What Vijay did for us
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.
"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?"
"Who got out?"
"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.
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