The two greatest comebacks in the history of Indian sport were both conducted in the great city of Kolkata. The better-known, since more recent, was the magnificent 281 scored by V. V. S. Laxman in the Eden Gardens in March 2001. After Australia had forced India to follow on, and four early wickets had fallen, Laxman and his South Zone comrade Rahul Dravid batted for more than a day to bring India back into the match. Then the spinners took over, and bowled Australia out on a crumbling last-day wicket.
A sporting comeback as heroic was played out some fifteen years previously, and some five miles south of the Eden Gardens. India were playing Brazil in the knock-out rounds of the Davis Cup; the contest was tied at two matches all, when Ramanathan Krishnan walked on to the court to play the decider against the stylish left-hander Thomas Koch. After three hours of hard-fought tennis the Brazilian led by two sets to one. In the fourth set, Krishnan started indifferently, and was soon down a break. He was down two games to five, and down also 15-30 on his serve, when play was called off for the day, on account of bad light.
The next morning the match resumed at the South Club. The galleries were empty, more-or-less. A few retired men and a few die-hard fans had turned up; the rest stayed away, for it was a weekday and India seemed set to lose anyway. Krishnan started with a service fault. The second serve stayed in, just, otherwise Koch would have had two match points within seconds of the resumption. Slowly, Krishnan began to claw his way back into the match. He held his serve, and broke Koch’s. The sequence was repeated, and Krishnan found himself serving for the set. He held his serve comfortably, and went on to win the next set as well.
The match was not televised, and I don’t know anyone who watched it. We may be certain, however, that it featured, on Krishnan’s side, some exquisite passing shots and some delicate dinky volleys. He was what was known as a ‘touch artist’, a category rendered redundant by the graphite rackets of the present time, which privilege force above all else. In the days of the wooden rackets, too, force meant much; those who served fast or hit hard from the baseline usually dominated the game. But there was still space for a man like Krishnan, a man who was short, squat, flatfooted, and had a soft and slow serve. These deficiencies were made up by a superb touch, a marvellous feel for the angles of the court, and an unerring ability to hit the lines. On his day, Krishnan could beat anyone in the world.
At the time of that match I was all of eight years old. I was just cultivating an interest in sport, an interest quickened and deepened by a subscription to that much lamented weekly journal from Madras, Sport and Pastime. I read about the Koch-Krishnan encounter in the Sport and Pastime; this was also the place where I read about India’s victory over West Germany in the previous match, which came about when Jaideep Mukherjee upset the highly rated Wilhelm Bungert. With this win over Brazil, India were now in the ‘Challenge Round’, where they would play last year’s champions, Australia. (The Challenge Round has now been abolished; the winners of the Davis Cup queue up like anyone else to play in the early rounds the next year.)
India had never been in the Challenge Round before. The fans were satisfied; for, back in 1966, Australia were as difficult to beat in the game of tennis as they are now in the game of cricket. They were expected to win against India by five matches to nil, for they had the two best singles players in the world, Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle, as well as arguably the greatest doubles pairing in the history of the game, John Newcombe and Tony Roche.
The match was televised in Australia, but no satellites existed then to carry it over the oceans to India. Nor was there any radio commentary. I lived in a town one hundred and fifty miles north of Delhi; the papers came late, so it was mid morning on Saturday when I read that Emerson and Stolle had, as expected, won their matches comfortably. The Sunday papers arrived even later, at lunch-time; after my father had gone through them they came to me. So it was at about 2 pm on a Sunday afternoon in December 1966 that I read about a epochal event that had taken place the previous day the other side of the world. In the doubles tie of the Challenge Round, the scratch pairing of Ramanathan Krishnan and Jaideep Mukherjee had defeated the reigning Wimbledon champions John Newcombe and Tony Roche.
It was, I suppose, my first ‘Chak de India’ moment. The famous cricket victories in West Indies and England lay five years in the future; the World Cup win a further decade on; Vishy Anand’s world chess championships in the next century altogether. This was the first time this particular Indian came to see that sometimes, in some places, and in certain conditions, some of his countrymen could take on the best in the world. The cynic would lay stress on the caveats; in fact, it was precisely because these victories happened so rarely that they were (and are) cherished so much and by so many. India generally get walloped by Australia in Test and one-day matches alike; but they did beat them in the Twenty-Twenty World Cup—and we went nuts about it. Likewise, when no one expected the Indians to get so much as a set off the Australians in the Challenge Round of 1966, that Krish and Jaideep actually won a whole match made them one little boy’s first sporting heroes.
Sometime in the mid 1980s, I was having dinner in a Kolkata restaurant with friends from the city, when one of them pointed to a man sitting in the far corner and said: ‘There’s Jaideep—I wonder how Prem’s doing nowadays’. It came as a bit of a shock; for he was plump, and middle-aged, not at all like the man I imagined him to me, not the lissome young fellow depicted in Sport and Pastime reaching to his right for a forehand volley. I went up to Jaideep, and told him about how I had read about that Kooyong victory as a little boy growing up in north India. He accepted my compliments gracefully¬—this he would have done anyway, for like his teammates Krishnan and Premjit Lall he was one of nature’s gentlemen. But I think he was more pleased than usual, for this was twenty years after the event, and he was sitting with an attractive lady to boot. I could tell that her opinion of her dining companion went up several notches as a result.
I am ecumenical as regards my sporting heroes—I can worship foreigners as much as Indians, and footballers as much as cricketers. But I guess Krish and Jaideep will always occupy a special place, because they were the first. The choice was thrust upon by me by the accident of my birth. Had I been born two years earlier, it might have been the hockey players who won back the Olympic Gold Medal in Tokyo in 1964. Had I been born five years later, it would have been the cricketers who won in West Indies and England in 1971. I am happy enough with my choice, and the accident that made it happen. Whatever else, I could not have chosen two more decent men.