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VV Kumar: A poignant tale of hard-working and productive leg-spinner who paid the price for being born at the wrong time

VV Kumar: A poignant tale of hard-working and productive leg-spinner who paid the price for being born at the wrong time

VVS Kumar (above) was arguably just as good as, and quite conceivably better than, many of those who donned Indian colours before and after their time, opines the erudite Shashi Tharoor. Photo courtesy: S Prabhu.

VV Kumar, born on June 22, 1935, was a leg-spinner who played with distinction Madras, and fleetingly for India.  Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a bowler who could not get a regular place in the national side because of a few illustrious names.

There is no doubt that Vaman Viswanath [VV] Kumar was one of the finest leg-break bowlers Indian has ever produced — right up there with the likes of Subhash Gupte, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, and Anil Kumble. Sadly, he could not play more than two Tests because his career largely coincided with Chandrasekhar’s career. Kumar was simply unfortunate to be born at the wrong place at the wrong time.
 
Writing about Kumar, the erudite Shashi Tharoor mentioned that he was “arguably just as good as, and quite conceivably better than, many of those who donned Indian colours before and after their time, but the tragedy of chronology meant that they hardly got a look in for their country.”
 
Kumar’s career had spanned 129 First-Class matches; he had picked up 599 (see what I meant when I said ‘unfortunate’?) wickets at 19.98 with 36 five-fors and eight 10-fors. Kumar and Srinivas Venkataraghavan formed a potent spin combination for Madras [now Tamil Nadu], matched only by Chandrasekhar and Erapalli Prasanna of Karnataka.
 
While talking of the partnership, Kumar recollects: “We always complemented each other well. When Venkat [Venkataraghavan] decided to impart spin, I would focus on straight ones, and when I turned them big, Venkat would keep it straight and tight. We also used to discuss and plan batsmen out — what we call ‘set them up for a particular kind of dismissal’.” The pair went on to take 948 Ranji Trophy wickets between them.
 
Kumar compared well with the other champions of his era. A quick glance at the career records at the top Indian spinners of the 1960s and 1970s would reflect this:
 

Top Indian spinners of the ’60s & ’70s All First-Class Tests Non-Tests Ranji Trophy
W Ave W Ave W Ave W Ave
Bishan Bedi    1,560     21.69    266     28.71    1,294     20.25    403     15.01
BS Chandrasekhar    1,063     24.03    242     29.75        821     22.35    437     19.11
EAS Prasanna        957     23.45    189     30.38        768     21.74    370     17.29
S Venkataraghavan    1,390     24.15    156     36.12    1,234     22.64    530     18.22
Padmakar Shivalkar        589     19.70            589     19.70    361     17.79
Rajinder Goel        750     18.59            750     18.59    637     17.28
VV Kumar        599     19.99       7    28.86        592     19.88    418     18.14

 
Kumar was the first bowler to pick up 300 wickets in Ranji Trophy (against Kerala at Tellichery in 1970-71), breaking CS Nayudu’s existing record of 295; he later called it “my best moment in cricket; it was an emotional and unforgettable moment for me.” Later he also went on to become the first bowler to take 400 wickets in Ranji Trophy as well.
 
He had a classical action: his short, slight frame meant that he could not turn the ball with a side-arm action; neither did he give the ball a powerful rip; instead, he walked in a few steps, and floated the ball in the air in an arc that mesmerised the batsman into submission with the sheer variety of his flight and turn.

Early days
 
Kumar took up cricket at the age of 13, and made it to First-Division cricket soon. He recollects the atrocious facilities of First-Division cricket in the 1950s: “First-Division cricket players drank water from an aluminium bucket using an aluminium tumbler. While playing matches within the city, we ate at Ratna Café, Swamy’s Café or Rayar’s Mess. But if the ground was in as far-flung a place as Washermanpet, there were two options — pack food or stay hungry. Almost always, we opted for the latter. Because, for want of frequent buses to the outskirts, we had to start early, and had little time to rustle up a meal.”
 
Such conditions are possibly unthinkable for today’s cricketers. Yet Kumar, like all his contemporaries, battled through these adversities and eventually made his First-Class debut against Andhra in 1955-56 at Madras. He impressed everyone with figures of three for 70 and four for 26.
 
He bowled in the sweaty heat of Madras in a single set of flannels throughout the match, as he could not afford another set. It was after his spell of five for 100 (his first five-for) against a strong Hyderabad team at Salem next season that he was gifted a fresh set by Balu Alaganan, the first captain to lead Madras to Ranji Trophy victory.
 
With Subhash Gupte being a regular feature for India (and arguably the best leg-spinner in the world) breaking through to the Indian team was out of the question. Kumar played on for Madras in the Ranji Trophy, making the customary annual appearance in the MJ Gopalan Trophy. He was named an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year in 1957-58.
 
His financial problems were solved when the big corporate houses started hiring the leading sportspersons. Kumar was recruited by State Bank of India, an organisation from which he retired as Deputy General Manager in 1985.
 
His career reached dizzying heights in 1957-58 when he took 40 wickets at 12.65 with five five-fors and two 10-fors. He went on picking up wickets, and as age caught up with Gupte, Kumar seemed to be his natural successor. He was involved in a duel against Garry Sobers while playing for South Zone against the mighty West Indian tourists. Kumar recalls: “I had set an aggressive field. I wanted to get his [Sobers’] wicket; he wanted to hit me out of the ground. I did everything right that over. I tossed up a well-flighted googly, the ball looped, he drove at it, came straight to me and I dropped the catch.”
 
