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‘A full Eden is very special’ - Dicky, doyen of cricket writers, dies

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By AMIT ROY in Pataudi
  • Published 23.06.13
Dicky Rutnagur in his London flat. File picture by Amit Roy

London, June 22: It was about 10.30pm on Thursday when I decided to telephone Dicky Rutnagur at his apartment in Pimlico. I did wonder whether I should call so late in the evening since he had been in frail health but in the end I did.

The Indian Journalists’ Association was hosting a lunch the following day at Lord’s to launch Pataudi: nawab of cricket and it seemed appropriate the doyen of cricket writers should be present because he had written a great deal about “Tiger” in the past.

During a Test in Calcutta in the 1960s, for example, Sharmila Tagore and the Nawab of Pataudi had come to his hotel room for drinks. She had been introduced to her future husband by M.L. Jaisimha, one of Dicky’s closest friends.

“She was very much a Calcutta girl,” Dicky had said. “I have a lot of respect for that lady.”

Dicky was covering the 1962 Indian tour of the West Indies when Pataudi, then 21, replaced the injured Nariman Contractor as captain.

The word “doyen” is thrown around loosely these days, but if ever there was a doyen of cricket writers, it was Dicky.

I let his phone ring a long time on Thursday evening but there was no answer. I decided not to try his mobile.

The next day, the guests, led by Sharmila Tagore and her daughters Saba and Soha, were starting to arrive for the book launch at mid-day when someone came up to me and broke the news: “Dicky Rutnagur died this morning.”

Whenever I wanted to check a cricket story, I always turned to Dicky. With his passing, at the age of 82, the last page in an encyclopaedia on Indian cricket is turned. His knowledge of what actually happened on the field of play was in-depth, accurate and always fair.

He steered clear of behind-the-scenes gossip about cricketers. He reckoned he had covered 300 Test matches when he retired. He was old school and belonged to that generation of cricket journalists who believed they should write only about cricket.

Dicky’s contribution was recognised by the Indian Journalists’ Association, which gave him a lifetime achievement award in September 2010. The following spring, English cricket writers held a lunch to celebrate his 80th birthday. The main tribute came from John Woodcock, who was for many years cricket correspondent of The Times.

One reason I wanted Dicky at the Lord’s lunch on Friday was because of what he felt about the ground. I had asked him about the world’s most beautiful cricketing venues when I had done a formal interview with Dicky in 2005.

“Lord’s, of course,” he replied. “My hair still stands on end when I go through the Grace Gate (the main gate at Lord’s) after all these years. It is a privilege to go to Lord’s. I will wear my best clothes to go to Lord’s always, even for a county match.”

As an aside, he remarked: “A full Eden Gardens is something very special.”

He said: “They destroyed the atmosphere of Eden Gardens as it was: the little wooden pavilion which was the home of the Calcutta Cricket Club in those days. But now it’s just a concrete bowl but there’s still tremendous atmosphere even then.”

I remember the interview. The sunlight was flooding into his small but neat London flat, filled with a full set of Wisden, the cricketing Bible – and his memories.

He told me he was born in Bombay on February 26, 1931, and attended St Xavier’s College, where he came under the influence of Rusi Modi, the former Test player, who told his impressionable protégé about cricket in England.

In 1966, Dicky arrived in England with an agreement to work every day during the summer covering county games for The Daily Telegraph and then disappear abroad for the winter for Test matches.

“If I was a moneyed man and I could afford it, I would love to go round the world watching Test matches in the winter,” he said.

“I would say that cricket has been almost – almost – all consuming. But I am very fond of classical music – and jazz. Mozart and Rachmaninov, Tsaichovsky, and latterly in the last few weeks I have been listening to a lot of Beethoven.”

For the good of cricket in India, he wanted the Ranji Trophy revamped. “You know you need a strong base of domestic cricket and we had it in India and they (the establishment) destroyed it, the bloody idiots.”

“Bloody” and “bastard” stayed two of his favourite words.

As to whether he had any religion, he said: “I don’t call myself a Parsee because I don’t acknowledge being a Parsee. I am a Zoroastrian, which is the faith. There is no religion like Parsee. Zoroastrianism is a religion with no taboos of any kind.”

He was very proud of his son Richard Sohrab Rutnagur (now 46) from his first marriage. The boy was educated at Westminster, a leading public school, and then Oxford where he got a cricket blue by playing against Cambridge.

“I am enough of a Zoroastrian to have the Navjot, a holy thread ceremony, for my son and my grandchildren,” he said.

He kept a framed photograph of three generations of the Rutnagur family – himself, Richard and a grandson, Joshua.

It was always entertaining to hear Dicky’s opinions on cricket and various cricketers.

“I would say Sachin is India’s greatest ever batsman but if I had to pick a batsman to play for my life between the two I would pick Gavaskar and, all time, if I had to pick an Indian batsman to play for my life I would pick Vijay Merchant,” he said.

He retained a cordial relationship with Sourav Ganguly. “You can see he is very arrogant. It’s worked to India’s advantage to some extent — nobody could impose an inferiority complex on India while he was captain but he has lost goodwill at the same time. Taking off his shirt at Lord’s (during the Natwest final in July 2002) was a very childish thing. That’s no way for a captain to behave.”

He offered this theory about Bengalis: “It is not just my view but the views of several people that the Bengalis have something in their culture which would make them very fine batsmen, not necessarily bowlers.”

When Nari Contractor, then the Indian captain, was nearly killed in the India-Barbados game in 1962 by a delivery from Charlie Griffith, “I was on air,” recalled Dicky. “You could see blood coming out of his ears, one of the most ghastly sights I have ever seen.”

Those were pre-helmet days and Contractor never again returned to Test cricket but he became firm friends with Dicky.

“He’s very dogmatic, very foul-mouthed. I’m very fond of old Nari,” Dicky had grinned.

“My first wife was West Indian – Indian Trinidadian – Doris; she was the hostess on our flight from Trinidad to Jamaica. Her father wanted Nariman Contractor to be the witness in Bombay in 1962.”

His second wife, Dilshad Karanjia, cannot be traced by Dicky’s friends.

Dicky believed the authorities at Lord’s were right to apply a strict dress code – tie and jacket for men; no jeans or trainers; and for women, no cleavage on display.

“We” – meaning men – “take the trouble to dress properly,” he said. The least women could do was adopt the same code.

“There was a time when women were not allowed in the pavilion during the hours of play,” he pointed out, almost with a sense of nostalgia.