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Sight Screen

Monday, June 27, 2005

Eknath Solkar RIP

The verandah of our home in Chennai used to have this enormous iron grille -- all geometrics and rosettes all over the place.
A neighbour, Joe Moses -- first cousin of one-time Tamil Nadu player Paul Satish Moses -- and I used, for hours at a time, to use that grill for fielding practise. One of us would throw a tennis ball at the grille, hard as we could; the other had to catch it on the rebound. All those sharp angles meant there was no way of predicting where the ball would go on the rebound -- the thrower would try to hit crazy angles, the catcher would skin his elbows and worse trying to take the resulting catch; we would keep this up till the catcher flubbed a chance, and then reverse the roles.
The inspiration was the late lamented Eknath Solkar. Specifically, a story we read in the papers at the time, of how he honed his own incredible catching skills. The story went that 'Ekki' would suspend, above head height, a wooden cradle. He would hold a tennis ball in his hand, overhead, and with a flick of the wrist, throw it into the cradle -- then tense and dive to hold the ball as it ricocheted out, at unpredictable angles.
At a time when young girls adorn their bedroom walls with posters of Jonty Rhodes in full flight (and believe me, he is still 'hot') and cricket boards hire specialised fielding coaches, it seems a pity that this quiet, unassuming, soft-spoken man, whose incredible fielding at short square leg was the unsung aspect of India's storied 1971 season, was never called on to work with the team, to inspire them with his presence, to impart the skills and know-how that made him the pre-eminent close catcher before fielding became glamorous.
Bishen Bedi said it right -- it was 'Ekki' who gave teeth to the famed spin quartet.
This was the era before live television and instant replays zoomed in on the close fielder's art. It was 1973, and I was one among thousands packed into the MA Chidambaram Stadium for the third Test of the India-England series.
At some point in the England first innings, Tony Greig swatted at 'Ekki' -- who was in his customary short square leg position -- with his bat. Seemingly in fun, but there was a touch of irritation in the action -- and the stadium erupted in catcalls; matched in volume only by the cheers with which we greeted Solkar holding Greig, in the second innings, off Salim Durrani if I remember right.
Later, at the press conference, Greig was asked about the incident. He said -- if I remember the press accounts right -- that it was in fun, but that Solkar could put pressure on anyone, standing as close as he did.
But, the reporter said, you are much taller than him, and you too stand at short square? To which Greig replied: Look, the difference is, I have to go out there and face three amazing spinners. It's bad enough taking strike to Chandra, never knowing what he will bowl next -- to have to also worry about Ekki breathing down your neck, ready to stick his hand between your pads and grab a catch off a forward defensive shot, is a bit much.
Obdurate batsman (Sunny Gavaskar stole the headlines on his debut tour of the West Indies, but the Sardesai-Solkar partnerships were as much a key to India's success on that tour as the batting of the debutant). Competent seam bowler. Brilliant close catcher. Enthusiastic -- and surprisingly good -- singer. All-round nice guy (On three different occasions, I had visited Chandrashekar at his Bangalore home -- inevitably, on each of these occasions, one of the first questions he would ask is, how is my good friend Ekki?).
Celebrate him, through this tribute by SK Sham; Tony Greig's reaction in Mid-Day; and an obit by EAS Prasanna in The Telegraph; an appreciation by Harsha Bhogle in the Indian Express.
And -- to leave you with a last impression of the kind of player he was -- there is this anecdote, narrated by Sandeep Dwivedi in the Indian Express, that sums up his cricketing spirit.

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