Ramakant Desai
Ramakant Desai. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan.

Ramakant Desai, born June 20, 1939, bowled with much fire, despite lacking in inches and brawn. Arunabha Sengupta pays homage to the man, affectionately called “Tiny”, who kept the flickering flame of fast bowling alive in India during the sixties.

Not only did the 1958-59 winter witness ridiculous musical chairs surrounding the captaincy of the Indian cricket team, the contrast on the ground was as farcical as it could get.

West Indies romped to a 3-0 lead by the end of the fourth Test, powered by the fearsome fast men Wes Hall and Roy Gilchrist. The big, mean pace bowlers ploughed through the terrorised Indian batting, amassing enormous victories. And coasting on a heady concoction of unusual talent, the fleet-footed young batsmen piled on runs against the Indian spinners.

Finally, in the fifth Test match at Delhi, the Indian response to the West Indian firepower encapsulated the sorry tale. In response to the looming figures of Hall and Gilchrist, from one side ran in a 19-year-old lad, hardly five and a half feet in his cricketing boots. From the other end, sharing the new ball with this debutant, one saw … er … Pankaj Roy.

If the fifties and sixties were largely the drabbest period for Indian cricket from the fast bowling point of view they were the darkest. Long gone were the days when Mohammad Nissar and Amar Singh had given the vaunted England line-up a shocking jolt on the opening morning of India’s Test journey. Dattu Phadkar had played his last Test that series in Calcutta, his cricketing grave dug with merciless mastery by the bat of Rohan Kanhai. Gulabrai Ramchand sometimes trundled in, and even he was approaching the end of his career.

The days were not distant when the Indian new ball would be sent down on wings of pathetic hope by the likes of Budhi Kunderan, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Ajit Wadekar, V Subramanya and, by the early 1970s, Sunil Gavaskar. Yet, the Indian selectors pinned hope on the slight frame of the teenager who ran in earnestly and asked probing questions with the ball.

Fast-tracked into Tests

They did have their reasons. Ramakant Desai had made his First-Class debut barely two months earlier, playing for Cricket Club of India against the same West Indies side. Somehow, the deliveries ejected at the end of a frantic run of the tiny physique had produced pace and bounce that had troubled the best of bats.

Kanhai had been his very first victim, and the great man’s stumps had been rattled. Basil Butcher had succumbed next, snicking one for a duck. Desai had ended his first foray into top grade cricket with 5 for 60, and had followed it up with 3 for 68 in the second innings, getting Conrad Hunte, Butcher again and Gerry Alexander. This had been followed by 6 wickets in an innings for Bombay against Maharashtra, and later 11-wicket match haul against Saurashtra. The flurry of wickets ensured his fast-tracked entry into a beleaguered Indian team.

The Kotla wicket was bare, shorn of grass and life. Even Roy Gilchrist struggled to make an impression. Hall did manage 4 for 66, but the Indian batsmen posted 415, by far the best performance of the series.

In response, Conrad Hunte and John Holt added 159 for the first wicket and the West Indian batsmen made merry. Desai had to wait for his first wicket, but when he registered on the scoreboard, it was again with the prize wicket of Kanhai, trapped leg-before. The runs flowed, but youthful speedster refused to give up. Holt was caught off his bowling and by the end of the innings he had induced both Garry Sobers and Collie Smith to nick to the ’keeper. The Caribbean total read 644 for 8. Desai accounted for half the wickets, bowling one over short of fifty, conceding 169. The match ended in a draw.

Desai lacked in inches and lacked in brawn, but what he did not lack was a big heart. Although Hall and Gilchrist might have looked on with indulgent smiles, he was much faster than anything India had offered during the last few years. The country had discovered a pint-sized pacer. Appropriately and with affection he was named ‘Tiny’.

Desai kept taking wickets in the Ranji Trophy, finishing with 50 in his first season — a record that stood for more than a dozen years. And he was the great hope as India travelled to England that 1959 summer to do battle on seaming wickets.

With Peter May, Colin Cowdrey and Ken Barrington, the English batting was among the best in the world. Desai and Surendranath had neither the pace, nor the skill and certainly none of the experience of Fred Trueman and Brian Statham. Indians were outclassed, outscored, outplayed.

Yet, there was one magical late afternoon and the effect carried through to the following early morn, respectively two and one day before he turned 20. At the hallowed ground of Lord’s, Desai had the Englishmen in trouble. He took 5 for 89, including Cowdrey and Barrington, reducing the hosts to 100 for seven at one stage. But, the long spell proved his undoing and he could not muster the second wind to remove the tail. However, the seasoned English batsmen did not allow him any more happy days.

Tiny Pacer meets Little Master

Returning to India, he kept taking wickets by the bushel in the domestic matches. And when Australia visited in 1959-60, he captured four first innings wickets at Madras, including Neil Harvey, Norman O’Neill and Peter Burge — all clean bowled. He repeated the performance in the final Test at Calcutta, but Alan Davidson and Richie Benaud ensured a 3-1 series victory.

