In the 1930s, an Indian team without royalty at the helm was akin to a rudderless ship. Selecting a captain was almost likeswayamvara of the old, where Princes and Kings assembled in all their regal splendour and one of them was garlanded with the prestigious responsibility.
Of course, to be fair, if imperial benefactors like the Maharajahs of Patiala and Vizianagram had not lavished gold from their immense coffers to support the meagre finances of Indian cricket, the country’s limp into the international arena might have been impossible. But the pitch almost always got queered when the philanthropists could not be restrained behind the scenes, beyond the picket fences and galloped into the field of play.
But, were not Indian princes the very ones who paraded their cricketing talent to the British and Australians to make the world sit up and take notice? Weren’t Ranjitsinhji and Duleepsinhji the royal torchbearers whose reign extended beyond their states and into majestic exploits in the green ovals so that they ruled over the hearts of cricket lovers?
Not really. Ranji was not of royal birth. He was not the heir to any throne. It was his skills on the cricket field he utilised in mixing the intoxicating cocktail of cricket and diplomacy to manoeuvre through complicated legal paperwork somewhat dubiously and earn the title of a Prince. Duleep was his nephew.
However, this story is about the real kings in whose veins ran royal blood, and often arrogance to go with it – but little cricket.
The Vizzy-Patiala showdown
When India toured England in 1932, the Maharajah of Vizianagram(Vizzy), and the Maharajah of Patiala were pitted in an epic duel of financial strength, one sponsoring the tour, the other the trials ... both with the ultimate goal of becoming the captain of India!
When Patiala was preferred in 1932, and Vizianagram was given the post of the deputy vice-captain, it broke the latter’s ambitious heart. Vizzy then played a master card and withdrew from the tour, ostensibly in the interest of cricket, citing illness which had resulted in loss of form.
Almost immediately, Patiala also passed up the opportunity because of ‘urgent state matters’ to take care of.
A Maharajah, however, had to be found, and the board zeroed in on Porbandar, who was appointed skipper of the first touring Indian team.
However, this newly-appointed captain had limited cricket skills and enough self-realisation to stand down from the helm after some disastrous personal showing. Hence, deservingly, it was the commoner CK Nayudu who led India in their first Test match and also back home in three more when the Englishmen visited the country for the first time.
Promise of an undeserving Test cap if CK Nayudu was insulted!
By 1936, Vizzy had played all his cards right for several years. Recruited foreign cricketers, treated as royal guests, fed on mulligatawny soups, taken on big game hunting and lubricated by chhota pegs of whiskey that sloshed about inside them, had vouched for him as the right man to lead India. Some of the big names thus won over will shock many, the immortal English opening pair of Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe being two of the most famous.
The truth, however, was that His Royal Highness had little cricketing talent or acumen. Furthermore, he was whimsical, addicted to power and his decisions smacked of favouritism.
While initially some of the county sides fell for his gifts of expensive watches and bowled him one or two long hops, English professionals could not be expected to carry on the sham for too long. Soon, the Kumar was languishing at the bottom of the batting averages. The British press, those who could do away with politically correct diplomacy, were open in their criticism of the tactics – which included no fixed batting order and quixotic field placements.
Senior pro CK Nayudu was understandably not very happy with what was going on. And that did not rub off well on royalty. A legendary and popular player who had been the captain of India did not make the Maharajah comfortable, and he had not quite forgiven a man from the streets who had dared to lead the Indian cricket team.
Baqa Jilani was a medium-pacer of mediocre ability, who had the good fortune of being asked to be the general to manoeuvre operations in this battle for regal honour. Vizzy lured the young man with the promise of an undeserved Test cap if he insulted Nayudu at the breakfast table.
The instructions were carried out and the upstart, with the backing of the captain, heaped abuse on the then greatest cricketer of India. A precursor of the modern day of Internet forums which need only the cloak of firewall protected invisibility for non-entities to abuse all time greats?
Jilani won his only Test cap at The Oval because of following the captain’s instructions to perfection, scoring four and 12 and taking no wickets for 55 in 15 overs. India lost the match by nine wickets.
The Amarnath affair
However, Vizzy preserved his worst treatment for the best performer of the tour – young Lala Amarnath.
Soon after the start of the tour the captain called the 24-year old Amarnath aside and warned him to stay away from Nayudu. A surprised Amarnath, who hit the first Test century for India in 1933, complied with his captain’s wishes, and Vizzy was pleased. When the all-rounder scored a century against Northamptonshire, the captain was effusive in praise and started giving him regular rides to the grounds in his car.
However, the happy times did not last too long. Soon, Vizzy refused Amarnath the bowler some changes to the field in a match against Leicestershire, and banished him to the outfield.
When the captain got wind of Amarnath discussing his tactics with other team members, Vizzy called him aside again and informed him that he had the supreme authority to do whatever he wanted. Amarnath, with the Punjabi bluntness, retorted that it did not include the right to insult colleagues.
This made Vizzy inform the manager, Major Brittain-Jones. The Major ordered Amarnath to apologise while luring him with a lucrative contract to play in the Lancashire league, and the pioneering Indian cricketer did go ahead and say that he was sorry.
