March 11, 2015

India's first post-war legend

Haresh Pandya
On his birth centenary, a look at Vijay Hazare, who won accolades from contemporary greats for his patience and appetite for runs

Vijay Hazare captained India to their first ever Test win and was the first Indian to score two centuries in a Test © Haresh Pandya

Batsmen like Don Bradman, George Headley, Vivian Richards, Virender Sehwag, Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers frighten rival teams with their savage power and explosive shots. It is perfectly understandable, because bowlers do not like to be slaughtered. On the other hand, it speaks volumes for a batsman's ability when opponents fear his patience, concentration and appetite for runs and struggle to plan his dismissal. Vijay Samuel Hazare was one such batsman.

Hazare was born on March 11, 1915, in the erstwhile 11-gun-salute Maratha princely state of Sangli on the banks of the river Krishna in southern Maharashtra. "The year of my birth was significant," he said to me, his tongue firmly in his cheek, during a rare interview at his humble abode in Baroda in 1995. "At least from a cricketer's point of view. It was in 1915 that cricket lost two of its legends in WG Grace and Victor Trumper. Maybe they decided to wind up their innings on hearing that I had arrived into the world!"

It was rarer to see Hazare joke, for he had a reputation of being a man of few words, mild-mannered and unassuming, which was probably in keeping with his image as a batsman who took his time to build his innings. It was only after he was certain he had settled down that he would open out and bat in a manner that belied his start. His customary off-drive, on-drive, square cut and pull would then be pulled out of the cupboard.

Hazare revealed a remarkable coincidence about his birthday, too, in that 1995 interview: "As you probably know, I was born on March 11. You will be surprised to know that on my last tour of the Caribbean, in 1952-53, both my opposite number, Jeffrey Stollmeyer, who was also born on March 11, and I celebrated our birthdays on the first day of the fourth Test in Guyana. It must have been a rare incident when two captains, born in two different countries thousands of miles apart, celebrated their birthdays on the same day during a Test match."

Hazare (standing second from left) with the 1946 India squad in England © PA Photos

Sound - almost scientific - technique, rock-like defence and Promethean determination were the hallmark of Hazare's batsmanship. "Never was there an Indian cricketer who concentrated on his cricket more than Hazare did," noted his illustrious contemporary Vijay Merchant. "He played with the straightest of bats. Irrespective of a silly mid-on and a silly mid-off operating, he would play forward and put the ball on the ground absolutely dead in front of him. And he would never be ruffled by any amount of intimidation on the part of the bowler or the close-in fielders. He was patience personified."

Hazare, who always put a price on his wicket, was an all-wicket and all-weather player, at home against fast bowlers and spinners. Merchant, not known to be given to hyperbole, paid Hazare the ultimate tribute. "He is the only Indian batsman who could play as well on matting as on turf. The only other cricketer who could do that who comes readily to my mind was the late Jack Hobbs. I would put him in the same class so far as adaptability to matting and turf wickets was concerned."

It was no surprise that Hazare was a prodigious scorer in first-class cricket. His highly impressive stats tell their own story. In fact, he appeared to be proud of his batting figures and feats and almost boasted about them. His commitment to cricket and eye for stats manifested themselves in the way he was able to reel off details of his career over three decades after he had retired.

"I played in the Ranji Trophy from 1934-35 to 1960 for Maharashtra and Baroda; and in the Bombay Pentangulars from 1938 to 1944. I represented India in 30 official and 20 'unofficial' Tests. I was captain in 14 Tests. I scored 18,740 runs with 60 centuries in first-class cricket. I took 595 wickets too. I was in the Maharashtra teams that won the Ranji Trophy in 1939-40 and 1940-41. I was the only one to be part of the Baroda side when it lifted the Ranji Trophy in 1942-43, 1946-47, 1949-50 and 1957-58. I was the first Indian to reach the milestones of 1000 and 2000 runs in Tests," he said.

Hazare stuck to his natural medium pace on the advice of the legendary Australian leggie Clarrie Grimmett © PA Photos

With Hazare, of course, the stats and records did not stop there. He was the first to score a triple-hundred (316 for Maharashtra against Baroda) in the Ranji Trophy, in 1939-40. He was also the first to make two triple-centuries. Indeed, his 309 against Hindus in the Bombay Pentangular in 1943 was a brilliant innings, for it came in 400 minutes out of his team's total of just 387. Hazare was so uncharacteristically quick that day at the Brabourne Stadium that he completed his triple-hundred with a six right behind the bowler. He added 300 runs for the sixth wicket with his brother Vivek, whose contribution to the partnership was a mere 21.

In 1943-44, he became the first in India to score over 1000 runs - which he compiled in an incredible four matches - in a domestic season. With Gul Mohammad, he shared a fourth-wicket partnership of 577 runs for Baroda versus Holkar in the Ranji Trophy final in 1946-47.

He was the first Indian to make two centuries in a Test - in Adelaide against Australia in 1947-48. Though India lost by an innings and 16 runs, the Adelaide performance was Hazare's tour de force. Australia had piled up 674 (Bradman 201, Lindsay Hassett 198 not out, Sid Barnes 112). India could not avoid the follow-on, though despite Hazare (116) and Dattu Phadkar (123) fought gallantly. The value of Hazare's second-innings 145 against a rampaging Ray Lindwall (16.5-4-38-7) was underlined by the fact that six of his team-mates failed to open their accounts.

