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What Vijay did for us

Madhav Mantri, who played with and learned from the great Vijay Merchant, whose birth centenary falls today, looks back at what the man meant to a nation finding its feet in cricket

As told to Abhishek Purohit

October 12, 2011

Comments: 11 | Text size: A | A

In an India whose mercurial batsmen were acknowledged as much for their wristy talent as for how they would inevitably throw their wickets away, Vijay Merchant purged the batting of risk. His intense concentration, solid technique and safety-first approach earned him a first-class average of 71.64, behind only Donald Bradman. He was later hailed as the originator of what came to be known as the Bombay school of batting, whose tenets were handed down from one resolute generation of batsmen to another, including Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. Madhav Mantri, who played with Merchant in the Bombay sides of the 1940s, and was later a fellow administrator, looks back.


Vijay Merchant drives to the off side, England v India, 3rd Test, The Oval, 2nd day, August 19, 1946
Merchant against England in 1946 © Getty Images
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"A batsman who is set must not lose his wicket. Let a bowler take his wicket." That was Merchant's principle. We never used to disperse after a match. We used to sit and wait to hear these gems.

Back then the batting principle about staying in once you got in was yet to sink in for most Indian players. It was common for batsmen to play rash strokes once they reached their 30s or 40s. At such a time, Merchant made it a compulsive habit to play long innings, and his achievements were a source of inspiration for his team-mates, including myself.

In the 1944-45 Ranji Trophy final against Holkar, Merchant batted for more than eight hours in the second innings, and he made 278. When he got back, legspinner Madan Raiji asked in Gujarati, "Vijaybhai, su thayu, kem out thai gaya?" (What happened? How did you get out?) Merchant's reply was a lesson to the dressing room: "Zara concentration ochu thai gayu." (The concentration dipped a bit)

That remark left a lasting impression on me. What happened to the rest of us in our 30s and 40s happened to him on 278. In the heat of March.

Years later my young nephew, Sunil Gavaskar, was playing a school match. I asked him the day's score and he said they were batting on 400 for 1.

"How many runs did you make?"

"Double-hundred."

"Who got out?"

"I."

"Why?"

"I had made a double-century."

I instantly remembered Merchant's remark and told Sunil that he should never throw away his wicket.

Later, in another school game, Sunil was batting on a triple-hundred, and he left a ball outside off alone. [Former Bombay player] Vasu Paranjpe said to me: "Madhav, on 300 this fellow is leaving outside off?" At close of play, Sunil said, "Why should I throw my wicket away?" Merchant's scores are in the record books, but things like that, even if one youngster picks them up, it is really good.

Merchant's game was based on a tight technique and correct strokes. This came from hours of practice, just like with Vijay Hazare.

They were absolutely on par. Hazare was very good at playing the hook shot; Merchant had the late cut - it was not a diversion, it was a proper stroke. He used to play it so late that wicketkeepers used to get hurt, and the ball used to speed to the boundary.

 
 
"What happened to the rest of us in our 30s and 40s, happened to him on 278"
 

The rivalry between the two Vijays used to bring crowds to the Brabourne Stadium for the Bombay Pentangular. In the semi-final in 1943, Hazare made 248 for the Rest against Muslims.

A few days later, in the final (he was playing for Hindus, against the Rest, this time), Merchant declared Hindus' first innings though he was batting on 250. The Rest had to follow-on, but Hazare responded with 309 (out of a total of 387) in their second innings. About a month later, Merchant went ahead again, with an unbeaten 359 against Maharashtra in the Ranji Trophy.

But their rivalry was confined to the field. They were very good friends, the first to congratulate each other. Hazare was not controversial at all. He wouldn't talk. What [usually] happens is arguments between players, but unless one talks, you can't argue.

As with many great players, Merchant was a stickler for details. Even small things being out of place bothered him. Once in the Pentangular, I tried on some costly sunglasses. You couldn't get them easily; somebody had got them from America. I had just put them on when Merchant's voice came from behind me: "Madhav, kindly remove them. You are used to the sunlight. If you put them on, it gets diluted. And then when you go without them again, it takes time for you to get used [to the light], and that is the time you are going to make mistakes." Since that day, I have never put on sunglasses.

When we were practising together and I kept to him, he even made me put on my wicketkeeping pads, so he could get the feeling that he was batting in a match. It was so that he could concentrate and play.

As a captain, he never used to take any risks. He also never used to make a bad stroke (during practice) till the very end, as if he was playing in a match. He used to deliberately leave the ball sometimes, so that I could collect some. Otherwise I never used to get any. He would connect with all of them. That was the secret. Top players give you hints all the time. That is what Vijay Merchant did for us.

Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by ashok16 on (October 13, 2011, 6:32 GMT)

Vijay Merchant's tenure as a India selector was considered to be one of the worst. MAK Pataudi had mentioned this too. I think this should be mentioned too.

