One day at work I received a handwritten letter from a dashing Test cricketer. I cannot be sure now of the spill or strictness of its hand, whether rendered in ink or ball-point and in what colour, nor the sound of its words or the choice of its phrases. I cannot be sure because like a fool I lost the letter. I remember only that Budhi Kunderan had written to say he would be coming to Bombay and be happy to meet, and that was enough for me.
This was nine years ago. We met at his friend’s home in Versova on Mumbai’s north coast, not far from the office of the magazine I worked at, Wisden Asia Cricket. Budhi Kunderan wore jeans with a full-sleeve shirt, tucked in, sleeves rolled up. He wasn’t ill or weak. He was slim and strong and good-looking, hair white, skin rich brown, eyes soaked in reflection. He was 64. Over half of his years he had lived in Scotland, and there he would die in two years. This seemed to be on his mind. The arc of his life. “I get the feeling,” he said, “that this is my last trip to India. I am here to bid farewell to my homeland.”
In the sticky mangrove air Budhi Kunderan told magical tales with distant contemplation. His father was against his playing cricket; when he was selected for his school team, his mother secretly altered her husband’s clothes to make him his first set of whites. Because he hit 219, his “first time on a cricket pitch”, the father saw his photo in the newspaper. The Test selection out of nowhere. Twenty and poor, he didn’t own wicket-keeping gloves, and he went around to Naren Tamhane on match eve to borrow a pair: Tamhane was the man whose place he had taken in the side. And then he found it too noisy to sleep at home. So – I include detail from a conversation with his younger brother, Bharat Kunderan: Bazaar Gate Street in Fort, the thrum of the great city; their father, a clerk in Voltas Airconditioners, a migrant from Mangalore, from the Mogaveera community of fishermen; four sisters and three brothers, Budhi the second, a one-room-kitchen house, shared bathrooms – from there he walked down to the immense triangular maidan where he played for Fort Vijay. If you have played cricket in Azad Maidan, you might know Fort Vijay and the National Health Gym on the eastern side, near Sterling Cinema. There, on a parapet beside the gymnasium, Budhi Kunderan made his bed as he sometimes did. 1959-60, India v Australia at the Brabourne, five nights wicket-keeper Kunderan beneath the stars in Azad Maidan.
I felt such wonder and warmth towards him, his days. Towards the end of our meeting, when I felt confident enough, I asked how he came to write to me. Because he was here to say goodbye, he had contacted two journalists, me and Clayton Murzello of Mid-Day, through Bharat. As for me, he was a reader of our magazine. He thought it was smarter, he chuckled, to write to the assistant editor than the editor, who might have too much on his plate. I found that moving then and I find it more so now.
We ran the interview under the “Gleanings” feature of our magazine, a concept stolen faithfully from Esquire‘s “What I’ve Learnt”, meant to present the distilled wisdom and experience of a life. This is how Budhi Kunderan’s gleanings began:
Cricket’s been my love. It’s been my life. It’s how I met my wife.
My family is my biggest happiness. My wife is my greatest joy.
I met my wife on the England tour of 1967. In those days we’d save our allowance of a pound a day so after two weeks we could afford a new bat.
She was Linda Pullar. He was a cricketer with the Indian team; she was a receptionist at the team hotel in Leeds. When I look at the unedited file of the interview I am appalled to find how I had privileged the life of the cricketer over the life of the person. The price of bats and the pay of cricketers had felt to me the essential thing. I had omitted the most beautiful detail of his recollection. We wrote to each other for 18 months. Our affection grew through our letters.
Hello. Is that Linda Kunderan?
Yes, it is.
I’m calling from India. I am doing a piece of remembrance on Mr Kunderan. Would you mind…
A clear, kind northern voice. It feels like she has family over and afterwards she says she is a grandmother of two. We speak for 15 minutes. The Great Northern, that was the name of the hotel. What were her first impressions? Oh, he was very charming. I took him to a discotheque. I ask about the letters and she frames it exactly as he had. We wrote to each other for 18 months. She had every letter he wrote her. Did he ask you to marry him in a letter? Oh no, he asked me right then. And you said yes right then? Yes, I did.