Hazare had sound technique and rock-like defence but was inelegant and often boringly slow at the crease © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"I had been very impressed by the soundness of Hazare and the correctness of his stroke production. I have no wish to be dogmatic on the point at this stage. I merely want to call attention to Hazare's skill and his right to be classed as a great player," wrote Bradman in his autobiography, Farewell to Cricket, in 1950. Elsewhere the Don described Hazare's performance as "superlative", saying his batting closely resembled that of Frank Worrell.

In spite of his 116 and 145 against Lindwall and Keith Miller, Hazare rated his 38 in India's total of 98 at The Oval in 1952 against Fred Trueman, Alec Bedser, Jim Laker and Tony Lock on a rain-affected pitch as his best innings ever. "Considering the tense atmosphere, the treacherous wicket and the strength of the English attack, it must rate as my finest innings," he said.

For all his acclaimed technique, temperament and consistency, Hazare was as unattractive as he was inelegant, and often utterly slow to the point of being boring at times, when at the crease. "Hazare's principal weakness was a lack of aggression, which prevented him taking charge of an attack and tearing it to pieces, which is an attribute of such value to a match-winning batsman," stated Bradman.

Often accused of slow batting, of playing for himself rather than the team, Hazare reacted sharply to these charges. "It was unfair to say my approach was negative or selfish. Far from it. In those days, India depended heavily on a couple of batsmen. When the front-line batsmen were removed early, the team often struggled. I was one of the main batsmen and so there was tremendous responsibility on me. I could not afford to gift away my wicket by going for fancy shots. I really had to build my innings," he said.

Hazare (second from left) talks to West Indies' Learie Constantine at a party during the 1952 tour of England © PA Photos

Of course, he was completely justified in playing the way he did in Tests, considering India's fragile batting line-up at the time. The problem was, Hazare used to bat similarly, more often than not, in first-class cricket too, even when there were other capable batsmen to bail the team out in an hour of crisis.

" I have played many attacking innings, like the 309 against the Hindus," he reminded me, referring to the swashbuckling innings in which he scored nearly 80% of the team's runs. "I had hit three fours off three successive bouncers from Miller during my 145 against Australia in Adelaide. Even Bradman applauded me for that. In fact, he immediately removed Miller from the firing line."

Those were the days of exalted personalities, of rajas and maharajas, and popular belief held that they ran, and often ruined, the game. Hazare, though, begged to differ. "I had worked for Pratapsinh Gaekwad, the Maharaja of Baroda, for nearly 25 years. In that time, he gave me every possible encouragement and would always ask me not to worry about anything. 'Just keep playing for the country with distinction,' he would say.

"From my personal experience I can say the maharajas were the real patrons of the game. Just see how the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar encouraged Amar Singh. It was heartening. Maybe there were some negative reports about them. But I really feel they did a lot for the good of the game and for the cricketers. They have a definite place in the history of Indian cricket."

With Len Hutton at the toss at The Oval 1952. Hazare rated his 38 in this Test as his "finest" innings © Getty Images

Hazare was lucky to get personal coaching from the peerless Australian spinner Clarrie Grimmett, thanks to his first employer, the Maharaja of Devas. The Aussie gave him a golden token of advice: "Do not try to change your bowling style. Continue to bowl your natural medium pace. But pay greater attention to your batting because this is where your true talent lies." Hazare found Grimmett to be an "ideal" coach.

DB Deodhar and CK Nayudu were early influences, even inspirations, for the young Hazare. "I learned many vital things about the game and captaincy from both Deodhar and Nayudu. I have no hesitation in saying that Nayudu was the best captain I played under. He always tried his best and never tolerated nonsense on and off the field," he said.

Ironically, despite leading India to their maiden Test triumph (by an innings and eight runs against England in Madras in 1951-52), Hazare increasingly failed to establish himself as an ideal or astute captain, let alone inspiring his players. Here again his not-so-positive approach and defensive tactics prevented him from going for the kill. He did not make too many friends during his stint as captain. His close friend Merchant said in no uncertain terms that Hazare should never have been made captain as he was "not fit for the job" and it badly affected his batting, which India needed the most.

Hazare opposed these charges too. "I do not think captaincy ever affected my batting. Everybody knows I scored pretty heavily in my first few Tests as a skipper. If I failed in a couple of Tests as a batsman, it was not due to pressures of captaincy," he said. "And I do not think I did badly as a captain given the team I had to lead. Most of the players did not have enough international experience. There were times when even a draw was considered an achievement."

A thorough gentleman on and off the field, Hazare treated cricket as a gentleman's game and upheld its principles and values. "We played cricket for the sheer love of it. We always tried to play in the true spirit of the game. We were not unduly concerned about defeats and victories. The game was greater, everything else was secondary, as far as I was concerned," he said. "In those days, too, there were instances of bad umpiring. But we never reacted angrily. We must never forget that cricket is a gentleman's game. We never used to appeal unless we were almost sure that the batsman was out. So much so that on quite a few occasions I had heard the umpires asking the fielding side, 'Why didn't you appeal?' That was the spirit. But I am not sure if some of the players of old would have displayed the same spirit if there had been so much money in the game."

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