It was in 1961, that as a boy, this writer saw a leg-spin bowler from Madras (it wasn’t Tamil Nadu then) bowl in the 5th Test Match against Pakistan at Firoze Shah Kotla, Delhi. VV Kumar made a vivid impression on the Class 5 student. The image of Kumar bending spontaneously to catch the hard-hitting Javed Burki off his own bowling in the second innings has stayed with him all these years. It was in the second innings, he had taken 2/68; in the first he took 5/64. His match analysis of 7/132 was indeed creditable against a batting opposition consisting of stalwarts like Hanif Mohammad, Imtiaz Ahmed, Saeed Ahmed, Javed Burki, Wallis Mathias, and a seventeen year-old Mushtaq Mohhamad who struck his maiden century in the first innings. All of them were top class players of spin. Kumar had bowled Imtiaz Ahmed, in the first innings with his first ball in Test Cricket – a beguiling googly.
He had been selected to represent India because of his consistency in Ranji Trophy (First Class cricket) and a dream performance in 1957-58 in the Gopalan Trophy versus Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Kumar took 12 wickets, conceding a 108 runs - 4/48 and 8/60 against a strong batting side. The Indian Test selectors were impressed enough to pick him for the Board President’s Eleven, playing Pakistan in a First Class match. His bowling was good enough to warrant selection for the concluding Test of the series.
He was picked again for the first Test versus England in the 1962 five-match home series. On a dead wicket, England with master batsmen like Ted Dexter, the captain of the side, and Ken Barrington in its ranks, scored 500 runs. Kumar went for 70 off 27 overs without taking a wicket. In a tame draw, England scored 180 for 5 in the second innings. Kumar, surprisingly, was not asked to bowl at all! The Indian captain, Nari Contractor, is believed to have said that he was preserving Kumar’s guile for the next Test at Kanpur. Surprisingly, the Madras Leggie was not selected for the match, nor ever again for a Test.
Kumar remembered years later, at having gone into the Test match at Brabourne Stadium when only 80 per cent fit. Surely a bowler of his quality should have been played again later in the series. The selectors were having trouble with the rebellious genius of a leg-spinner Subhash Gupte, who refused to be dictated to by the officials of Indian cricket. Perhaps as a reaction to Gupte, they had become wary off picking another leggie, no matter how talented. But this is mere conjecture. Cricket in India was then run by the Bombay lobby and most players came from western India.
When asked what might have kept him out of the Indian team, he felt it was captain MAK Pataudi’s reliance on the freak leggie Bhagwat Chandrasekhar that sealed his fate. Chandra could be hammered all over the place one moment, and then produce a sequence of wicket-taking balls and win the match
The popular perception for a long time was that a bowler of VV Kumar’s caliber was ignored simply because he was a “Madrassi”! There must be some truth in this observation. How else can one explain his being ignored for the 1962 tour of the West Indies, which India lost 5-0. The Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) was bent on punishing Subhash Gupte, who, on an earlier tour of the West Indies in 1953, had taken 27 wickets in five Tests, but, in their short-sightedness, forgot that a quality leg-spinner could be most effective on the hard wickets there. On the 1962 tour, Salim Durani, a fine stroke-player and a penetrative left-arm spinner, often bowled tiring, long spells without support, reducing thus his effectiveness by half. Surely, a bowler of VV Kumar’s quality at the other end would have made a noticeable difference.
He continued to play First-Class cricket for Madras and South Zone till the early 1970s. He bowled with the same enthusiasm that he did at the beginning of his career, retaining quite a bit of his old skills. He became seriously involved with the Madras Cricket Academy and worked with dedication and energy into his late seventies. When asked what might have kept him out of the Indian team, he felt it was captain MAK Pataudi’s reliance on the freak leggie Bhagwat Chandrasekhar that sealed his fate. Chandra could be hammered all over the place one moment, and then produce a sequence of wicket-taking balls and win the match. Pataudi had faith in Chandra’s erratic brilliance, more so when it was supported by the abiding qualities of EAS Prasanna’s off-spin and Bishan Singh Bedi’s orthodox left-arm spin. Pataudi’s years of captaincy (1964-69) were also the best years of Kumar’s life as a bowler. A great pity that!
Some years ago, this writer called him from Delhi to check some facts on the unfortunate AG Kripal Singh, a centurion on Test debut and an old Ranji Trophy team-mate of his. Unfailingly polite, Kumar said: ‘’We played together for Madras in 40 matches. He was a compact batsman and a shrewd off-spinner. He did not spin the ball much, but he could out think the batsman. I would call him an adept partnership breaker. He was also a very sociable man.’’
At 82, Kumar is still as enthusiastic about the game as he was in his prime. He is very well up on the latest developments in cricket, is a sharp analyst of its nuances and is aware of the talents of various young leg-spinners playing today. He is a rare man.