<
>

When sixes were rare

Dilip Vengsarkar, who as a young batsman had a reputation for hitting sixes in first-class cricket, managed only 17 in his Test career PA Photos

It may be hard for contemporary fans to believe this, but there was a time when a Test match six was a rare event and one that was much feted and discussed. The next day's newspaper reports invariably carried a photograph of the batsman accomplishing the feat, and schoolboys across the land did their best imitations of the shot for weeks thereafter.

In the final Test between India and England at the Brabourne Stadium in 1973, Gundappa Viswanath hooked one from Chris Old and the ball almost landed - if newspaper reports were to be believed - in an adjacent swimming pool. Little Vishy, despite his powerful forearms and rasping square-cuts, was never expected to go aerial, let alone hit one out of the park. The sense of surprise and delight that engulfed Indian cricket fans then is still vivid in my memory. Though he proceeded to amass over 6000 runs in 155 Test innings, Vishy managed only six sixes.

A six, especially in a Test match, was no mean feat back then. Boundaries were invariably a full 75 yards away and bats were emaciated poor cousins of the spring-loaded bludgeons in use today. Anything that wasn't timed well enough produced either a skier or an easy catch in the infield. Coaches dinned the importance of playing the ball along the turf into you, and only during last call at nets were you allowed to slog.

Indian batsmen seemed to hit fewer sixes than their counterparts in other teams: their wristy strokeplay seemed to lend itself more to fours. The likes of Salim Durani when he was in the mood, or Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, were the exceptions who proved the rule. Moreover, while Indian tailenders were timorous batsmen, other teams had beefy fast bowlers down the order and they could be counted on to slog a few sixes, especially against India's spinners and friendly medium-pacers.

Even batsmen renowned for hitting a long ball in first-class cricket left the six out in Test matches. A teenaged Dilip Vengsarkar stormed onto the national scene with a century for Bombay in the Irani Trophy in 1975, marmalising the likes of Bishan Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna for eight sixes in his innings. But in his long Test career Vengsarkar would only average a six as infrequently as every 11 innings he played (17 sixes in 185 Test innings.)

Sunil Gavaskar loved to play the hook early in his career but soon gave it up as it was too risky, and thereby he greatly reduced his chances of hitting sixes as an opening batsman. And while Ravi Shastri became only the second cricketer (after Garry Sobers) to hit six sixes in an over in a first-class match, in Tests he was more of a nurdler.

For Indian fans of my generation, some sixes are indelibly etched into our memories. When India collapsed for 42 all out, following on against England at Lord's in 1974, Eknath Solkar remained unbeaten on 18, which included a hooked six. I doubt there has ever been another Test innings by a team in which one stroke accounted for one-seventh the final score. It stands there in the scorecard as a lonely and aggressive riposte by a gutsy cricketer in an otherwise dreadful Indian collapse.

Later that year in India, it was Clive Lloyd's West Indies with their surfeit of six hitters: Roy Fredericks, Gordon Greenidge, Alvin Kallicharran, Viv Richards, and Lloyd himself. The West Indians rained sixes through the series, but the one I remember was the final six of Indian captain Pataudi's storied career.

As soon as the series commenced, it was painfully obvious Pataudi had stayed on for one too many. He could not negotiate Andy Roberts' ferocious pace, and at times it seemed as if he could barely see the ball. In the second innings of the third Test in Calcutta, Pataudi was out for 8 - but not before he had sashayed down the track and lofted spinner Elquemedo Willett back over his head for six. It was a brief and poignant reminder of the dasher Pataudi had once been.

Two of the most painful sixes for Indian fans came when India played in Pakistan in 1978 after a hiatus of 23 years. Expectations were huge, the tension unbearable, and the whole scene reminded you of Orwell's cynical quote about sports being "war minus the shooting".

After having drawn the first of the three Tests, Pakistan only lost two wickets in chasing down 126 in just over 20 overs in the dying light to win the second Test in Lahore. India looked to have batted themselves to safety in the third Test, in Karachi, thanks to Gavaskar's twin centuries, leaving Pakistan a steep target of 164 runs on the final evening, with time for around 26 overs to be bowled.

Javed Miandad and Asif Iqbal raced between the wickets, running the Indian fielders ragged, but when the latter departed with the score at 118 and the sun dipping over the horizon, it looked as if Pakistan would fall agonisingly short. In walked Imran Khan, promoted over the likes of Zaheer Abbas and Mushtaq Mohammad, and he and Miandad calmly got Pakistan closer to the target.

I was watching the match live on television with a huge throng of my college-mates in our hostel's recreation room. As Imran got ready to face Bedi, with time running out and Pakistan still needing plenty, you kind of sensed the worst but still hoped for the best. Going back 37 years, I remember two gently flighted deliveries with Bedi's famous loop, twirl and spin. Two majestic lofted straight drives. Two huge sixes. Match over - and across the border, hundreds of millions of hearts crushed.