Deepak Shodhan. Photo courtesy: Deepak Shodhan
Deepak Shodhan. Photo courtesy: Deepak Shodhan

The elegant Deepak Shodhan was born on October 18, 1928. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at Shodhan’s career which was nipped in the bud thanks to the labyrinth that is Indian cricket.

Let us begin with the most relevant statistic: with 60.33 Roshan Harshadlal ‘Deepak’ Shodhan holds the record for the highest Test batting average among Indians with a completed career.

Shodhan was one of those men who were responsible for the general notions that left-handed batsmen are more attractive than their right-handed counterparts. He could light up any ground with his array of fascinating strokeplay on his day.

He was one of those aggressive batsmen: “Players like Vijay Merchant and Vijay Hazare attacked only if they got half volleys. I loved to tackle the bowlers who attacked me and that is what the Pakistanis did in my first Test at Kolkata in 1952. They had a silly mid-on and a silly mid-off, but I got two boundaries (off Mahmood Hussain) initially in my innings and that gave me the confidence,” he told Clayton Murzello of Mid-Day. The attitude held good while judging captains as well, and he never held himself back from commenting:  “I played my first Test under Lala Amarnath. He was a very aggressive captain. He loved to go on the offensive. In contrast, Vijay Hazare was very defensive. He was the worst captain I played under.”

Shodhan had scored 181 runs from his 3 Tests at 60.33; the debut hundred remained his solitary three-figure knock. His First-Class numbers were relatively inferior —1,802 runs from 43 matches at 31.61 with 4 hundreds; his left-arm medium-pace, bowled with an angular release similar to (in all probability) Lasith Malinga’s, fetched him 73 wickets at 34.05 with 3 five-fors. He was also a very good fielder by the standards of Indian fielding of the era.

It must not be forgotten that his all-round skills were not limited to the arena of cricket: Shodhan was also competent in tennis, badminton, football, and most significantly, hockey. In fact, he was a rather serious hockey player who had a left-hander’s hockey-stick specially crafted for him.

Despite his impressive Test numbers Shodhan got lost in the quagmire of Indian cricket before he had turned 25. Given India’s performance in the 1950s he could have been one of the pillars of the middle-order; instead, he got lost somewhere in the ugly politics of Indian cricket.

Early days

Brother Jyontindra Shodhan and Deepak Shodhan were both born in Ahmedabad. Jyontindra, 4 years elder to Deepak, also played 35 First-Class matches with records very similar to Deepak’s: 1,711 runs at 29.50 and 39 wickets at 34.51. He was also a left-handed batsman and a left-arm medium-paced bowler.

Deepak later recalled a rather singular incident regarding Jyontindra, who once earned an Indian trial call-up at the Brabourne Stadium. When he found no selector at the ground he walked to the Cricket Club of India (CCI) office and found one of the selectors. He was told that the selector would watch the trials from his office.

Deepak had started his career as a left-arm spinner before switching to seam. By the time he played his first Ranji Trophy match for Gujarat against Kathiawar at Rajkot in 1946-47 he was an opening bowler. Sharing the new ball with his elder brother he picked up 4 for 45 and 3 for 42 on debut but scored a duck.

Vinoo Mankad was the captain of Gujarat that season; between him, Jasu Patel, and the Shodhans, Gujarat had a formidable bowling line-up in those days. Despite playing most matches on matting wickets all four of them were quite capable of routing oppositions on turf wickets as well.

Given the structure of Indian domestic cricket in those days, Deepak Shodhan could play only 6 matches across his first four seasons. He scored only 108 runs at 10.80 but picked up 29 wickets at 22.45 over this period of time. There was no indication that he would make of the best batting debuts in the history of Indian cricket.

His first five-for had come against Baroda at Ahmedabad where he picked up 5 for 82. However, this was surpassed by his 5 for 49 for Indian Universities against Les Ames’ Commonwealth XI in 1950-51.

Then the fifties started coming. Batting at No. 9 he scored 51 to help pull off an upset victory over Baroda; promoted to No. 8 he scored 81 as Gujarat pulled off an even bigger upset by beating Bombay by an innings.

Selected for West Zone to play against the touring Pakistanis Shodhan scored 89 not out adding a crucial 120 with Pananmal Punjabi. He also ran through the defence of the obdurate Nazar Mohammad. In his next match — against Baroda — he led Gujarat, scored 119 not out, and picked up 5 for 98. He became the first Gujarat player to score a hundred and claim a five-for in a match (though the feat has subsequently been emulated by Dhiraj Parsana and Bharat Mistry).

