'Watching Merchant was a part of our training'
About 200 people turned up at the CK Nayudu Hall of the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai to listen to former India batsman Vijay Merchant's few surviving team-mates speak on the occasion of his birth centenary on October 12. Former players Madhav Mantri, Madhav Apte, Vasant Raiji and Merchant's fellow commentator Anand Setalvad related stories of their interactions with a cricketer who was widely acknowledged as the best Indian batsman of his generation, and who later became a respected administrator, commentator and writer.
Also present in the audience were former players Bapu Nadkarni, Ajit Wadekar, Milind Rege and BCCI chief administrative officer Ratnakar Shetty.
Through the anecdotes of the former players emerged the picture of a near-complete top-order batsman whose was unsurpassed in technique, temperament and concentration, qualities that reflect in his first-class average of 71.64, next only to Donald Bradman. His approach came to be known later as the Bombay school of batting.
Apte said that watching Merchant bat in the nets used to be a mandatory part of his training under his college coach and former India allrounder Vinoo Mankad. "Vinoo used to make us stand behind the nets when Vijay bhai was batting very early in the morning against the new ball. There used to be dew around and the way he left the moving ball used to be a lesson for us."
Mantri said that after his nephew Sunil Gavaskar's early success as a Test opener, he was asked who he felt was the better opening batsman. "I said then that a great of one generation will be a great in another generation as well. But it is the way an opening batsman leaves the ball that is more important, and in that aspect Merchant was a master. Sunil later wrote to Merchant saying: 'and they say blood is thicker than water.'"
Apte related how Merchant had a cricket pitch in his backyard where he used to invite former India fast bowler Amar Singh for practice. Merchant was so impressed by him that he named his son Amar, who was also present yesterday.
Raiji, who debuted for Bombay as an opener in 1941, recalled Merchant's strict instructions to him and his opening partner Laxman Kenny. "You two play for separate clubs. You will not have much of an understanding with each other while running between the wickets," Merchant had said. "Be very cautious."
As it turned out, Raiji was the first to be run out in that game, Kenny was the second and Merchant was the third.
Apart from being a top cricketer, Merchant was also a competent tennis player, having won inter-collegiate tournaments. Apte, also a tennis player in his early days, said that when he won a tournament at the Hindu Gymkhana, Merchant, the Gymkhana president, had handed him the winner's prize.
"So what sport will you choose?" Merchant had asked Apte. "You know, I got lucky with my choice."
Merchant wouldn't have known that Apte was to replace him in the Bombay Ranji team. Apte recalled how on the eve of a game against Saurashtra in 1951, Merchant injured himself during batting practice. Apte debuted as stand-in opener, making 108. Merchant instantly decided to retire as he believed that Bombay had found a promising opener.
Merchant was to gain further popularity as a radio commentator and writer. Setalvad said that what set Merchant apart from other commentators was his sharp eyesight. "He used to come to the ground with a pair of binoculars but I hardly saw him using them. People talk about things like hand-eye co-ordination nowadays and a player from Delhi [Virender Sehwag] has made lots of runs using it. But it all begins with the eyes, how you see things and size them up accordingly."
An old film showing footage of players like Nayudu, Syed Mushtaq Ali, Merchant and Mankad was also shown, which included Merchant interviewing Mushtaq about his aggressive approach to batting.
A member of the audience requested for a minute's silence in memory of the recently-dead Nawab of Pataudi which was respectfully observed.
The event was organised by The Legends Club, formed by former BCCI president Raj Singh Dungarpur a decade ago to commemorate the birthdays of Merchant, Vijay Hazare and Mankad.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo