Over the past few seasons this column has used the winter months to bring you a series of profiles from around the cricket world. Now, as we start to think about going into hibernation for a while, the story of one of the most pivotal figures within the game domestically.
Over the past 20 years, few people have had as much input into Irish cricket as the focus of tonight's piece, former India and Ireland International Bobby Rao. Anyone who knows Bobby will be aware of his passion, and also the fact that he refuses to call a spade by any fancy name. I was made most welcome in the Rao home, and was immediately struck by some of the photos in the room. One was of Bobby and Viv Richards, and another much larger one of him coaching a highly attentive VVS Laxman. A couple of albums besides were like a who's-who of world cricket. As Josephine and Suresh landed with refreshments, Bobby insisted that if he were to tell his story, it would have to be warts and all.
Some of what he has to say may not sit well with everyone.
As humble beginnings go, this one ranks among the finest, as Bobby himself describes. 'I grew up in Hyderabad, and like most young boys, cricket was our game. I spent a lot of time at the Secunderbad Cricket Club, and was scoring a First XI match one day when it transpired that we only had ten men. I was hurriedly introduced into the team and on the advice of one of the players who must have seen me in the nets I was given a bowl. I finished with 6 wickets and have been playing senior cricket more or less since that day.'
'I played club cricket until I was 17, before making my breakthrough into 'county' cricket with Hyderabad. At that time, the major corporate organisations sponsored the cricket teams, and some cities had as many as 200 teams split into 12-15 divisions. I was given employment at the bank which sponsored our team, and then given leave to play cricket. I captained my county for 9 of the 15 years I spent there, winning all the domestic trophies including a first ever Ranji Trophy. Under my captaincy, players of the quality of Azaruddin made debuts, and it was a highly competitive sport.'
In 1978, the young Rao made the first of his 5 appearances for India, one of them as 12th man, and in an atmosphere that few could have imagined. 'I played against that superb West Indian team of the era in front of 98,000 people in Calcutta' he smiled. 'This, remember was an age when fast bowlers could bowl whatever they liked at a batsman, and I can tell you now I ducked under several scorchers from Malcolm Marshall and Co. I also played in two Tests against Australia, in a side containing Alan Border, Kim Hughes, David Boon and the likes. That said, we had no shortage of superb players ourselves, headed and captained by the great Sunil Gavaskar, Bishen Bedi and Kapil Dev.'
So how then had Bobby come to end up in Strabane?
'I had started work for a new bank in 1976, and was released on three years special leave to play in the Lancashire league in England. The more successful I was, the better for the bank, as they got publicity and advertising from that. Towards the end of those years my agent phoned me to see if I fancied going to play in Northern Ireland. I had never even heard of Northern Ireland, but my friend in Lancashire, who was also offered a contract was aware of the troubles, and was insistent that we shouldn't go. I had just enjoyed a very productive season and was offered several opportunities back home, and indeed was heading off to Sri Lanka so my brother was doing my dealings for me, and we agreed that I would go in April the following year. In 1980 I came to Northern Ireland with Raman Lamba; he to Belfast and I to Strabane. Therein began my stint as a professional with the Tyrone club which lasted for 6 years. In all honesty, I expected to be here for a couple of months at best, as I had no great expectations. The standard was better than I had anticipated, but I was surprised how many shall we say 45 plussers were playing!'
'Because my county team were having a superb season domestically, I didn't come back in 1986, but returned a year later to neighbouring Sion Mills, beginning a period that was to span 14 years. I had done quite a bit of coaching in my time at Strabane, including going to places like the 'head of the town' and crossing the so-called divide, but that really took off at Sion, when I was coaching 5 days a week, all summer. Few people will be aware of this but that coaching was all undertaken voluntarily, and in time I was providing coaching to many clubs outside Sion.'
Having been party to many of Bobby's coaching classes at that time, I like many others was able to acknowledge those efforts.
Having met Josephine, Bobby planned to return to India to set up home where he was held in great esteem, but his wife was unable to settle and he retired from First Class cricket in 1989 and they returned to Tyrone.