With Vijay Hazare pulling out with an injury in the final Test of the Pakistan series Shodhan made his debut at Calcutta. India were up 2-1 in the series, so all they needed to seal the series was to draw the Test.

Test debut

Lala Amarnath won the toss and put Pakistan in to exploit the mild tinge of green; Nazar and Hanif Mohammad put on 94 for the first wicket before Ghulam Ahmed broke through. The wickets kept falling at a consistent rate, and despite a reasonable contribution from Imtiaz Ahmed Pakistan were bowled out for 257 from 215 for 4. Dattu Phadkar finished with 5 wickets and Gulabrai Ramchand with 3.

The first 5 Indian batsmen scored between 21 and 35; India were 179 for 6 when Amarnath fell. Shodhan walked out at No. 8 to join Phadkar (he later admitted that he should have batted at No. 5 or 6, more so because he was the only left-hander in the line-up). The pair took India past Pakistan’s score and eventually ended on 265 when Phadkar was caught behind off Abdul Hafeez Kardar.

Then something mysterious happened. As Shodhan later told Mid-Day, “Two players, who came in after me, gave away their wickets so that I wouldn’t score a century. I told my partners to give me a stand. ‘Don’t worry,’ they said and started hitting out. But Ghulam Ahmed was a real gentleman. I knew he would never throw away his wicket.”

There were exactly 3 batsmen who came to bat after Shodhan; if one leaves Ghulam out then the other two were Ramchand and Probir Sen, both of whom were bowled — going for wild strokes, as per Shodhan. But why would they want to do that?

“Politics. Some of my team-mates [possibly Ramchand and Sen] were not keen that I scored a century on debut. I could do nothing. I was new and never thought the politics would be so bad. Two batsmen got out and almost denied me the privilege,” were Shodhan’s words in an interview with The Hindu.

The reasons were rather queer: “Not all my teammates were happy for me. Let me be frank. They didn’t like a Gujju-bhai scoring a hundred.” However, he was congratulated by Hafeez Kardar and Imtiaz Ahmed immediately after his hundred and by Amarnath at tea. He was last out, scoring 110 with 15 fours. The Indian scorecard, however, was a rather curious one as all 11 batsmen reached double-figures.

Ghulam Ahmed hung around as Shodhan reached his hundred on debut (with 2 consecutive boundaries) — the second Indian to do so after Amarnath himself. The gap had been a 19-year one. He was also the first Indian left-hander to score a hundred (Nari Contractor became the second one over 7 years later).

In fact, Shodhan was the second left-hander to score a hundred on debut after Jackie Mills; the first left-hand batsman to score a hundred at No. 8; and the second No. 8 batsman to score a hundred on Test debut after Roger Hartigan.

However, the infamous duo of the Indian debutant centurion’s curse and the Indian left-hander’s curse followed him. No Indian batsman who scored a century on debut could hit another hundred in his career before Gundappa Viswanath. Likewise, no Indian left-hand batsman had scored 2 hundreds before Vinod Kambli: Shodhan belonged to both groups.

The match petered away to a draw after Shodhan got a 2-over spell; India claimed the series. His hundred won Shodhan a place on the trip to West Indies.

Caribbean Crusade

The journey to the Caribbean was not the most pleasant one. As Shodhan recalled later in an interview to Wisden India, “It was a very small boat, the 14,000-ton type and it carried no cargo in the hold on the way there. When the sea was even slightly choppy, it would toss us about so badly that virtually everyone got sick. Towards the end, it was only Vinoo Mankad, CV Gadkari and myself on the deck. Then Gadkari started vomiting, Mankad developed a fever, and I was the last man standing.”

Shodhan did not have a great outing against Trinidad at Queen’s Park Oval, but was still retained for the first Test at the same ground. Madhav Apte and Ramchand took India to 110 for 1; Polly Umrigar scored a hundred; but Shodhan was, once again, held back till No. 8.

Eventually coming out at 328 for 6 he added 51 with Datta Gaekwad. He eventually holed out to Frank Worrell off Gerry Gomez for 45 as India reached 417. He scored only 11 in the second innings (batting at No 8 yet again) before he was cleaned up by Sonny Ramadhin, but India got away with a draw.

He was kept out of the next 3 Tests due to injuries and was only fit to play in the last Test at Sabina Park. Unfortunately, Shodhan was declared unfit almost immediately after Hazare won the toss and elected to bat. He could not bat in the first innings.

The Indian team for the 1952-53 tour of the West Indies. Back, from left: Subhash Gupte, Ebrahim Maka, Datta Gaekwad, Chandrasekhar Gadkari, Jayasinghrao Ghorpade, Deepak Shodhan, N Kannayiram, Vijay Manjrekar, Nana Joshi, Pankaj Roy, Madhav Apte. Sitting, from left: Polly Umrigar, Dattu Phadkar, Ramaswamy (manager), Vijay Hazare (c), Vinoo Mankad, Gulabrai Ramchand. Photo courtesy: Deepak Shodhan.
The Indian team for the 1952-53 tour of the West Indies. Back, from left: Subhash Gupte, Ebrahim Maka, Datta Gaekwad, Chandrasekhar Gadkari, Jayasinghrao Ghorpade, Deepak Shodhan, N Kannayiram, Vijay Manjrekar, Nana Joshi, Pankaj Roy, Madhav Apte. Sitting, from left: Polly Umrigar, Dattu Phadkar, Ramaswamy (manager), Vijay Hazare (c), Vinoo Mankad, Gulabrai Ramchand. Photo courtesy: Deepak Shodhan.

Hundreds from all three Ws gave West Indies a 264-run lead; India began well with Pankaj Roy and Vijay Manjrekar both scoring hundreds and taking India to 317 for 1. However, Gomez and Alf Valentine kept striking as India collapsed to 368 for 7.

Ramchand and Jayasinghrao Ghorpade then added 40 for the eighth wicket before Valentine claimed the former. Out walked Shodhan, straight from the sick-bed, to save the Test. “They wanted me to open the bowling, but I couldn’t be on the field. In the second innings, the manager came to the hotel and accompanied me to the ground. I was running a temperature,” Shodhan later said.

He eventually batted for long enough along with Ghorpade and Subhash Gupte to ensure that the hosts would have to chase a steep 181 in 145 minutes. They lost their openers early and decided to play for a draw, finishing at 92 for 4. Surprisingly it turned out to be Shodhan’s last Test.

Shodhan later said: “In those days, there was a lot of politics which I am sure players don’t have to go through now. There was one person in the West Indies (in 1953) who ruled over everyone. I will not name him, but whatever he said, was done. After my West Indies tour, they just didn’t pick me despite me doing well.”

Back to domestic cricket

Left out of the home side, Shodhan continued to perform consistently for Gujarat. A crucial match contribution came when he saved a match for Indian Universities against a Commonwealth XI; he scored 105 and saved the match after his side trailed by 242.

He declared himself unavailable for the 1954-55 tour of Pakistan and then took a 2-year hiatus to pursue his business commitments. When he eventually came back, he turned up for Baroda instead of Gujarat. It probably gave him a better shot at obtaining a place in the national squad.

In his second match for Baroda, he pulled off a special innings against Maharashtra. After Baroda lost their openers Gaekwad promoted Shodhan to four — above Hazare and Chandu Borde. Shodhan carved out a career-best innings of 261 (out of 426 scored during his stay at the wicket) against the likes of Ranga Sohoni and Bapu Nadkarni.

The next season saw him playing the West Indians: Baroda were bowled out for 133 and 144 by Roy Gilchrist, Wes Hall, and Ramadhin, but with cameos of 23 and 25 Shodhan showed he could handle their pace better than many of the batsmen who played for India during that series.

He did not play a lot of cricket after that, returning to Gujarat in 1961-62 and finishing his career that season at only 33. In his final match against Saurashtra Shodhan scored 18 and picked up 2 for 60 and 4 for 42 (his brother picked up 5 wickets in the match as well).

Post-retirement

Shodhan concentrated on his business after he retired but kept following cricket. He was had rather harsh opinions about his state cricket association: “They don’t care for me and I don’t care for them.” He even stopped going to matches because Gujarat Cricket Association never bothered to send him car passes.

He was, however, grateful to BCCI. “I am very grateful to BCCI for looking after their old players. Many players, not me, were in bad shape. But after BCCI’s pension and one-time payment, they are back on track.” It seems BCCI has got something right after all.

After a battle with cancer, Deepak Shodhan passed away on May 16, 2016. He was 87. At the time of his death he was the oldest living Indian Test cricketer.

(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)