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December 18, 2004
At Adelaide in 1947-48, faced with a mammoth Australian total of 674, India were in trouble with their first five wickets down for a meagre 133. It was then that Dattu Phadkar, making his debut, and Vijay Samuel Hazare got together. Soon, the Australian crowd witnessed a spectacular recovery, and the Indians ended the day at a respectable 299 for 5. Eventually Hazare, having played a classic, was out for 116.
In the second innings, the Indians were once again under pressure and, again, it was Hazare who came to the rescue. As a contemporary daily noted, "It didn't matter what the ball was, on or outside the off stump, what its height or pace, it was played with amazing certainty ... It was a display of batsmanship, which has very seldom been equalled, certainly not surpassed and never dwarfed. It was not so much the pace at which the ball travelled. It was the supreme artistry of it all."
It was batsmanship at its flawless best. This innings of 145 against a brilliant Australian attack overshadowed everything else, and even though India was all out for 277, they were hardly disgraced. Looking back at Adelaide, Vijay Hazare had mentioned to me, at a conversation at the end of October, that "Bradman seemed impressed with my batting and we became really close friends since. Some years on, he even found time to write a foreword for my book."
However, to conclude that Adelaide was Hazare's finest hour may be a little premature. Before making such an assumption, his performances in the Indian domestic season of 1943 merit a cursory glance.
In the absence of international cricket in the early 1940s, the nation's attention was focused on the domestic scene, primarily on the Bombay Pentangular, the foremost tournament in colonial India, and the Ranji Trophy. The two men who made these tournaments their own, breaking records with élan, were Hazare and Vijay Merchant. In 1941-42, Merchant had recorded the highest score in the Pentangular, scoring 243 for the Hindus against the Muslims. In the following season, Hazare wrested back the record, scoring 248 against the Muslims. He hardly had time to savour the feat, as Merchant scored an unbeaten 250 against Hazare's side in the very next match. Hazare, batting for the Rest, replied with a mammoth 309. All of these records were broken in seven days - between November 29 and December 6, 1943.
Their competition continued into the Ranji Trophy. In the match between Bombay and Baroda Merchant, batting for Bombay, contributed 141. Hazare replied with 101.
Hazare's individual record for the 1943 season makes for stunning reading: he notched 1423 runs in 11 innings, at an average of 177. These knocks included five hundreds and three fifties.
The Hazare-Merchant competitive run-feast reached a climax during India's tour of England in 1946. From the very start of the tour, there were rumours of a silent feud between the captain, the senior Nawab of Pataudi, and Merchant. Differences came out into the open in the course of the match against Lancashire at Old Trafford. After Merchant scored a spectacular 242 in India's first innings, he was the cynosure of all eyes. Pataudi, to square up, turned to Merchant's rival and mate of old, Hazare. In the match against Yorkshire at Sheffield a week later Hazare eclipsed Merchant's feat, scoring a magical 244. As soon as Hazare had passed Merchant, Pataudi declared.
Although Hazare will always be remembered as one of India's all-time great batsmen, he was also a reasonable bowler. In fact, for him, getting Bradman out in 1947-48 was no less a feat than scoring consecutive hundreds at Adelaide. "Though I got a couple of hundreds on the tour, another eternal memory is that of getting Bradman out on three occasions," he recalled. "While my first two successes against him had little practical value - he had scored well over 150 by then - on the third occasion I bowled him for 15. On that day, I was bowling outswing, and he seemed content in leaving most deliveries outside the off stump. It was then that I bowled an offcutter, which made its way through his bat and pad and crashed into the stumps. The bail was retrieved from well over a distance of 50 yards and the maestro seemed shocked. I could not believe what had happened, more so because he had been in prime form."
So where does Hazare figure in the Indian cricket pantheon? How does he compare to the likes of modern greats like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid? It would suffice to say that Dravid should feel proud to be labelled as one who belongs to the Vijay Samuel Hazare school of batsmanship.
Boria Majumdar, a Rhodes Scholar, is the author of the recent book 22 Yards to Freedom - A Social History of Indian Cricket, published by Penguin-Viking, and completed his doctorate on the social history of Indian cricket at Oxford University.
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