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The Three Vijays

By Gaurang
September 15 2004

The mid 1930s to the mid 1960s could rightly be called the “Vijay Dynasty” in Indian cricket. During this time the name Vijay became synonymous with the best of Indian batting: Merchant, Hazare and Manjrekar.

Vijay Merchant batting against England at the Oval in 1946

Only Polly Umrigar, the big Parsi from Bombay, could be placed in the same category of batting royalty as the Three Vijays.

The first to make his mark was Vijay Merchant who made his first class debut in 1929 in the Bombay Presidency matches, playing for the Hindus, alongside the incomparable C.K. Nayudu and other stalwarts such as L.P. Jai, and L. Amarsingh. Merchant was not selected for India’s first Test match played at Lords in 1932, being considered too young, but made his Test match debut soon enough, versus the visiting English side, at the age of 22 in 1933-34.

In a Test career that spanned from 1933 to 1951, but which was severely disrupted by World War II and India’s struggle for Independence, Merchant played only 10 Tests. All were against England, in four separate series: twice in India and twice in England, and still he managed to average nearly 48 and score nearly 900 Test runs.

In this very short Test career (in terms of matches played) he nevertheless played a couple of memorable innings. One such was his famous partnership with Mushtaq Ali, his swashbuckling fellow opener in the second innings at Old Trafford in 1936. India were trailing by a daunting 368 runs when Mushtaq Ali, in an innings reminiscent of latter day swashbucklers Srikkanth and Sehwag, cut loose and played an innings of spectacular defiance, described by Sir Neville Cardus, the great English cricket writer, as “strokes of genius which had the Indian quickness of eye.” At the other end Merchant played classical cricket, and the pair added 203 runs at the rate of 80 runs per hour. Rusi Modi, Merchant’s contemporary wrote, “By both art and temperament, Vijay was perfectly equipped for any type of innings on any sort of wicket, against any quality of bowling.” Modi added, “I have yet to see a cricketer play the hook shot better than Vijay. However, during the later stages of his career, he rarely hooked a bouncer. Ever prudent, he thought it best to leave it alone.”

Merchant was a thoroughly organized batsman, and set the pattern of scores of 200 or over in Indian domestic cricket. Until the advent of Gavaskar, Merchant was clearly the best opening batsman, if not the best batsman, India had ever produced. Sir Donald Bradman had this to say about Merchant’s decision not to tour Australia in 1947-48 during the bloody throes of partition following India’s independence struggle: “Worst of all, we were denied the sight of Vijay Merchant, who must surely have claims to be the greatest of all Indian players.” In his autobiography, Bradman attributed India’s relatively poor performance in Australia in 1947-48 largely to the absence of Merchant from the team.

Bradman clearly knew what he was talking about, for in all of first class cricket, Vijay Merchant’s average of 71.64 is second only to his own average of 95.14! No other batsman among his predecessors like C.K. Nayudu and Jack Hobbs, or his contemporaries like Wally Hammond and George Headley, or even latter day greats such as Vivian Richards and Sunil Gavaskar, or modern masters such as Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara, matches Merchant’s first class average.

Certainly, figures don’t tell the full picture of the quality of a player, but it is absurd to say they mean little, especially if the figures are not for just a season or two but for a record over two decades on all types of wickets and all around the world.

Further proof, if required, is provided by his exploits on his two tours to England. First in 1936 when aged 24 and quite unfamiliar with conditions in England, he scored 1745 runs at an average of 51 in all first class matches, while making the Wisden’s honors list as one of the five cricketers of the year. Then a decade later at the age of 34 he returned to England in 1946 and in a wet and miserable summer, to score 2385 runs at an average of 74 while playing in all but 2 matches during a four-month tour.

Add to his exploits in England, Merchant’s record in the Ranji Trophy, where he scored 3689 runs at an average of 98, plus his fantastic feats playing for the Hindus in the Presidency matches, and you start to get a picture of his prodigious talent.

