“Indian cricket must be possessing riches if it could afford to overlook a performer so abundantly gifted as Jaisimha,” remarked a tongue-in-cheek Bill O’Reilly after the Brisbane Test match had come to its riveting end.
It was indeed strange. ML Jaisimha had not managed to find a place in the original Indian team that had travelled to Australia in 1967-68. India had been defeated at Adelaide and routed at Melbourne. In the first innings of the second Test match, the batting had looked fragile enough to stamp “handle with care” on the scorecards.
All the while, the man who till a couple of seasons earlier had been the number one opening batsman of the country was left to twiddle his thumbs in Hyderabad. He had not been playing serious cricket. And in keeping with his magnanimous personality, all his cricketing equipment had been given away to the members of the touring party.
It was only after the second defeat that an SOS was sent to have Jaisimha flown in – as a replacement for the injured BS Chandrasekhar! It hardly qualified as the perfect swap. Jaisimha was one of the most stylish batsmen to ever stand at the crease for India, Chandra one of the worst in the history of the game – who earned his bread bowling mesmerising leg-spin. But, captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi knew the need of the hour. Out went the summons to the elegant Hyderabadi. Jaisimha borrowed an old bat from a friend in Hyderabad, spent a few hours facing the medium-pace of young Devraj Govindraj on the matting wickets of State Bank of India, got on a plane, and reached Brisbane after hopping on numerous connecting flights. He arrived on the eve of the Test, with little time to acclimatise to the weather or wickets.
Pataudi walked out to toss with Bill Lawry, leading Australia for the first time after Bobby Simpson had decided stand down from the match. The Indian captain called correctly. Yet, after having been five down for 25 on the first morning at Melbourne , the captain was in no mood to expose his batsmen to the freshness of the pitch. Garth McKenzie had been rested, but the Indian skipper asked Australia to bat first.
On a dull pitch, Lawry and Ian Redpath had few problems against the Indian opening attack of Umesh Kulkarni and Rusi Surti. It was the spin – the off-break of Erapalli Prasanna and the slow left-arm offerings of Bishan Singh Bedi, Bapu Nadkarni and Surti - that tested the Aussies, raising uncomfortable questions about the decision to insert the opposition.
Fifties from Lawry, Bob Cowper, Paul Sheahan and a determined 93 from out of form Doug Walters took Australia to 379. And when India batted, the demons started revisiting the top order.
David Renneberg and Eric Freeman hardly made a formidable opening combination, but Farokh Engineer, Abid Ali and Ajit Wadekar returned with just nine runs on the board. Surti, sent in at No 4 because of some excellent batting form, fought back with his skipper. Pataudi, who had missed the first Test with a leg injury, and had still not recovered fully from the strained muscle, stroked his way to a classy 74 with 10 fours and a magnificent six off Ian Chappell. Surti, efficient and gritty, made 52. However, after a 156 minute collaboration amounting to an excellent 128, the two left within two runs of each other.
Jaisimha walked in with a jetlag with the score reading 137 for five. Soon it became 165 for six as Chandu Borde did not last long. The day ended with India on 169 for six.
The next morning, Jaisimha was a heady mixture of grit and class. He batted on and ensured that the lower order stuck around. With Nadkarni he put on 44; and as Prasanna demonstrated incredible application, he continued the good work, picking up gaps through the on-side with remarkable ease. The knock was almost unbelievable given the limited number of hours since his landing in the country. Jack Fingleton, writing for Hindu, observed: “Jaisimha is naturally a good cricketer. He must be so to bat so assuredly today after not even one good net practice.”
At 268 for seven, India had made a great comeback and with Jaisimha and Prasanna putting on a dogged show, there was a glimpse of an improbable first-innings lead. But, at this juncture, Jaisimha on 74, fell to the innocuous off-spin of Bob Cowper. The rest of the Indian batting could muster just 11, and the tourists ended exactly 100 short.
An hour before the close of play on the third day, Australia looked destined to run away with the match. By then Lawry and Redpath had added 116, and looked good for many more. Redpath in particular had blasted his way to 79 and looked extremely dangerous. It was Prasanna who wedged his foot in the door, as he deceived Redpath with one that held its line, to trap the Victorian batsman leg before. With the flow checked, the Indian spinners kept pegging away at the wickets – but the Australian batsmen built on the lead.
In the next day’s papers, were full of reports how Jaisimha’s relic of a bat had chips coming off it as he stroked his way to 74. Bill O’Reilly voiced that Jaisimha’s initial exclusion was an “Unsolved riddle.” Well, the riddle was about to get even more puzzling.
