Sambeet Dash

As this malignant Covid mutant is busy spreading its tentacles in India, I am busy writing obituaries of my near and dear ones on regular basis – folks I am and was familiar with, who left their indelible impression in me. They left too early for comfort, their deaths could have been preventable. We do live in turbulent times.

In 1979, as a 10 year old cricket fan, I was watching a match between the touring Australian team and East Zone (Comprising Odisha, Bengal, Bihar which included Jharkhand then, Assam) at the Barabati Stadium, Cuttack, Odisha. There was no TV those days. The gallery was full of transistor wielding spectators.

Came afternoon. Close to tea, came the announced from an Odia commentator “CHA PAANA BIRATI”, meaning “Tea Break”. The person sitting next to me gave me some unsolicited information, that the players will go outside for tea and chew a few betel leaves (PAAN) during this break, hence the name “CHA PAANA BIRATI”.

I believed him and imagined Alan Border along with Kim Hughes going out to a kiosk outside and ordering GOPAL ZARDA (A popular scented tobacco) PAAN, followed by a “Cutting Chai”, brewed from a coal oven. However I took it for granted that Rabi Panda, a player representing Odisha those days and true to his salt did so.

He struggled against the bowling of a rookie Geoff Lawson, the young Aussie fast bowler who could find a place in the team because all his better known compatriot Dennis Lillie, Len Pascoe were playing in the better paying Kerry Packers League (Test cricketers were paid in peanuts those days).

Rabi Panda, the only batsman of Odisha origin was cheered by the local crowd as he walked in to bat. But he didn’t last long and got out early. When he returned back, the crowd booed him, as their local hero failed him. A la TAKHT YA KAQTA (Crown or Coffin) were the sole options for the Mughal princes, our cricketer are showered with flowers or brickbats to the whims of their fans.

I vividly remember during Australia’s fielding, a guy sitting next to me shouting HEY HEY Hilditch and threw a half eaten apple towards him. (Andrew Hilditch, an Australian batsman was also a solicitor and the son-in-law of legendary cricketer Bobby Simpson). Hilditch returned the compliment gesturing like a Monkey and throwing the apple back. The guy who caught the apple appeared to be in the seventh heaven, unaware of the symbolic message conveyed by Hilditch’s mimicry of monkey.
Mr. Rabi Panda used to play regularly in BJB College ground and Mukteswar Cricket Club (MCC) field in Club Cricket tournaments, both walking distance from BJB Flats where I lived. While watching his team bat, he was narrating to the attentive listeners about his batting against the likes of Geoff Lawson and Malcolm Marshall. Though he lasted longer against Marshall, he found the Windies bowler more ferocious.
We kids listened to his story in rapt attention. Next day in my D M School bus and later in the class when I retold Mr. Panda’s experience, I became the center of attention and found an active audience. I enjoyed every bit of my celebrity status however temporary it was, earned by listening to Sri Panda’s escapades standing from few feet away.
Like many sport persons of reputation in India who found employment in PSUs, Mr. Panda was employed in SAIL. It was sad to know that he passed yesterday from Covid. Odisha lost a memorable sports person who arguably was the first Odia cricketer to perform well at Zonal level where Odias were very sparsely represented those days. RIP Mr. Rabi Panda.
(Author is an Odia technocrat living in the USA. Views are personal)

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