Yet despite his success and achievements, Merchant was modest to the core and talked never of his own deeds, but discussed for hours the brilliance of C.K. Nayudu, the ability of Lala Amarnath and the guile of Vinoo Mankad. He displayed a flair for facts and figures and for reeling off interesting anecdotes one after the other, so it was only natural that he should in retirement become the host of a much beloved radio show called “Cricket with Vijay Merchant”. For many a youngster in the late 1960s and 1970s who grew up listening to Merchant’s homilies on the etiquette of cricket, as well as amusing and informative anecdotes about the greats who played the game, his show each Sunday was a window into the traditions and history of the game that provided context to the cricketing events of the day. Surely, a whole generation learned as much from Vijay’s radio show as a later generation did from watching Sunil Gavaskar’s television show which highlighted similar aspects of the game.

Merchant was a great student of the game, never considering himself above the game. In a candid magazine piece in the late 1970s, he once confessed: “Cricket does not owe me anything. I am extremely proud that I was able to do my bit for the land of my birth through cricket and I shall always be grateful to the game for this.” Such devotion to the game was recognized by Wisden when in 1956, they invited Merchant along with Don Bradman and Jack Hobbs to provide recommendations on the new LBW rule to counter the proliferation of negative pad play in the game.

Another area where Merchant’s influence on cricket, particularly Indian cricket, was immense was in his role as Chairman of Selectors in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was instrumental in giving starts to the careers of Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Vishwanath, Ashok Mankad and Eknath Solkar among others. This legacy of blooding players at the right time indicated his deep sincerity and an eye for talent. In 1971, Vijay Merchant it was who cast the deciding vote in favor of Ajit Wadekar to lead the Indian Team instead of an out of form Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, first to the West Indies, and then to England. Merchant also acquiesced to Wadekar’s hunch that Chandrasekhar, who at that time had been out of Test cricket for about three years, should be picked for the tour to England. The rest as they say is history, as India went on to record its most successful run in Test cricket, beating West Indies and England in their own backyards in consecutive series.

Merchant epitomized all that was noble and good about the game. He once wrote about how his philosophy of life was influenced by cricket. “On a good wicket, I always tried to play with a straight bat; on the wicket of life which is often wet, rough, uneven and sometimes even treacherous, I have used a cross bat -- a cross bat to fight my way out of difficulties. But I can assure you with all the emphasis at my command that I have never played with a crooked bat.”

John Arlott, the famous British commentator and cricket aficionado, wrote, “It is impossible not to like Vijay Merchant. His manners are polished to the last degree, his consideration for others impeccable, and he looks you in the face when he talks to you. His honesty is unmistakable, he speaks the truth, but never crudely.”

When Merchant passed away in 1987, not only did Indian cricket lose one of its guiding lights, but India, and particularly the metropolis of Bombay, lost one of its staunchest citizens, who devoted much of his time to bettering the lives of its less fortunate residents.

Vijay Hazare

Merchant was followed into Indian cricket by Vijay Hazare who in 1946 made his Test match debut.  Already in domestic cricket the two Vijays had struck up a friendly rivalry that would last for over a decade and a half as they vied for the mantle of India’s best batsman.

In domestic cricket, both Vijays scored double and triple centuries galore, often besting each other. One particularly poignant and stirring episode in their rivalry occurred during the Presidency matches of 1943, now called the Pentangular Tournament, because five teams: the Europeans, the Parsis, the Hindus, the Muslims and the Rest, played each other in a series of games, that for the frenzied following they evoked, far overshadowed the fledgling Ranji Trophy. These games were where all the action was and where reputations were made in domestic cricket. Hazare first scored 248 out of 395 against a powerful Muslim team. In the very next game Merchant scored 250 not out against a weak Rest of India team, which included Hazare, a Christian by faith. Hazare however responded immediately by scoring an unbelievable 309 out of 387 for the Rest in the very same game, achieving glory while going down fighting as his team lost by a large margin.

Later in his career Hazare joined Baroda and there in the company of Gul Mohammad he established the highest fourth wicket partnership in all of first class cricket, a record that stands to this day. The two added 577 runs in a Ranji Trophy match against the hapless Holkar team. In domestic cricket Hazare’s name became synonymous with tall scoring and he ended up with 12 scores over 200 among his 60 first class centuries. But Hazare was more than just a superb batsman, he was also quite a good fielder and a very useful medium pacer who ended up with 595 first class wickets at an average of under 25 per wicket to go with his nearly 19,000 runs at over 58 runs per innings.