In February 1969 Linda married Budhi Kunderan in Bombay. They lived in Bandra, in the housing colony of his employer, State Bank of India. But his career was fading. He had a serious falling-out with the captain, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, for reasons that remain rumour. “I thought Pat was out of order and told him off,” he would tell Murzello. “Then I knew I would never play for India again.” He was dropped from the squad to Australia. Linda was not keeping well. And the bank refused him leave to play the leagues in Britain. Budhi Kunderan was, as he put it that afternoon, “disgusted with the cricket politics here, so I quit at 30.” In an angry interview at the time he said, “Players are made to feel they exist at the mercy of the officials. Sirring is a must for players” – words which would be held against him.
The biggest challenge of my life was establishing myself in a strange country. You land up there with nothing in your pocket and you got to start your life again with a wife and a kid.
What does a cricketer think of before he dies? The roar of fans, the thrill of a hook or a break, where do they go? The king of the gully, the hero of the maidan, the toast of the country. The sadness of cricketers, their gloriousness
They spent a winter at Linda’s family’s home in Wetherby, Yorkshire. Budhi Kunderan helped out at the pub they ran, The Angel. From there they moved to Coatbridge in Lanarkshire, Scotland where they remained. Kunderan played in the Scottish League for Drumpellier, and worked for the technical department of British Roadmakers. In 1980, when he wasn’t invited, pettily, to attend the Jubilee Test in Bombay, he felt so “disillusioned and disappointed” not to be able to stand proud with the community of Indian Test players that he wrote the board a letter of apology. At 41 he debuted for the Scotland national team. The Daily Telegraph would note in his obituary: “Kunderan was still turning out for Drumpellier in 1995, at the age of 56, which probably makes him the longest-serving cricket professional in Scottish history.”
In October 2005, 18 months after his final trip to India, Budhi Kunderan was diagnosed with lung cancer. “When he gave up smoking,” Linda tells me on the phone, “he coughed so much he lost his voice. He couldn’t speak.” At the hospital they found a tumour in his chest. It was a germ-cell tumour. They couldn’t treat it surgically. He took chemotherapy and radiation. But the cancer spread to his brain.
In his final months, Nari Contractor, his senior at the Bharda High School, Railways and India, would try and speak to him every few weeks. What were the conversations like? “It was something like what he said about his trip, ‘a last phone conversation kind of thing’.” As the medication grew stronger, he was sometimes confused and could not always recognise people. He found it difficult to speak and impossible to write. Bharat says the brothers used to exchange letters of up to ten or 15 pages, always by hand, and he never forgot a birthday, but now Budhi couldn’t write.
“I think he really did know,” Linda said. “Before he was diagnosed we sold the house and he moved us into a smaller house which I would be able to manage by myself. He worked very hard to make that happen. He was a very thoughtful, very caring man. Yes, I really think he did know.”
Did he miss India in any particular way? “He felt proud to be Indian. He missed his family, the movies, the food. We subscribed to the Indian TV channels. He got Wisden Asia every month. He told me that if I died before him he would probably move back to India.”
Budhi Kunderan was a wicket-keeper who nevertheless once opened the bowling and batting in the same Test match. He played a Test match before he played a Ranji match, and when he played a Ranji match he smacked a double-century. In his second Test he carted 16 runs from the first over. Seventy-one in no time, Davidson and Meckiff and Benaud and Kline taken to the cleaners. In 1964-65 he hit 192 against England in Madras and 525 in the series, a record for a keeper. Between 1959 and 1967 Budhi Kunderan played 18 Tests for India, and then he left. He died on June 23, 2006.
Some careers burst like the glitter of magic tricks, not frequently but unforgettably. Every now and then there is proof. N Manu Chakravarthy in the Hindu:
“The news that Budhisagar Krishnappa Kunderan passed away in a distant land is much more than a piece of information for many of my generation. It is, in fact, a reminder of a great tragedy that struck an exceptional individual nearly four decades ago, and it, also, transports many of us back to the 1960s evoking extraordinarily strong memories of a daring, blazingly brilliant spirit that was a great inspiration to a generation that celebrated virtues of courage, innovation and native talent.
Recently, in the inaugural Wisden India Almanack, Shashi Tharoor describing falling in love with cricket, aged six. Brabourne Stadium, 1964:
I watched enthralled as Budhi Kunderan, India’s opening batsman and wicket-keeper, who looked like a West Indian and played like one, pulled John Price, England’s fastest bowler, for six over square leg, the ball landing practically at my feet. He almost instantly repeated the shot, this time just failing to clear the rope. In less time than the difference between a four and a six could be explained to me, Kunderan was
16; but he tried it too often, sending up a skyer that swirled up in a gigantic loop over mid-on. As the ball spiralled upward, Kunderan began running; when it was caught by a relieved Titmus in the deep, Kunderan continued running, hurled his bat skywards with an exuberant war-whoop, caught it by the handle as it came down and ran on to the pavilion. It was exhilarating stuff, and I was hooked for life.
