Farokh Engineer still stumpsthem all!

In Mumbai for the opening of "Tendulkar's", former India wicket-keeper and present-day commentator, FAROKH ENGINEER, talks to ANJALI DOSHI in a freewheeling conversation about Indian cricket, his English wife and life as a 'second-class citizen' in Ol' Blighty

The setting is perfect and Farokh Manekshaw Engineer is delighted to be back in what he calls his "second home". We are at the Cricket Club of India on a muggy afternoon, seated in the quiet shade of the lobby, facing the sprawling grounds of the Brabourne Stadium.

Dressed casually in shorts, a striped T-shirt and his trademark moccasins, the dashing wicket-keeper and opening batsman of yesteryears, is sporting not only in attire but in spirit as well. As he regales us with amusing anecdotes, ex-cricketers and ardent fans intermittently stop by for a brief chat. And ever the showman, "Rookie" as he is popularly known, revels in the attention.

The 64-year-old commentator flew into the city from Colombo on Sunday night after the first washed-out final between India and Sri Lanka, and the effervescent former cricketer is staying on for the opening of "Tendulkar's", slated for the 7th of this month.

"The first thing I did on our way back from the airport was eat some 'bhel puri'. It's been three years since I last visited, and the best part about being back is the scrumptious food and catching up with old friends like Sunil (Gavaskar)", he says as he reminisces of the glorious days.

Settled in Cheshire, South Manchester for over two decades now, Farokh "hung up his gloves" after the India-New Zealand World Cup match in '75. But it was long before his international career ended that the outspoken wicket-keeper-batsman moved base to England. "Frankly, I was annoyed with the politics in Indian cricket. It was much more in those days than it is now. They just needed an excuse to drop me. When I got a chance to play for Lancashire, I grabbed it though I was hesitant initially", he reveals, trying not to sound bitter about the experience.

Incidentally, Farokh was employed with TELCO as a management trainee and was a qualified pilot until his protective Parsi mother, fearing for her son's life, forced him to give up the latter. Coming back to his cricketing career, "Lancashire was the perfect opportunity for me to concentrate on the game. In any case, I made sure I played all the Ranji matches to ensure that I did not give anybody easy excuse to ignore me", elaborates the colourful wicket-keeper who was the first overseas player ever to play for an English county. Farokh chose Lancashire over four other counties, and reveals he is partly responsible for Harbhajan Singh's recent contract with the county. His eyes twinkle as he talks of his 12-year span for Lancashire from '66-'78. "What can I say of my county career", he responds naughtily when we ask him to narrate his county exploits. "I drank, ate and slept with my Lancashire teammate Clive Lloyd for 12 years!"

The former stumper nonchalantly confesses to his roving eye. He tells us about a time when he was gifted a fiery red Ford Escort. "After the presentation ceremony, I was driving my new car home when I spotted a beautiful blonde walking down the street. I turned to admire her curvaceous legs and did not notice the car ahead of me stopping suddenly. I jammed the brakes at the last minute but it was too late and my brand new car was irreparably damaged." "When I was summoned to the police station, I was asked to explain the accident and all I could say to the British cops was 'We don't get to see that many blondes in Bombay!'", the red-faced ex-cricketer says. "They (the cops) burst out laughing. That was the most embarrassing incident ever!" His antics behind the wheel are well-known, and this accident is probably what prompted noted English cricket writer, John Woodcock, to pen a delightful snippet about the inimitable "Rookie", "He drives as he bats, or he bats as he drives, not always with due care and attention, with an eye for the gap, and, above all, conversationally."

Coming back to the women in his life, Farokh was married to a Parsi but they divorced. A few years later, he took the plunge and remarried an English woman, Julie. "I was a judge at a beauty contest in Cheshire. A friend of Julie's was participating and she was there to lend her support", he recalls. He smiles mischievously when he recounts his suave lines to his soon-to-be-wife. "I told her that she should have been participating since she was the most beautiful woman there", he says. Soon after, the couple tied the knot and Farokh talks proudly of his "four beautiful daughters", Meenaz and Tina from his first marriage and Roxanne and Scarlet from the second.

Of all his four daughters, Scarlet is the only one who has carried on the sporting legacy. "No, she does not play cricket, but she is on the net ball team," her father proudly reveals. "They are all talented. Tina works with an international firm in Miami and Roxanne is a model", he says with an unmistakable touch of fondness in his eyes, probably recalling his own heady days when his face was plastered on hoardings all over the city as the 'Brylcreem' man.

Always a bulky man, Farokh has added more than a few inches to his girth, but he gamefully demonstrates what Rahul Dravid is doing wrong when the discussion swings back to cricket. "It doesn't help that he is tall and his natural tendency is to rise early. He needs to stay really low and rise with the ball and that is not an easy task on sub-continental pitches. However, I think we have basically found the right blend for the World Cup and we should refrain from chopping and changing, since we are less than five months away."

Farokh flits back to another era when we ask him about his own most memorable moment on the field. "Chepauk, Madras. I was hitting the ball at will and in no time at all I was 94 not out before lunch against the fearsome West Indies bowlers, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. In those days there were no helmets or any sort of protective gear. The only protection was the bat and I admire any player who can make his bat talk", says the Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag fan.

"I came back after lunch that blistering day in '66 and thwacked the first ball off Lance Gibbs for a thundering six. I enjoyed it immensely", he says with a wicked Cheshire-cat-like-grin.

When we ask him if he has ever felt like a second-class citizen in England, he shakes his head. "I am involved with numerous charities and various committees for cancer research and multiple sclerosis. It is a small community and I have some wonderful friends. There is no reason for complaint", says Farokh, who is good friends with Manchester United coach, Alex Fergusson.

He is unsure when he will visit Mumbai again as he is busy penning memoirs for his first book. The humourous book, replete with anecdotes, is about eighty per cent complete and should be ready soon. He will probably travel to South Africa as commentator for the World Cup, he reveals.

The talkathon is coming to a close as Farokh readies himself for lunch. It is time to wind down the engaging and witty session.

As we bid him goodbye, we took the liberty to add one more word to John Woodcock's description of the popular wicket-keeper-batsman. 'Entertaining!' Just the way he played his cricket!