Throughout the course of history, Indian cricket has produced one batting great after another– stalwarts who have stood up courageously to the weaponry hurled at the country by foreign attacks.
In spite of the embarrassment of riches, in the blur of the many great names that have whirled across scoreboards, quite a few all-time Indian XIs will still include the pioneering willow wielders who had put Indian batting on the map of the world.
While Vijay Merchant was the first great opening batsman of India, and one of the very, very few openers deserving the intensifying adjective, Vijay Hazare was the vanguard of a long line of middle-order masters.
Merchant, classical and correct, was the founder of the Bombay school of batsmanship. Hazare, sedate and solid, was the first sheet anchor of Indian cricket. They were the pillars of the Indian batting from the late 30s to the early 50s – the first of the many golden partnerships of the country. So much so that their names featured together in that famed, express monologue delivered by Amitabh Bachchan in Namak Halaal.
Yet, both of them were incredibly decent and dignified. Hazare, laconic, reserved and monosyllabic, rarely voiced his opinions – especially about himself – broad blade distinctly more vocal. And when John Arlott had broached a comparison of his phenomenal first-class average with Bradman’s, Merchant had exclaimed, “Please never again mention my name in the same breath as Sir Donald Bradman. It is sacrilege.”
The decency probably crept into their batting as well. Arlott had eulogised, no ill-mannered attempt was made by either batsman to take the bowling by the scruff of the neck. Each, politely, indicated the fundamental error of bowling short or wide or at half-volley length, they corrected but did not chastise.
There was a lot of mutual admiration between the two. While Hazare’s respect for Merchant was well known, Merchant for his part, felt that the burden of captaincy had prevented Hazare from becoming India’s finest batsman – which was one of the greatest tragedies of cricket.
The point where their characteristics and personas merged was in the phenomenal appetite for runs. It was this insatiable hunger of more and more runs and centuries that propelled the two peaceful men answering to the same first name into the domain of surprising competitive rivalry.
There are historians – notably Ramachandra Guha – who are reluctant to make too much of this rivalry. According to them, it just happened that the two men in their primes broke each other’s record over and over again, and that lent a sheen of competitiveness to their saga.
True, the record breaking was a story so phenomenal that it nearly bordered on the ridiculous. Playing for the Hindus against the Muslims in the Bombay Pentangular, a tournament which may sound nightmarish to the modern secularist, Merchant hit the Indian first-class record score of 243 in 1941-42.
In the very next edition of the championship, Hazare surpassed it scoring 248 for the Rest against the Muslims.
In the finals of the 1943 tournament, Hindus met the Rest and piled up 581, including yet another record-breaking effort of 250 by Merchant. The Rest were bowled out for 133 in the first innings, and crashed to an innings defeat with a total of 387 in the second. But in this modest second innings score, Hazare’s contribution was an amazing 309!
Within the span of one week, the two great men had broken each other’s record thrice. This tussle continued in the Ranji Trophy. When they faced off barely a week later, Merchant scored 141 in Bombay’s 487 and Hazare responded with 109 inBaroda’s reply of 297.
A couple of weeks down the line, Bombay met Maharashtra and Merchant shattered all the previous records with an innings of 359.
This obviously caught the imagination of the public and the media, but both these cricketers carried themselves with too much poise and dignity to confess to rivalry. As mentioned, many historians still maintain that the sequence of high scores was incidental and the conflict was a myth created around it.
However, there are a few who thought differently. Brian Statham, the legendary English fast bowler, certainly felt there was a perpetual battle between the two that did not always work well for India.
In his autobiography Flying Balls, Statham wrote disparagingly about his first full tour, a visit to India with the English team of 1951-52. He found the conditions appalling, the food, accommodation and wickets unsuitable for good cricket. And he also mentioned that Merchant and Hazare carried their legendary clash of tall scores into the Test matches.
Indeed, in the first Test at Feroz Shah Kotla, the tactics of these two men raised several eyebrows. England had been bowled out for 203 by the end of the first day. When India batted, Merchant and Hazare came together with the score reading 64 for two. By the end of the second day, they had crawled to 186 for two, adding 39 in the last hour and a half. Merchant, in the process, had completed his century. The pair batted on well into the second session of the third day, adding 211 runs in five hours and ten minutes. Statham says that often the batsmen ran only one when two, or even three, were for the taking. Even when well settled, they did not seem keen on hammering a tired English attack on a docile wicket, although fast scoring was definitely the requirement of the moment.
When Merchant was finally bowled by Statham, he had batted seven and a half hours for 154, a new Test record for India, passing Hazare’s 145 scored in Adelaide, 1947-48.
Hazare, the captain, could have declared around tea, with a huge lead, to have a go at the exhausted Englishmen. However, he decided to bat on and declared only at the end of the last session, thus enabling the visitors to enjoy the rest day before starting their second innings. By then, with his eight hour, 35-minute vigil he had regained his record with 164 not out.
When a dogged England held out for a draw, the tactics did come under a lot of criticism. Although both the Vijays later denied any on-field rivalry leading to slow scoring and delay in declaration, quite a few, like Statham, were convinced otherwise.
Senantix (Arunabha Sengupta)