An exemplar of the Bombay school
When he turned 90 on September 1, 2011, I asked Madhav Mantri if he was going to take fresh guard for the last decade to his century. "That is for those who get nervous in the 90s," he replied, joining in the jest. "After seven first-class centuries, I should be able to play freely."
Mantri's passing on Friday was typically without much ado, 100 days short of turning 93, ended a life-innings that was remarkable, not so much for its longevity but that he should have been such an influential figure in Indian cricket despite having played only four Tests as wicketkeeper-batsman.
He never scored a century in Tests. His career at the highest level was brief - between 1951 and 1955 - and more about thoughts of what might have been than any great achievement, as 67 runs and nine victims would testify. His first-class career over almost two decades, in contrast, fetched him 192 dismissals (including 56 stumped, testimony to the quicksilver reflexes he was praised for) and 4403 runs at a fairly healthy average of 33.86. And those seven centuries, of course.
Even so, these are not spectacular numbers. Indeed, for a while, it seemed that his claim to fame was his nephew, Sunil Gavaskar, who exploded on the international scene with a record 774 runs in his debut Test series and soon developed into a run machine.
But viewed over a sweep of more than half a century, Mantri acquires a strong and compelling identity all his own. Apart from what he achieved on the field of play, he was also Mumbai Cricket Association president, national selector for four years between 1964-68, manager on the Indian team's tour of England in 1990, and BCCI treasurer between 1990 and 1992. He also coached, criticised, advised, and mentored players and administrators almost till his last breath, as it were.
If cricket was his all-consuming passion, Mumbai's place in the national game was an obsession for him. Indeed, though the much-touted "Bombay school of cricket" has been represented by the likes of Vijay Merchant, Subhash Gupte, Bapu Nadkarni, Ajit Wadekar, Dilip Sardesai, Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar and Sachin Tendulkar over the decades, in my opinion Mantri was its exemplar; not so much for his performances as for his beliefs.
A great deal of this mindset was exhibited on the maidans of Mumbai, and especially in club cricket, which between the 1950s and the 1980s was played with rich fervour and never-say-die commitment, demanding the best from players in performance and behaviour.
The rivalry between Mantri's club, Dadar Union, and its most famous adversary, Shivaji Park Gymkhana - which could be compared to the War of the Roses in English county cricket - is not only part of the lore of Mumbai cricket, it provided a grooming ground for the "Bombay school", the ethos of which Mantri was to become instrumental in establishing.
It said you needed to be tough, unrelenting and unforgiving in matters of discipline, as Mantri was - on himself and others. He is reputed to have tamed even the mercurial Subhash Gupte when the legspinner played for Dadar Union. In Mantri's book, there was no room for dilettantes, however brilliant.
His punctuality, for instance, is part of lore in Mumbai cricket circles (and it extended beyond match hours). More so, he had a sense of righteousness that seemed to stem from his very core. The notion of the British disciplinarian seems almost Dickensian in these free-flowing, individualistic days of ours, but Mantri, austere, stern and fair to the core, embodied that image. He was from another era, as it were, and a sterling proponent of those values - in every aspect of life.
Of course there is duality in this. Bishan Bedi, for instance, also owed much to the idea of the English gentleman cricketer. But where Bedi was sociable and full of cheer, Mantri was sparse with his praise and modest of lifestyle. Both were like characters from John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga.
Mantri was a bit Old Testament, if I may be permitted the usage, in his approach to life: singular in his thinking (he was a bachelor too), fastidious about rights and wrongs, seeing things in black or white - though without lapsing into violent biblical recourse to set things right.
So when Gavaskar as a young boy once wore his uncle's India cap, he was quickly admonished. "This has to be earned," he was told. And when Gavaskar as a young man came and told his uncle of how well his team had done in scoring 400 for 1 in a match and he had thrown his wicket away after having scored a bagful, he was roundly castigated. For Mantri, such disregard for team and self - in that order - revealed a flaw in character, not just tactics. It was the lesson he carried throughout his life: at the playing level when he was active, and at a personal level till he breathed his last. This is the legacy he leaves behind.
Ayaz Memon has written on cricket for over 20 years, during which time he has covered a number of tours and six World Cups