at home. It remained his only ten-wicket haul.

By the turn of the decade Dilip Doshi had appeared, and when an emergency replacement was required, Gavaskar had called up Ravi Shastri. He kept on delivering, and few innings were better than his performance in the 1980-81 Ranji Trophy final at Bombay: with a rampant Balwinder Sandhu wreaking havoc Delhi were reduced to 18 for five when Rakesh walked out, and carved out an innings of 120, helping his side reach 251. It proved inadequate, however, as Bombay won by an innings.

It was his performance against Karnataka at Kotla in the 1981-82 final that earned him a Test cap: on a pitch that offered nothing for the bowlers Rakesh (three for 158) battled on alongside Maninder Singh (three for 204) and saw Karnataka pile up 705 with Roger Binny, Brijesh Patel, Syed Kirmani, and Ranjit Khanwilkar all scoring hundreds.

It was a hopeless situation, but Mohinder Amarnath rose to the task: his 185 helped Delhi stand up against the Karnataka bowlers, but despite some resolute batting Delhi were reduced to 589 for eight — still 116 runs short and only Maninder to follow. In the semi-final against Bihar at Jamshedpur, Rakesh had scored 74 not out, allowing Madan Lal to reach his hundred and helped add an unbeaten 143 for the ninth wicket — still a record for Delhi. Could he take charge again?

But Rakesh batted on in the company of Rajesh Peter on the sixth day of the match, and how! Binny, Raghuram Bhat, and Bharamiah Vijaykrishna were all blunted, over after over, as Delhi inched towards the Karnataka score. It seemed to take them ages — but eventually they did it. Amidst great excitement Rakesh remained unbeaten on 69 and Peter on 67 as Delhi inched ahead to 707 for eight.

Test cricket -  finally!

As a result Rakesh was picked — along with Arun Lal — when India played Sri Lanka at Cheapauk. He toiled along for 22 overs for 70 runs on dead wicket (the match tally of 1,441 runs was a new record for a Test on Indian soil) without picking up a wicket as Sri Lanka scored 346. Despite his batting prowess he did not get a chance to bat as Gavaskar declared after a 220-run lead.

It was then that Roy Dias played an innings that showcased why everyone called him an unfulfilled talent: coming out at six for one Dias belted the Indian bowlers around the ground, scoring a 108-ball 97 with 18 fours — out of a team score of 151 during his stay. Just when it seemed that Sri Lanka might take the lead beyond India’s scope, Rakesh found Dias’s edge and the ball went to Gavaskar at slip.

Wickets kept falling, but Duleep Mendis, who had scored 105 in the first innings, went on to replicate the same score (it is still the highest identical score in each innings) before Rakesh ran through his defence. There was some resistance from Anura Ranasinghe and Somachandra de Silva after that, and India were left to chase 175 in 53 minutes and 20 mandatory overs. Rakesh finished with figures of 27-5-82-2.

Gavaskar held himself back and promoted Dilip Vengsarkar to open with Arun Lal; both fell cheaply, but Gavaskar, ready to go for the kill, sent in Sandeep Patil and Kapil Dev. Gavaskar (in an attitude that was quite contrary to the defensive mindset one associates with him) sent Yashpal Sharma, Gundappa Viswanath, Madan Lal, and Kirmani, but once wickets fell cheaply the onus came on Yashpal to hold fort.

Gavaskar came out at nine and played out time as India finished on 135 for seven in 28 overs. Poor Shukla, thus, did not get a chance to bat in Test cricket. Only three other Indians — “Bal” Dani, Vijay Rajindernath, and Narine Swamy — and 18 across countries have suffered this ignominy.

Back to domestic cricket

Shukla came back to Ranji Trophy in style, starting with a career-best 163 not out against Haryana at Chandigarh and following it with five for 75 against Punjab at home. His career slid thereafter, and he was hammered in the 1983-84 Ranji Trophy final at Bombay by Gavaskar and Vengsarkar. With Madan Lal, Manoj Prabhakar, Sunil Valson, and Mohinder Amarnath, the emphasis was on seam, and the presence of Maninder and Kirti Azad pushed his chances back further.

He moved to Bengal the next season and started with three for 17 and three for 25 against Assam at Nowgong. However, he played only two more matches that season and returned to Delhi thereafter for an otherwise forgettable season: his last match — against Haryana in the 1985-86 final at Kotla — saw him score 15 but finish without a wicket; Delhi, however, won the match by an innings thanks to their four centurions and Maninder’s eight-wicket haul in the second innings.

Post-playing days

After he quit cricket Rakesh became a cricket consultant, providing guidance to cricket professionals. He was a member of the Delhi Selection Committee headed by Chetan Chauhan. He was also a popular commentator on All India Radio.

(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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