Bobby was offered employment at Sion Mills Recreation Club, not because of his cricket ability, but rather his financial experience, although he readily admits the Tyrone Club got 14 good years' playing out of him. I also got the impression that there was unfinished business at Sion, but Bobby shrugged his shoulders. 'I coached a generation of kids up there, and we had a great side under the captaincy of John Browne which only lost out to Limavady in the league by one point. Some people used the club constitution to take that team apart. Later, we developed another good side under Raymond Moan, but they did exactly the same thing there. Don't forget this was also the era when Sion reached their first ever All Ireland final, even allowing for all those great sides of the past'
In 2004, Strabane came back to Bobby to see if he'd be interested in joining them again, and he was full of praise for Terence Patton and the Gillespie's. 'I'd just lost my job, and was feeling very down, but when they came to see me, they really made me feel wanted. I am so grateful to those lads, and it was a very touching experience. I went back to Strabane, and although we made a lot of finals, I was really disappointed we never got over the line.'
And then came Eglinton.
'Billy Henderson came and talked to me and I was very impressed. I've known Billy for some time now, and he just loves his cricket. Initially we just drew up a plan for coaching at the ground and the schools, two days a week. Playing wasn't mentioned. Until April! Although I had agreed to coach 2 days a week, it was no time at all until I was down there 5 days a week. This wasn't about money as Billy will confirm, but I was happy to coach where players, young and old wanted coached.'
Having realised that the Eglinton move was borne out of a healthy mutual respect, I moved on to an issue that I knew would probably prove thorny. Listening to Bobby Rao speak, you get a feel for the man and his principles, and there's no room for doubt in the feeling that he has been badly let down by Irish cricket. 'Of course, yes' he reasons 'I have felt like a second class citizen here for some time now.'
'A few years back I was asked to fill in for Ireland as a player against Nottinghamshire as someone had cried off. I never seen anything like it, the Northern based players flew from Belfast, and those from the South left from Dublin. There was no team meeting, no nets, in fact the first time we formally got together was in the changing room on the day of the game. And talking about the dressing room, there were more officials than players in there! This, remember was a Notts side consisting of people like Kevin Curran, Allan Lamb, Rob Bailey and Curtley Ambrose. I made my feelings about the lack of preparation known. Indeed so badly affected was my confidence that for the only time in my career I borrowed a helmet. I went on and top scored with 49 not out'
'Mike Hendrick arrived on the scene in the mid-90's and came to my house to ask me to help out with the coaching, which I did for very little return. When Hendrick left I was asked to take charge of the team to play a 2-day game against Scotland at Ormeau Park, and overseen Ireland's first win against the Scots for 7 Years. After that, I took the under-19's to Sri Lanka, where they reached the semi-final of the shield in the World Cup for the 1st time, only losing by 10 runs to Australia. I had been coaching with Brian Doherty and John Semple in the North West since 1993, and we had established a great rapport. I applied for the Development Officer's job in 1998, and the coaching job vacated by Hendrick, and as of today, have never received an answer as to what criteria I missed out on. The Development of Irish cricket has nothing to do with administration, and with all due respect to the present incumbent, two part timers will change nothing.
'I have played cricket to the highest standard there is, and have coaching badges right up to ECB staff standard. I filled in games for Ireland at a couple of hours notice, helped out in the Irish coaching post, and coached all the underage teams. In short, when the ICU needed me, I never let them down, and yet when I have applied for paid work in Irish cricket, there is some stumbling block. Perhaps by providing all that voluntary coaching I have sold myself short I don't know. When I'm back in India I'm treated regally, my coaching sessions usually have to start at 6.30 am to accommodate everyone. People like Laxman are continually suggesting I should be back helping the Indian Cricket Board. When Josephine sees how I'm treated in India she gets upset that I seem unable to manage a fraction of that respect in Ireland. She realises that my responsibilities in cricket, amazing though it may sound, seem to be more thought of in India than in Ireland.
I feel so strongly about this that I would like the International Cricket Council to enquire what criteria is needed for these jobs. The ICC provides finance for the ICU so surely we should be allowed to see how that is used. I don't blame the North West, because quite simply the North West have no power within the Irish Cricket Union. This region continues to be sold short year on year. When was the last time you saw the Ireland coach at a domestic game here, and yet it's a specific prerequisite of the job?'
Having talked to Bobby for an hour after our interview ended, there is no doubting the frustration he feels. He has given so much to cricket right throughout the country, and that being the case, surely he deserves an answer.
We can ill-afford to lose his like.