He took 53 catches in 27 games. Among those who have played at least 10 Tests, this remains the highest percentage of catches per match. Any discussion about the greatest fielder the game has ever seen is incomplete without the great Eknath Solkar.
A left-handed batsman and a left-arm bowler who could bowl both spin and pace, Solkar was known as the “poor man’s Sobers” for his all-round abilities. He may not have broken records with his batting and bowling but when it came to fielding, few could match his genius.
Solkar, in many ways, revolutionised close-in fielding in cricket. His record of 1.96 catches per match is staggering considering the fact that he was mostly stationed at either short-leg or silly-point. It is in the slip cordon that players usually add to their tally of catches but Solkar didn’t need that advantage. He created opportunities out of thin air by standing in front of the bat and using his anticipation, athleticism and wonderful hands. Stories of his exploits as a close-in fielder are legendary.
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Despite all his achievements on the cricket field, the most inspirational aspect of Solkar’s life is the challenges he overcame to make his way to the top.
He was born in Mumbai to a humble family. Solkar’s father was a groundsman at the Hindu Gymkhana and he used to help him out by changing the score on scoreboards during the matches played at that ground. He grew up with his parents and five siblings in a one-room hut.
At Hindu Gymkhana, he learnt the game, bowling at players in the nets. He was spotted by the Bombay and India wicketkeeper Madhav Mantri, who was impressed by Solkar’s enthusiasm, and arranged to send him to school.
The hardships never deterred Solkar. He worked hard on his game and made the most of his natural athleticism to first captain the India Schools team, which included Sunil Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath, in 1964, before making his first-class debut for Mumbai a year later.
Solkar made his international debut in 1969 and went on to play seven One-Day Internationals and 27 Tests for India over a seven-year period. His most memorable performances came in India’s Test series victories in West Indies and England in 1971.
Eknath Solkar's stats in international cricket
India’s bowling attack was dominated by spin during Solkar’s time in the team. The famous quartet of Erapalli Prasanna, S Venkataraghavan, B Chandrasekhar and Bishen Singh Bedi were relied upon greatly for victories and the four of them, in turn, relied greatly on Solkar to help them get breakthroughs.
“His close-in catching was really intimidating. We would not have been the same bowlers without him,” Bedi had once said. And it wasn’t just his teammates who were in awe of his catching abilities. Tony Greig had said: “Ekki was the best forward short leg I have ever seen.”
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One of the most famous stories of Solkar’s resilience is from the 1969 Ranji Trophy final between Mumbai and Bengal. Just six days before the start of that match at the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai, Solkar’s father had slipped on the stairs at the Hindu Gymkhana and gone into a coma. Faced with the agonising decision of whether or not to play the match, Solkar kept his sorrow to himself and hoped for his father to get better. But that didn’t happen.
Solkar finally decided that he wouldn’t leave his team at such a crucial time. He picked a three-for as Bengal batted first and posted 387. But it was during Mumbai’s first innings that his incredible spirit came to the fore.
Mumbai were five down at the end of day two with 300 runs on the board. They had two youngsters in Solkar and Milind Rege at the crease with the all-important first innings lead on the line. But that day, Solkar’s father died in the hospital. Despite the devastating loss, he lit the funeral funeral pyre the next morning and walked out to bat. And heroically, he scored 29 runs to help his team get the lead and win the match.