Sunday, December 3, 2017

Suresh Deobhakta: This ex-Mumbai all-rounder is now living a life of loneliness

Cricketers like Suresh Deobhakta are seldom remembered, often ignored and rarely hailed. Deobhakta represented an era where earning a Mumbai Ranji Trophy cap was equivalent to climbing a mountain. And on reaching it, survival not only depended of how one performed, but how one could fit into the scheme of things. 

In the year of Mumbai's 500 Ranji Trophy game celebrations, we decided to meet Deobhakta, 76, at his home in Agashi, five kms from Virar. The former batsman and off-spinner seems unhappy with the Mumbai Cricket Association, who he feels have not done enough to support him through ill health. Of course, he gets a pension from the association. Despite being a good all-rounder on the club and inter-office circuit, Deobhakta could play only a solitary Ranji Trophy match for Mumbai - against Baroda in 1971-72.

Former Mumbai all-rounder Suresh Deobhakta at his Agashi (near Virar) residence recently. PIC/FALGUNI AGRAWALFormer Mumbai all-rounder Suresh Deobhakta at his Agashi (near Virar) residence recently. Pic/FALGUNI AGRAWAL

Durani remembers Dodu
Ex-India player Salim Durani feels Deobhakta was an impact player, who was his Hardcastle and Waud teammate while former Mumbai spin stalwart Padmakar Shivalkar, his teammate at Tatas, stresses how Deobhakta could murder an attack. On the club circuit, Deobhakta paraded his skills for National Cricket Club at Cross Maidan. "Durani and I were SAD cricketers," remarks Deobhakta with a chuckle. "Our initials are SAD and we were friends. I was so happy for Salim when he was chosen for the CK Nayudu Lifetime Achievement award a few years ago. Do you know he acted in Charitra with Parveen Babi in 1973?" says Deobhakta. Durani remembers Deobhakta fondly too. "I was surprised that he got only one chance in the Ranji Trophy. He was a damn good cricketer and a very committed one," he said from Jamnagar.

Meanwhile, the conversation at Deobhakta's home shifts to his lone Ranji Trophy game for Mumbai. "I was given one chance and then they said, buzz off. We were bowled out for 129 in the first innings at Moti Bagh Stadium on a winter's day in 1972. There was a lot of dew on the pitch and Baroda pacers Anthony Fernandes and Narayan Satham ran through our side. However, we bowled them out for 42 and fared better in our second innings to win comfortably." Shivalkar remembers how Deobhakta was dismissed in the first innings by Fernandes: "I was praying to God, 'let him stay at the wicket' because if he does that, he will murder the attack. He faced an over-pitched ball, put his foot down to bang it and just when I was about to say, 'what a shot' the ball hit his foot and went on to hit the stumps. It was really unfortunate. I wished then and wish now he could have played more for Mumbai."

Deobhakta says: "They dropped me without any explanation. Press reporters told me that I deserved a second chance as I was performing well in club cricket. I was a good fielder too. I was a victim of favourtism and players with lesser ability got their chances." Mumbai cricket provides classic cases of commitment. And Deobhakta is remembered as the player who had to leave his Agashi home in the early hours of the morning for matches. "I used to wake up well before 4am and then take a bus from Agashi to reach Virar station at 5am, so that I could take a Churchgate-bound train. During the Kanga League [monsoon league], I would learn about match cancellations only when I reached Churchgate. I would go to the club in any case and sleep on a bench before returning home later in the day," he recalls.

Big hits at Cross Maidan
He has fine memories of his National CC days. "I hit many big sixes. Often, the ball would get lost. I look back at those moments and cry because I devoted my life to cricket and did not get much in return. My road was rocky on the personal front as I was left high and dry at home to fend for myself. I regret not taking good care of my parents. I was so immersed in my cricket that I ignored them. My father died of cancer," he says with moist eyes.There was more to Deobhakta's efforts than just embark on early morning train journeys for cricket matches. "We had four buffaloes and my task was to milk them each morning. I also had to fetch water from a well to bathe them," he reveals. He acquired the nickname Dodu (meaning pumpkin) because he was a plump child. "I was fat, but fit and flexible. I have never consumed biscuits and local bread. I used to like the rolls they served at CCI during matches, though. I used to have two eggs each morning and hot milk at night while today's generation lives on vada pav. I've never had vada pav in my life," he says.

Today, Deobhakta has to cope with loneliness and health issues, but he's grateful to a few former teammates who keep in touch with him. "Ajit Pai [former Mumbai and India pacer] keeps in touch; so does Rajan Shrivastav, who made it a point to visit me when I was hospitalised on a few occasions. I am alive because of my old friends and memories. I was so happy when Vilas Godbole wrote a profile of me in his book on Mumbai cricket."

His fondest memories are about attending Chhabildas school where his father was a teacher. His first coach was Ankush 'Anna' Vaidya who coached at Shivaji Park. When it came to getting admission at Siddharth College, he found a willing benefactor in former Test player SW Sohoni. College life was bitter-sweet. The sweet part was the high standard of cricket, but it was tough on other fronts. "Rich students used to consume kheema and cutlets at good restaurants. I filled myself with usal."

Only few things delight him in the evening of his life, but he is proud of his nickname. "Everybody calls me Dodu, including Test cricketers. That's the only thing I'm proud of," he says. His friends beg to differ because he should also be proud of how he played the game - with commitment similar to that of players who wore the lion-crested Mumbai cap more often than he did.

With inputs from Clayton Murzello

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