There is no cricket tournament named after Garudachar because he did not play the bulk of his cricket for Bombay, where such a culture exists. There is no statue of Garudachar in some unreachable corner of an ill-constructed stadium, where pigeons may pay daily homage, because he did not come from Delhi.
BK Garudachar is not yet lionised, in his home state of Karnataka, not because his contribution is undervalued, but because such monuments and gestures are saved for those who have passed on.
In Karnataka, the cricketing state that was known as Mysore till 1974, Garudachar is celebrated, for he has breathed cricket for the best part of 10 decades.
When you have scored only one century in your first-class career, and life throws up the possibility of notching up yet another, this time in the biggest sense possible, you do not jinx it by talking about it. At 97, Garudachar is going strong, a slightly iffy sense of hearing being the only thing bothering India’s oldest living first-class cricketer. Ask the best statisticians in India about the oldest living first-class cricketer and they will point to Vasant Raiji, but, at 93, Raiji is a mere stripling. “My family talks about the century, but I prefer not to dwell on it,” says Garudachar with a chuckle bordering on a cackle that punctuates our conversation.
It’s not easy to get a sense of Garudachar the player, because most of the usual remedies available are irrelevant in this case. There is no footage of either his right-hand batting that yielded 1126 runs from 27 matches or so much as a photograph of his bowling – a mix of medium pace, off-breaks and leg-breaks – that accounted for an even 100 scalps. Most of Garudachar’s peers, the men he played with or against, are long gone.
From a look at Garudachar’s match-by-match statistics, and the progression of the team he represented, Mysore primarily (he also played for United Provinces and Mumbai), it’s clear that his performance as an all-rounder was the catalyst of Mysore’s ascent to gaining respectability on the Ranji circuit. In the 1941-42 season, he took a then-record 34 wickets in four matches. Mysore beat Hyderabad and Madras (now Tamil Nadu) at the Central College Ground in Bangalore, went past Bengal at the Eden Gardens, and were stopped only by Bombay (now Mumbai) in the Ranji final at the Brabourne Stadium. In defeat, Garudachar had the wickets of Madhav Mantri, Vijay Merchant and Khandu Rangnekar.
In Mysore’s run to the final, Garudachar took 6 for 46 when Hyderabad were bowled out for 69, top-scored with 56 in Mysore’s second innings, and picked up 5 for 78 as Mysore won by 111 runs. Against Madras, he top-scored again, with 57 of Mysore’s first-innings 147, picked up 6 for 56, including the great MJ Gopalan in the first innings, and followed it up with 8 for 99 in the second.
“In those days, you hardly got any chances because it was a knockout system,” Garudachar explains. Karnataka invariably came up against a strong Madras team, were beaten and a cricketer then had to wait a whole year to prove himself. Not that it came at a great personal cost, given a match fee of Rs 10.
To men such as Garudachar, cricket was life, but life was about a lot more than cricket. Born and raised in the coffee country of Chikmagalur, which he would not leave for Bangalore till he was 15, Garudachar was the kind of all-rounder that is unimaginable today. A gifted student, he gravitated to Engineering, spending four years earning a degree at the Benares University. While this led to representing United Provinces, it also allowed him to play tennis, and he was the university champion for his entire tenure.
The touch, clearly, never deserted him. In 1946, when Garudachar was asked to join a Mysore team for one final Ranji match, in a team that was largely made up of university youngsters, he played against the great CK Nayudu’s Holkar team, in a Ranji semifinal, no less. In a strange and one-sided match where Holkar racked up 912 for 8 declared, in Indore, where the outfield was so bereft of grass and certain boundaries so short that you had to “only tap the ball to see it beat the field and race to the boundary”, Garudachar bowled an epic 69 overs in the innings. He fol- lowed that up with 164, in the course of which Nayudu turned his ire on his own team, which included his brother, CS Nayudu, scolding them for allowing “kids” to hammer the bowling. When Nayudu took a moment to congratulate Garudachar, he asked if it was true he played tennis. When Garudachar told him of his Benares champion days, Nayudu reportedly said: “There are a couple of national doubles champions here. If you have the stamina, let’s teach them a lesson.” The match began after the day’s play ended, and Nayudu and Garudachar came back from a set down to level the score before dusk gave way to darkness and the game had to be called off.
Today, Garudachar, who lives in Bangalore, does not come to the cricket much. “I watch only on the TV. I don’t come and sit here because it is very difficult for me physically to come and watch,” says Garudachar. “In fact, I feel watching cricket on TV is far better than watching in the stadium because they show the replays. You can see very clearly exactly what has happened.” He does, however, keep in touch with the game, and repeatedly asks about Gundappa Viswanath, who he says is the finest batsman Karnataka has produced, on par with Rahul Dravid.
Unlike bitter former cricketers, he talks passionately of the advances made in the game by administrators, in terms of giving players the infrastructure to express themselves, and equally importantly the money that has come into the game as a result, allowing men to earn a living from the game.
That’s understandable, as Garudachar lost what might have been his best years to World War II, when his expertise with metals was of more use to the nation than his ability to take wickets or score runs. As an inspector with the office of the Director General of Munitions in Bombay, Garudachar found himself in a critical role. “My job was to inspect the steel produced in India, and also that which was extracted from German ships seized in the high seas as good enough to go to the defence forces’ factories to make arms,” explains Garudachar. No wonder he makes light of losing the best of his cricketing years.
Today, Garudachar thinks little of war, preferring instead to immerse himself in classical music, Carnatic and Hindustani, and spends hours reading the classics. His collection includes the complete works of Kalidasa in Sanskrit, from which he reels off verses unprompted.
As you might expect with someone his age, though, the transition from raag kalyani to the cover drive is seamless, if occasionally disjointed. “That boy Binny, what a fantastic batsman he has developed into. It’s such a pleasure to watch him play,” says Garudachar. Given his age, he could be easily speaking of Roger, who is young enough to be Garudachar’s son. But, no, he is referring to Stuart. Karnataka’s past talking of its future.
There is a continuity here that is heart-warming.
(The piece first appeared in the 2014 edition of the Wisden India Almanack)