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Born on October 12, 1911, Vijay Madhavji Merchant is regarded as the best opening batsman who has appeared for India. He played in ten Tests between 1933 and 1951 and was vice-captain to the Nawab of Pataudi during the 1946 tour of England.
Indian Cricket is at the cross roads. After twenty-seven years in the International sphere we seem to have got nowhere and have only five victories to our credit in Test matches. Of these, one was registered against a second-rate England eleven in 1951-52; two against Pakistan on their initial tour of India in 1952 and two against a weak New Zealand team in 1955-56. Normally, victories in Test matches reflect the standard of the game in a particular country. There is not the slightest doubt that in the case of Indian cricket this reflection is absolutely true. Our standard has gone down considerably since we were given Test recognition in 1932.
Now, we have arrived at a most crucial period in Indian cricket history and much will depend on the steps we take in the near future if we are to improve our standard. Between November 1958 and February 1960 we have arranged as many as fifteen Test matches against West Indies, England and Australia, and if we fail to render a really good account of ourselves against these three countries Indian cricket will receive a blow from which it might not recover for another ten years.
Let us, therefore, examine the causes which have contributed to the comparatively low standard of our cricket. More than at any other time, the Government has given its full patronage to the game both in cash and in kind and thus at least one of the obstacles for the improvement of the game has been removed. Even so, we have made little progress.
Indian cricketers of to-day are not inclined to put in the same effort that marked the determination of our players of a previous generation. Life has become more difficult these days and perhaps this strain has brought about its reaction in cricket. Lethargy and slackness is evident everywhere. Cricket is looked upon just as a game and a pastime. Hard practice, supreme concentration, unrelenting will to win, sense of discipline and team spirit have gradually declined in the past twenty years. Places in the Indian team are not as difficult to secure and generally there is not the push and effort of the cricketers who played in the 1930's. This may be due to the fact that there are many other activities to side-track the attention of the present-day athlete and hence his effort and concentration are distributed between these and cricket.
The outlook on the game has completely changed. There is a greater tendency than ever before to play more scientific and defensive cricket. We play now not so much to win matches as not to lose them. During the last five years our rate of scoring has gone down so considerably that except against weaker sides we have not been able to register victories. Time and again, after winning the toss, we have made less than 200 runs in five and a half hours' play on the first day of a Test match. If we have lost only a few wickets, we have not consolidated our position sufficiently quickly to give our bowlers a chance to get the other side out twice in the remaining period of play. More often than not, this slow and cautious play has contributed to our own downfall. Our batsmen become set only to get out ultimately without keeping the score-board moving sufficiently. If we make a good start it is usually a slow one and we are content with a big total made in nearly two days. If we lose a few wickets quickly on the first day, then our scoring rate becomes even slower and we ultimately succeed in putting up only a meagre total.
The tendency to play slow cricket, I think, began in 1930 with the advent of Don Bradman on the International scene. Bradman started making double and treble centuries and cricketers in India tried to emulate his example by making as big scores as possible. What we batsmen--I am not forgetting myself--ignored was the fact that we did not have Bradman's genius and ability to make big scores in sufficiently quick time for winning matches. While Bradman made his runs at the rate of nearly 50 an hour, we averaged about 30 an hour, thereby contributing only to drawn games. This tendency gradually increased to such an extent that batsmen refused to take even normal and justifiable risks and we have now come to a stage when a total of 100 before lunch on the first day is considered to be extremely bright cricket and a total of 275 at the end of five and a half hours something which would make the team quite proud.
Fast scoring is considered making runs in fours only and the art of either placing the ball or lifting it over the heads of the inner ring of fieldsmen has been completely lost to Indian cricket and, I understand, to the game generally. Running between the wickets has also deteriorated to such an extent that singles off balls placed on the left-hand of the fieldsmen are conspicuous by their very absence. Indian batsmen wait to hit the loose balls, which in International cricket are few and far between. Our batsmen have got so much into the habit of playing slow cricket that even when the bowlers and fielders are tired at the end of the day, they are unable to push on with the rate of scoring. In other words, most batsmen have lost all initiative.
Let us examine the reasons why this initiative has gone. Our selectors rely mostly on the number of runs made by individual batsman rather than the manner in which the runs have been scored. Time and again an excellent innings of 35 or 40 has been ignored and a slow-moving sketchy innings of 70 or 80 has earned a place for the batsman in the Test team. Again, a single failure in a representative match has brought about the downfall of a batsman, thereby making him and others extremely slow and cautious.
Thus, there is a vicious circle where selectors have no confidence in the players they choose and the cricketers have lost all confidence in the selectors whom they have to satisfy. Knowing full well all the circumstances, how can one blame the players? Human nature being what it is, the batsmen play for their places in the side and not so much for the team because the latter aspect is not taken into consideration by the selectors when picking the eleven.
India has lost quite a few young cricketers because of this very wrong policy. Take the example of M. L. Apte who toured the West Indies in 1953. This young cricketer was only 22 years old and this was his initial tour with an Indian side. He made 460 runs in five Tests at an average of 51.11 runs and in all first-class fixtures 582 runs at an average of 44.76. His Test average was second only to P. R. Umrigar's and in all first-class matches he was third. On his return he was given one chance to play against the Commonwealth Team of 1953-54 in the first representative match and he made 30 out of a total of 387. This was termed a failure; he received no further opportunities to play for India and a fine young cricketer was lost to his country. I could mention other instances. Could such a thing happen in any other country? And we talk of being badly in need of an opening batsman!