“Looked like a West Indian and played like one,” wrote Tharoor, and when I read news of the death, I thought back to a West Indian occasion.
Day two, second Test, India versus West Indies at the Queen’s Park Oval, Port of Spain, Trinidad, 2002. We leave the press-box, Ehtesham Hasan of Mid-Day and I, and take a taxi to San Fernando, covering half the length of the island in an hour. We leave because we want to meet Subhash Gupte, a leg-spinner so fine that Garfield Sobers rated him more highly than anyone he had played against or seen, a bowler whose exploits inspired Bishan Singh Bedi to become a spinner.
Subhash Gupte is 72 and on a walker, having fallen and injured his hip while walking his dog years ago. He even looks like a genius: brilliant bright eyes, a big intelligent forehead. His accent is not Trinidadian, but he has adopted Caribbean formulations: “pelt” for chuck or the word “blooming”, as in: “When it used to get dark, the beers and rums used to come out and the Bengalis would do maara-maari [shout and fight] every blooming night.” So many recollections, such superb detail. He remembers the name of the girl Rohan Kanhai, his great friend and nemesis, had fallen for in Bombay (Chhaya, from Khar), observes that unlike Vasant Ranjane, “Vinoo Mankad would have tossed it wide” to allow him all ten against West Indies at Kanpur, notes that he is pulled up for wearing shorts by an official but Pataudi the Nawab gets away with it even at a toss, and casts his doubts on Vijay Manjrekar’s singing skills. He is as happy to turn the joke on himself. When the radio announces that Ajay Ratra is out for duck on debut, he adds, quick as a flash: “Like me. Against Statham in 1951.”
It is a beautiful morning, the warmth of his wife Carol and their daughter Carolyn – Indian name Anita – the peach bungalow in San Fernando, the hiss and shout of the radio. Subhash Gupte’s life and memories and mischief, his double hat-trick in league cricket, the 3pm practice with Madhav Mantri on the Elphinstone pitch in Oval Maidan and the nine o’clock train back to Dadar. What a proud smile when Carol brings out a morphed team photograph of an all-time Indian Test XI put together by a panel of journalists. Gavaskar, Merchant, Hazare, Tendulkar, Nayudu, Mankad, Kapil, Kirmani, Prasanna, Nissar, Gupte. Afterwards I write in the article:
Gupte moved to Trinidad 40 years ago on his wife’s persuasion and because a gentleman named Frank Blackburn who was “mad after cricket” offered him a job with the sugar manufacturer, Caroni. Gupte had met Carol on the 1952-53 tour of the West Indies, a time that he had spun his way to 50 first-class wickets, and according to one fan, “was all the talk in town.” Carol’s father had arranged for a match to be played at San Fernando. Subhash saw Carol at an official function, and was smitten. A long flirtation via post followed. When Subhash proposed in a letter, he was asked to redirect it to Carol’s father. It all worked out.
Love on tour, romance by post, marriage, and the departure too, years before Kunderan. During a rainy Test in Delhi, 1961-62, Kripal Singh, a team-mate, calls the hotel receptionist on the house phone and makes a pass at her. Along with Kripal, Gupte is suspended for the crime of sharing his room. In fact, says Contractor, then captain, “he was playing cards in my room at the time with six or seven others.” Subhash Gupte, the wrist-spinner of impeccable discipline, is “disciplined”. The great bowler emigrates in bitterness. At 32, he has played his last Test match.
Five weeks after we met, Subhash Gupte passed away. The Indians were in Trinidad for the one-dayers, and Carol said to the captain: “Maybe Subhash’s spirit wanted to return to his home country along with the Indian team.”
What does a cricketer think of before he dies? The roar of fans, the thrill of a hook or a break, where do they go? The king of the gully, the hero of the maidan, the toast of the country. The sadness of cricketers, their gloriousness. Missing home. Wife, children, letters and friends. The arced deliveries and drives, the years of mental replay. Did the stars above Azad Maidan blaze bright in Budhi Kunderan’s last dreams?
Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan
This piece was first published in The Nightwatchman, the Wisden Cricket Quarterly. Issue two features Gideon Haigh, Andy Zaltzman, Marcus Berkmann, Lawrence Booth and Jonathan Wilson. Free sampler here
© The Nightwatchman