Sudhir Naik © AFP
Sudhir Naik © AFP

Born February 21, 1945, Sudhir Naik played just three Test matches for India, but made his name as a Bombay Ranji captain and later as curator of the Wankhede Stadium, among many other professions. Jaideep Vaidya goes through the life of India’s real jack of many trades.

Sudhir was one of nine siblings born to the Naik’s of Tardeo. Growing up in the 1950s, young Sudhir Naik did what every other kid born in that era engaged in. He climbed trees and hills with his friends, ate wild fruits, used a sling to pester small animals and played tennis ball under-arm cricket in his gully. He played cricket in Tardeo’s Chikkalwadi, where he rubbed shoulders with kids like Sunil Gavaskar, Milind Rege and Sharad Hazare. When he was in Grade 10, his elder brother directed him to the great Vinoo Mankad, who had taken up coaching.

Mankad gave direction to Naik’s cricketing career from there on. He joined Ruparel College as a science student and was soon selected to play for Bombay University. “That’s when my cricket career actually started,” Naik says.

Naik was admittedly always a studious boy. He was always found buried deep in books when not playing cricket and devoted all his spare time to polishing his grey cells. “Even when I went on tour, I used to carry my books and study,” he says. “I used to get up at five in the morning and study for a couple of hours.”

Thus, it came as no surprise when Naik decided to do an MSc in Organic Chemistry, no less score a first-class in it. Even when he was such a good cricketer, Naik always pictured himself in his own private air-conditioned cabin as the head of a company, rather than on a cricket pitch, however practical the reason. “My aim was to become the big boss in a big company. Those days, there was no money in cricket.”

In fact, Naik had earlier applied for an engineering degree and even got admission in VJTI (Veermata Jeejabai Techonological Institute), which was and still is one of Bombay’s top engineering colleges. However, he sacrificed it in order to prolong his cricket career. Recounting how he came to the decision of choosing the sciences rather than engineering, Naik says that Madhav Apte sent him a message saying, “There are a lot of engineers in this country, but very few who can play for India, and you have that quality. You should do BSc and MSc, and not engineering.” After consulting his parents and other cricketers like Madhav Mantri, Naik decided to go with Apte’s advice.

Naik was a shrewd captain throughout his career. He was probably one of the only captains of Bombay University who won the Police Shield and Mahindra Shield for two consecutive years (1967 and 68). He was soon picked for Mumbai’s junior squad, and later made it to the senior team as well.

The highlight of his domestic career came when he captained Mumbai to the Ranji Trophy title in the 1970-71. What made the title so special was that star players such as Sunil Gavaskar, Ajit Wadekar, Dilip Sardesai, Ashok Mankad and Eknath Solkar, were away on India duty during the final. But Naik relished the opportunity to lead a young side against a formidable Maharashtra in the summit clash.”That team was full of young cricketers,” he says. “The average age was around 25. There was a lot of talent in Bombay. The best thing is the players have very good temperament. They won’t be afraid of big names like [Maharashtra captain] Chandu Borde.”

Maharashtra had beaten a full-strength Bombay team in the league stages that season. This speaks of the monumental effort that went in overturning that result in the final. Incidentally, Bombay wouldn’t even have been in the final if not for Maharashtra.

Naik recalls, “Before 1970, only one team from each zone progressed to the knock-out rounds. Since Bombay was such a good team, we used to pip Maharashtra to the top spot every year and they wouldn’t get to play in [the] knock-outs. So, in 1970, Maharashtra proposed to the BCCI to allow two teams from each group [to progress], and the BCCI agreed. And as fate would have it, in 1971 Maharashtra were the top team while we were No. 2 [in the West Zone]. Because of them, we got a chance [to progress]. And ultimately, Bombay beat Maharashtra.”

Recounting the final, Naik says, “That strong team couldn’t score more than 250 runs against us in both innings (Maharashtra were bowled out for 230 and 205). Vijay Merchant appreciated my captaincy. In fact, he went on to say I’m one of the shrewdest brains in the country.”