Posted by   on (October 13, 2011, 1:04 GMT)

Late vijay merchant was a very famous commentator of 1960 and 70, besides being an outstanding cricketer of his era, His radio talk on every Sunday afternoon sponsored by the Kohinoor mill in the 1970 was incredibly famous and much sought after.His spoken English was considered was highly refined one and enjoyable .It was he who made Ajit wadekar a captain of visiting indian team to west indies , in 1970-71, in preference to late Nawab of pataudi , by exercising his casting vote , and rest is history

Posted by   on (October 12, 2011, 18:03 GMT)

i always feel OLD IS GOLD. present generation players are not even near to comparison against the oldies. the talent and the technical abilities decrease generation by generation. vijay merchant was the superhero of indian cricket and holds no other stature than sir don bradman to australia. he was the best cricketer india has ever produced (with a tough competition to hazare and mankad).

Posted by kapsy on (October 12, 2011, 12:42 GMT)

in the late 70's, mr merchant chose me for india's first fast bowlers nets which was sponsored by the state bank of india and held at the hindu gymkhana. my late father wouldn't allow me to play cricket in those days and so i missed out. that was the time when i was the second quickest college level bowler after nari contractor's son - horshedar contractor. i was a big fan of mr merchant and would listen to his radio talk show regularly. he always finished with "au revoir".

Posted by Ashofalltrades on (October 12, 2011, 9:46 GMT)

Thanks for the feedback. I certainly didn't mean to be disrespectful to Mr Merchant's contribution in any way. All I am implying is the whole attitude of "not losing at any cost" stems from his era. This then was made worse by the team of the 50's. And when someone talks of "not losing his wicket", surely it brings the dour memories of a Boycott, Bailey or Barrington. Take a look at how Mushtaq Ali and Rusi Modi excelled in the same era. Bad habits do pass on, unfortunately. When Keith Miller & Lindsay Hassett played against India XI in the 1945-46 season, they had a lot of compliments to the fledgling Indian team but they minced no words when it came to some rather highly defensive tactics employed by VM.

Posted by Haleos on (October 12, 2011, 7:53 GMT)

@harshthakor - are you not contradicting urself? First you say Vijay was best then u rate him behind Gavaskar. Anyways who are we to compare the greats. They all were great in their own respect.

Posted by Haleos on (October 12, 2011, 7:52 GMT)

@ Ashok - THe same attitude prevails even today as proved in WI series. You mean to say vijay was responsible for that. Respect the people who contributed for India. They played for the love of game and pride of country. Unlike our latest greats who after a while play only to fill their pockets multi-million times over.

Posted by JohnnyRook on (October 12, 2011, 7:32 GMT)

@ Ashok. For the team which used to lose so often. "Don't lose at any cost" is a very good motto. "Lets win as much as we can" is the next step. People in India call Gavaskar a defensive captain and Kapil a very aggressive captain which is a mere perception based on their batting/bowling. Gavaskar's record as captain (Played-won-lost-drawn) was 47-9-8-30 which is loads better than Kapil's 34-4-7-22 even in terms of result percentage. (source : http://stats.espncricinfo.com/india/engine/records/individual/list_captains.html?class=1;id=6;type=team) Gavaskar taught us to atleast draw the matches. It was a step forward. Subsequent captains messed it up by not taking another step, in fact taking a step backward. PS : Kapil fans, please don't jump on me. I am merely commenting on Kapil's test captaincy, not his ODI captaincy or batting/bowling.

Posted by harshthakor on (October 12, 2011, 4:32 GMT)

Amongst Indian batsman,personally I would technically rate Vijay Merchant the best batsman of all,who was an absolute master over the grammar of the game.Tendulkar may be more innovative ,Vishwanath or Azharuddinn more creative and Gavaskar more tenacious.However none equaled Merchant's perfection against the new ball ,by which he was never beaten.He posessed the run-making capicity of a machine combined with the skill of a surgeon .On wet tracks in 1936 and 1946 he revealed prowess on wet tracks that even the likes of Sunil Gavaskar or Sachin Tendulkar could not equal.(I would even challenge stars like Viv or Barry Richards to surpass that)Merchant may not have possessed the artistry of Mushtaq Ali or the brutal power of Virendra Sehwag but his execution of strokes was like a geometrician.Overall amongst opening batsman I would rate him only behind Hobbs,Gavaskar,Barry Richards and Hutton. Technically Merchant was arguably 2nd only to Sir Len Hutton.

Posted by   on (October 12, 2011, 4:28 GMT)

As respected as Mr Mantri is, one thing to point out, is, not throwing away one's wicket is a good argument but game killing is also one of the traits brought to the game in India by Mr Merchant. Just a cursory reviews of the overseas players who played in the 40's attests to this argument. The 1981-82 India-England series is a prime example of the then prevelant Indian mentality of "Don't lose at any cost", instead of "Lets win as much as we can"

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