Kumar went on a tour of Pakistan in 1959-60 for the Indian Starlets and headed the bowling charts with 21 wickets at 21.80. Back home he took 44 wickets in the domestic season at 16.22 and eventually made his Test debut in the 1961-62 home series against Pakistan.

Test cricket
 
Kumar was originally selected for what he called the ‘Pongal Test’ at Madras (which would have been a ‘dream come true’ for him) — the fourth of the series. However, he had to opt out because of an injury, and could only play the fifth and last Test of the series.
 
India batted first and piled up 463 thanks to Polly Umrigar’s 112 and the captain Nari Contractor’s 92. After a few overs of seam, Contractor threw the ball to his spinners, Bapu Nadkarni and Kumar.
 
Kumar struck immediately with what he has always mentioned as the best delivery he has ever bowled: it was “a googly that had the ball hanging in the air, before dipping and going through his defence.” Imtiaz Ahmed, the most senior batsman of the side, had no chance.
 
With Ramakant Desai (four for 102) bowling a hostile pace and Nadkarni clogging down one end (34-24-24-1) Kumar bowled aggressively, bringing together all his craft and guile to pick up five for 64 on Test debut. He became the second Indian bowler to take a five-for on Test debut, after Mohammad Nissar, who had picked up five for 93 at Lord’s in 1932 in India’s inaugural Test.
 
Pakistan were asked to follow-on after being bowled out for 286. Once again the three bowlers struck: Desai picked up four for 88 and Nadkarni returned amazing figures of 52.4-38-43-4; Kumar, too, played his role, picking up two for 68, and finishing with match figures of seven for 132. He became the first Indian bowler to take seven wickets on Test debut.
 
He was desperate to watch himself bowling and eventually managed to do it in the only conceivable way: it the early 1960s it was a common practice to show the excerpts from a recent Test in the newsreel before a feature film. To watch himself in action in a Test Kumar went on to purchase a ticket for the Dilip Kumar-starrer Daag at Wellington Cinema.
 
He was an obvious choice for the England series that followed. He had declared himself injured on the eve of the first Test at Bombay but was forced to play in Nadkarni’s absence – given the visitors’ reputed weakness against spin. He played as one of the four spinners in the match, and bowled 27 wicketless overs in the first innings conceding 70 runs.
 
Then something weird happened. After India conceded a lead of 110 England batted for 58 overs before declaring the innings closed at 184 for five; Kumar was not asked to bowl a single over. Kumar’s version, revealed much later, mentions that Contractor had come up to him and had told him that he did not want Kumar to bowl in that innings; he wanted to keep the leg-spinner as a surprise element for the second Test at Kanpur.
 
As things turned out, Kumar never played another Test. Contractor must have had his reasons to keep Kumar for the Kanpur Test, but given that strategy it made no sense to leave out Kumar for good. Gupte played the next two Tests, and when he had pulled out in the fourth Test, India went in with four bowlers. A young off-spinner called EAS Prasanna made his debut in the fifth Test, India won the series 2-0, and Kumar was shelved for good.
 
Exactly why the selectors never gave Kumar another chance — especially in that series — escapes the mind. The selectors persisted with the all-rounder Kripal Singh instead, who played three Tests, scored 60 runs and picked up a single wicket conceding 207 runs.

Back to domestic cricket
 
Kumar tried hard for a comeback for a couple more seasons, but Chandrasekhar’s arrival on the scene ended his chances. He toiled on for Madras  and played his first Ranji Trophy final in 1967-68 at Bombay.
 
Bombay had managed to take a first-innings lead of 54, but after Madras set them 249 for a victory, Venkataraghavan and Kumar ran through the ensemble top-order, reducing the hosts to 109 for five. Manohar Hardikar and Eknath Solkar then played out time and Bombay won on first-innings lead, keeping their streak intact.
 
He had his chance again, when Tamil Nadu won a cliff-hanger of a semifinal against a strong Maharashtra side at Poona in 1972-73. Defending 121, Kumar (three for 16) and Venkataraghavan (four for 34) routed the hosts for 96 in what Kumar rates as the greatest match he has played in.
 
The final was played on a Madras track that turned square from the first session, and a few balls bounced over the wicket-keeper’s head. Kumar (five for 48) and Venkataraghavan (five for 60) bowled out Bombay for 151 on Day One. It was all Padmakar Shivalkar from there on, though, who took eight for 16 and five for 18 to bowl out Tamil Nadu for 80 and 61, winning the match by 123 runs on the third morning.

An unfitting end
 
Then, after an illustrious career, Tamil Nadu Cricket Association ended Kumar’s career rather unfairly. Kumar reminisces: “TNCA did not tell me that I was going to be dropped. And there was a big newspaper article that said ‘VV Kumar dropped’. For an association that was thought of to be very professional; it was a poor way to treat a player who had served you with glory for over 20 years. It could have been a warm send-off. It wasn’t to be. It remains my saddest moment in cricket.”
 
By a strange coincidence, just like his last Test, Kumar did not get a chance to bowl in the second innings of his last Ranji Trophy match, either, as Bombay required only two runs in the fourth innings of the 1976-77 Ranji Trophy quarterfinal.
 
Thus ended the career of one of the greatest leg-spinners the India has ever produced. Had he been born in most other countries he may have gone on take over a hundred Test wickets, but being born in India in the era of spin, he had to remain confined to First-Class cricket throughout his career.
 
(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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