Farokh Maneksha Engineer is a funny guy. ‘Rooky’, as he is popularly known in cricketing circles, is no rookie in actuality. He has played 46 Tests and five one-day internationals for India, 335 first-class matches for Bombay (now Mumbai) and Lancashire, besides 160 List A games, between 1959 and 1976. Someone who has seen 81 summers, the flamboyant former ‘keeper-batsman loves embellishing his fun stories with anecdotes that may not always be factually accurate, but liar, he is certainly not.
At the recent Dilip Sardesai Memorial Lecture at the Cricket Club of India (CCI), Engineer, who was the guest speaker, had the audience in splits with his yarns. Everyone present at the CK Nayudu Hall that evening knew that his anecdotes were tempered with some ‘Parsi masala’. However, that wasn’t an issue for most as long there was amusement and jollity in the air. Making people laugh is an art, and Engineer is a master at it.
A section of the media and some cricket aficionados, of late, have been calling Engineer a liar, especially after the Anushka-Kohli episode. Though he had no business taking the name of the India skipper’s wife to prove his point, which he regretted later, he was not wrong in pointing out the fact that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) should be looking for more experienced cricketers as national selectors.
At the end of the event at CCI, one cricket fan, who had travelled all the way from Chennai, tried to corner the former ‘keeper-batsman on his famous 94 before lunch in the 1967 Test match against the West Indies in Madras (now Chennai). That ‘moment of truth’ conversation went thus:
“With two overs to go before lunch, why didn’t you go for a hundred? Why did you chicken out?”
“Chicken out?” asked Engineer, smirking. It was preposterous to say that he had chickened out after he had toyed with the likes of Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Gary Sobers and Lance Gibbs for two hours on a lively track. “I played a pull-shot in the penultimate over before lunch, which was fielded brilliantly by Rohan Kanhai. I got one run. In the final over, I played a cover drive which was stopped by Clive Lloyd. So I missed out on a hundred before lunch. It was as simple as that.”
“Lloyd didn’t play in 1967,” said the man from Chennai rather confidently. (Fact: Lloyd had made his debut against India earlier in that series and had played at Chennai).
“Somebody stopped it,” Engineer said. “But are you sure you watched that match? The stadium had a capacity of 20,000 but around two million people have told me that they watched that innings. Just check if you were there!” The knowing audience couldn’t help but laugh and applaud.
Just 12 when Engineer played that swashbuckling knock at Madras, I remember being stuck to the Bush Radio we had at home as the iconic innings unfolded. It was a proud moment for me when he completed his hundred after lunch, for I had been an Engineer fan ever since I had seen a coloured picture of the handsome cricketer in a 1963 souvenir brought out by Burmah-Shell. In the 70s, I had one of his Brylcreem POP cutouts in my scrapbook and of course, I was highly impressed by his swag on the ground when Test matches were shown on television in India.
“My father was a medical doctor,” Engineer revealed at the Sardesai lecture, “He was therefore known as Dr Engineer,” he said, amid laughter. “We Parsis are a fun-loving community with not a wicked bone in our systems.” He grew up in Dadar Parsi Colony, a colonial-styled settlement, and received his education from Don Bosco’s and Podar College, each barely a kilometre away from his home. His classmate from kindergarten to Class Ten at Don Bosco’s was the legendary actor and filmmaker, Shashi Kapoor. (A fact that needs to be checked by his detractors.)
Speaking of his schooldays, he said that one of his teachers had the habit of throwing dusters at students who weren’t attentive. Once, he saw the duster flying towards his friend Shashi and caught it a few inches away from his head. That reflex-action catch perhaps made him take up wicket-keeping more seriously.
Prof MV Chandgadkar, former secretary of the BCCI, is said to have lured him into joining Podar College, promising him ‘free-ship’ and the facility to get through his year-end examinations without much effort. “Prof Chandgadkar was very helpful. He once sent me to another professor – with a crooked jaw – for tips to pass in a difficult paper. That professor marked out a few chapters for me to study but when I saw the question paper, on the day of the examination, I was horrified to see that there were no questions from the chapters he had marked,” said Engineer, laughing.
He was one of the several pranksters in the Indian teams of the 60s and 70s. Once on the Caribbean tour of 1961-62, fellow mischief makers Tiger Pataudi, Sardesai and he had left a message in each of the hotel rooms occupied by Indian players that there was a hurricane looming and that they had to report to the reception immediately. Only when all the players, worried – some in their underpants – came out and everybody had had a good laugh was it revealed that they had been fooled.
In 1972, India played the Tony Lewis-led England team in a Test match at Delhi’s Kotla. In the first innings, after Mike Denness was given out to a dubious caught-behind decision, Engineer is said to have apologised to Denness and assured him that he had not appealed for the catch. In his book Denness reveals that the next morning, he saw a newspaper photograph with the caption: ‘Denness c. Engineer b. Bedi 16’. The photograph showed Engineer two feet in the air, throwing the ball up in triumph. The showy ‘keeper may have thrown the ball in the air but did he appeal for the catch? That’s the moot point.
Speaking at CCI, Engineer also spoke of how he was denied the Indian captaincy on two occasions. In 1971, after being called all the way from England for a discussion, the then chief of selectors Vijay Merchant is said to have told him that he wasn’t even eligible to play for India. He was thus dropped for that historic tour of the West Indies. On the second occasion, after Tiger Pataudi and stand-in skipper Sunil Gavaskar were both injured, he was tipped to lead in the second Test against the West Indies, at the Kotla in 1974. “Clive Lloyd came to our dressing room to call me for the toss,” he says, “I was stumped when I was told that S Venkataraghavan, out of the blue, would be doing the honours.”
Engineer revels in self-deprecating humour, as all Parsis do. He says that the 6’4” Lloyd and he were roomies for nearly ten years when they played for Lancashire in the English County League. He evoked sniggers and muted applause when he said, “Clive and I were very good friends except for the fact that every morning, when he came out of the showers, he made me feel inadequate.”
“What does it matter that imagination has embroidered the tale?” asks Christopher Martin-Jenkins, the great cricket writer. He says that Neville Cardus put words into the mouths of cricketing giants of his day, but never maliciously so. Engineer, as long as they aren’t malicious, too should be allowed his embroidered tales. Don’t crucify him for his odd statistical gaffes as long as they make the game more colourful.
The author is a sportswriter and former fast bowler. He is also a caricaturist of renown. He doesn’t however believe in calling a spade a shovel.
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