print icon

The India I remember

A veteran cricket writer looks back a couple of India's earliest visits to England, featuring an incompetent prince-captain, a colossal allrounder, and more

John Woodcock
Vijay Merchant bats in the indoor nets of the Alan Fairfax Cricket School as his team-mates look on, London, April 21, 1936

Vijay Merchant with his team-mates at the Alan Fairfax Cricket School in London, in 1936  •  Getty Images

The first Test match between England and India that I saw was at Lord's in 1936; the first I wrote about was in 1952. On uncovered English pitches, India's batsmen, brought up in much blander conditions, had yet to become a force to be regularly reckoned with, and many years were to pass before England considered it incumbent upon them to send a full-strength side to tour India.
Of Lord's itself, pretty well all that remains as it was in 1936 is the pavilion, and even that now incorporates as the secretary's office what, until 1958, was the press box.
As Indian sides always will, those of 1936 and 1952 contained some fine natural cricketers. For no obvious reason their best batsmen in those days seemed more likely to be tall and wristy and elegant, like Mushtaq Ali and Rusi Modi, than small and wristy and insatiable, like Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar.
It was during the Lord's Test of 1936 that artificial methods of drying the pitch after rain were first used, sacks and blankets being rolled into the surface to absorb the moisture. All Test matches in England were still of three days' duration, except for those against Australia, which were of four, unless it was all-square coming to the last, in which case they were timeless. On average, 120 overs were bowled in a full six-hour day, as against today's paltry 90.
This entirely different tempo is because of the way the game has been commandeered, in most countries and at most levels, by bowlers with long runs. The best fast bowlers have always been match-winners, but until recently they hunted in pairs, not in threes, even fours, as happens now and inevitably slows down the game.
In 1936, India were captained, as if by statute, by a prince - the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram - who shot more tigers than he scored first-class runs and was given a courtesy knighthood during the tour. Much his best allrounder, Lala Amarnath, he sent home for insubordination just before the Lord's Test and a few days after he had scored a century in each innings against Essex. "If a tour by Indian cricketers is to be successful, differences of creed will have to be forgotten," sternly wrote the editor of Wisden. Many years later Vizzy was to be found writing and commentating on an England tour, a benevolent and widely respected figure, while Amarnath was to go on and lead the first Indian side to tour Australia.
For no obvious reason India's best batsmen in those days seemed more likely to be tall and wristy and elegant, like Mushtaq Ali and Rusi Modi, than small and wristy and insatiable, like Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar
India had to wait until their 25th Test match before gaining their first Test victory, which came against England in Madras in February 1952. Two months later they left, full of hope, for their third tour of England, only to have a wretched time of it. Of the England side they had beaten in India only two were thought good enough to get a game against them at home, besides which a dismally wet summer put India at a hopeless disadvantage. For the first time they were given five-day Test matches - four of them - and they came to Lord's for the second after making, in the first, what is still the worst start to an innings in Test history.
Although he was doing his national service in the RAF, 21-year-old Fred Trueman was given leave to play in the Test matches in 1952, and his impact was the talk of the season. Beginning their second innings in the first Test at Headingley in reasonable shape - only 41 runs behind England's 334 - India lost their first four wickets in 14 balls without scoring a run, three of them to Trueman, the other to Alec Bedser.
There was a lovely rhythm to Trueman's bowling, and he swung the ball at a pace equalled at the time only by the two Australians, Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller. On the pitches of that summer, Trueman and Bedser would have been a handful for the strongest of sides. In the event, in their last three innings of the series, India were bowled out for 58, 82 and 98.
That they gave England a game at Lord's was due to an astonishing performance by Vinoo Mankad, who after the Headingley collapse had been released by Haslingden, where he was playing as a professional in the Lancashire League. Having scored 72 on the first day at Lord's and then bowled 73 overs in England's first innings, in which he took 5 for 196, Mankad went in again and made what at the time was India's highest individual score in Test cricket - 184 in just under five hours. By the time England won by eight wickets on the fifth morning his bowling figures for the match were 97-36-231-5. He was India's first great allrounder, and until Kapil Dev came along 25 years later, the most effective.
Mankad was a sturdy and businesslike right-hand batsman and a slow, orthodox left-arm bowler with a low trajectory. Cricket being a symbol of eternity as it was played in India in those days, Mankad personified it. No one else has ever been on the field for anything like as long in a match at Lord's. Of the 24 hours 35 minutes for which the match lasted he spent 18 hours 45 minutes in the middle. He was 35 at the time and nothing like as physically fit as his counterparts today. It was a prodigious effort.
But apart from that, and the emergence of Trueman, and the fact that England were being captained by a professional for the first time in England, the series of 1952 made few headlines. Len Hutton, whose 150 in the Lord's Test took second place to Mankad's tour de force, went on to become one of England's most successful and canniest captains. That neither he nor Don Bradman ever set foot in India was a great pity, albeit a reflection of the times. Had they done so, Brian Lara's 400 might well not be the highest individual score in Test cricket.

John Woodcock was cricket correspondent of the Times from 1954 to 1988