The chase by the lion
At 240 for four, with Chappell and Walters going strong, it still looked likely that India would be set an enormous target. Prasanna, however, had other ideas. He bowled Chappell and then ran through the tail, finishing with six for 104. Walters remained unbeaten on 64, but the home side was restricted to 294. With 395 to win, the match was tilted very much in favour of Australia, but it was by no means over yet.
India did not get the start required for chasing big totals. Engineer snicked one from Renneburg and Wadekar was out to an atrocious shot. An attacking innings by Abid Ali was nipped just as it was flowering. Surti and Pataudi came together at 61 for three, forced to do the rebuilding task yet again.
They were doing a fantastic job, having added 93 in just 108 minutes. The skipper, showing immense disdain for a clutch of men positioned to feel the contents of his hip-pocket, had lofted Cowper to the long on boundary and almost sent him into the orbit off the next ball. However, at 48, he clipped an in-swinger from part timer Walters into his pad and it ricocheted onto the stumps.
India ended the day at 177 for four, Surti and Jaisimha at the wicket, making a game effort, but not many backed them to win or even come close.
It was the final day that scripted the glorious last chapter of Jaisimha’s magical tale. Cowper, more menacing by the minute with his seldom used off-breaks, turned one past Surti’s bat to bowl him with the total on 191. The all-rounder had played another useful hand of 64. Vice-captain Borde walked out, shaky and unsure, playing, missing and edging quite a few.
At the other end, Jaisimha was pure elegance. He seldom looked in any trouble at all. As he went from strength to strength, Borde too grew in confidence. John Gleeson, the unorthodox wrist spinner, was unable to purchase as much turn as the Indian spinners, and the onus of attacking fell on the part-time spin of Cowper.
Half an hour after lunch, with India on 274 for five and the Australian camp increasingly jittery, Borde, who had strained his leg behind the knee early in the innings, approached Lawry with the request of a runner. Lawry refused. “He was batting beautifully at that stage and I thought he was fit enough to continue,” the Australian captain remarked later. However, Borde referred the matter to umpires Lou Rowan and Col Egar and they overruled Lawry. According to the prevalent laws of the time, Borde did not have to get Lawry’s permission.
As Abid Ali walked in to run for Borde, Lawry sulked. “I was a bit perturbed that the man who had come out was twice as fast as Borde,” he complained later.
When they crossed 300 with just five wickets down, both the batsmen looking strong, Lawry almost threw in the towel.
As so often happens with rearguard chases, things go wrong just when the batsmen start believing that the target is achievable. The expectation of realistic happy ending creates that pivotal pressure that ruins what could have been an easy trot down the home stretch. Borde, having batted with increasing assurance, now dabbed a ball from Cowper and Ian Redpath flung himself full length at silly-point to hold a match-changing catch.
It was 310 for six. Jaisimha was still there, but the wheels of fortune were turning. Gleeson, whose leg-breaks had made little impression on the top order, now turned them past the lesser men. Nadkarni was trapped plumb, Prasanna was bowled and Bedi snapped up close to the wicket in the space of five Gleeson overs. India slipped to 333 for nine, 62 required for an unlikely victory, as last man Kulkarni came in.
Under enormous pressure, the last pair hung on. Jaisimha kept milking the bowling for runs, and Kulkarni refused to give up his wicket. And then, with a sudden release of tension and loudest of applauses heard at the Gabba, Jaisimha passed his century. It had been a remarkable return.
And now, in a last ditch effort, he swept Cowper hard – and Gleeson at square-leg hung on to the lowest of catches, almost scooping up tufts of grass with it. India had lost by 40 runs in a fantastic finish. The jubilant Gleeson flung the ball in the air, and a dejected Jaisimha did the same with his bat. But, the Hyderabadi stylist was the hero of the moment as he returned to the pavilion to a standing ovation.
The four wickets of Cowper and three of Gleeson raised a few eyebrows about the decision to insert Australia first. One wondered what miracles Bedi, Prasanna, Nadkarni and Surti could have worked on a fifth day pitch.
Yet, the Indian team, thus far subjected to endless criticism, got some excellent press. Sydney Morning Herald reported, “Australia won, but it was Jaisimha, the 28-year-old lion of Hyderabad who was hailed as the conquering hero when the teams left the field. He arrived in Australia as a team reinforcement only a week ago, without the benefit of representative cricket for three months.”
It is never easy to walk into a Test match after a flight. In 1989-90, Dilip Vengsarkar got a duck at Napier after being rushed in. A couple of years later, Navjot Sidhu had done no better at Sydney. At Edgbaston in 2011, Virender Sehwag had bagged a King pair. Viewed in this context, Jaisimha’s effort stands out as almost unbelievable.
Sadly this was the last hurrah for the flamboyant batsman. In his remaining 16 innings from nine Test matches, he could manage a highest score of just 23.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
First Published: January 24, 2013, 10:41 am