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REMEMBERING A FORGOTTEN HERO

Pankaj: Bengal’s Forgotten Cricket Legend By Gautam Bhattacharya, Supernova, Rs 395

Pankaj Roy is now a forgotten name in Indian cricket even in his native land, Bengal. Yet till the blossoming of Sourav Ganguly, he was without peer in the cricketing world of Bengal. He was, for nearly a decade, a regular in the Indian team and till the other day the holder, with Vinoo Mankad, of the record of the highest opening partnership. He played first class cricket into the middle sixties, when he decided to hang up his boots. It is wonderful that Gautam Bhattacharya, a well known sports journalist, has attempted, in this book, to retrieve Roy from oblivion.

In some ways, Bhattacharya is the best person to do this, not only because he is passionately fond of cricket but also because he is interested in the game’s history. He is a journalist who is conscious that the game’s moment is not unconnected with memories of cricket.

This book weaves the story of Roy’s life and career through anecdotes and recollections of people who saw Roy play or played with him. This mode of telling also reminds readers of the tricks that memory plays when coloured by prejudice. The two greatest innings that Roy played were not in a Test match but in a Ranji Trophy Bengal versus Hyderabad encounter in 1963. Roy scored centuries in both innings. These centuries deserve the adjective, ‘great’, because they were made against the murderous bowling of Roy Gilchrist on a fast-paced and seaming Eden Gardens wicket. The word, “murderous”, is used deliberately because in that match Gilchrist bowled to kill. But when Bhattacharya spoke to Gilchrist in the late 1990s in Kingston, he had no recollection of Roy scoring centuries against him. In this instance, all cricket lovers will be grateful for the existence of the score book.

Roy’s batting was based on hard work. He practised endlessly at the nets, sometimes batting at the nets early in the morning before a Test match began. He listened carefully even to younger and lesser known players who made relevant points about his batting technique.

Roy’s batting technique was orthodox. From a side on stance with the legs comfortably apart, he preferred to play within the V before he was well set. He drove powerfully past mid off and mid on. Once he was set, he played the cut, square and late, and the pull. He was merciless against spinners to whom he often stepped out. He seldom hit in the air. He played the hook and the cover drive but only occasionally. He did not use the wristy on side flick. His defence was solid. There was never any flourish in his batting. Pankaj Roy did not believe in flashy and risky shots. He built up his innings step by step, shot by shot. Were there flaws in his batting? He had the occasional bout of nerves. Witness his dismissal at 99, caught by Benaud at silly mid on off Kline. He was never as good a runner between the wickets as he should have been. He was a good judge of a run but did not run fast enough to convert a single into a two or a two into a three.

His batting must also be put in a context. He made his runs — Bhattacharya says that in 185 matches (he does not specify how many of these were first class matches) Roy made 11,868 runs — on pitches that were sporting. In other words they hadn’t been doctored to be in favour of batsmen. He also played without any kind of protective gear except pads, gloves and the abdomen guard. The absence of the helmet, thigh guard, forearm guard and so on did not stop him from making runs against top class fast bowlers that included Gilchrist, Wes Hall, Fred Trueman, Brian Statham and Ray Lindwall.

Roy was born into affluence, but this did not make him lazy. Here his attitude to cricket, as Bhattacharya notes very pertinently, was in stark contrast to that of his nephew, Ambar Roy, who by any reckoning was a more talented batsman than his uncle. While the uncle toiled hard at his batting, the nephew depended on his talents. The latter frittered away his gifts and refused to take a leaf out of the book of his famous uncle.

It is now forgotten that Pankaj Roy was the first Bengali to captain an Indian side, and that too at Lord’s. This was in 1959 when Roy took over after D.K. Gaekwad, the skipper, fell ill. Bhattacharya suggests that there may have been a conspiracy to let down Roy in that match. There were far too many simple catches that were dropped. Roy’s own recollections of that Lord’s Test match certainly veered towards a conspiracy theory.

Bhattacharya’s book does for Roy what was denied to him by his contemporaries. Roy never got the respect and recognition he deserved. Even in Bengal he was often the object of jokes and ridicule. It was always said that he feared fast bowling. People conveniently forgot the runs he made against fast bowlers. Bhattacharya restores Roy to his proper place without indulging in any kind of hagiography. Roy was a simple man who loved batting and making runs. This book conveys that impression of the man. Pankaj Roy merits this tribute and all those who saw him play will thank Bhattacharya for rendering this service to a forgotten hero of Bengal.