Naik attributed his captaincy skills to the performance of Padmakar Shivalkar, who picked up six wickets in the second innings.

Padmakar Shivalkar hardly used to play one match in a season because Bapu Nadkarni was there. But when I became captain, he started getting wickets. I talked to him in such a way that I made him elated. I told him, ‘You are my best bowler; you have everything in you; you can conquer all sides.’ I started giving him confidence, and with that confidence he started getting wickets. And then in every match, he used to get four-five wickets. In the final, he got six in the second innings. After that, Shivalkar never turned back. He became Bombay’s main bowler for many years to come.”

However epic that win was, Naik was unceremoniously dropped from the team the following season when the stars returned. “I was dropped for the knock-outs. I had good scores and it was definitely unfair. It was politics played by some of our own senior players. They were afraid that if Sudhir plays in the knock-outs, he may get selected for India and we may go out. That was dirty politics. But this is part and parcel of the game,” he says, in a rather matter-of-fact manner.

Naik was soon to get his coveted India cap a couple of years later as India toured England in 1974. The last time India had been to England, they had recorded their first ever series victory on those shores, which was a historic moment in Indian cricket. So, there were a lot of expectations this time around as Wadekar led his troops there once again. However, that tour turned out to be one of the most disastrous ones India has ever been on and later drew comparisons with the more recent 2011 series.

Naik was selected in the squad as an opener, but didn’t get to play until the third Test at Edgbaston. “In the first and second Tests, I wasn’t selected in spite of being the highest scorer in all the tour games. Probably Ajit [Wadekar] was finding it difficult in the sense that he wanted more all-rounders in the team. But ultimately, after losing the first two Tests, I opened the innings. I failed in the first innings, but in the second innings, I scored 77 runs. I was the highest scorer [in that innings]. Those days, they used to declare the Man of the Match for each team and I was the Man of the Match for India.”

Despite Naik’s Man-of-the-Match performance, India lost the Test by an innings and 78 runs, and thereby the series 0-3. Naik lays it down to wrong tactical moves and English deviousness. “Our main bowling weapon used to be our spin attack. But on that tour, they knew that India doesn’t have a good pace attack. So, they prepared grassy, green wickets on which our spinners could not turn the ball. It was also very cold and chilly, so the spinners weren’t getting the right grip. The ball was not turning at all and coming straight on to the bat. We should have played an extra pacer but we didn’t have one. We had Madan Lal, Abid Ali and Eknath Solkar. None of them had good pace, bounce and height; they bowled below 130 kmph. However, instead of a third spinner, they should have played an extra batsman. In place of Madan Lal, they should have played me as an opening batsman with Sunil. Eknath could have been at No. 6 or 7 where he would have been more useful.”

Talking about his first innings as a Test batsman, where he watched his opening partner Gavaskar get scalped for a first-ball duck, Naik says India should never have batted first to begin with. “It was certainly not a good decision to bat first. On that wicket, their bowlers were swinging and seaming the ball so well. It was really difficult to bat against them. Gavaskar got out for a first-ball duck; it was shocking! He went in, he took leg stump and I was just breathing [at the other end]. I saw the bowler, [Geoff] Arnold, running towards the crease and before I could think of anything, Gavaskar was walking back. It was really shocking because Gavaskar was our main batsman. In the first Test, he had scored a century. So, it was very unfortunate that he got out.”

Naik also recalls the odd, yet unfortunate, way Ashok Mankad was dismissed in the second innings. “Mankad tried to avoid a bouncer and his cap fell on the bails. Unfortunately, he had to go; we had a really good partnership in that match.”

