Hazare or Merchant?
India's first Test match was against England in 1932, and it would seem appropriate that India's first great batsman is chosen from those who actually played for their home country. The captain in this first match, the legendary CK (Cottari Kanakaiya) Nayudu, is remembered as one of India's great cricketers. However, his legacy is largely derived from his leadership and skills off the field rather than purely as a batsman. He was undoubtedly very good with the blade, but an average of 25 in Tests and 35 in first-class cricket compares less than favourably with some near contemporaries of the pre-World War II era.
There are two widely acknowledged great Indian batsmen of the 1930s and '40s, both with the first name of Vijay.
Vijay Hazare finished his career with a Test batting average of 47.65, and a first-class average of 58.38. He captained India in 14 Tests, but he was known for his amazing appetite for run-scoring. He passed the century mark 60 times in just 238 games with a highest score of 316 not out. His ratio of hundreds to first-class games is almost identical to that of Len Hutton, and exceeds that of international opponents such as Denis Compton, Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Bill Brown.
Hazare is possibly best remembered for his twin centuries against Australia in Adelaide in January 1948. Australia had totalled 674 on the back of Bradman's 201 and an unbeaten 198 from Lindsay Hassett. Hazare made 116 in the first innings, and then 145 after India were made to follow on. His second innings was a largely one-man effort, as six other Indian batsmen failed to score a single run. However, ultimately his batting was not as consistent as it might have been at the highest level. It is believed that the pressure of the captaincy was one of the leading reasons for this problem. Indeed, it was noted by a contemporary that Hazare could have been remembered as India's greatest batsman were it not for the captaincy: "It was one of the tragedies of cricket."
This contemporary was Vijay Merchant. He was born on October 12, 1911 in Bombay, the son of an independently wealthy businessman. Interestingly, Merchant's real name was Vijay Thakersey, however at some stage his last name changed to Merchant. There is an unauthenticated story that explains this name change occurred in school, when there was confusion about the difference between Merchant's family name and their business. When an English teacher asked him a question about his father, the youngster became confused and is supposed to have answered "merchant" mistakenly for his name. Whatever the reason, Merchant's name change became permanent at some stage during his school years and he was known by that name ever after.
Merchant first started playing senior cricket in 1929, turning out for the Hindus in the Bombay Pentangular tournaments. He started off as an 18-year-old middle-order batsman; however, within a few years he had further polished what was even then a very effective and efficient batting technique. While he did not possess vast power, he was able to play every shot in a correct and stylish manner. Unusually for Indian players of the time, Merchant was an accomplished player of fast bowling and he was quickly moved to the top of the order to counter the new ball. His determination not to give his wicket away was evident early, and it was characteristic throughout his career.
Merchant's immaculate footwork and patience to wait for the bad ball were very quickly recognised by selectors. Merchant was first chosen to play for Bombay in the Ranji Trophy in 1933 and this was quickly followed by his selection for India in the 1933-34 home series against the touring English team. Merchant scored 178 runs in the three-match series, a promising start to his Test career. His solid technique even at this early stage in his career can be seen by the fact that his lowest score in the series was 17. However, it was disappointing that he failed to really push on in any innings, with his highest score only 54. India were still a very new Test-playing nation and were not scheduled to play any further Tests until 1936, when they were to tour England. In the intervening years, Merchant established himself as India's leading batsman. His domestic batting prowess was quite remarkable. His performances for Bombay in the Ranji Trophy were simply amazing; from 1933 until his retirement in 1952, Merchant scored a total of 3639 runs for the team at an astonishing average of 98.75.
Merchant's form in domestic cricket ensured that he was selected for the 1936 England touring party. He was concerned prior to this first tour, unsure of how he would cope with the seam and swing that he had been told was commonplace in English conditions. He practised for hours first thing in the morning against the fastest local bowlers he could find, when the early dew and heavy atmosphere would cause the ball to swing and seam. (Sachin Tendulkar followed this same style of preparation, priming himself for the challenge of Shane Warne by deliberately roughing up an area outside of leg stump and then spending hours practising against young legspinners.)
Merchant had batted in the middle order in his previous series, but in 1936 he moved to his more favoured opening role. The faith of the selectors was rewarded when he averaged 56.75 as an opener, in contrast to his average of 29.66 in the middle order. Wisden was suitably impressed with Merchant's efforts on the tour, and he was duly named one of the five cricketers of the year.
The Second World War broke out, and this interrupted Merchant's Test career for a decade. Merchant did not play internationally again until he toured England in 1946, when he scored a total of 2385 runs in all first-class games at an average of 74.53. The next Test series for India was to be the 1947-48 tour of Australia, their maiden trip to the country.
However, Merchant opted not to take part, even though he was initially selected to captain the side. There have been a number of theories put forward regarding this decision. Officially Merchant cited ill-health as the reason, but there were a number of rumours that he was unhappy with the team chosen. India at that time were undergoing major changes due to Partition, and there was a considerable amount of debate whether the Muslim members of the Indian team would in fact tour Australia, or choose to relocate to Pakistan. It is quite possible that Merchant, at age 36 and with poor health, simply did not consider it wise to attempt to manage this undoubtedly difficult situation.
Merchant also sat out the series against West Indies in 1948-49 but returned for one Test against England in 1951. This match, in Delhi, was to be both the highlight of Merchant's Test career (he made an excellent 154) and its swansong. Merchant's international career finished when he injured his shoulder whilst fielding and he never played for India again. His 154 was at the time the highest score made by an Indian in Test cricket, but Hazare exceeded it only a few hours later. With his injured shoulder, Merchant chose to retire from cricket since he did not see himself being able to make a successful return as he was already 40 years old.
With all due respect to Cooper, Ranji, Duleep, Nayudu and Hazare, Vijay Merchant was India's first truly great batsman. Commentators and opponents alike were open with their praise of his skill.
John Arlott was one who was very impressed with Merchant's batting. He acknowledged the great skill of Merchant and highlighted his patience by remarking, "Bowl him six bad balls and he would hit every one for four. Bowl him six good ones and he would stop every one." Trevor Bailey, the great English allrounder of the 1940s and '50s was another who recognised Merchant's ability. "Merchant showed himself to be one of the great batsmen," was Bailey's assessment of his career. He summarised Merchant as having "style, determination, immaculate technique, and a wide range of strokes including a delicious late late-cut".
In all first-class cricket, Vijay scored 13,470 runs at the impressive average of 71.64 in 150 games. The Second World War disrupted many Test careers, but certainly Merchant's was one that was affected particularly badly. India did not play many Test matches through the 1930s and '40s, and the war limited this even further. His entire Test career, from 1933 to 1951, was composed of only ten Tests - as many as current cricketers now play in a single year. It is impossible to accurately evaluate how Merchant would have performed over more Test matches, but his amazing first-class average over almost 20 years would support the belief that he would have maintained his high standard of performance. His overall Test average of 47.72 still compares very well to that of Hazare, but it was ultimately his performances in both Test and first-class cricket over many years that lead to the conclusion that he was truly India's first great batsman.
Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow