Eknath Solkar © Getty Images
Eknath Solkar © Getty Images

He was known as a “poor man’s Garry Sobers” – a left-handed all-rounder who could bowl with the new ball and spin with the old, and who could also bat with grit and guts. As a fielder, he was mind-boggling – the Jonty Rhodes of his era. H Natarajan profiles Eknath Solkar, born March 18, 1948, who played a critical role in the success of India’s famous spin quartet, and also in the 1971 series wins in the West Indies and England.

The 1971 tours of the West Indies and England were watershed moments in Indian cricket. Under the captaincy of Ajit Wadekar, India won back-to-back away series for the first time since gaining Test status in June, 1932. When one talks about the tour of the West Indies, the names that invariably crop up are that of Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Sardesai and Salim Durani. And when any reference is made to India’s series win in England, it’s the name of Bhagwat Chandrasekhar that comes up. Eknath Solkar, a man who played huge roles in both series, is inexplicably forgotten.

Gavaskar scored 774 runs in eight innings in his first-ever Test series, but a painful whitlow had forced him to miss the first Test at Kingston, Jamaica. India were in serious trouble after being sent in to bat by Garry Sobers. India lost 5 wickets with just 75 runs on the board when Eknath Solkar walked out in an unmistakable crisis in what his first overseas Test innings. Solkar helped Sardesai stitch together a stand of 137 before the latter was bowled by Sobers for 61. Sardesai then found unexpected support from EAS Prasanna and added 122 runs for the ninth wicket before the Mumbai stalwart was out for 212.

The damage was done. Sobers was shocked when Wadekar asked the West Indies to follow-on. The washout of the first day’s play had reduced the Test into a four-day, as also the margin for follow-on. Sobers was clearly caught napping. West Indies batted well in their second essay and salvaged a draw, but the tone for the series was set and Solkar had played a crucial part in India’s confidence-building exercise at the very start of the series.

India famously won the second Test — Gavaskar’s debut Test — at Port-of-Spain. Over the years, Wadekar has been lavished with praise for his tactical brilliance in bringing on Salim Durani to bowl, who got rid of Sobers and Clive Lloyd cheaply and in quick succession [D Govindraj, who was a member of the Indian team on the 1971 tours of the West Indies and England, told CricketCountry’s Arunabha that Wadekar acted on the advice of ML Jaisimha to bring on Durani], but how many remember that Solkar snapped up 6 catches in the Test off the spin trio of Prasanna, Bishan Bedi and Srinivas Venkataraghavan? Or that Sardesai (112) and Solkar (55) had yet again come to India’s rescue with a partnership of 114 for the fifth wicket?

It was Solkar again who came to the rescue with Sardesai in another crisis situation in the fourth Test at Barbados. India were 70 for 6 replying to West Indies’s 501 for 5 declared, when the Sardesai-Solkar tandem stringed together 186 runs for the seventh wicket to thwart the West Indies. Sardesai scored 150, but that would not have been possible without the limpet-like grit of Solkar (65) at the end.

India toured England a few months later. In the first Test at Lord’s India took a nine-run first innings lead — thanks to Solkar, who came in to bat at 175 for five and was last man out for a fighting 67. India were all out for 313. It was Solkar’s resistance again which helped India save the Test. The left-hander defied the John Snow-powered English attack for well over an hour for his unbeaten 6, as India finished at 145 for 8 to avoid defeat very narrowly.

In the second Test at Old Trafford, India were yet again in trouble at 116 for 5, replying to England’s first innings score of 386. But Solkar yet again thwarted the English attack with another half-century at No. 7 and took India to a relatively respectable total of 212. India managed to draw the Test and go into the unforgettable decider at The Oval.

People remember this Test for Chandrasekhar’s six-wicket haul in the second innings which propelled India on the victory path, but how many remember India’s highest wicket taker in the first innings? It was Solkar with 3 for 28. His wickets included the dangerous Alan Knott, who he dismissed caught-and-bowled. How many remember his knock of 44 in India’s first innings?