However the true quality of Hazare’s batting can be seen in his feats outside India. In 1946 he toured England for the first time, and scored 1344 runs at 49.77 during a wet and miserable summer, to be second only to his captain Merchant in both runs scored and batting averages. His runs included an innings of 244 not out at Leeds scored against a powerful Yorkshire team.

Next Hazare took on the fire and brimstone of Miller and Lindwall who were both in their mid-twenties and in their bowling prime when India toured Australia in 1947-48. In the beautiful setting of Adelaide, framed by the spires of St. Peter’s Cathedral, he scored hundreds in both innings, 116 and 145, while pulling and hooking both Lindwall and Miller repeatedly. He also took the prize wicket of Donald Bradman while bowling his useful medium pacers, albeit after Bradman had already scored 201. Despite Hazare’s contributions, India lost the match, but the Australian Captain realized that here was a batsman who would not be intimidated. In the second innings Hazare, was forced to the wicket after Vinoo Mankad and Lala Amarnath were dismissed for ducks by Ray Lindwall in quick succession with the scoreboard reading 0-2. Keith Miller then immediately peppered him with two bouncers which he promptly dispatched to the fence. Miller now asked his Captain, Bradman, for an additional fielder on the leg side, but Bradman, refused, believing it not to be a worthy tactic to dismiss Hazare. A chagrined and chastened Miller, then began bowling medium pace, and was soon removed from the attack. Hazare took full advantage of this and quickly settled in to score 145 runs, while wickets kept falling periodically at the other end.

To date, only three Indian players have scored a century in each innings of a Test match: Vijay Hazare, Sunil Gavaskar, who did it an amazing three times, and Rahul Dravid. By the quality of his batting, Hazare most definitely belongs in this elite group.

Hazare ended up scoring nearly 450 runs at an average of nearly 48 while also taking 7 wickets, including that of Don Bradman twice, during the 1947-48 series Down Under. Back home from Australia he followed this tour up with an even more prolific series against the West Indies in India in scoring nearly 550 runs in at an average of nearly 68 including two centuries and three fifties.

In 1951-52 Hazare was named the captain of the Indian team, and under him India played back-to-back series against England. In the first series at home he led India to her maiden Test victory at Madras when India defeated England on largely due to excellent batting by Polly Umrigar and superb bowling by Vinoo Mankad in the match. Hazare himself averaged 58 in that series and scored 164* at New Delhi, his highest Test innings, and at that time the highest by an Indian in Test matches.

England, seemingly stung by this defeat in India, unleashed its full might at home in 1952, defeating India in three consecutive matches before rain saved India in the fourth match at the Oval. However Hazare stood tall among the ruins averaging 55 for the series, although his highest score was only 89. This was the series when, in the first Test at Leeds, the young and fiery Fred Trueman and the canny veteran Alec Bedser reduced India to an abject 0-4 in the second innings. In the face of the worst start ever made in a Test match by India, Hazare played a Captain’s knock and restored some pride with an innings of 56 and a stand of 105 for the 6th wicket with the plucky all-rounder Dattu Phadkar. India however lost this Test and the next two, as they were outclassed by a powerful English team led by Sir Len Hutton.

After this setback, Hazare was replaced as Captain by Lala Amarnath as India took on the new nation of Pakistan for the first time in a Test series at home in 1952-53. India won the series 2-1, in a see-saw battle that saw India draw first blood, Pakistan fight back through the efforts of Fazal Mehmood and a young Hanif Mohammad, and then India counter punch in the third match, before the final two Tests ended in tense draws, with neither team willing to give an inch. Hazare was an important contributor with 223 runs at an average of 111.50 in the three matches he played in. Not surprisingly the one defeat for India occurred in the second Test at Lucknow, where Hazare was not in the team. However he immediately made an impact when recalled for the third Test, where his sterling 146 not out and the bowling of Vinoo Mankad played a big part in the win in Bombay as India went up 2-1 in the series.