Indian cricket needs organising. We have our National Championship for the Ranji Trophy but the performances put up are not given due recognition. Whenever a visiting team arrives in this country we make a new start with cricket camps, trial matches, performances against the visitors in the preliminary fixtures, etc., but form in our premier tournament is hardly ever taken into consideration. Thus, except for the semi-finals and the finals there is no interest in this tournament on the part of the selectors or organisers.
India has no fast bowlers and for many years no effort has been made to find one. Our selectors are waiting for someone ready made. We can wait for another twenty years and we may well be still in the same plight. Not having any pace-men has reacted on our cricket in two ways. First, there is no venom in our opening attack and second our batsmen do not get any practice against speed. Hence they are not equipped to play this type of bowling when pitted against it. We have made haphazard efforts in this direction such as inviting fast bowlers like Alan Moss to train promising youngsters, but much more is necessary if we are to have another Mahomed Nissar in the near future.
There must be a five-year plan to pick very young well-built cricketers who have a flair for fast bowling and are prepared for hard work. As a necessary step we shall have to change the nature of our pitches and make them fast enough to give real encouragement to fast bowling. Our present docile surfaces have killed all initiative for that kind of bowling. No wonder, then, that our younger players do not wish to take to fast bowling.
We try to maintain certain policies and principles instead of being practical. In 1952 we lost the services of Vinoo Mankad because our selectors were not prepared to give him an assurance that he would be one of the party for England that year. Mankad is a professional who plays regularly in English League cricket. His club--Haslingden--wanted to know by the end of October 1951 whether his services would be required for India or if he would be available for the club in 1952. They had to make their own arrangements for that year and were keen to get another good professional in case Mankad was not available. Mankad explained the whole position to the Indian Board but the selectors were not prepared to give him the necessary assurance that he would be one of the seventeen! Mankad played for Haslingden and ultimately India asked the club for him in the Tests. He created history by his magnificent performance at Lord's in a game that has come to be known as Mankad's Match.
Several months before the 1959 tour Mankad asked for the same assurance and the Board refused to give it. So we shall be in the same plight in England this year. Haslingden obliged in 1952; Stockport might not have done in 1959. It is one thing to get him to play in the Tests only and quite another to get him for the entire tour. Mankad's very presence in the side for the full season would be an inspiration to others. Calling on him for the Tests only could create some resentment among those who are kept out by his inclusion. Happily, Stockport, although left in doubt, generously offered in January of this year to release Mankad if he were chosen. In the end Mankad was omitted!
It may be all right to say that such an assurance cannot be given six months in advance to a player, but surely an outstanding cricketer who has more than proved his worth over a period of years and who has not lost his touch does not lose his form completely in such a short time! After all, one has to look to the view-point of the cricketer himself who has to earn a living.
It may be pointed out that the West Indian Board informed at least five of their cricketers six months in advance that their services would be required for the 1957 tour and therefore they should not commit themselves to their respective clubs.
Talking of being practical, take the case of the M.C.C. who had been adverse to wives of cricketers accompanying them on official tours. In the last four years they have been agreeable because they appreciated it was hard on their prominent players who had to be away from home almost every winter. Now wives are allowed to join the husbands after a certain stage of the tour. M.C.C. have thus been able to retain the services of their cricketers and have also kept them contented. That is being really practical.
Finally, party politics and personal prejudices have affected our organisation and consequently our cricket. I do not know how much cricket there is in our politics but there is a lot of politics in our cricket. Sport in India has become sufficiently important now for people with high ambitions to intervene by getting the necessary votes to gain a majority on the Board. Appointments of captain, manager, selection committee, coaches, etc., have become much more important than cricketers themselves and the welfare of the game.
The annual general meeting of the Board of Control for Cricket in India has become of greater significance than the semi-finals or finals of the Ranji Trophy tournament. Men of the character and standing of Duleepsinhji have been by-passed in Indian cricket. The experience and knowledge of this greatest living Indian cricketer has not been sought by those in authority. Instead he has been kept out of the administration. If the entire charge of our cricket were handed over to this great cricketer I have not the slightest doubt that in five years the results to the good would be remarkable.
I sincerely hope India will have a bold and aggressive captain and that the team will follow a courageous policy when playing not only against the counties but against England. Nothing will be lost and much will be gained by such an attitude. We have the necessary talent but our outlook has been wrong during the past fifteen years. Let us play to win. Even if in that process we lose badly in the Test matches there would be nothing of which to be ashamed. We should at least have the consolation of playing the game as it should be played and providing the public with the kind of cricket they are entitled to expect.
Let our batsmen remember throughout the tour that the bat was made for them to hit the ball, not the other way round. A courageous team is bound to add laurels to Indian cricket and would come back with happier memories than those of our last visit in 1952. Let us not follow the bad examples of some recent Test crawls by England, South Africa and Australia. I say, INDIA, BE BOLD!