Hall of Fame: Farokh Engineer

Name the Indian wicketkeeper-batsman who was explosive with the bat, superbly efficient and athletic behind the stumps, started off as a goalkeeper, and was famous for his hair, sex-appeal, and penchant for motorcycles?

If you said Mahendra Singh Dhoni you’d be wrong, for this is a question not of the present but the past. The colorful character who fit this description long before Dhoni was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes was none other than Farokh Manecksha Engineer.

How good was Farokh Engineer? Well, let’s just say he was the pivot of an Indian close-in fielding unit that included sharp catchers like Ajit Wadekar, Srinivas Venkatraghavan, Syed Abid Ali, and of course the greatest of them all, Eknath Solkar. This close-in catching unit surrounded and hounded batsmen the world over, but especially on the turning pitches of India, playing a big part in giving the formidable Indian Spin Quartet of the 1960s and 70s its cutting edge.

But Farokh was more than merely an excellent wicketkeeper; he was a superbly aggressive and unorthodox batsman, and a true character on and off the field. Nothing personified macho, debonair and suave like Farokh in his prime. No wonder he was the first Indian cricketer to land a lucrative product endorsement for the hair styling gel Brylcreem, becoming India’s answer to England’s Dennis Compton — the original Brylcreem Boy!

Engineer made his debut for India against England in 1961 in Kanpur at age 23. In the early days of his Test career, Engineer was in direct competition with another wicketkeeper-batsman, Budhisagar Kunderan. Both were in contention and picked to play for India, randomly it seemed, for being picked or dropped rarely bore any relationship to the form or performance of either player.

In 1961 Engineer played 4 of 5 matches at home against England, but later he and Kunderan split the Tests during India’s visit to the West Indies in 1961-62, Kunderan playing only two matches and averaging a paltry 3.6 while Engineer played three at a slightly better 18.

In 1963-64, Kunderan was picked for all five Tests versus the visiting MCC and scored 525 runs including a fantastic 192 in Madras, which remains the highest score by an Indian wicketkeeper. But surprisingly, Kunderan was dropped when New Zealand visited in 1964-65 after playing only one Test. Engineer played the remaining four.

Next, it was the turn of the West Indies under Sir Garfield Sobers to visit India, and Kunderan was back in the team scoring an electrifying 79 in Bombay in the first Test while putting on 95 for the ninth wicket with Venkatraghavan. So when the selectors picked Farokh Engineer for the third Test at Madras, criticism in the media and among fans was vocal.

However, by lunch time on the first day, the critics were silenced. Farokh opened the batting, incidentally the first time he did so in a Test match, and along with Dilip Sardesai, pulverized an attack composed of Wesley Hall, Charlie Griffith, Gary Sobers and Lance Gibbs to the tune of 94 runs off his own blade in an unbroken stand of 125, coming closer to scoring a century before lunch in a Test match than any other Indian batsman in Test history.

Virender Sehwag recently came closer, reaching 99 not out before lunch in the second Test against the West Indies. But the quality of the attack that Sehwag faced pales compared to the one Engineer flayed. Statistics reveal that the world-class fast bowling duo of Hall and Griffith were spanked for 81 runs off their combined first 12 over opening spell, mostly off the flashing blade of Engineer. This one innings, which eventually ended shortly after lunch on 109, made Engineer the de facto permanent wicketkeeper for India, and also afforded India the flexibility of a wicketkeeper-batsman who could open the innings.

In fact, between the time Sunil Gavaskar debuted in Tests in 1970-71 and the time Engineer retired from Test cricket in 1974-75, they were associated in over half a dozen opening stands including two century partnerships at a healthy partnership average of 45 runs per stand.

Engineer was instrumental in helping India to victory in one of its finest hours when he, along with the serenely composed G.R. Viswanath, inched their way nearly to victory at The Oval in 1971. Viswanath finally perished in an attempt to swat the winning runs after hours of steadfast, patient, and immaculately orthodox batting. Engineer, however, remained in the middle and completed the formalities supported by Abid Ali, winning India a Test series for the first time on English soil. Exuberant Indian fans tried to lift the hefty Engineer on to their shoulders but buckled under his weight, allowing him to escape to the safety of the players’ dressing room.

This memorable moment in Indian cricket was followed by the high point of Engineer’s Test career: the English tour of India under Tony Lewis in 1972-73. Farokh scored 415 runs in that series and led the Indian batting averages as India, under Ajit Wadekar, recorded its third consecutive series win. He kept brilliantly to the varied spin of Bedi, Prasanna and Chandrasekhar during that series, and also notched up his highest Test score of 121 in addition to three other half-centuries.

