Krishnan Bhaskar Pillai – The committed soldier of Indian cricket who missed the battle of Waterloo
Born in the beautiful Trivandrum down South, played his heart and soul out for the Northern state of Delhi, his perennial favourite venue remained the historic Eden Gardens in the East and he once coached Rajasthan, which protects the Western border of the country. The life of Krishnan Bhaskar Pillai, on and off the cricket field, signifies India’s vast cultural and ethnic diversity. He is widely acknowledged as one of the finest and most prolific batsmen of his era. Just like his life, his cricketing repertoire covered the whole spectrum of shots. His range as a batsman was phenomenal. There was hardly any shot which he couldn’t execute with flourish. He was equally adept against the fast bowlers and spinners.
It’s a misfortune of Indian cricket that he had to wear the dual hats through-out his career; one that of a prodigiously talented batsman on the domestic circuit and the dubious distinction of being an unfortunate cricketer. His story is redolent of one of your class-mates in school, who strives diligently and earnestly, and is admired, acknowledged and praised by one and all for his talent and conduct; but somehow, quite inexplicably, never makes it to the top in the final examination.
Plethora of factors combined in luring Pillai to warm up to sports and cricket, in particular. He says, “Most of my mama’s and chacha’s (maternal and paternal uncles) were state hockey players, and so were many of my cousins. So sport was an easy attraction at home. But the culture at Rajninder Nagar in Delhi played a pivotal role in developing my love for the game. Gully cricket was a daily affair, playing the game with the intensity of a pro notwithstanding the small issue of the wickets being made of broken chairs. The interest only got compounded with Ranji players like Vinal Lamba and Suresh Luthra staying in the same colony and we could always look up to them. I used to play at Salwan club every day and ‘Salwan’ tournament, a popular tournament in Delhi, held regularly really had me hooked and I used to bunk classes and go there and watch matches.”
It’s no secret that Bhaskar Pillai was known to have modeled his batting technique and style on the lines of two great Indian batsmen, Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Vishwanath. In fact, people vouch for the fact that his technique was reminiscent of Gavaskar while his stroke-play had the sublimity of Vishwanath. “I was really inspired by Gundappa Vishwanath and Sunny bhai. Watching them on TV and wanting to be like them was every budding player’s dream. I vividly remember watching my first international game ever. We had beaten the Keith Stackpole led Australia in a Test match and that was the moment when I really wanted to play the game at the top level,” he fondly tells.
As a modest man he hesitates in confessing that he was seen as a prodigious talent in his formative years; a point which can be easily gauged by the fact that he almost made it to the Rest of the India team at an age of 14 but for a communication glitch. He says, “I guess not many people are aware of the fact that I was selected for the Rest of the India team at the age of 14. In those days when you finished a match in any other city you would first come back home before departing for the next location. But in one of the cases it so happened that we finished a match in Bombay and were asked to report to Chennai, the venue of the next match straightaway. In the meanwhile, what happened was I got a letter from the DDCA, which was received by my dad, saying that I was picked for the ROI side thinking that I had returned to Delhi but….”
The actual belief that he could go on and represent his country at the highest level came much later when he was selected for India U-19’s. “Cricket came as a stroke of luck. When I used to play school cricket for Delhi I wasn’t all that serious. I would just go out there impress everyone with my fielding and technique. And then I got into the zonal’s where I scored a century in the very first match and then straightaway I was drafted in the U-19 team to play for India. That was a huge leap and that was an instance where I could really see an opportunity for bigger things in life and seeing cricket as a career,” he recalls his early days.
Bhaskar’s admission into a formidable Delhi Ranji side was at an early age of 19 but he believes that he could have made it even earlier but for other reasons. “Ideally I should have debuted for Delhi at-least a couple of years earlier than I actually did. But I guess the selectors were caught up in a wrestling match as regards to my stay in Delhi. I was a South Indian playing for Delhi so they might have thought that I would go back after a couple of seasons’. That kind of took away a couple of years’ where I could have settled,” he comes clean.
He made his debut in the season 1982-83 but warmed the benches for the better part of the competition getting only two matches to play where he didn’t make much of an impression scoring all of 23 runs. He got a fair run in the next season where he had a subdued tournament scoring 241 runs at an average of 30.12 with a couple of fifties. But by then he had left glimpse of the force he would become soon. He realized his full potential in the upcoming year where he amassed 576 runs at a staggering average of 64.00 that included two centuries and equal number of fifties.
