Bobby aka Bobby Rao aka M V Narasimha Rao was my skipper when Hyderabad won the Ranji Trophy in 1986-87. I played two matches that season when Bobby got a mix of seniors and juniors together to win the Ranji Trophy in 1986-87, the only time Hyderabad won after Independence and only the second time ever in Hyderabad's history (the first was in 1935 or so). By then, Bobby had already played Test cricket (1978-79) and was leading Hyderabad regularly, playing in Ireland, leading Andhra Bank and was one of the cricket heavyweights of Hyderabad. We grew up looking up to him and he was always nice to us, treating us as equals and not intimidating us.
After he left Hyderabad, Bobby had an eventful second innings in Ireland as a cricket player and coach and then doing community service - mostly using cricket to bring a simmering society together which earned him an MBE (the only Indian Test cricketer to have that honor). Bobby teamed up with Irish journalist Conor Sharkey (who makes his debut with this book) to bring out 'Bobby - India and Ireland - A Love Story' - an engaging read not just because of the people and places and events that are familiar to me but because it really is an interesting story of human spirit in the face of adversity. There is so much about Bobby that I know now.
The book begins with a mention of May 11, 2018, the day when Ireland played its first Test against Pakistan, a culmination of the dream that began 20 years ago when Head Coach Mike Hendricks and Assistant Coach Bobby Rao coached the Ireland cricket team in a bid to make it a Test playing nation. Nine players in the Ireland team that played the Test had at some point been coached by Bobby. Having shown Bobby's work in Ireland in context, Conor begins the story where it should - in 1953 when Bobby was born in Walker Town, Secunderabad, in a large family of seven. Bobby was the youngest and one would think he was pampered. His older brother Ranganath remained a huge influence on Bobby, the one who encouraged him and gave him direction. Conor made an interesting connection of Bobby's with Ireland - when Bobby joined St Ann's School, his teacher was Sister Arianne, an Irish nun.
Bobby moved from playing cricket with his friends in the neighbourhood to attending coaching camps with Coach Aibara at Gymkhana. His big break came when as a schoolboy he was assigned the job of scoring for his brother's league team. When one player did not show up Bobby got an opportunity to play and voila - he performed enough to turn heads. To pursue his career as a cricketer, Bobby moved from St Patricks School to Mahboob College. A deep desire for Bobby and his mates from Walker Town was to play for Lancashire (I think all cricketers have that fantasy - I wanted to play for Yorkshire) - which came true for Bobby.
Conor showcases an interesting piece of history. Ireland played a friendly game against the West Indies at Sion Mills in 1969 (Bobby worked there later in the 1990s) and pulled off a stunning victory. Ireland bowled out WI for a measly 25 (interestingly Ireland beat WI in 1928 as well by 60 runs!). Conor makes another interesting connection - that when India beat WI in 71, a team that had 5 players from Hyderabad (ML Jaisimha, Abid Ali, P Krishnamurthy, Govind Raj, Jayantilal I think). The West Indies team seemed to show chinks of a weakened team (softened by the Irish defeat perhaps).
After school Bobby joined the Railway Junior College and played for Hyderabad Blues in the Hyderabad league. His mother's warning that he can't eat his bat (a not-so-subtle nudge that he might have to think about earning money as well) got him to join Andhra bank, a bank that he served creditably and won many tournaments (including five Grand Slams - all the major tournaments in Hyderabad league in a year). Andhra Bank was a strong side those days with Chandran, Ravi Kumar, Manohar, Vijay Paul, Bobby, Inder Raj, Jyothi Prasad, Prasanna Kumar, Ramnarayan, Khurshid, Kanwaljit Singh, Meher Baba, Dilip Reddy, John Manoj and such. There was this player called Nihal Puri in that side I remember - someone who never played many games but for some reason I remember him.