In an ironic twist, Engineer’s career which had taken off after he smashed a West Indian attack to smithereens in 1964-65, ended almost exactly 10 years later against a West Indies attack when he was dismissed for ducks in both innings: the first and last pair of his Test career.

But what a career it was, and until the advent of immaculately efficient Syed Kirmani — who, incidentally, served a long apprenticeship as Engineer’s understudy — he was arguably the best wicketkeeper India produced, and certainly India’s best wicketkeeper- batsman.

Engineer was not simply a keeper who was handy with the bat; he was a key batsman for his team. At the end of his Test career, his aggregate of 2611 Test runs placed him well ahead of contemporaries who were selected as specialist batsmen, such as Wadekar and Sardesai.

Engineer’s reputation as a world-class wicketkeeper-batsman was confirmed when he was picked ahead of Alan Knott to represent a World XI in 1971-72. An international team led by the legendary Sir Garfield Sobers toured Australia to make up for the cancellation of South Africa’s tour of Australia, as the revulsion felt internationally for South Africa’s Apartheid regime finally forced the none-too-progressive Australian cricket authorities to pull the plug on the Springboks’ visit.

But the cancellation of the South African tour did not mean that Australian cricket fans were denied top-class cricket that season. Far from it, they were treated to a moving feast of cricket, with the world’s best playing under the captaincy of one of the greatest all-round cricketers of all time, Sir Garfield Sobers of the West Indies — a black cricketer whose world team included several individual South African players.

The international stars playing under Sobers included India’s new batting sensation Sunil Gavaskar and mesmerizing spinner Bishan Singh Bedi, Pakistanis Zaheer Abbas and Intikhab Alam, fellow West Indian Rohan Kanhai, Englishman Tony Greig, Kiwi Bob Cunis, and South Africans Hilton Ackerman and the Pollock brothers Graeme and Peter, among others.

Engineer so impressed Sir Donald Bradman, who was instrumental in arranging these matches, that the Don lauded him as “one of the of the world’s great wicketkeeper-batsmen.”

A more detailed description of Farokh’s qualities can be found in a piece on Engineer penned by Rusi Modi, who watched Engineer at close quarters. Modi, like Engineer, was a Bombayite and a fellow Parsi. According to Modi, a good wicketkeeper needed courage, physical fitness and concentration. Timing and footwork were also key, and he felt Engineer fulfilled all these essentials admirably.

Modi wrote that Engineer, however, was more than merely a good wicketkeeper, and captured Engineer’s boundless enthusiasm when he described Farokh as “?a dynamo of energy.” Modi continued, “while most of his kind find the job at hand sufficiently absorbing, Engineer is just not content with it. He is on the move all the time, interested in everything that goes on, at times even going beyond the realms of his own jurisdiction, performing acrobatic feats, and attempting catches which are the concern of first slip.”

Sunil Gavaskar in his autobiography revealed a different facet of Engineer’s personality which made him such a vital part of the fielding unit. Gavaskar recalled that Engineer kept the close-in fielders on their toes with his incessant and often nonsensical chatter. This verbal banter not only entertained all and sundry, but also kept up their concentration level. Examples cited by Gavaskar included queries like “Why don’t you talk?” “After reading Playboy last night, you aren’t talking much!”

With his penchant for speaking to his Indian team mates in Gujarati with a typical Parsi accent, he earned the nick name “Dikra Farokh” from team mate Eknath Solkar. When he went overseas to England to play county cricket, he earned other nicknames. Some called him the “Persian Pirate”, others “Rooky”, yet others “Engine”. Whatever the nickname, it reflected in some way his good humor, spirit and zest for life.

Sir Colin Cowdrey, the great English batsman, summed it up best. He said of Engineer: “In all my cricket years, and I mean this most sincerely, I have not known anyone who has embodied the true spirit of cricket more completely than Farokh Engineer.”

Engineer eventually settled in Lancashire, the English county which he represented with distinction for many years. His record in English county cricket keeping to fast bowlers indicates that he was a complete keeper: not only to India’s Masters of spin, but to all types of bowlers.

With his flamboyant style of batting, Engineer would have been a natural in the modern era, especially in the Limited Overs and even Twenty20 version of the game. It is indeed unfortunate that Farokh Engineer could only play a few ODIs for India. But his legacy is being carried forward to new generations by a new “Rookie” from the State of Jharkhand.

Original article here