Sitting on a comfortable chair in his office, Rajesh Patel, 74, makes an authoritative assessment of Steve Smith’s Australian team. “If my father was around and bowling to them, the Aussies wouldn’t have scored these many runs,” he says. If you are Jasu Patel’s son, you have the right to ridicule the visiting Aussie batsmen.
It’s been more than six decades since he played the last of his 7 Tests but Jasu Patel remains a storied name in Indian cricket. The 1958-59 series against Australia where he got 14 wickets in a Test — 9 of them in an inning — to pull off Indian cricket’s most-intriguing heist proved to be his last. He was no mystery spinner, he was a conventional off-spinner but he had an air of enigma around him.
For cricket fans of a certain vintage, that includes Rajesh, the memories of the ‘Miracle at Kanpur’, where Richie Benaud’s mighty Aussies fell to the guiles of a 36-year-old on a comeback, was about the radio commentator mouthing the golden words ‘.. and Jasu Patel has taken another wicket’ on loop.
The surprise recall of semi-retired Jasu for the series against the team that history would remember as ‘The Invincibles’ is credited to the wily Lala Amarnath, the then-national selector. Chroniclers of cricket say that it was Lala who had told the then captain GS Ramchand that the seasoned Gujarat off-spinner with a whippy action and the rare talent of accuracy would be priceless on Green Park’s newly-laid turf wicket.
It would prove to be Indian cricket’s most-inspired selection. Jasu’s effort would prove to be epochal, he would set the trend of India’s domination against Australia at home. Jasu was to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of Aussie batsmen, and that trauma while facing off-spin continues till date.
At the turn of the century, a 21-year-old Sikh boy from Jalandhar, another off-spinner, would take 32 wickets in 3 Tests. He would keep Australia’s spin-wound festering. As the Narendra Modi Stadium celebrates 75 years of India-Australia cricket rivalry, with the PMs of the two nations attending Day 1 of the Test, the expected tormentors of the visitors are an off-spinner and his spin partner. Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are the latest flag-bearers of India’s proud legacy that was started by Jasu.
So how good was Jasu? Can his class be judged from the 27 wickets he got in his short career of 7 Tests? Like all folktales from the black and white era, this one too has a shade of grey. Youtube has a small clip where Benaud says that “Jasu wasn’t the best off-spinner in the world but he was too good for us on that pitch”. The archival video throws up the suggestion that the Gujarat offie’s elbow, not wrist, played a big part in his bowling. Benaud, the master of subtlety, talking about his action said – “it wasn’t perfect”.
His son, years later, rubbishes those assessments. Rajesh talks about his father’s fall from a tree as a child and the injury to his wrist. A major surgery would see his bowling arm getting shortened in length but his wrist would get extra flexibility that would help him to break the ball “big”. To scale, spreading his hands roughly two feet apart. “It was all wrist, there was no elbow. I met so many of his old mates who had played against him and they said ‘it was tough to play your father, he had a big turn that my father used to get,” he said.
Rajesh, the one-time Gujarat Cricket Association secretary and a university-level cricketer, gives his version of events from the Kanpur Test and beyond. “My father was bowling before lunch but was not that successful so he told the captain that he wanted to change ends. Ramchand refused, so at lunch, he approached Lalaji and told him that if his end is changed he can take advantage of the footmarks of the Aussie fast bowlers. Lala put in a word and Ramchand agreed,” Rajesh recalls. It would prove to be the most-fruitful end-change in the history of the game. Rajesh, just 9 years old then, remembers sitting with his two elder sisters. The siblings would beam at each other as their “Papa” would keep getting wickets and the commentator would utter “… and Jasu Patel has taken another wicket”. Not with a hint of regret but with the intention to share a Kanpur Test trivia, the proud son says that had Bapu Nadkarni held a catch, his father would have taken all 10 wickets in the Test. After the series-levelling effort, a grand reception awaited Jasu in Ahmedabad, “We lived about two kilometres from the old Sardar Patel Stadium in Navrangpura. That entire stretch was decorated and there was a teeming mass on the road to receive papa who was in a car.”
Back then, for a young cricketing nation India, this was a rare success. In the days to come, Jasu would be conferred Padma Shri, the first cricketer to get that national honour. Rajesh says that some years back, he was told by one of his nephews that the postal department had come up with a first-day cover and postage stamp of his father. “Those are my prized possessions. The Padma medal and the stamp I have with me at home,” he says. Rajesh once visited the cricket museum at Lord’s. He got talking to the curator, who took a book from the shelf and read him a chapter about “the great Jasu Patel”.
Not a raconteur or someone who would bore others with stories of his past achievements, Rajesh says that his father was a man of few words and strong principles. “He was the Gujarat selector when I was playing but he never considered me. He would say there were better off-spinners than me. I played serious cricket for a few years but then gave up. He was even offered a ticket for elections but he was never keen on a political career or the role of administration,” he says.
For cricket, Jasu would travel miles. He would get invites from the princely states of that period to play for them. “I remember him returning from those trips with gifts. I remember a tin cigarette box of 555,” he said. Rajesh reaches for his black leather office bag to fish out a picture of his father. He keeps fidgeting with the bag. “I don’t have any pictures of my father from his playing days nor any memento from that Kanpur Test. There was that stamp too in this bag but I can’t find it now,” he says.
Rajesh shouldn’t worry, Jasu Patel lives in the memories of the Indian fans and the minds of Australian batsmen.