When I met India's oldest living Test cricketer
SIDDHARTH RAJA An encounter with 87-year-old Deepak Shodhan, who played three Tests for India in 1952-53, but had the talent and the record to have played many more.
Deepak Shodhan and his wife, Gauri, in their home in Ahmedabad © Siddharth Raja
The tall and elegant 87-year-old met me with a broad smile as he gingerly, yet without assistance, descended the small flight of stairs into the drawing room of his family home in Ahmedabad.
Thanks to my acquaintance with his niece, Manisha Shodhan Basu, I was visiting her beloved "kaka", Roshan Harshadlal Shodhan, better known as Deepak Shodhan.
"DK is younger to me by 15 days," he said when I told him I was privileged to be meeting India's oldest living Test cricketer. DK is Dattajirao Krishnarao Gaekwad, father of the former Test opener and later coach Anshuman. Gaekwad, who played 11 Tests for India, captaining the side in a disastrous series in England in 1959, was born on October 27, 1928, nine days after Shodhan.
"You know, apart from DK and me, I've counted at least six other old Indian Test cricketers - [CD] Gopinath, [Madhav] Apte, Bapu Nadkarni, Nari Contractor, [Chandu] Borde and Salim [Durani]. There are apparently 11 of us Indian Test players over 80, although I can't recall the names of the others," Shodhan said.
There are 12 Indian Test cricketers over 80 who are alive today, the others being Chandrakant Patankar, Sadashiv Patil, VV Kumar and Prakash Bhandari.
I told Shodhan that India's oldest living first-class cricketer had passed away in February at the age of 99 - BK Garudachar played for, and later captained, Mysore - and asked him if he had ever known Garudachar or any of the other well-known Mysore cricketers of that era.
"Most of my domestic cricket with the South Indian teams was against Madras and their players, so I know them quite well," Shodhan said. "[Gopalaswamy] Kasturirangan is the one Mysore cricketer I remember and know well. He was selected with me for the first Indian tour of the West Indies in 1953, but he declined the invitation. N Kannayiram from Madras came instead."
Shodhan had already made his Test debut before the tour to West Indies. "I was in the reserves for the series against Pakistan in 1952-53, the historic first Test series between our two newly independent nations. In the final Test match, at Calcutta, I was drafted into the playing XI after our captain Vijay Hazare pulled out unwell. It was Lala Amarnath, who was captaining India in Vijay Hazare's absence, who asked for me to be brought in - 'that tall Gujarati boy who had done so well in the trials and other matches'."
Walking in at 179 for 6, Shodhan made 110 to give India a lead of 140, becoming the first Indian batsman to score a century in the first innings of his first Test.
"Two of the earlier batsmen threw their wickets away going for big shots. Denying me a hundred was the reason. But [Dattu] Phadkar was a great guy, unlike many of his Bombay team-mates, and we had a good partnership. For the last wicket, the mild gentleman cricketer from Hyderabad, Ghulam Ahmed, supported me right through to my century. We were lucky to have had Lala as the captain. He was an attacking captain and he always maintained contact with the players, spoke to them. Unlike Vijay Hazare, a great batsman, but not fit for the captaincy - he was too mild, defensive and would not talk to the players."
As his ESPNcricinfo profile notes, after this debut, Shodhan was "immediately hailed as a bright new star on the Indian batting horizon". So it was baffling that he played only two more Tests.
"I loved playing cricket. My first-class career stretched on to 1962, ten years after I played my last Test match.
"Winning the Ranji Trophy in 1957-58 was the highlight of my later career. I had moved in 1956 from playing for Gujarat to Baroda. We beat the Services in the final that year. DK was captain, but the man who called all the shots was the Maharaja, Fatehsinghrao Gaekwad, in terms of team selection and batting order. Neither of them, DK or Fatehji, were great players - look at their records - but they ensured they and several other players who would not have otherwise made it to the team on the basis of their performance, were picked - I mean, look at 'Mama' [Jayasinghrao] Ghorpade!"
Shodhan's scintillating performance in the Calcutta Test got him picked for the tour of the West Indies. "The sea journey was horrible; it was a small boat, without much ballast, so it kept rolling and tossing, and almost all of us were sick."
I asked Shodhan about his first-class debut, against Kathiawar in 1946-47. "I took four wickets in the first innings, three in the second. The rest were all taken, I think, by [Vinoo] Mankad.
"I was unusual, you know - a left-handed batsmen and a left-arm medium-pacer," Shodhan said, lifting his left arm over his shoulder and spinning an imaginary ball out with his middle and index fingers.
"My brother, Jyotindra, who is a few years senior to me and still alive, was a much better cricketer than me."
At this juncture, Shodhan's wife of 62 years, Gauri, interjected to say that Jyotindra should have been selected to play for India and that Deepak's selection was by chance. In fact, Jyotindra scored his maiden first-class century, the first of only two centuries he made in 35 matches, in that game against Kathiawar.
The junior Shodhan's brief Test career coincided with his promotion to captain of Gujarat. "I became the captain in the 1952-53 season, when Nari Contractor made his debut for Gujarat. What a debut that was! Against a strong Baroda team, Nari scored a century in both innings. I was with him playing when he got the second. I scored a century too."
Another match in which Contractor and Shodhan batted together and scored hundreds was against a Commonwealth XI for Indian Universities in 1953-54 in Bangalore. Shodhan remembered the match for CK Nayudu's administrative skills.
"He was no good as an administrator or selector, nor did he have any real good performances on the Test field. Look at his record," Shodhan said. "Nayudu was the team manager or selector, I can't remember, and he was there deciding the batting order [in Bangalore]. He would make these on-the-spur decisions, and he asked Nari to open. Nari refused, saying he was a specialist No. 3. So there I was, a lower-order batsman and bowler, asked to open the batting by Nayudu! Nari and I scored centuries in the second innings and we shared a wonderful partnership. I remember Raman Subba Row from that series."
Shodhan was a fine cricketer who had an impeccable, although brief, record in Test matches, and a consistent set of performances against touring teams and in the Ranji Trophy. Why was he discarded so soon and so unceremoniously without being given a fair shot? "Politics," said Shodhan. And, in his case, it was also due to his run-in with India's first celebrity cricketer, Mankad.
"When I got into the Indian team, he asked me whether I chose to support him or Vijay Hazare. I told him I support India and the team. That ticked him off. After the West Indies tour, our manager, C Ramaswamy, is supposed to have written against me in his report. I have never held anything against him, Mankad or anyone else for not having played more for India."