His best days perhaps arrived with Pakistan in 1960-61. It was a series that sucked the joy of cricket watching from the hearts of every lover of the game, turning them sick to the very core of their beings. The two countries approached the Tests with extreme caution, and draw after draw were played out at glacial rates of scoring. Desai, however, bowled beautifully, his accurate pace and disconcerting bounce sometimes having the great Hanif Mohammad in all sorts of trouble. Hanif maintains till this day that the little man threw his bouncers.

In the final Test, played at Delhi, Desai picked up eight wickets and almost manufactured a victory for India but for a stubborn last wicket stand between Mahmood Hussain and Mohammad Farooq.

He finished with 21 scalps in the series, and also produced the best-ever performance with his bat. It had earlier taken him 17 attempts to reach double figures in Test cricket, but in the first Test of the series against Pakistan at the Brabourne Stadium, he had a jolly caper at the crease. Coming in at No. 10, he hit an entertaining 85, adding 149 with wicketkeeper Nana Joshi — still an Indian record.

Ramakant Desai was India’s highest wicket-taker in Tests among fast bowlers with 74 wickets before Karsan Ghavri surpassed him in 1979 © Getty Images
Ramakant Desai was India’s highest wicket-taker in Tests among fast bowlers with 74 wickets before Karsan Ghavri surpassed him in 1979 © Getty Images

The go-slow of Indian pitches

However, the good times came to an end when England visited in 1961-62. As the pitches were tailored more and more to suit the spinners, wickets were reduced to a trickle. He did little on the 1962 tour to West Indies that followed, picking up four wickets in three Tests. He claimed seven wickets against the Jamaica Colts, but the rest of the tour was a disaster, much in line with the overall Indian performance.

The remainder of his career saw India increasingly relying on their fabulous wealth of spinners. The pitches were engineered to suit their skills. One by one, the legendary Indian tweakers made their appearances into the cricketing arena. Desai found himself often omitted, and used sparingly if not.

He did have some memorable moments, such as the six for 56 at Bombay against the touring New Zealanders of 1964-65 — the second and last five-wicket haul in his career. But, such days were few and far between. Most of the winters saw him plying his trade in the domestic matches, taking wickets in spite of unhelpful pitches, and even scoring a hundred — his only one — in the 1962-63 Ranji Trophy final against Rajasthan.

A bowler of rare quality, he sadly faded into the background of international cricket. In spite of his previous experience, he was not even included in the side when India toured England in 1967. And then, in a rather strange decision, he was recalled for the tour of Australia and New Zealand under Pataudi in 1967-68. By then his little frame was buried under the disappointments, his slight body weighed down by fruitless toils on unhelpful domestic pitches. At 28, he was way over the hill.

In the end, he played just one Test in Australia, a wicketless effort at Melbourne. However, the last bit of drama awaited him across the Tasman Sea.

Smiling with a broken jaw

In the first Test at Dunedin, he bowled well enough, providing the early breakthrough and ending with two for 61 as New Zealand finished with 350. He walked in to bat at 300 for eight, with Dick Motz and Bruce Taylor breathing fire. Both the pace bowlers bounced at him, something fellow Kiwi bowler Jack Alabaster later termed ‘unnecessary and stupid’. A bouncer from Motz struck Desai on the face. The jaw was cracked, and swelled up rapidly. The fracture was immediately evident. But Desai batted on. The short-pitched bowling helped him and last man Bishan Bedi to leave balls alone, and play themselves in. A vital 57 runs were added in 55 minutes before Bedi was dismissed. Desai walked back, jaw broken yet wicket unconquered, his score 32 not out — perhaps signifying that his teeth were still intact.

The lead amounted to just 9 runs, but the psychological advantage was enormous. EAS Prasanna ran through the second New Zealand innings and India achieved their first ever overseas win. It was the last Test Desai would ever play, and it ended with a smile on his battered face.

Desai played just one more domestic season, picking up 27 wickets at 19.88. He retired in 1969, aged just 30. The docile pitches had extinguished the fire within, and it was a sad loss to Indian cricket. Seven years later, he did travel to Sri Lanka with Ajit Wadekar’s XI and played just one game alongside young teammates without picking up a wicket.

Desai ended with 74 wickets in 27 Tests, at the rather unflattering average of 37.31. Yet, for years, he was the only bowler of India who could be called a pacer without stretching facts into wishful fantasies. He was also the highest wicket taker among Indian pace bowlers till Karsan Ghavri went past him in 1979. Given the conditions he had to bowl in, his 468 wickets at 24.10 in 150 First-Class games will go down as more than remarkable, marking him out as by far the best medium-pacer of India during his days.

He did make a comeback to the cricketing scene years after his retirement, appointed chairman of the national selection committee in 1996. Desai held the post for two turbulent years. He resigned a month before his premature death from heart attack.

His appearances in international cricket were sporadic and not often profitable, but Desai will continue to be remembered as a man who strove against odds — overcoming the handicaps of a tiny form and benign pitches to keep the flickering flame of fast bowling alight in the nation.

(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)