However, Vizzy was not really mollified by the apology. At Lord’s against Middlesex, Amarnath was again banished to the deep and under-bowled, even as he took six for 29. The all-rounder responded by scoring a century in each innings against Essex.
At this point of the tour, Amarnath picked up a back injury and soon was in severe pain. He was made to bowl after some minor treatment and posted in the outfield yet again, which did little for his recovery. When he discussed the matter with Amir Elahi and Baqa Jilani, he received a severe warning from the manager.
Soon after this, Major Brittain-Jones accused Amarnath of being a womaniser, a charge vehemently denied by the cricketer.
The climax was reached during the match against Minor Counties. Amarnath was told that he would be batting at No 4 and had padded up, but Amar Singh was sent in at the fall of the second wicket. He sat waiting with his pads on and was allowed to go in only when the fifth wicket went down, 10 minutes from the close of play. He played out time, and when he came back to the pavilion, could not control himself any more. He threw down his pads and muttered loud and choice expletives in Punjabi.
Soon after the match, Brittain-Jones produced a written statement signed by several players testifying that Amarnath had misbehaved with the captain and informed him that he would be sent back to India. Arrangements were made to put him on board Kaiser I Hind the very next day.
Players like Cota Ramaswami, Wazir Ali, CK Nayudu and Dattaram Hindlekar went to the captain and pleaded with him, but even though Vizzy promised to consider if Amarnath tendered a written apology, the next day he informed everyone that the manager would not change his mind.
Amarnath made his lonely trip back to India and the drama dragged on for more than a month. Amidst much public outcry against the decision of the team management, the Maharajah of Bhopal did try to intervene and send him back to England, but things did not work out. There were statements and counter-statements, with muck dripping all around from mudslinging in all directions.
Amidst disciplinary committee inquiries and reports, fall outs between the board and the best performer of the Indian side, contradictory statements by the captain, India lost the series easily, Vizzy faring disastrously with the bat and as a leader. One particular observer remarked, perhaps with poetic license of delicious exaggeration, that the Kumar’s total number of runs during the tour was nowhere close to the number of Rolls Royce in his garage!
In January 1937, the Beaumont Committee report described Vizzy’s captaincy as disastrous, noting that "he did not understand field placings or bowling changes and never maintained any regular batting order." On team selection, the report stated "the good players remained idle for weeks together."
While Amarnath did get back into the Indian team and later captained the side, Vizzy did not play for India again.
Even a Merchant indulged in unscrupulous transactions
Vizzy’s ire against Nayudu was not fully quenched with Jilani’s antics at the breakfast table. When Lord Tennyson’s Englishmen came to India to play three unofficial ‘Tests’ in the winter of 1937, the still strong influence of the Maharajah on team selection ensured that Nayudu was left out because of ‘form issues’.
Because of the withdrawal of the Hindus from the Quadrangular tournament, Nayudu had not yet played that season. No one could possibly have judged his form, and the reason stated was evidently eyewash. He was still paying the price for challenging the superiority of royal blood in a sport considered earmarked for the elite.
The team under Vijay Merchant fared terribly and the selectors, led by Colonel Mistry, recalled Nayudu for the second ‘Test’ inBombay. The news was welcomed by thousands of fans who flocked to the metropolis to watch the game.
What followed can be easily termed as one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of Indian cricket.
On the morning of the game, the paying public came to know from the papers that Nayudu had been overlooked for a certain Mohammed Sayeed, whose cricketing abilities still remain a mystery. More absurd was the fact that even Nayudu was not informed by captain Merchant and had to read about his omission in the papers after coming all the way to Bombay to play the match.
Rumour had it that Amar Singh, Nayudu’s team mate of the past, had reservations against the great man. According to the all-rounder, Nayudu played too hard and wanted to win at all costs, and it “interfered with his enjoyment of the game”.
According to the newspapers of the era, however, during the England tour of 1932, some of the Indian players had thrown all barriers of discipline to the winds, keeping late hours and getting drunk during match days. When CK Nayudu had threatened to keep them out of the Test, and had appealed to them in the name of India, the players had been infuriated. The revolt of 1937 was an after-effect of this early history.
Amar Singh had failed miserably with the bat and the ball in the first ‘Test’, but his objections received full support from Vizzy, who pulled appropriate strings to make the selectors arrive at the decision like puppets that they indeed were. There was not much love lost between Nayudu and Vinoo Mankad either, with the former’s superstar status being difficult for promising players to adjust to. With Vizzy’s backing, nine out of the 14 players in the squad informed the selection committee that they were not willing to play if Nayudu was in the side. Surprisingly, captain Vijay Merchant, who also one of the three selectors, allowed this farce to go unchecked and Nayudu remained out of the side.
When Merchant was dismissed cheaply, Sentinel remarked, “The cures of the 35,000 who had gathered to watch the match seems to have worked.” Seldom had such cheers greeted the captain’s dismissal.
Merchant was a big enough person to admit his mistake in public and apologise to Nayudu, but the colonel, 41 by then, never again turned out for the country even though he continued to play first-class cricket for twenty more years.
Senantix (Arunabha Sengupta)