NARASIMHA Rao, more commonly known as Bobjee Sir, Bobby or even Jimmy, has been a Northern Ireland resident for more than 30 years, but in his native Hyderabad he has a stand in the Rajiv Ghandi International Stadium named after him and remains a cricketing legend.
In Northern Ireland he was on first name terms with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness and anyone who has “made it” in North West cricket over the last three decades has been coached by Bobby Rao. Indeed, nine of the Ireland team that took the field in Malahide for their first Test match in 2018 will admit they were helped by Rao batting tutorials.
So how did the former Test cricketer, whom Indian great VVS Laxman – he of the 134 Test matches and more than 8,700 runs – calls his “Godfather of Cricket” end up spending more of his life in Strabane than he did in India?
His story is now in print in a new biography, by Donegal News senior reporter Conor Sharkey, “Bobby: India and Ireland... a Love Story” – a book which has already sold out in two shops in his home town, despite it being published only last month.
It is too simplistic to say that Josephine McElroy brought him to Strabane after their wedding 32 years ago because Bobby had been the Red Caps’ overseas professional for five years before they even met. But certainly cricket in Ireland – especially cricket in the North West – has been the huge beneficiary.
It was in February 1989 that Bobby played his last Ranji Trophy game for Hyderabad – he hit current India coach Ravi Shastri for three successive sixes in the game – but 31 years on only six batsmen have scored more runs for Hyderabad and only two (including Laxman) have a higher average.
The genuine all-rounder, Bobby is one of only six bowlers to have taken 200 wickets for Hyderabad and, again, only two have a better average. Former England captain Tony Greig, on tour in 1977, said he was one of the best on-side players he has ever played against and that prompted a feature in the Guardian by Henry ‘Blowers’ Blofeld on Rao.
That was seen by officials in Uppermill Cricket Club in Lancashire who made him an offer to become their overseas professional and he clocked up the runs and wickets for the next two English summers. The agent who got him that job then told him that Strabane were looking for a professional and, keen for another stint overseas, Bobby had no hesitation in saying ‘yes’.
His new destination must have got lost in translation because when Bobby flew into Heathrow in April 1980 he travelled onto Manchester to the house where he had been staying the previous two years and finally asked “So, where is Strabane?”
Despite being warned about the Troubles by his English host, Bobby was determined to honour his contract and when he arrived in Northern Ireland, Wilfred Mortimer (Strabane 1957-90) recalls: “I’ve never seen a man as cold in my life. He was in the car and he was shaking... physically shaking from the cold.”
It didn’t take long for Bobby to make an impression on the Strabane club and local youngsters in particular, as then 12-year-old Michael Gillespie, who would captain the team in an Irish Cup final, recalls. “I have very vivid memories of Bobby coming and I remember, without being any way racist, just this big black guy dressed in cricket whites coming into the club. Where you were that age, he was your idol and I remember me and a few other boys used to follow him around the streets. “It was like hero worship.”
And as news of the charismatic coach spread through the town, dozens of budding young cricketers turned up at Strabane Park for coaching sessions which dominated the summer holidays. “If it was not five days a week, it was definitely four and they ran from 10am to around noon and from 2.30-4.30pm. And if you were that bit older, you were told to come back in the evening for senior practice,” added Gillespie.
“Bobby is all about technique and about the proper way to play cricket. He stripped it right back and looked at how you held a bat. That has been lost from modern day coaching and it is what separates Bobby Rao from any of the other coaches I have ever had.”
Sion Mills, Strabane for a second spell, Eglinton and St Johnston would all benefit from Bobby’s hands-on coaching while helping the senior teams on the field and, unsurprisingly, when the old Irish Cricket Union appointed their first full-time coach in 1995, it wasn’t long before Mike Hendrick asked Bobby to join his backroom staff. By this stage Bobby (having qualified by residency) had played six times for Ireland, his last – Hendrick’s first game as coach - a Benson & Hedges Cup match against Surrey. However, a niggling leg injury forced Bobby off the international stage as a player. But Hendrick had seen enough.
“I wanted Bobby on board with me as my batting coach and as a sounding board, and I was delighted when he said yes,” recalls the former England pace bowler. Players at the start of their international career and even the most experienced welcomed him with open arms. Alan Lewis was Ireland captain in 1995, having already won 85 caps: “I suppose it’s a pity that it happened so late in my career but certainly he changed the way I thought,” he says. “He was really good on things like shot selection and getting on top of bowlers ... when to get on top of bowlers, the type of thing you need to be looking for.”
Allan Rutherford, captain of the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games cricket team, managed by Rao, in 1998: “I first encountered Bobby when I was 13 or 14 when he would come to Bready to coach us,” he says. “Bobby brought something to Irish cricket, particularly the North West, something that players had never seen. He improved players, not just young players either and took them to a higher standard.”
Boyd Rankin: “He has played a massive role in where Irish cricket has got to today and I hope that he still has a bit to play over the next few years.”
William Porterfield: “I remember batting against him, I would have been 15 or 16... and it was something I had never faced before. He was a skilful bowler. I’ve spent a lot of time with Bobby in the years since then and he is one of those people, when he says something it makes sense.”
There are many more tributes throughout the book which reveals the other side of Bobby’s life, his tireless work as chairman of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM), which in turn led to him becoming the founder of SECA, the Strabane Ethnic Association in 2004. His relationship with NICEM saw Bobby attending meetings and getting acquainted with senior politicians in Stormont, in particular Martin McGuinness, who cut the ribbon on SECA’s new, larger offices in Strabane town centre in 2014.
“He was a cricket lover and our conversations were about India and cricket,” says Bobby. “He was very knowledgeable about the game which surprised me. That was the language we spoke ... the language of sport.”
Honoured by the Queen in 2011 with an MBE, Bobby continues to answer any call to coach cricket and at the height of lockdown earlier this year, at the age of 66, was one of a band of volunteers who got meals out to Strabane’s elderly, vulnerable or housebound.
Coaching may have been “the only talent God gave me to earn my living” but Bobby Rao has done so much more.
*Bobby: India and Ireland … A Love Story by MV Narasimha Rao with Conor Sharkey is published by Hero Books, price £16 (€20)