Nos. 6, 7 and 8 on Abhay Mitra Street. It’s a stone’s throw from the Ganges. Quite close to Kumartuli – literally, potter’s neighbourhood; the grandest idols for Kolkata’s iconic Durga Puja are crafted here. Three huge properties that lie adjacent to each other together make up what is known as Roy-baari – the Roys’ house. Home to the First Family of Kolkata Cricket.
In India, it’s far from unusual for members of a family to pursue the same profession. It’s not uncommon then that a family has more than one cricketer of note. In India, there have been the Amarnaths, the Gaekwads, the Gavaskars, the Manjrekars and others. But, bar the Amarnaths, it isn’t usual for a single address to have three Test cricketers at home, at the same time at that.
The Roys are, or were, such a family.
The most famous of them, Pankaj, played 43 Test matches between 1951 and 1960, even leading India in a Test at Lord’s back in 1959. Ambar, Pankaj’s brother’s son, played four Tests in 1969. And Pranab, Pankaj’s son, played two Tests in 1982.
Two other Roys – Pankaj’s brothers Nimai and Gobindo – represented Bengal in first-class cricket, while a number of others played club-level cricket with varying degrees of distinction.
The only surviving Test-playing Roy, 56-year-old Pranab, tells Wisden India in his quiet manner about the number of sportspersons – not just cricketers – his family has produced. One can’t help butting in and asking whether it wasn’t the immense financial stability (the Roys are, to understate, very well off) that made it possible. Think about it: all the men in the family going off to play something or the other all day – we’d all love to do that, wouldn’t we?
Pranab isn’t offended by that unmannerly question. “Definitely,” he answers. “I can’t deny that when you come from a well-to-do family, no one worries about earning money. I joined State Bank of India, but there was no pressure to have a job. It was more because, you know, it’s nice to not have to ask people for money. But it was not because I needed a salary.”
No one in the last few generations in the family has actually needed to earn. Though they were not a rich family to start with, an ancestor, Gangaram, had a shrewd business brain and managed to acquire a large land holding, following which the family became the zamindars of Bhagyakul, near Dhaka. ‘Roy’, which the family uses as its surname, was a title bestowed upon them by the British. All this was in undivided Bengal and currently exists in what is now Bangladesh, while the family shifted to Kolkata around the turn of the last century.
To return to the story, the financials were not a bother, but what was a problem for Pranab was being Pankaj’s son. Pankaj was and is a legend in Bengal cricket, most certainly the man that put cricket in the state on the national map. Until Sourav Ganguly made a name for himself many, many years later, it was only Pankaj Roy for Bengal.
“Being the son of a great father was a disadvantage. When I scored, people said that being Pankaj Roy’s son, it wasn’t surprising that I was scoring runs. When I failed, they said that I was letting down the family name,” recalls Pranab. “My father never asked me to become a cricketer and he certainly never put pressure on me to be a great cricketer.
“He liked the fact that I opened the batting like him and that I was a technically correct batsman like him. Oh yes, he was upset once. He was upset when I was dropped from the Indian team after two Test matches. I was disappointed too, of course, but he was very sad. Even though he never said it, but he must have wanted me to become a good cricketer who played many Tests for India.”
What about Pankaj and Ambar? Quite apart from the First Family tag, how good were they really?
With Pankaj, opinion has always been somewhat divided. That he was a domestic giant has never been in doubt: 11,868 runs with 33 centuries and 50 half-centuries in 185 first-class games attest to that. Internationally, though, he averaged a moderate 32.56 in 43 Tests and most of his big runs came at home.
While, in 1952-53, he recorded five ducks in seven Test innings in England, in 1956, he partnered Vinoo Mankad in what was the highest opening partnership in Test history at the time, when they put together 413 runs against New Zealand at the Municipal Stadium in Chennai. That record stayed for 52 years till February 2008, when Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie bettered it against Bangladesh in Chittagong.
What about Ambar? Now, that’s a toughie. The numbers are good – 7163 runs from 132 first-class games at 43.15 – but to every person who saw Ambar bat in the 1960s and 70s, the runs never mattered. Because Ambar, like those romanticised film heroes, was all about style and class and elegance. The bottom line didn’t exist.
