Sunday, July 8, 2007
VV Kumar - The all time great leggie turns 72 but his passion and love for Cricket remains
"Nari Contractor did not want to expose too much of the leggie to the Englishmen and wanted to reserve VV Kumar for the Kanpur test. But he never bowled again in Tests!!!".
Viswanathan Vaman Kumar (VV Kumar) turned 72 last week but when you meet him its easy to find as to why age is no deterrent to this all time great leggie. He can still turn his arm over and make the youngsters dance to his ‘looping spin’. His eyes lighten up when you talk to him about ‘loop and turn’ and he instantly hits back saying “That was our foundation, but is a forgotten word these days.”
30 years after his retirement from first class cricket, VV Kumar can still bowl 15 overs at a stretch at the nets and can still make the ball turn and bounce.
When quipped on this, he says “When you do something that is close to your heart, you don’t feel the tiredness. When I played, I enjoyed the game. Total commitment combined with the spirit of enjoyment is my secret.”
At the net sessions, Venkat and I used to bowl to all the batsmen without a break, and we enjoyed it.
During the 1960s and 70s, which he calls the Golden Era of TN cricket, VV Kumar and Venkataraghavan spun many a team out, working in tandem, after Kalli (Kalyanasundaram) had done the early damage.
VV Kumar says with pride, “Look at the score cards of the 1960s and 70s and you will find very few big scores by the opposition. Such was our bowling strength.”
Why did he choose Spin Bowling
I ask him how he took up to spin bowling. VV Kumar is convinced that spinners are made not born. VV Kumar narrates the event that took place inside his house that got him interested in spin bowling in the late 1940s. “When I was in School (VV studied in PS High School, Mylapore, Madras), I had this habit of collecting different kinds of balls- Golf balls, Hockey balls, Polo balls, Tennis balls, Cork balls. One day, when in the 3rd Form, I threw a golf ball on the wall like an off spin and found that the ball came back with an opposite spin (leg spin). I was quite intrigued with that, but didn’t delve too much into that, except the thought that if the Golf ball could do this much, why not a cricket ball. And that was when I decided to take up leg spin.”
VV Kumar started playing cricket in 1948 at the age of 13.
Did he look up to someone in his early days? Vaman Kumar says, “No. We were our own inspiration. There were no coaches like you have today. We were guided by the absolute truth that ‘ we can deliver the goods and we can just do it’.”
In those days, school cricket was very strong and very competitive. There were about 7-8 schools which competed fiercely with each other- Hindu School, RKM, Doveton Corie, PS Higher Secondary.
College Cricket and Ranji Debut
VV played for Vivekananda College(he graduated in Science) and that was a very productive period for him. VV Kumar has several happy memories of his college days. He recounts with pride the fact that his Vivekananda College principal used to come in his bike to watch him play. “It used to be a great motivator for all of us when our principal came and encouraged us. And the prize for a win was a sumptuous meal at the restaurant.”
“No praise is too high for my School and College teachers-they were so affectionate towards me. I had a lot of encouraging words from my teacher and that made a big difference early on in my career.”
VV Kumar goes deeper into this, “It was my teachers and professors that were a great source of motivation for me. Many of them went out of their way to encourage me. They even took extra classes to help catch up on ‘missed lessons.’ With such an inspiration, I didn’t have to look too far out to give it my best shot in cricket.”
The varsity games helped him graduate into state cricket. He was studying law when VV Kumar got the Ranji call. He made his Ranji Debut in 1956 and went on to play for the next 20 years, collecting 599 wickets(in all forms of the game) during this period.
Those days Ranji matches were over 3 days of 5 ½ hours duration each. This threw in the challenge to take 20 wickets to win a match. That was our big motivation – To bowl out our opposition twice in 3 days.
Propelling him into the next level
The next big moment for VV came within 5 years of his Ranji debut- the call to play for India. VV Kumar was selected to play for the Board President’s XI against Pakistan in Bangalore in January 1961.
Excitement in VV is palpable when he talks about this match.
“I played under Lala Amarnath against the touring Pakistan team that included Imtiaz Ahmed, Javed Burki and Intikhab Alam. I bowled 50 overs and took 6 for 150. That performance earned me an instant call from the selectors for the Madras (Pongal) test of 1961. It would have been a dream come true had I made my debut in the Pongal test. And also, I may have got 2 back to back tests against the Pakistanis. But as luck would have it, injury kept me out of the Madras Test.”
Test Debut - A brief Test Career
VV made his test debut in Delhi a month later in February 1961 in the 4th and final test of that series. He had a glorious start to his test career with a wicket with his first ball in Test Cricket one that he still remembers as the ball of his life (described below). He took 5 wickets in his very first innings, and added two more in the 2nd for a debut match haul of 7 wickets. Quite an impressive debut performance he must have thought at that time.
Anti Climatic End to Test Career
What should have been the beginning of a great and long career had an anti climatic end later that year in Bombay. He played his 2nd test against the touring MCC (that included Ken Barrington). He went into the match with an injury (something, he says, everyone was aware of). He bowled close to 30 overs for 70runs without taking a wicket in the first innings.
Mysteriously, VV Kumar did not bowl a single over in the 2nd innings and was destined never to bowl again in Test Cricket (everyone thought he had an injury). A unique co-incidence this…but VV would not bowl in the last innings of both his last test and Ranji match.
About not bowling in the 2nd innings
VV Kumar makes a stunning revelation that his captain Nari Contractor came up to him and told him that he did not want to give away too much of the leggie to the spin scared Englishmen and that he wanted to reserve VV Kumar for the Kanpur test.
Little did VV know then that he would never again play for India and that he would actually end up not bowling a single over in his last innings on the field for India (that innings lasted almost 60 overs).
It is still quite a mystery that a bowler, who had taken 7 wickets in his previous-debut- test, one who bowled well in the first innings of this test match and who was not bowled in the 2nd innings, on the pretext of the captain wanting him to be a match winner in the next test, was never selected for the country again. Quite a tragic story.
45 years after that incident, VV Kumar rubbishes any references to unfair treatment.
“Unlike today, where every event is discussed threadbare, in those days, cricket was more or less a subject discussed in close circles. It was a gentleman’s game, you know.”
VV Kumar’s most memorable match – April 1973 Semi Finals against Maharashtra
It was the summer of 1973 and TN was one match away from a possible clash with Bombay. The team traveled to Pune to take on a Maharashtra team which had a strong batting line up, with Chauhan and Gupte at the top and Kanitkar, Borde and Saldhana in the middle order.
TN conceded a 60run first innings lead, after being bundled out for 160 in the first innings. And batting a 2nd time, Tamil Nadu was bowled out again for a paltry180 odd, which left Maharastra only about 120 to win and with a lot of time in hand.
VV Kumar recounts the 3rd (turned out to be the final day) afternoon of that closely fought semi final against Maharashtra and why it was his most memorable match (and of many others in the team as well).
“We were all honoured by the presence of Professor Deodhar, the legend of Indian cricket, that day. The two teams were introduced to him during the lunch break.”
Lunch Time on Day 3 !!!
“Quite a stunning incident took place there during those few minutes. The opposition remarked that they had already made the train booking for the finals (against Bombay), meaning it was a cake walk for them into the finals. This charged us up completely. Venkat was furious. He got the team together and everyone promised to give it their best shot (Kalyanasundaram had already dismissed the danger man CPS Chauhan just before lunch). We all wanted to win the match and make them cancel their ‘pre-booked’ tickets for the finals.”
In a way, it was a big moment for several of the players in the team, the possibility of a very first entry into the Ranji finals was beckoning. .
After lunch, Maharastra was progressing well at 50 for 2 well into the afternoon session, needing just another 70 to win.
An emotional VV Kumar goes on, “That afternoon turned out to be dramatic. Venkat got the key wicket of Chandu (Borde) for a duck. I got 3 wickets in about 10 balls and Kalli got two crucial middle order wickets. Maharashtra collapsed dramatically to 9/70. They still needed 50 to win when the 9th wicket fell. We were all very excited. The last wicket pair put up a fight. Venkat replaced me and gave the ball to Kalli, who kept it tight for 3 overs from one end. And Venkat finally had Salgaonkar LBW with Maharashtra still needing 20 odd runs. We had bundled them out for less than a 100, a win that took us into the finals against Bombay. It was my most memorable match.”
“Not just me, for several of my team mates this was one of the best matches we had ever played in. It gave us entry into our first Ranji Finals.”
Best ball in cricket
Without a doubt, bowling Imtiaz Ahmed first ball in Test Cricket with a googly that had the ball hanging in the air, before dipping and going through his defence.
Best moment in cricket
My 300th wicket in Ranji cricket, in November 1970 at Tellichery against Kerala, thus becoming the first bowler to reach that landmark beating CS Nayudu’s previously held record, was my best moment in cricket. It was an emotional and an unforgettable moment for me. I still remember how my TN colleagues celebrated the dismissal. There was such camaraderie in the team then. We all felt happy for each other’s success.
Best Leg Spinner of all time
Subhash Gupte. He was the best. He had great variety. He had two types of googlies and a concealed action as well.
Best Captain he played under
Lala Amarnath was undoubtedly the best captain in my view. He was a cricketing genius. His knowledge of the game was unmatched. VV also makes special mention of Venkat and ML Jaisimha.
Saddest moment in Cricket
It came towards the end of the 1970s. I had played for over two decades for Madras/ Tamil Nadu and taken well over 400 Ranji wickets. TNCA did not tell me that I was going to be dropped. And there was a big newspaper article that said “VV Kumar dropped”. For an association that was thought of to be very professional, it was a poor way to treat a player who had served you with glory for over 20 years. It could have been a warm send off. It wasn’t to be. It remains my saddest moment in cricket".
An Encounter with Sobers
VV Kumar specially remembers a duel he had with Sobers “I had set an aggressive field. I wanted to get his wicket, he wanted to hit me out of the ground. I did everything right that over. I tossed up a well flighted googly, the ball looped, he drove at it, came straight to me and I dropped the catch. It was an unforgettable moment.”