Bobby was drafted into the Moin Ud Dowla tournament and then made his Ranji Trophy debut under ML Jaisimha's captaincy - clearly MLJ thought Bobby had the stuff. One of Bobby's early memories of the Ranji experience was doing well against Mumbai and getting three Test cricketers out - Sardesai, Gavaskar (who hit him for twenty runs in an over in Moin Ud Dowla) and Wadekar. Even as skipper of the Andhra Bank team (something he got rather early) he was a purposeful captain, tough, disciplined. He insisted on practice, and in developing a winning culture - a wisdom that is sadly missing from so many teams. He had a fitness focus as early as 1977.
When Bobby played against England for South Zone, it was Henry Blofeld who reported about his talent and Bobby got a call to play for a Lancashire club, Uppermill. Upon his brother Ranganath's suggestion he went to England in 1978. On his return he was awarded the Ranji captaincy, something he was now ready for. His leadership style was to put more responsibility on the players, have more purposeful practice sessions, have strategies for different conditions. To add to that Bobby could extract the best from his players and was a good reader of wickets.
On the back of his Ranji performances Bobby finally got a call to play Test Cricket - against Kallicharran's B side since the big cats were with Packer then. Roger Binny recalls what a prankster Bobby had been then. Bobby got Kallicharan out as his first victim, took catches at short leg and silly point, was dropped. Then he got dropped, and was picked up again for another couple of Tests against Australia after a break, in the last of which he scored a match saving 20 not out, was dropped again and never played Tests after. Bobby picked up eight catches though standing at silly point and short leg in his four Tests. It must have been rather frustrating.
That was when he got a coaching assignment in Ireland and left for Strabane in North Ireland without knowing anything about it. Conor gives some history of this town which lies on the banks of River Mourne, once the most bombed place in the UK, a small town which is home to astronomer Annie Maunder, singer Paul Brady and writer Flynn O'Brien. When Bobby went Strabane was in the midst of 'The Troubles' with serious fighting going on between the British Army and the IRA - shootings, bombings were common. In fact the hotel where Bobby was to stay, Fir Trees was bombed, so he was put up with the Kellys, with whom he stayed on for many years forming a wonderful bond, a second family. His teammates remember him as someone who loved the disco, wore wacky clothes, had rock star hair and when he came to Hyderabad, drove around in a yellow car.
Bobby took his work ethic to Ireland, insisting on training three times a day, which made an impact on the quality of cricket in Strabane. He did not shy away from approaching the tough places to convince schools to play cricket, convincing them that that it was a good way to ensure peace and to keep youth from being misled. Over time his hard work paid off and Bobby made cricket popular. More kids took to the game and one could see a shift in the mood.
Sometime then Bobby met Josephine McElroy who he would eventually marry. The couple tried to live in India, spent time here, and then decided that maybe they should live in Ireland.
Back in Hyderabad Bobby got into a controversy over wearing a Strabane track suit to practice. The HCA dropped the entire team for indiscipline (the team backed him because they felt it was unfair to drop him). Soon after Bobby was also dropped from captaincy of the Ranji Team which was given to Vivek Jaisimha. It was a move which Bobby and several senior players felt was unfair and they formed a players panel to ensure a fair administration. The players panel won the elections and as a validation of their promise (and premise), Bobby and his team won the Ranji Trophy in 1986-87 beating Delhi in the final. I was quite touched to see a line in the book where Bobby said that 'from the first match to the final it was team work, where players played for one another. We were like a family.' I played two games so that includes me (and Suresh, Chetan, Jyoti Shetty, Arun Paul, Affan)! Anyway, the preparation for the Ranji trophy was tough - he pushed everyone to work hard, to get a good diet, focused on fielding and catches, brought in yoga, physical training by an ex-military man. Ranji Trophy won, Bobby and his team also won the Irani Trophy that year which was a huge accomplishment.