“Ambar-da was from a different planet. He was a hero, a star,” says Pranab, a bit of awe in his voice. “He was a happy-go-lucky person. He never took responsibility for anything; he was never stressed. He was like that. When he found out he had a serious heart condition and wouldn’t live for long, he didn’t bother. All he said was that he could smoke again, and proceeded to do exactly that. [Ambar died in 1997 at the age of 52.]
“He had amazing talent. But he didn’t care. He never worked hard, he hardly ever trained. He would go to practice sessions and come back without picking up the bat even once. He still played for India. He never understood what he had been gifted with. If he had worked hard, things could have been different. He would have played 40-50 Tests for India.”
And Pankaj? Well, Pranab was born in 1957, five years after the five ducks and a year after Mt 413, and was therefore not around in Pankaj’s heyday. “I know that we didn’t discuss either his successes or his failures much. What I know about Baba is that he was an outstanding all-round sportsperson. He played football, table tennis and badminton, and was also a very good swimmer and shooter,” says Pranab.
Pankaj, before he gave up football to focus on cricket at 21, was a first-division footballer in Kolkata, representing Sporting Union club. Legend has it that he once scored a 40-yarder against East Bengal and the record books confirm that he played for the Indian Football Association XI against Burma soon after India’s independence from the British in 1947, and scored the winning goal for his team. “Baba also came close to making the Bengal team in table tennis,” adds Pranab proudly.
People who knew Pankaj talk about how he was modest and humble to a fault. His biography, written and published posthumously by Gautam Bhattacharya, the prominent Bengali journalist, suggests that Pankaj thought of himself not as the scion of a rich and influential family, but as someone who had to struggle to compete with the best. He wanted to succeed desperately. He was driven, ambitious. Quite the antithesis of his nephew, Ambar.
“I think Baba didn’t get the respect he deserved, and when he got an honour, it came quite late,” feels Pranab. “He retired from first-class cricket in 1968, but got the Padma Shree only in 1975. He became a selector quite late. He got a benefit match only in 1998. It’s because Baba never went to people to promote himself, which is why nothing happened in a timely manner. If you think about it, at least a domestic trophy, in Bengal, should be named after him. Even that has not happened.”
Pankaj passed away in 2001 when, interestingly, he was the sheriff of Kolkata.
As for Pranab, 71 runs with an average of 35.5 in two Tests with a highest score of 60 not out isn’t bad. Nor are 4056 runs at 40.96 in a 72-match first-class career. But it is not a great success story either. “Maybe I was not so lucky. Maybe I didn’t blossom at the right time. Maybe I couldn’t fight back after being dropped,” he says philosophically.
“If I got another chance, maybe I would have done well. When I played for India, I had played proper fast bowling only twice in my life. Today, in the IPL, you face the best in the world. You are not a Test player, but you face Dale Steyn and (Lasith) Malinga and Brett Lee. We hardly had any exposure. Playing a Test as an opener, I had no experience against fast bowling.
“I have no regrets, but I feel wronged. I agree that none of us, those days, faced true fast bowling. But I see it like this: if you picked me in the Indian team despite me not being good, you made a wrong decision. You picked a wrong horse. But if you did pick me, then you should give me enough scope before writing me off. I was picked for two Tests – both against England – I scored a fifty, and then I was dropped.”
The next Roy cricketer isn’t coming any time soon either. “Problem is that we have more daughters than sons these days,” says Pranab with a smile. “Ambar da’s son used to play, but didn’t pursue it. So no new Roy cricketers right now, but I am hopeful of the next generation.”
As for himself, Pranab is a match referee in domestic cricket after having served as a national selector, and the next dream is to become an ICC match referee.
Today, the house at Abhay Mitra Street looks like it could do with a bit of refurbishment. It’s lived in, the family still has enough money to sustain a few more generations, but the grand Roy mansion has aged. People have moved out too because, as Pranab puts it, “it’s such an old house that we have more courtyards than rooms and all of us have large individual families now”.
Every room, and courtyard, at Roy-baari has memories to share and, as is the case with so many of these old houses, you can actually feel the years, and the history. In this particular house, not just the one-time grandeur, but also the boys in sweaty clothes returning home after a long net practice – except Ambar, who might not have deigned to sweat. There’s success and failure captured between the high walls. And they tell the tale of the First Family of Cricket in Kolkata. And a lovely tale it is.