After a humiliating end to the Test series, even the ODIs could provide no respite as India failed to win a single match there as well. It was a total whitewash, and as it turned out, it was bound to be one. The team chemistry just wasn’t there and the atmosphere in the dressing room wasn’t great. Gavaskar wrote in his autobiography Sunny Days: “It was a totally disastrous series and the tour was one of the worst I had made. There was no such thing as team spirit. Instead, there were a lot of petty squabbles that didn’t do anybody any good. The many incidents that gave the team such a bad name didn’t help. It was all extremely frustrating.”

Naik concurs with Gavaskar. “The atmosphere was really not good. There were two groups in the team. There were many fights in the dressing room. It was a really bad tour. For people like Brijesh Patel, Madan Lal and myself, who were coming for the first time on a tour, to see such things…That spirit was not there. We felt that some of the bowlers were also not giving their best.”

To make matters worse, the Indian team reached late for a party hosted by the Indian High Commissioner, which led to an ugly altercation. Back home, there were reports of an angry mob pelting stones at Wadekar’s house. However, Naik dispels the stories. “I don’t think anyone went to his house. But in the papers, they reported that people were throwing stones at his house, etc. It never happened. But people were very angry, for sure.”

Naik played just two Tests after that, but his dream of donning an India cap was fulfilled. Into his thirties, he eventually gave up cricket in order to take up a promotion in an oil mill. “It was a very difficult decision,” he says. “It [cricket] was my passion, but unfortunately, to make my career, I had to take it. There was no money in cricket.”

Naik continued to work in Tata Oil Mills into the 1980s and kept getting promoted, even reaching the Head Office; he was living his dream. But he was never completely dissociated from cricket. He soon started looking after the National Cricket Club. In 1984-85, he was asked to come on to the Managing Committee of the erstwhile Bombay Cricket Association (BCA). He then also became a Bombay selector also and looked after administration. After the 1987 World Cup, he was asked to take over as the ground in charge.

Following the 1996 World Cup, Naik quit as groundsman. “I had gotten another promotion in the office and I was too busy,” he says. But then, in 2005, they went to him again. A lot of Test matches were getting over in two-and-a-half to three days. The ICC had written a letter to the MCA threatening to revoke Mumbai’s Test status. Dilip Vengsarkar had tried to “emotionally blackmail” Naik saying, “Sudhir, we have played for Bombay. Would you like if Bombay’s Test status is removed?” Naik eventually accepted and soon enough, won laurels for his preparation of one of the most sporting Test match wickets when England toured the city in 2005.

Then came the 2011 World Cup preparation during which the Wankhede Stadium, which was to host the final, was renovated. Naik admits the whole process took a toll on him and called it the toughest job of his life. “It was a three-year job, which I completed in 16 months. Nobody thought that the ground would be ready for the finals. Only because Sharad Pawar was the ICC chairman, they did not reject this ground. Ultimately, even I was surprised when it got ready [on time]. God has helped me. We all worked very hard; we used to be here every day at 8:30 in the morning standing in the sun. This was the toughest job and will certainly go down in the history of the Wankhede Stadium.”

The tournament was a massive success and so was the final. Naik refers to it as the most satisfying match he had been part of as a curator. However, for the extremely sporting wicket he had prepared, he did not get a single word of praise for it. “Nothing. I did not get any [praise]. Once the match was over, nobody remembered Sudhir Naik; that is the worst part as a curator.

“If this ground had not been ready before the World Cup, everybody would’ve hanged me. But once the ground was ready, everybody enjoyed. But nobody gave anything to me. I was actually expecting at least an announcement since such a tough job was given [to me]. But nothing was given. Forget about that, when the match was on, nobody gave even tea and snacks to me and my colleagues. We used to go home after the match and have dinner late at night. All others used to eat lavishly in the lounge.”

Being an Indian curator is certainly a thankless job, what with the recent demands from captains to play to the strengths of the home team. But Sudhir Naik considers it a part and parcel of the games and, at 68, still comes every day by train to look after his beloved outfield. “It is a thankless job, but only for the name of Mumbai Cricket Association, I’m coming here. It is my passion for MCA, nothing else.”

(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog – The Mullygrubber)