Since that year there was no looking back. Proving that his outing in that season was no flash in the pan, he came up with another stellar performance the following year; chalking up 544 runs in nine matches at 68.00 with 3 hundreds. Riding on his resplendent batting tour de force, Delhi romped home that season and won the Ranji championship. In 86-87, he had a Bradmanesque like year reeling off 855 runs in 11 matches with a career best of 222* which came against Karnataka in the semi-final at the Feroz Shah Kotla. In a glittering career that spanned over a decade he chiselled 5443 runs in 95 first-class matches at a robust average of 52.84.
Bhaskar Pillai, by then, was touted as the next big thing of Indian cricket by the media experts and former & current cricketers. But as fate would have it, instead of the India cap all he got was the tag of an “unfortunate cricketer”.
The series of unfortunate incidents started with 1985 Irani Trophy. He was picked to play for Rest of India against Bombay. Bhaskar was out for a duck in the first innings but scored unbeaten 103 runs in the second innings. But, as fate would have it, the team to Australia was announced during the match and Bhaskar’s unbeaten century came a day too late.
“I remember I came to bat in the first innings when team for 23-2, I go out for a duck. The team for Australian tour was declared the next day and my I wasn’t picked. That was a crucial innings and a good performance there would have surely augmented my chances. I scored the century in the second innings but missed the bus to Australian tour by a day. From there on I either remained on the fringes of selection in the national team or used as a stand-by on many tours. ” he reminisces.
In an hour of crisis, Bhaskar Pillai was always the man Delhi would look upto and more often than not, he came good. But a popular sentiment was developed after Irani Trophy match that he would always score runs when Delhi needed it and fail when he needed to score for himself in pursuit of the elusive India cap.
“Yeah, it kind of stuck with me. Whenever there was a match of consequence coming up which would have a bearing on the selections’ for India, I somehow couldn’t put up my finest performance. But again turning up for Delhi in similar situations, I would really do the job. It was bizarre but that’s the way it was,” he admits candidly.
To add to his miseries, a couple of times when he was selected to represent India in the international matches, they were cancelled or called off for gamut of reasons. He was selected to play the final ODI against New Zealand in 1988-89 series at Jammu but the torrential downpour not only ravaged India’s chances of clean-sweep in the series but also washed away Pillai’s hopes of making an international debut for his country. “I remember watching on TV from the hotel room, the umpires walking out on to the pitch and the game was called off without a single ball being bowled,” Pillai says with an air of wistful nostalgia.
In the 1988-89 Ranji Trophy final against Bengal, Pillai played a sublime knock of 199, paving the way for Delhi to clinch the coveted trophy. Coming in at number five with Delhi in a spot of bother, 78/3, Pillai exhibited his wares and unleashed a flurry of strokes to take Delhi to a commanding position. Along with Bantoo Singh they put on a mammoth partnership of 328, and batted Bengal out of the game. Delhi won the match by an inning and 210 runs and clinched the trophy. Pillai was awarded the Man of the Match award for his masterful innings.
Pillai was in contention for the Pakistan tour of 1989-90, and he was competing with Sachin Tendulkar for a place in the Indian squad. Tendulkar was selected, and never looked back. “I am extremely glad that he was selected ahead of me. Even at the age of 15, he was a batting genius. I remember, he scored 78 runs against us in the Ranji Trophy semi-final on a rank turner against Maninder Singh, who was in his pomp. He was playing against the turn and smashing Maninder to mid-on and mid-wicket boundaries. It was a brilliant innings,” he narrates with warmth.
Between, 1984-1991, Pillai was, without a shred of doubt, was the most prolific batsman in Indian domestic circuit. He racked up 17 first-class centuries during that period and his batting average was astonishingly above 70. One of his finest innings came against the mighty Bombay team in the semi-finals of the Ranji Trophy in the season 1991-92. In those times Bombay used to be more than a formidable outfit and even more on their home turf. Walking in to bat at his favourite number five with Delhi tottering at 44/3, Pillai combined grit with gumption, technique with flamboyance to rattle up breathtaking 221 and was instrumental in Delhi posting a daunting total of 516 in their first essay. Delhi qualified for the finals by virtue of first inning lead and subsequently also won the trophy beating Tamil Nadu in the finals, again by the same method.