Creativity and Spin Bowling
VV Kumar is of the view that bowling is all about creating ideas to get a batsman out. Cricket, especially bowling, is not devoid of ideas. It is a game played in the mind. “We were not at all afraid to toss the ball up to the batsmen. That’s how we were brought up. I was always attacking, wanting to take wickets.”
VV says, with a touch of sadness, today it is all about containing runs and keeping it tight.
On the fall of Leg Spin in Tamil Nadu
The degeneration of leg spinners started in the early 1990s not at the top but right at the school level. Every thing has been down from there. Containment has become the mantra of the day. Today, spinners don’t understand ‘Loop’. Those days the focus was on ‘turn and bounce’. Today, its all ‘flat and straight’.
When asked if there was a way out to get quality Leg Spinners back into play in TN cricket, VV Kumar says, “I judge a spinner by seeing if he can run through a side on a good batting wicket. That’s when the class can be seen. These days scores of 450-500 have become normal phenomenon and seem to be the order of the day. Dormancy has taken a front seat and aggression the back seat.”
“There’s no solution unless there is a radical change in attitude. The youngsters listen to you in the nets and bowl well. But once in the match, it gets back to ‘bowling flat and containment’. Leg Spinners have to go out there to take wickets. And they need to have the captain’s backing for this. Field setting is important. Defensive, run saving field setting has taken the sting out of spin bowling. I don’t see backward short or leg slip any more for spinners.
ML Jaisimha, for example, was a good captain of spinners. When I came into bowl, it was just eye contact with the captain and the players. Every one would know where they exactly had to field. It was the same when Venkat bowled. It was what I would call ‘ Repetition in Excellence’.
Grooming Young Spinners
One will never get the golden period back and hence one should not compare the current generation spinners with those of yesteryears. However, there are a few young spinners who seem to have the potential. But without the right opportunities, it will be difficult to build the confidence in them. I am of the view that Piyush Chawla should have been chosen for the test series and not the one day series. It would have been such a good learning ground for him in England, just to be there. If you do not provide opportunities and groom young spinners, there would be a big void once Kumble retires and that will be a heavy price for Indian cricket.
Message to youngsters (and parents)
Understand your strengths and weakness, identify the potential, have ambition but within regulated levels. Today, every parent wants his kid to be a mega star and that is a fallacy.
His relationship with Venkat
Venkat and I developed a great understanding. We worked well in tandem, we always complemented each other well. When Venkat decided to impart spin, I would focus on straight ones, and when I turned them big, Venkat would keep it straight and tight. We also used to discuss and plant batsmen out- what we call “set them up for a particular kind of dismissal’.
VV Kumar had all the makings of becoming a great international bowler, yet ended up playing just two tests. He shrugs his shoulder and says he has no regrets (except the one event of TNCA giving him an unceremonious exit) at all.
Instead says “I have always looked at the positive side of life - No batsman in 20 years of Ranji cricket was ready to take a chance against me.”
GRV, Brijesh, Gavaskar, Wadekar, all of the Indian batting greats, struggled against him. He was first bowler to reach 300 and 400 wickets in Ranji cricket (he ended just 1 wicket short of the 600 wicket mark in all forms of cricket), he played professional cricket in the UK.
VV can still drop the wrong’ un on the spot as he did time and time again in his prime, decades ago, and his passion and love for the game still remains the same, at 72, that you get the sense that he could still bemuse the batsmen of today and have them dancing to his ‘leg spinning’ tunes.
This tribute from B. Kalyanasundaram, the former fast bowler from TN (he took 150 wickets for TN and was the first one to take hatrick) and a colleague of VV probably sums up best, VV’s class and his greatness.
Says Kalli, “VV Kumar, even today at the age of 72, can bowl better than Piyush Chawla. VV was very special. He was a magnificent leg spinner. I consider it an honour and privilege to have played alongside VV for 12 years.”
Best match : 1972-73 Ranji Semi Final vs Maharashtra in Pune
Best moment : My 300th Ranji wicket- the first bowler to do so
Best ball in cricket : Googly to clean bowl Pak opener Imtiaz Ahmed with his first ball in Test Cricket in 1961
Best captain : Lala Amarnath- He was a genius
Best leg spinner : Subash Gupte
Saddest Moment : The manner of his exit from Ranji cricket
VV Kumar’s favourite all time TamilNadu XI
1. P. K. Belliapa(Wicket Keeper)
2. WV Raman
3. Milkha Singh
4. Kripal Singh
5. CD Gopinath-Captain
6. S. Sharath
7. S. Venkataraghavan
8. M.J. Gopalan
10. AG Ram Singh
11. VV Kumar
12th man: Robin Singh
PKB was the most consistent opener and a good keeper. WV Raman had grace. Even in those days, Rangachari was quick…AG Ram Singh was by far the best left arm spinner. Venkataraghavan was the most competent of cricketers. And mind you he was a good bat too lower down the order. Among the recent set of players, I liked Sharath for his consistency over a long period of time.