After this series, Hazare was re-appointed Captain when India toured West Indies later that same season. This was to be his last Test series, and he led India most ably and held a powerful West Indies team that included the famous Three “Ws”, Everton Weekes, Frank Worrell and Clyde Walcott, to a victory margin of only 1-0 in a five match series.

Many believe, and quite justifiably, that the Three “Vs” of Indian cricket were comparable in their influence on Indian batting as the fabled Three “Ws” were on West Indies batsmanship. And none was more influential than the aptly named Hazare, who was the first Indian to reach the milestones of 1000 and then 2000 Test runs.

Vijay Manjrekar

Vijay Manjrekar, the third of the Three “Vs” to follow Merchant and Hazare into Indian cricket, was born in Bombay and made his Test debut against England in Calcutta in 1951 under the Captaincy of Vijay Hazare. He scored 48 on debut batting at number seven in the line up. But the way he handled the pace of the great Brian Statham and Fred Ridgway, the fast-medium stalwart from Kent, showed he was an excellent player of fast bowling and destined for a spot in the top half of the batting order.

In 1952 in the first Test at Leeds, then barely out of his teens and batting at number five, Manjrekar proved that point when he joined his captain Vijay Hazare at the crease in the first innings, with India tottering at 42 for three against the pace and swing of Fred Truman and Alec Bedser with the guile of Jim Laker to follow. They rescued India with a record 4th wicket stand of 222, which stood as the Indian record, until it was broken by Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, also at Leeds, almost exactly 50 years later in 2002. Manjrekar’s 133 at Headingley, his maiden Test century, showed the rest of his team how fast bowling and the moving ball should be played. His footwork was nimble and precise as he covered the line and movement of the ball, and according to one observer moved to the ball like a panther to the kill, with his square cutting and driving being particularly magnificent.

Manjrekar however suffered a dip in form against the visiting Pakistani team in 1952-53, but soon was back to top form in the West Indies where he scored 118 at Kingston, Jamaica. This superb display of technique and courage while facing hostile pace bowling must have been part of the Manjrekar gene pool passed on to his son Sanjay, who a generation later did precisely the same thing, against a much more formidable and fearsome West Indies four prong pace attack comprised of Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop, when he smashed a technically masterful 108 in Bridgetown, Barbados in 1988-89.

After this innings in West Indies, Vijay Manjrekar became one of the mainstays of the Indian middle order and scored runs against all Test playing countries both abroad and at home. His best two series were at home against New Zealand in 1955-56 and against England in 1961-62 where he scored 586 runs, including 189 not out in Delhi, his highest Test score. Manjrekar ended up with a career aggregate of 3209 runs at an average of just under 40, with 7 centuries in the 55 Tests he played. This record while impressive, was perhaps not reflective of his true abilities and hinted at unfulfilled potential. Yet when he retired, or rather was dropped, Manjrekar was India’s second highest run getter in Test matches, behind only Polly Umrigar, and his seven Test 100s put him on par with Vijay Hazare as the second highest scorer of Test centuries for India at that time, again behind Umrigar’s 12 tons. In his early days Manjrekar was also a brilliant cover point with a powerful and accurate throwing arm and even kept wickets on occasion. Later in his career he put on weight, but never lost his nimble footwork and his graceful and artful ease at the crease.

Always a team man and good sport, Manjrekar set an admirable example in the true spirit of the game when, despite a broken thumb, he came out to bat against the pace and fury of Wesley Hall and Roy Gilchrist in the Delhi Test of 1958-59, just so that his teammate, Chandu Borde, who was on 96, could complete a century. As events turned out Borde was out hit wicket, taking evasive action to a thunderbolt from Gilchrist, while still on 96. But Manjrekar’s willingness to sacrifice for his fellow player, showed both his courage and his character.

With Vijay Manjrekar’s untimely death in 1983 at the relatively tender age of 52, he preceded Vijay Merchant, his elder by nearly 20 years, back to the great pavilion. Fortunately for Indian cricket, Vijay Hazare, is still with us at 90 not out. But there is no doubt that the deeds of the Three Vijays will forever adorn Indian cricket like a batting version of the Tricolor, a proud heritage for the generations to follow.

 

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