Article - Banerji's deadly spinners once silenced a crowd
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Banerji's deadly spinners once silenced a crowd

Malaysian Cricket Association Admin (Malaysian)
06/12/2020

Banerji's deadly spinners once silenced a crowd

Mesmerising batsmen with his deadly spinners and punishing bowlers with the bat, P. Banerji Nair ranks highly among the greatest cricket all-rounders ever produced by Malaysia.

His 20 years of service for the national team beginning from 1974 encompassed four ICC Trophy campaigns, 16 Saudara Cup battles against Singapore as well as Tuanku Jaafar Cup and Interport matches for a total of 48 international appearances.

The youngest in a family of five, Banerji was introduced to the game by his older brothers Balakrishnan and Muralee as they smashed tennis balls around the open fields of Taman Setapak in Kuala Lumpur. 

Banerji's progress through the ranks was so swift he ended up making his national team debut before his brothers, having also played for the combined schools team at the age of 14 and picked for the national Under-23 side at age 15. 

"We broke a few windows playing cricket in the fields, even with a tennis ball!" said Banerji of his childhood shenanigans with his brothers and cousins. "That was one reason we did not use a cricket ball but another advantage of playing with a tennis ball is that you become fearless when batting and that helps when you move on to hardball cricket."

Banerji made his debut for Malaysia at the age of 18 in a rain-affected Interport match against Hong Kong in 1974 at the Padang in a side captained by Dennis De Silva and included Hector Durairatnam, Mike Shepherdson, Zainon Mat and Zainuddin Meah. 

A 72 in the second innings against Singapore in Banerji's first Saudara Cup outing in 1975 was followed by an 81 against the same opposition two years later as Banerji cemented his place in the national team. That led to his first ICC Trophy appearance in 1979 which, however, brought just one wicket in three matches and a top score of 34 against Bangladesh in an underwhelming campaign for Malaysia. 

Deciding he needed a taste of overseas action to further hone his skills, Banerji took unpaid leave for six months in 1978 to play first-grade cricket at Claremont Cottleslee in Perth alongside Harris Abu Bakar.

On his return, he produced a memorable display against Hong Kong in 1980 with scores of 82 and an unbeaten 99 before taking four wickets in the second innings as Malaysia rallied from a 97-run innings deficit to force a draw in the Interport match in Kowloon.

"That was one of the highlights for me playing for the national team because of the way we came back from so far behind to force a draw. It was a bit unfortunate that I did not get a hundred in the second innings but it happens in cricket when you're stranded in the nineties," said Banerji, who ran out of partners just when it looked like he would reach his first international century.

Banerji had to wait 13 years to get his maiden international century when he scored 127 against Thailand in Bangkok, having come close with a 93 against Singapore in 1991.

But some of Banerji's best performances came with the ball and a six-wicket haul against then English county champions Worcestershire in 1989 was one he will never forget. 

Banerji and national teammate Asgari Stephens were the only Malaysians invited to play for a Singapore Invitational XI against the visiting English county which featured the legendary Ian Botham and Graham Dilley.

Banerji ended a 163-run opening partnership between Gordon Lord and Tim Curtis by bowling the former with his off-spin after Lord, having made 102, did not offer the right stroke. But a bigger surprise was to come when Banerji sent batting sensation Graeme Hick back without scoring after facing just two balls, much to the disappointment of the crowd at the Singapore Padang which fell into silence.

"Everyone came to see Hick bat so I suppose there were some angry faces when I got him out," laughed Banerji at the memory, recalling he took a third wicket in the same over when dismissing Damien D'Oliveira for naught. Hick, who played international cricket for both Zimbabwe and England, is one of just three players to pass 20,000 runs in List A cricket after Graham Gooch and Sachin Tendulkar.

Banerji also had Curtis stumped before picking up two more wickets to finish with figures of 6-37 in a display which Worcester skipper Phil Neale labeled as "superb". 

Invariably, Banerji's best bowling displays came against Singapore in the Saudara Cup, a series close to his heart given his 16 appearances from 1975 to 1994.

"In those days there was not a lot of international cricket for us besides the Interport matches against Hong Kong every two years and the ICC Trophy every four years," said Banerji, who captained the national team from 1989 to 1994. "So that made the Saudara Cup very important for us and we always looked forward to it. Both teams always wanted to go one-up on the other which was why it became such an intense rivalry."

Banerji hopes the Saudara Cup, an annual three-day match which was last held in 2016, can find a spot in the busy sporting calendar given the popularity of limited-overs cricket once the global Covid-19 pandemic subsides.

"I strongly believe that red-ball cricket should form the basis and foundation for every cricket player," said Banerji. "Red-ball cricket is the traditional basis of the sport and should not be forgotten. 

"Once you've mastered the basics, then you can move on to white-ball cricket. The two-day and three-day game must be revived because the boys need to know what red-ball cricket is about."

Banerji is a master of the long-form game, having been part of a Saudara Cup record five wins in a row against Singapore from 1982 to 1986. He took six wickets in the first innings in 1982 and had match figures of nine for 59. He repeated the feat in 1985 with six wickets in the second innings and match figures of 10 for 88.

Other notable performances included taking seven wickets in 1984, six in 1992 and five in 1990 for a total of 56 wickets in 16 matches. 

Banerji played 18 matches at the ICC Trophy that brought a half-century against East Africa in 1986 in a 72-run stand with V. Vijayalingam after Malaysia slipped to 15-3 in an eventual two-wicket win. 

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