As a relentless accumulator of runs, Vijay Samuel Hazare was perhaps not sui generis. He had to share the acclaim of an awed public with another equally famous contemporary bearing the same name, and with whom he will forever be inextricably linked. The early 1940s were veritably the Golden Age of Batting in domestic cricket and without the inspiring presence of the other, it is doubtful if the two Vijays could have motivated themselves to climb to the heights they did. A match-saving batsman rather than a match-winning one, Hazare's permanent role was to rein in the innings whenever the top order came to grief, which was all too often.
Combined with his always dangerous medium pacers which opened the bowling for India in twelve Tests and his captaincy of the side in a difficult period when India was just finding their feet in the international arena, Hazare's worth was incalculable. Two of the most romantic achievements of his illustrious career were the 309 he made out of 387 in the Bombay Pentangular, despite which Rest lost by an innings, and the century in each innings against Bradman's team at Adelaide. Both of these came in for mention in the course of an encounter I had with Hazare in Baroda last week.
A household name in Baroda, his name strikes an instant chord of recognition in my autorickshaw driver. As we near our destination, helping hands direct us to his house concealed behind a hospital bang opposite the Maharaja Pratapsinh Coronation Gymkhana Ground, popularly known as the polo ground, venue of one of his more celebrated exploits - the world record 577-run partnership with Gul Mahomed. A major operation to remove a tumour in his large intestine actually left him bedridden for seven months last year. Displaying tremendous willpower of yore, the octogenarian has recovered his mobility even if he remains a trifle unsteady.
Three months short of his 86th birthday, Hazare's memory is understandably not as reliable as it used to be. His grandson Kunal - himself a Ranji Trophy player who completes three generations of first class cricketers in the family - takes it upon himself to guide Hazare back on course whenever his reminiscences wander into a blank wall. He forgets the name of his brother, gets several figures wrong, and mistakes India's first Test victory - under his captaincy - to be against Australia. But beneath that exterior, what clearly comes out in the faltering voice is an intense pride as he takes you through a history lesson. Here is a man who guards every precious moment of his past zealously and rightfully so. These are some excerpts from our conversation.
Q: I'll start by asking you about your debut for India in an unofficial Test in Lahore. The match was interrupted by an earthquake when you were batting. Do you remember it?
A: That was Lord Tennyson's team and I was selected for the first time to represent India [in 1937/38]. I do remember when Amar Singh came to know that I was selected he was very happy. He knew that this was the first time I was playing and helped me out. In the first Test I scored 37 or something like that [he scored 31]. Of course I was not a very good batsman then you see. I was batting and there was a little tremor, so everything stopped (laughs). But it was only a few minutes. It was not very severe or anything like that and we went on playing.
Q: You regarded Clarrie Grimmett, who came to India on a coaching assignment, as your guru. What advice did he give you?
A: You see, Mr. Grimmett was out of the Australian team, so the Raja Saheb of Jath called him here to learn his googly. I was with the Maharaja of Dewas who was related to the Raja. The Raja called me from Dewas, said that Grimmett was coming, and asked me to come over also. Grimmett used to bowl to me with a tennis ball and showed me how I should play the defence. From him I learnt that defence is the main criteria for cricket. Of course he was a googly bowler and because I used to also bowl leg breaks, I asked whether I can try the googly. But he told me not to try it or else it would spoil my bowling. He asked me to keep on bowling as I was and that would get me a lot of wickets.
Q: You had a great rivalry going with Vijay Merchant. Did his presence motivate you to go on to make big scores?
A: In our time radio commentary was the only way to give information to the people because there was no television. During the Pentangular matches I used to play for the Rest and at that time there was a commentator, Talyarkhan. He used to say that Vijay Merchant is the best batsman and second is Hazare. Then after some time he would say 'I think Vijay Hazare is better then Vijay Merchant'. But we were good friends, Merchant and myself. In one match against Hindus, the Rest were playing. Our team, the Rest was not very strong. My brother Vivek Hazare gave me a stand and I tried to play from both ends. The result was I scored 300 runs and Vivek scored only 21 runs. So after that Talyarkhan said Vijay Hazare is the best. We lost the match but then the crowd rushed to the pavilion at the Brabourne Stadium, broke some of the chairs, and they wanted me to come out. Merchant took me out and asked me to tell them that we would be meeting again in the Ranji Trophy next week. So I told the crowd, I'll be playing the next match against Bombay at the Brabourne Stadium on such and such a day. Please do come and watch.
Q: Your greatest performance for India was the century in each innings at Adelaide. Any recollections?
A: That was against Bradman's team. We had to go to Darwin and the people there used to tease us: 'you have to play Bradman, don't forget'. Of course we couldn't say much. Then we came to Sydney by air and when we landed, we met Don Bradman who was waiting to receive us. It was wonderful. At Adelaide as luck would have it, I scored a century in each innings against Bradman in a Test match. Miller bowled two consecutive bumpers and I hit him for four. At that time we kept our shots on the ground, and the ball went 'tack' into the railings. In the first innings I got 116. Then when we batted again unfortunately Mankad who went in first was out for zero and then our captain Lala Amarnath also got out. So I was walking in immediately, there was no time to even put on my pads (laughs). I went in and hit two bumpers from Miller and he went to the captain Don Bradman and asked for one more fielder on the leg side. Bradman said 'please go on bowling'. Then he only came and bowled slow balls and finished the over and was taken off. I made 145 in the second innings, so it was a century in each innings. I was so pleased with my performance. Everybody was very happy and Bradman came and shook hands with me for the double.
Q: You also bowled Bradman twice in the Test series. Was that a thrill?
A: In the Sydney Test, Amarnath gave me the new ball. I was wondering why since I never used to open the bowling. Of course when he gave me the ball, I went ahead and bowled one cutter that clean bowled Bradman's wicket. He scored only 13. I was so pleased. On the whole I got Bradman out three times. On that tour, Bradman was the main scorer. He also scored a century in each innings. That was the only thing remaining for him and he did it against us.
Q: India's first Test victory came under your captaincy, against England at Chepauk. What do you remember of the occasion?
A: Yes, I was appointed the captain and we were playing at the Chepauk ground against England. Luckily we were in a good position and Ghulam Ahmed got a few wickets. Vinoo Mankad was bowling only straight, you see. I told Mankad, 'Ghulam Ahmed will get all the wickets, all the credit will go to him, you are not turning the ball'. Then he started spinning it and we went on to beat England.
Q: What about your record stand with Gul Mahomed?
A: Oh yes I do remember it. It was just in front of this house at the polo ground, where we were playing. Gul Mahomed gave me a stand. He scored 319 and I scored 288 not out. That was a world record which still stands.
Q: You've watched Bradman in his prime and Tendulkar on television. Any similarities that you could make out?
A: Certainly there is a little similarity, in the beginning they just push and take runs, in that way they become well set, and then go for the bowling. (Hazare's grandson Kunal interjects: "What he told me is: When Bradman came to bat, he immediately starts taking singles and twos, he doesn't allow the bowler to settle down on one line and length and the bowler gets frustrated. That is what Sachin Tendulkar also does. So he finds a bit of similarity there.")