Rusi Surti. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan.
Rusi Surti. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan.

Rusi Surti, born May 25, 1936, was a useful all-rounder and an exceptional fielder in an era when Indian fieldsmen were not well known for their skills. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who impressed the Australian crowds enough for them to chant “hit a ball past Surti.”

In the 1960s, Indian cricketers were not exactly noted for their fielding skills. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, the young nawab at the helm of the side, was ringing in changes, but the third aspect of the game was still regarded as a semi-necessary evil by most.

Yet, in Australia, the one nation that did consider sparkling displays on the field an integral part of the game, one solitary Indian fieldsman impressed the crowds enough to make them chant, “Hit a ball past Surti.”

Yes, Surti was an exceptional fieldsman. Aside from that he was more than useful as a cricketer in every department of the game. He could bat anywhere in the order, a steady left-handed batsman who could on occasions score quickly. He could bowl with the new ball, slanting deliveries across right handers, and also switch to left arm orthodox spin when required.

And on that 1967-68 tour of Australia, when Indians were going through their normal saga of a litany of losses, the all-rounder reached the pinnacle of his form. Four Test matches brought him 367 at 45.87, more runs than anyone else, and 15 wickets at 35.20 — second only to EAS Prasanna.

At Adelaide, in the first Test, he single-handedly kept India in the game well into the fourth day. He contributed with a gutsy 70 in the first innings. This was followed by 5 for 74 in the second Australian innings.

At Brisbane, he played two steady hands of 52 and 64 and took 3 wickets in each innings as India almost pulled off a stunning win, before falling 40 short of the steep 396-run target.

When India moved to New Zealand after the tour and notched their first overseas series victory ever, Surti amassed 321 at 45.85, while taking seven useful wickets.

In the Auckland Test which rounded off a 3-1 series triumph, he registered his career-best score in the second innings, batting enterprisingly on a damp wicket before falling one short of a well-deserved century.

For a man who had impressed in his very second Test match in 1960-61, scoring 64 at No. 3 against Pakistan, Surti had spent too many years alternating between the fringes of the side and complete wilderness. The twin tours of 1967-68 marked a high point, and it looked as if he had established himself firmly in the side. He had been the most prolific run-getter in the 8 Tests, had picked up 22 wickets and had fielded spectacularly.

However, he played just three more Tests. He lost his form on his return to India, and a meagre collection of 50 runs and 2 wickets in these home Tests signalled the end of his international career. Another left-handed all-rounder had emerged by then. This young man, like Surti, was a left-handed batsman who could bat up and down the order, bowl both medium-pace and left-arm slows and was perhaps the best Indian fielder of all time. Surti was replaced in the Indian team by Eknath Solkar.

By then, Surti had been offered a contract by Queensland and was representing them in the Sheffield Shield, remaining out of contention for national selection.

A collection of 1263 runs at 28.70 and 42 wickets at 46.71 in 26 Tests may not read impressive in the modern context, but Surti was a major source of strength to the Indian side of his times. He also amassed over 8,000 runs and scalped 284 wickets in First-Class cricket, while pouching 122 catches.

In some quarters his left-handed all-round skills and mercurial fielding earned him the dubious yet flattering sobriquet “Poor man’s Garry Sobers“.

(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)