As a person who fell in love with the game of cricket during the 1970s, I hold a special regard and fascination for the top players of that era. News items about matches that took place during this period or the cricketers themselves never fails to bring about a bout of nostalgia in me. But last week was one of those rare instances when words uttered by one of the heroes from that generation caused great embarrassment all around. Yes, I am referring to the statement of Farokh Engineer wherein he referred to the Indian selectors as a “mickey mouse selection committee” and passed the snide remark that they were only doing the job of bringing tea to Indian captain Virat Kohli's wife Anushka Sharma. However, after Anushka came out strongly against this comment, Engineer retracted, first by apologising to the lady and saying that the was only venting his ire at the selectors. Subsequently he clarified further stating that the observations were made in jest and blown out of proportion, which led to the matter being closed, though the odium caused by it continued to linger for some more time.
Engineer was the wicketkeeper of the national side for most part of 1960s and first half of 1970s. A handsome Parsi hailing from Mumbai, he was also an exciting batsman with a wide range of strokes and could bat at any position in the order. At his peak, he was considered among the best stumpers in the world as could be evidenced by his selection to the Rest of the World side that toured Australia in 1971. He possessed a fine cricketing brain which made him a contender for leading the national side and was considered unlucky not to have been bestowed with this honour.
Engineer made his debut in Test cricket at Mumbai in December, 1960, against England side led by Ted Dexter. Making his bow in international cricket in the same match was Dilip Sardesai, his teammate from Mumbai. As this series progressed Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Erappalli Prasanna too entered the Test match arena. This series holds further significance as India went on to register their first ever series victory against England by a margin of 2-0. Engineer played in three Tests and made his impact as a batsman also.
When the side toured the West Indies next, Engineer was the first choice wicketkeeper. He played in the first three matches before an injury forced him out of the playing eleven. His work behind the stumps always remained high class, and he was among the few Indian batsmen who was not shellshocked by the extreme pace generated by the fast bowling duo of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith who tormented the Indian willow-wielders during this series.
There was never any serious doubt as to who would keep wickets when the England side led by M J K Smith landed in India in the winter of 1963. But an illness forced Engineer to sit out of the first Test at Mumbai and Budhi Kunderan, who was in the list of reserves, grabbed the opportunity with both hands to play a polished knock of 192. This helped Kunderan seal his place in the playing eleven as a wicketkeeper-batsman, who could also open the innings.
Engineer suddenly found himself in the wilderness and he did not get a look in even when the Australians arrived in India to play a three-Test series in the autumn of 1964. It was only in March, 1965, when New Zealand toured India that Engineer could manage to make a comeback to the national side. This time he also decided to don the role of an opener, in addition to keeping the wickets. Soon he came to be regarded as a full-fledged opening batsman and selectors started looking around for a good partner for him at the top of the batting order.
It could be said with absolute certainty that Engineer’s best innings as a batsman came during the third Test of the series against the visiting West Indians at Chennai in 1967. He had not played in the first two Tests which the visitors won easily. The deadly Hall-Griffith combo was supported by Gary Sobers and Lance Gibbs but Engineer chose to show scant respect to these top class performers by nearly scoring a century before lunch on the opening day of the match. This knock brought Engineer back into the national side and helped him cement his place there for the next four years.
During the period from 1967 till 1970, Engineer was a member of the playing eleven in all matches that India played. He opened the innings as well except during the short Test series against the touring New Zealand side in 1969, when India experimented with many young players, with near disastrous results. This was also the period when the famous spin quartet was making its impact felt for the first time in international cricket and Engineer’s presence behind the stumps was a vital factor that lent an extra edge to their bowling.
Engineer’s performances with the bat and behind the stumps during the tour of England in 1967 had won him a contract to play for Lancashire county. He moved to Lancashire in 1968 and soon settled down there, marrying a lady of British origin. He also stopped playing for Mumbai in Ranji Trophy, while making himself available for the national side.
This approach of Engineer which involved giving domestic cricket the short shrift was not appreciated by the selection committee led by Vijay Merchant. When the Indian side to tour the West Indies in 1971 was chosen, Merchant insisted that Engineer should not be considered since he had not played any match in domestic first class circuit. Krishnamurthy of Hyderabad donned the wicketkeeping gloves during this series but it soon became evident that he was not in the same league as Engineer. Hence when the squad to tour England was selected in April, 1971, Engineer was included, despite the player informing that he would be available only for the Test matches and not for the rest of the tour in view of his commitments towards Lancashire. This proved to be a significant move as Engineer played two important innings in the third Test at Oval that India won. In fact Engineer was there in the middle to guide the side to victory for the first time in a Test on English soil.
Engineer had moved to his position in the middle order during the tour of England in 1971. He continued to bat in that position during the series at home against England led by Tony Lewis. However, in the last Test at Mumbai, he was asked to bat at the top of the order again and he responded with a career best knock of 121 in the first innings. During the ill fated tour of England in 1974, he was one of the few batsmen to put up a fight during the second and third Tests that India lost tamely.
During the home series against the West Indies in 1974-75, thre were reports in the media that Engineer would be asked to lead the side in the second Test at Delhi after captain Pataudi was ruled out and stand-in skipper Sunil Gavaskar suffered a fracture to his thumb. Engineer was also congratulated by a senior Board official on the night before the match. But some last minute developments put paid to his hopes and it was S Venkataraghavan who went out for toss the next day. But Engineer kept his composure and went ahead with his job like a true professional. He contributed substantially with the bat in the third Test at Kolkata that India won by 85 runs. In the next test at Chennai, Engineer was brilliant behind the stumps, diving full length to catch an edge off the bat of Viv Richards and effecting a lightning quick stumping to remove Clive Lloyd. Unfortunately, he failed with the bat and was dismissed for nought in both innings of Mumbai Test, which turned out to be his final appearance in Test matches.
Engineer was, without doubt, one of the most handsome cricketers of his generation. His classic features, rugged physique, dashing strokeplay and flair behind the stumps made him extremely popular with the crowds. Such was his popularity that the sales of “Brylcreem”, a hair cream, went soaring when he started endorsing it! To the followers of the game he personified flamboyance. He used to be invited to the BBC commentary box as a guest commentator in matches involving India. He was in the commentary box when India changed the course of cricket history by defeating the West Indies in the final of the 1983 World Cup.
It is quite evident that Engineer was not at his intelligent best when he made those comments about national selectors and Ansuhka. In all probability, he might have thought that he was indulging in some locker room humour which would not be taken seriously. Engineer had never been one to seek publicity by negative means and it was not his habit to try and score brownie points through sneer and sarcasm. He was always seen as a gentleman cricketer who sought to entertain the crowds and played hard and fair to win matches.
So what does one do when a legend of the game, who also happens to be one of your heroes, commits a faux pas? One tends to overlook this in the same manner that one ignores a small wart which is present on even the most elegant face. Engineer’s contribution to Indian cricket should not be judged by one off-the-cuff remark; he remains in the hearts of lovers of the game as one of those rare cricketers who made us proud to be an Indian during the 1960s and 70s.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)