In 2071 Tests and 135 years, the feat has been achieved just four times. It’s a feat that no Indian has ever achieved. But on January 13, 1967, Farokh Engineer came within one blow of hitting a hundred before lunch on the opening day of a Test match – that too against one of the most dreaded pace attacks in world cricket. H Natarajan digs deep to capture the epic innings by the flamboyant Engineer.
When Farokh Engineer was selected for the Madras Test against the West Indies in 1967, nobody expected much from him as a batsman. He had made his Test debut way back in 1961 and in the intervening years he played just 11 Tests – mainly as a tailender. He had scored three fifties – including his then highest of 90, all at the No 9 position.
John Cantrell, Engineer’s biographer in the book “Farokh Engineer – From the Far Pavilion” writes: “In order to explain the dropping of Budhi Kunderan, which would have been hard to justify, the selectors put it about that he was injured when, in fact, he was not.”
Kunderan had top-scored with 79 in the second innings of the first Test at Bombay while batting at No 9 and followed that up by scoring 39 in the first innings of the second Test at Calcutta. Kunderan then looked to have cemented his place by scoring 104 for South Zone against West Indies days before the final Test. But Kunderan was shockingly dropped to make way for Engineer for the third Test at Madras.
Cantrell goes on to write: “There may have been more Machiavellian forces at work, for Farokh was chosen to open the innings at No 2. He is sure that there were elements within the selection panel who wanted an excuse to dispense with him for good. A single failure with the bat would have provided just such an excuse, and what better way to guarantee such an outcome than to place Farokh in the unfamiliar Test opening slot against the fastest and most feared bowling attack in the world.”
The world-class bowling attack that Cantrell talks about comprised Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, arguably West Indies’s greatest fast bowling combine before the advent of Andy Roberts & Co. West Indies also had the multi-talented Garry Sobers who could bowl fast and spin and, Lance Gibbs, the finest off-spinner in the world who, at one point, was Test cricket’s highest wicket-taker.
“For those who may have wished to dispense with Farokh’s services, the plan backfired in the most spectacular fashion,” says Cantrell. And there are no two ways about how spectacular it was!
Rarely, if ever, Hall and Griffith were treated so imperiously as Engineer did on this January morning on a Chepauk wicket that had a tinge of grass. Engineer tore into the two dreaded pacemen, stepping out at times to meet fire with fire while hammering them in front of the wicket.
Engineer’s unrestrained aggression reflected in the first spell figures of the two West Indies pacemen: Griffith 0 for 46 in his first six overs and Hall 0 for 35. Engineer was on 57 in India’s score of 72 for no loss in 12 overs after the first hour.
KN Prabhu, who covered the match for The Times of India, told this writer a few years before his death in 2006 that it was Sobers who looked most menacing as he swung and seamed the ball and Sardesai had shielded his opening partner from the West Indies captain early in the innings.
Engineer was dropped by Conrad Hunte in the leg-trap off Sobers when he was on 57 in India’s score of 73. Engineer also survived a shout for leg-before in Hall’s second over. “But those were minor flaws in an innings where his bat spluttered runs like a Catherine Wheel. In an era where helmets had not made its presence on the cricket field, Engineer played pedigreed hooks, cuts and drives that left the field standing,” reminisced Prabhu, a doyen among cricket writers in the sixties and seventies.
A hundred before lunch on the opening day of the Test looked an eminent possibility – a feat that has been achieved just four times till date in 2071 Tests and 135 years: 103 not out by Victor Trumper, Australia vs England at Manchester 1902, 112 not out by CG Macartney, Australia vs England, at Leeds in 1926 and 105 not out by Don Bradman Australia, vs England at Leeds in 1930. And since the 1966 Madras Test, there has been just one more addition to this distinguished list: 108 not out by Majid Khan, Pakistan vs New Zealand at Karachi in 1976-77.
Getting a pre-lunch hundred on the first day of a Test is special as the bowlers and the pitch are both fresh and it is the bowlers who hold the aces.
Around the time I spoke with Prabhu, I also spoke to Engineer about the epic innings. Engineer recalled the moment before the lunch break: “I was on 92 when the second last over before lunch began. I hooked a bouncer and Rohan Kanhai made a brilliant stop a deep square-leg and restricted the scoring to a single. Sardesai then played out the next five balls of the over. I drove the first ball of the final over before lunch was driven but another brilliant stop meant another single; Sardesai played out another five balls and Engineer was stranded on 94 at the break.“
A total of 94 from India’s total of 125 for no loss speak volumes for Engineer’s domination over the West Indies attack. Sardesai’s share in the total was 26.
Cantrell’s biography writes, apparently quoting from Wisden, Engineer “smashed a six just after the interval to bring up his hundred.”
Engineer had told me during the telephone chat years ago that “Gibbs came on for his first over after lunch and I hit his first ball to the straight field for a six to get my hundred.” However, Prabhu told me that Engineer’s pre-lunch effort took its toll and Engineer suffered an attack of cramps on the threshold of his first hundred in Tests.
“Engineer got the century with a single when Rohan Kanhai deliberately, or so it seemed, misfielded to enable the comeback hero get the coveted century. The entire West Indies team joined the appreciate crowd in giving him a fitting ovation,” recalled Prabhu.
Two of India’s foremost statisticians, Sudhir Vaidya and Mohandas Menon, tell me that there was no six in Engineer’s innings. The cricinfo scoreboard also indicates no six against Engineer’s name in the innings. Not surprisingly, I could not find the Wisden quotes that Cantrell writes to describe the six that ostensibly brought up Engineer’s hundred.
But there is no denying that Engineer’s knock was one of the great batting epics of Test cricket.
Engineer’s electrifying innings came to an end when Kanhai took a full-blooded catch him off Sobers for 109 – a knock studded with 18 boundaries.
Engineer told the magazine Sportstar - a Hindu publication – recently: ”I have a strong belief that I scored the fastest century off just 46 balls in a Test match against the West Indies in Chennai in the 1966-67 series.”
That, however, is conjecture as scorers those days did not keep account of balls faced. Even two decades after Engineer’s unforgettable innings, scorers did not keep such records for Test matches. That’s why one draws a blank when it comes to the number of balls Sachin Tendulkar faced in his Test career.
India should have gone on to win the Test. West Indies were in huge trouble at 193 for seven, chasing 322 for victory. But Sobers found an unlikely support in the form of Griffith (40 not out). The big-made paceman made generous use of his pads to bat for 90 minutes to help Sobers (74 not out) – captialising on two reprieves on 10 – save the Test.
The present generation that gets to see Engineer as an extremely obese man would be surprised to know that he was one of the most handsome cricketers the cricketing world have seen. His chiseled features made him the Byrlcreem boy, placing him alongside the strikingly good-liking cricketers like Keith Miller and Denis Compton.
Engineer was flamboyant on the field as he was off it, but sadly born ahead of his times.
(H Natarajan, formerly All India Deputy Sports Editor of the Indian Express and Senior Editor with Cricinfo/Wisden, is the Executive Editor of CricketCountry.com. A prolific writer, he has written for many of the biggest newspapers, magazines and websites all over the world. A great believer in the power of social media, he can be followed on Facebook at facebook.com/H.Natarajan