The year after winning the Ranji Trophy Bobby started a coaching academy, the first private coaching academy in those times. One of his early pupils was VVS Laxman! It grew pretty fast but Bobby had to return to Ireland and he handed it over to his team mate from Andhra Bank, John Manoj. (Unfortunately when Bobby went back to Strabane Cricket Club, they ended his term.) It was 1988 and Bobby decided to get married. The couple came to India to celebrate their honeymoon in Goa, and perhaps settle down in India, but in time it became evident that their future lay in Ireland. Bobby was offered a job as Manager of Sion Mills Recreation Club and he left Hyderabad after playing his last game for Hyderabad in 1989 against Mumbai - a match where Sachin Tendulkar played (one of his early games). I remember watching the game at Gymkhana from the main road - watching Venkatapthi getting Sachin out caught behind.
As GM of Sion Mills RC, Bobby got kids involved in cricket and made a blueprint for a huge sports facility which somehow did not take off. One of the boys he coached was the son of the Duke of Abercorn and thanks to him, got a chance to meet Prince Charles. Bobby dove headlong into community work and his role is acknowledged in the Blackpool Illumination, the 1993 peace rally which ended a long wound strife.
Bobby continued playing and coaching and even played against Northants for Ireland. In 1998, Mike Hendricks took over as Coach of Ireland cricket team and Bobby as his assistant. The team did well and won trophies, but Mike left in 1999, and Bobby took over. It should have remained like that but in 2000, Ken Rutherford was appointed as Coach and Bobby was sacked. Time and again, despite all his good work, Bobby did not get the reward or recognition he should have. On the brighter side, Bobby was the Coach of the Irish U 19 side which went to the World Cup and performed creditably.
Bobby became the Rotary Club President and was involved in fund raising and doing good work as usual. In that period he faced a series of let downs - first losing out on his benefit match on the aftermath of the Hansie Cronje betting scandal, then missing out on a proposal to start a sports centre for peace keeping which was in an advanced stage. Then came the racism, and Sion Mills sacked him. Bobby fought back, took legal action, helped by the North Ireland Council for Ethic Minorities, and got a settlement for racist harassment. Bobby started the Strabane Ethnic Community Assn (SECA) to help people of other ethnic origins to settle in and integrate smoothly. He organised English classes, helped many to integrate, started Diwali celebrations. He knew people like John Hume and Martin McGuiness, and served as a member of the NICEM.
In 2006 Bobby featured in a Natwest Final.
In 2011- he was awarded the MBE, the first Indian Test cricketer to be given the award. (Sadly the medal is lost - he took it to a function in Hyderabad to show it and lost it)
Bobby did paid coaching stints with the Warriors, planned an Academy, did well in the Inter Provincial games and left. An offer from the HCA to head the Hyderabad Cricket Academy of Excellence was next and he did a great job - developing coaches, bringing in new practices in fitness, diet, nutrition, monitoring, process, video coaching. His approach was to go back to basics. And then, as it happened so many times in his life, the HCAE was disbanded, and he was dismissed. It made little sense because in that period, teams from Hyderabad started winning, and the Ranji team moved up from 28th to 8th position. Bobby went back to Ireland - but sadly he never got a role in Cricket Ireland, a development job, which he was best suited for.
But despite setbacks and disappointments Bobby continued his work - helping people out during the COVID pandemic. And it was somewhere then that he embarked on this endeavour to write a book about his life. And it is a good thing that he did because it puts so much of his life and his decisions in perspective.
It is a wonderful read. Bobby's life is one of facing adversity and how to fight it, of leadership that made a difference, of doing his best without any real reward, of always giving his best. Bobby would always do things and move on, having handled the worst part, leaving it for someone to harvest the gains. But then that's Bobby. And its a life well lived and I feel Bobby today must be really proud of what he accomplished in his journey. As I see it I am sure he has many more roles to play in future and I am looking forward to seeing what he does next. For now, great work Bobby and Conor. I hope this book becomes a bestseller soon.