Gopal Bose – The Test Opener India Deserved but Never Had
“Make sure you speak to Gopal when you go to Kolkata. The insight he can give you on Indian cricket, very few can.”
This was the advice Dilip Doshi, former Indian spin great gave me the day I spent in Bombay with him discussing his career and cricket over the past fifty years. Doshi was talking about Gopal Bose, former Bengal opening batsman and captain.
A week later when I called his mobile number he agreed to meet me the following morning, asking me to come home since he wasn’t well and didn’t venture out too much. When I rang the bell of his south Kolkata flat the next morning I was greeted like a long lost friend. “Come in. Come in. Dilip told me you love cricket and write very well. Have a cup of tea and let’s talk about the game!”
And so we did. For the next couple of hours there was just us and the sport that was Gopal Bose’s life. The fact that Doshi, his childhood friend Bose and I all grew up within a few houses of each other and played our first cricket at the same local park formed an instant bond between us as it had done between Doshi and myself the first time we had spoken on the phone a few months before. Roy Street and Northern Park was a glue that made an irrelevance of the age difference.
Between the door and the sofa he had gone from Mr. Bose to Gopal-da. “I wanted to show you something,” were Gopal-da’s first words even as I took a seat, unfolding a newspaper cutting.
It was a John Woodcock article from 2015 in The Telegraph with a provocative headline – Great players of yesteryear better by a long shot – Modern-day batsmen lack subtlety in which Woodcock questions Mike Atherton’s assertion in The Times that, “Batsmen are getting better and better, of that there can be little doubt…Anyone who disagrees is surely not watching the game.” In it, Woodcock, among other arguments points out how “more batsmen are clearing today’s artificially shortened boundaries in the course of a single innings than Bradman might have done in a month of Sundays.”
For the next forty-five minutes we compare and contrast batsmen from the 1960s and 1970s when Gopal-da played his cricket to the modern day batsmen and their inability to play spin bowling. It is a fascinating discussion and gives me an instant insight into the thinking of a technically gifted opening batsman as I knew Bose was, from having watched him in Ranji matches as a youngster. I have come to unlock his memories of bowlers for my next book, but this discussion is fascinating and I decide to continue talking about batting, but about his own career and Indian cricket during those years.
Given that we were talking about his career, the discussion was bound to turn to India’s own Summer of ’42, as the 1974 tour of England is often disparagingly referred to in the context of the Indian total of 42 all out at Lord’s in the second Test, a low point in Indian cricketing history. “A funereal atmosphere invaded the changing room as nobody was talking to each other,” Wadekar said about the match.
India had beaten England in England for the first time in 1971, beaten them again in India the following year, and were expected to put up a good show under all-conquering captain Ajit Wadekar. Sadly, the summer would turn out a bit differently for the visitors who played 3 Tests and 2 ODIs, and lost all 5 matches.
After the dismissal for 42, the team turned up late at the High Commissioner’s residence for a reception and were refused admittance. They all sat in the bus until being readmitted. Bose told me: “it was entirely our fault.” A day later Sudhir Nayak, Gavaskar’s opening partner from Bombay, just before making his Test debut, was caught shoplifting socks at Marks & Spencers and pleaded guilty.
”To Indians in India it must seem like the end of the Golden Age,” wrote John Woodcock in The Times. In Sunny Days Gavaskar fumed: “It was a totally disastrous series and the tour was one of the worst I had made.” And through the series, Gopal Bose, on tour as the specialist opening partner of Sunil Gavaskar, was warming the dressing room bench. He called it “a nightmare of a tour when whatever could go wrong, did, and it culminated in the 42. After that the heart of the team was not there. ”
In the Irani Trophy the previous winter against a strong Bombay attack Bose had scored 170, Brijesh Patel and Gundappa Vishwanath being the other high scorers with fifties. Selected for an unofficial ‘Test’ against Sri Lanka, with India trailing by 141 in the second innings, Bose stroked a fluent century putting up a 194 run opening stand with Gavaskar. Just before the England tour, playing for the Indian XI against Rest of India, and once again opening with Gavaskar, Bose scored 77 against an attack comprising Chandra, Prasanna, Dilip Doshi and Salim Durani. He was named Indian Cricketer of the Year.
And yet when it came to the Tests in England, Farokh Engineer opened with Gavaskar in the first two Tests and Bombay opener Sudhir Nayak made his debut at Birmingham. Scores of 59, 66 and 40 in three tour matches were not enough to convince the tour selection committee to give Bose a maiden call up.
Gopal Bose did however earn his sole international cap on this tour, drafted into the team to play in the second ODI at Birmingham – as the lone spinner alongside three pace-bowling all-rounders — Abid Ali, Madan Lal, and Solkar. The fifth bowler was Ashok Mankad. Bose scored 13 and bowled his quota of 11 overs of competent off-spin taking the wicket of David Lloyd.
The following season Bose had another chance of making it into the Test side against the West Indies at Madras. He was the only specialist opener to partner Engineer in the absence of Gavaskar, but the team composition decided at the start left no place for a batsman at the top, with Solkar and Engineer opening the innings. That was the closest Gopal Bose would ever come to being a Test cricketer.
In a first class career spanning ten years, Gopal Bose played 78 matches and scored 8 centuries on his way to 3757 runs at an average just below 31.He also took 72 wickets at 26.97 runs apiece with his off-spin. Tales abound among my friends from south Kolkata about watching Gopal-da bat. A close college friend swears he has seen Gopal-da cleanly hit a ball from Deshapriya Park that broke a window of the Tirthapati Institute, a good hundred metres away. We have all seen him take apart Ranji bowling attacks at the Eden. His strokes along the ground were as technically perfect as his suddenly launched attacks were brutal in their execution. He was truly a treat to watch.
After retirement Bose became a cricket journalist and a very respected coach and selector. Some of the Bengal stars of later years like Ranadeb Bose, Devang Gandhi, and Avishek Jhunjhunwala learnt their cricket under Bose’s tutelage.
He was the Manager of the India U-19 side led by Virat Kohli that won the World Cup in 2007-2008.
Since that first meeting we had many exchanges but the one I treasure most is the email he wrote to me after reading my two books. “Both your books A Gentleman’s Game and Spell-Binding Spells (very aptly titled) are for the archives. A must read and must keep; will treasure it.”
Gopal Bose passed on this morning after a brief illness at the age of 71. In one of those quirks of fate, and perhaps fittingly, his last innings on earth was played at Birmingham, the city where he made his international debut.
Rest in Peace Gopal-da.