After rain had washed out the entire second day’s play, India were in dire straits at 125 for 5, replying to England’s 355. But in partnership with Farokh Engineer, Solkar added 97 runs in belligerent style. His 44 runs, like his 55 in the Port-of-Spain Test that gave India its first Test win in the West Indies, were priceless in the context of the game.

Without Solkar’s all-round displays, Indian wouldn’t have been able to create history in the West Indies and England.

While Gavaskar and Sardesai were the main architects of India’s series win in the West Indies, both were flops on the tour of England that followed — a tour where Solkar was second in the batting averages at 42, just behind Engineer’s 43, and topped the bowling averages. Venkat apart, Solkar was the only Indian who was consistent on both tours to log a combined average of close to 40 with the bat. Besides, he took 12 wickets and topped the fielding charts with 14 catches.

In the infamous Lord’s Test of 1974, when India crashed to 42, Solkar remained defiant with 18 not out — the only man to enter double-figures in the innings where the next highest score was 5. One shot that stood out in the Indian innings was a hooked six by Solkar off Chris Old, after being hit on his head by the previous ball of the English paceman.

The risk factor heightened when Solkar stood at short-leg to the bowling of Chandra, who could bowl an unplayable ball and follow that up with a rank long-hop. Solkar’s 53 catches came minus modern protective gears like helmet and shin guards. He knew no fear and was known to shout “catch it” when full-blooded shots ricocheted off his body. He scooped catches off batsmen’s shoelaces with his amazing sense of anticipation. Many of the catches he took cannot even be categorised among possible chances for most fielders. He not only saw an opportunity, but converted them into catches — and all this hiding behind the batsman’s vision, making pick-pocketing legal on the cricket field! The catch he took to dismiss Knott in the 1971 Oval Test is ranked among the classics — much like Jonty Rhodes’s famous run out of Inzamam-ul-Haq. Prasanna hailed Solkar’s effort as the “catch of the century”.

Catch of the century? Eknath Solkar flings himself to take a spectacular catch of Allan Knott in the England second innings of the 1971 Oval Test © Getty Images
Catch of the century? Eknath Solkar flings himself to take a spectacular catch of Allan Knott off Srinivas Venkataraghavan in the England second innings of the 1971 Oval Test © Getty Images

Solkar truly elevated close-in fielding to an art form. As the legendary John Arlott said: “He created catches out of thin air, like some Indian magician.’

Solkar was worth his place in the team on his merits as a close-in fielder alone as he provided a cutting edge to the famed spin quartet, off whose bowling he got 48 of his 53 catches.

Today, the short-leg positioned is manned by the junior-most player in the Indian team. It’s considered suicidal to stand there and everybody wants to avoid it. Solkar’s exemplary bravery at short-leg made life miserable for the rival batsmen and made the spin quartet immensely effective. As Bedi said: “We would never have been as successful without the catching ability of Solkar at short-leg.”

In the days when the spin quartet ruled the roost on Indian wickets, it was two overs from Abid Ali and one from Solkar before the spinners were summoned. But he was a fairly handy bowler, as Geoff Boycott and Brian Luckhurst would vouch for. But Solkar could also bowl spin. His multi-talented, left-handed skills earned him the tag of “Poor man’s Sobers”.

Solkar’s expertise in crisis management was par excellence. He graduated from the University of Hard Knocks and was able to take all the blows life offered and bounce back like a true champion.

He was a team man to the core, which is best exemplified when he cremated his father in the evening and turned out for Bombay the following morning to help gain the crucial first-innings lead against Bengal in 1968.

Though Solkar hailed from a humble background (he was the son of a groundsman at the PJ Hindu Gymkhana), he honed his cricketing skills under the tutelage of Vinoo Mankad and made his way up the cricketing and social ladder to finally own a flat in the posh, sea-facing Sportsfield building that houses some of the greatest names in Indian cricket like Gavaskar, Wadekar, Dilip Vengsarkar and Ravi Shastri, among others.

Eknath Solkar was just 57 when he died in 2005.

(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 and on Twitter at twitter/hnatarajan)