Despite his persistent stellar performances, his destiny continued to play truant. “We went to Bangladesh in 1992-93 as an India ‘A’ side, which was essentially the India main team, and I was padded up to go in next when news trickled in that demolition of Babri Mosque had taken place. Subsequently that entire match and entire tour was called off. It was utterly heartbreaking,” he says with the lump in the throat.
A memory that is a perennial favourite for Pillai in his long cricketing life is when he scored a century for North Zone, and as he was walking back to the dressing room he saw a standing Sunil Gavaskar in the stands giving him an ovation. “You live for those moments,” he says with pride.
In fact, Gavaskar was an ardent advocate of Pillai’s inclusion in the Indian squad right from the mid-eighties. Gavaskar wrote a couple of columns in India’s popular news daily, Times of India, saying that what more does Bhaskar needs to do to get into the Indian squad. Sadly, his suggestions fell on deaf ears.
Shashi Tharoor, one of the finest cricket writers and a renowned politician, says, “Bhaskar Pillai is, unarguably, the best Indian batsman who didn’t play Test cricket for India.”
Besides being a superb technician with the bat, Pillai was an outstanding fielder who scalped more than 100 catches in First Class and List-A matches put together. He was renowned for his abundant audacity in the field, standing close-in to spinners like Maninder Singh in an era of no helmets and latching onto blinders. Fielding was something he thrived on and saw it as important ammunition in his cricketing treasure trove.
Despite a marvellous first-class career; a career which he can look up with a great sense of satisfaction, there is an inevitable sense of regret on missing out on Indian cap that he had craved for all his life. A regret of a man who had unleashed thousand strokes just to see clay turn into grass but alas…
“My only regret is not getting to showcase my talent at the highest level. That elusive cap to see whether was I good enough? That is the only thing that hurts. Why me?” he says with faded melancholy.
When he failed to break into the Indian team despite consistently putting up scintillating performances, he retired from the first-class cricket at a relatively early age of 31. His childhood dream was seeing himself representing India, and when the dream seemed far-fetched, he decided to call it quits, though he was a force to reckon with in domestic cricket. He was driven by passion to play for India, and not by gratuitous longing to beef up his career statistics.
Did the selectors ever tell him the reason for ignoring his name and what else he needed to do? ”Well it was quite funny actually. There was this selector from North who before every selection meeting in the capital would tell me to write down my performances on a piece of paper. And I used to that with a lot of excitement, hope and belief but to no avail. I don’t know whether he ever took out that paper from his pocket,” he chuckles.
The humility and the unswerving buoyant attitude of this former Delhi captain come to the fore when he says that he feels fortunate enough to have played cricket in almost three eras with players who have left an indelible impression on the game globally.
“The fact that I played with and against the likes of Sunny bhai, Kapil paaji (Dev), Jimmy Amarnath and later on with the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble, I feel truly blessed and fortunate. I learnt so much from each one of them and it helped me grow immensely as a person and as a sportsman,” he explains.
After playing the game for so long the man of his principle had to give back something to the game. In October 2007 he was appointed the coach of the Rajasthan team and served it for a year before he was removed following differences with the administration in the way he wanted to take the team forward.
Bhaskar Pillai is now working with Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL), a company which has employed the hosts of Indian cricketers like Bishan Singh Bedi, Kirti Azad, Rajesh Chauhan, Maninder Singh, Sunil Walson – to name a few. He is also on the panel of coaches appointed by BCCI. He’s coaching for a Special Academy for batsmen in Mumbai, which grooms young batting talent of India, having previously worked closely with NCA. “My passion for cricket is untrammelled. I want to be associated with the game in some way or other. Coaching comes naturally to me. I love to pass on the knowledge, whatever I have gleaned while playing with great cricketers, to the youngsters. Youngsters are the cornerstone of Indian cricket’s future so it gives me gargantuan pleasure that I am making a difference to their life and also doing my bit to ensure that Indian cricket rules the roost in the years to come,” he states.
As the conversation veers towards the end, one is left with mixed emotions. You marvel at the eloquence, candor and warmth, he radiates, while the smidgen of sadness creeps in when you think of how this selfless, talented and committed soldier of Indian cricket missed the battle of Waterloo, for which he toiled assiduously. Had performance been the sole benchmark, Mr. Krishnan Bhaskar Pillai would have been A Knight in Shining Armour of Indian cricket.
–Tags: Anand Sharma . Bhaskar Pillai . Delhi . Irani Trophy . Kapil Dev . ranji trophy . Sachin Tendulkar . Shashi Tharoor . Sourav Ganguly . Sunil Gavaskar
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