Polio sufferer and Test cricketer Bhagwath Chandrasekhar had been invited to Australia to be a special guest at the third test match between India & Australia at Perth to mark the completion of one year since last case of polio in India.
He IS 66 now, virtually housebound after being hit by a truck in Bangalore, and confined to short walks aided by crutches lest the leg ulcer that won’t heal opens again. Yet for what he represents, and the milestone he will hail, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar is a force as powerful as any India will send out this summer.
”Chandra” will be a special guest at the third Test in Perth in January, where celebrations will be held to mark the one-year anniversary of the last case of polio reported in India.
Young Australians today enjoy a blissful ignorance of a virus that haunted their ancestors through the middle of the last century; India’s immunisation and eradication path has been painfully longer.
In 1950, a small boy in the southern city of Mysore felt feverish and was taken to hospital, where the nurses smiled and gave him chocolate. When the English doctor did his rounds he would wave hello, until one morning he could no longer lift his arm.
Chandra recalls being in hospital ”quite a long time”, then hours spent sitting in the sun, rubbing his hand with cod liver oil, which he drank morning and night. As he grew he played table tennis and badminton left-handed. His right wrist, shoulder and arm never fully developed, yet through 58 Test matches over 15 years he turned polio’s legacy into one of the most unpredictable and unique weapons the game has seen.
He was as much a part of the 1977-78 Australian summer as the hosts’ reconditioned captain, a 41-year-old Bob Simpson, and the various Tooheys, Ogilvies and Gannons who strove to prove that the loss of Chappell, Lillee, Marsh and friends to World Series Cricket would not ruin the Test team after all.
Bouncing in off his medium-pacer’s run-up, and bowling at similar pace, Chandra took 28 wickets at 25 for the series, highlighted by 6-52 in each innings at the MCG that inspired India’s maiden Test win in Australia. He thinks he bowled better against Simmo first time around (at home in 1964), and in Bombay to take 11 of 14 West Indies wickets from 93 overs.
Profiles of Chandra hail his place among the quartet of Indian masters, alongside Bedi, Prasanna and Venkat, and often claim he had as little idea what the ball would do after it left his hand as the batsman. He laughs at the rubbish talked – that he could turn his wrist beyond 180 degrees, that his hand was devoid of bone.
”The only thing I had was a polio arm, which is weak even now,” Chandra says. ”But I utilised it somehow. People thought I just let the ball [go] from my hand and the ball was doing the rest. That is ridiculous, I knew what I was bowling.”
His opponents often didn’t. It might have been one of his two ”faster ones” delivered with different actions – one straight, the other an off-spinner – or the flipper or googly. It mattered little that his stock ball, the leg-break, hardly turned at all.
Nothing about this amazing man should surprise, but anyone who remembers his blink-and-miss-it batting that summer might struggle with the notion that, as well as having kept wicket and bowled fast as a junior, he was an opening bat.
Chandra still has the bat with the hole in it that Gray-Nicolls gave him to commemorate his four ducks for the series, including a king pair in Melbourne.
He made a first-baller on debut against England in ’64 too, but points out that he and Bapu Nadkarni shared a record 10th-wicket stand of 51 in his next Test.
”Somehow I lost the concentration of batting,” he says, as 23 ducks and just 167 runs to sit alongside his 252 wickets attest.
Memories of him smiling away and enfolding teammates in those thin arms, shirt sleeves buttoned to the wrists, ensure he will be a popular visitor. He knows the significance of a polio-free year in his country of 1.2 billion; at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Poverty Project and sundry aid agencies committed to eradicating this crippling disease, there is optimism that those two precious immunisation drops have had the ultimate victory.
Kerry Packer, the Waugh twins’ grandmother and Don Bradman’s son all suffered polio, but Chandra is cricket’s enduring link. He is indomitable; after playing a club season in Adelaide in 1991, he was set to return for a professional summer in Melbourne when a truck with brake failure ran him down. He didn’t get out of bed for more than three years. Travelling won’t be easy, but life is for living. ”Oh gosh, I must go to Adelaide while I’m there,” he says. ”That’s my favourite place.