Couch Talk

'Why I was dropped is still an unsolved mystery'

Former India opener Madhav Apte talks about his short-lived Test career, touring the West Indies, and his first impressions of Sachin Tendulkar

Subash Jayaraman: You debuted as a 20-year-old for India and took over from Vijay Merchant as opener. What were you thinking while rubbing shoulders with the legends of the game?
Madhav Apte: I started my career as a legspin googly bowler. In 1948, Vinoo Mankad became my college coach, and he made me into an opening batsman. At that time I had lost my bowling skills, I would say. Vijay Merchant was also one of my gurus, because when I became an opening batsman I had to learn the technique, and there was no one better than him to watch. In fact, Vinoo Mankad as coach would ask us to go and watch when Vijay Merchant batted in the nets early morning, when there was dew, so that he could play against the moving ball.
I was doing reasonably well. In 1951-52, I had scored over 3000 runs in local cricket, and yet I was not even in the Bombay team, not even the XIV. Because the Bombay team was so strong - Vijay Merchant, Vinoo Mankad, Russi Modi, Dattu Phadkar, Vijay Manjrekar, you name them, they were all on that team. So I had no chance of getting into the XI, but I thought maybe in the XIV...
But destiny has played a big part in my life, and Merchant got injured four or five days before the first Ranji match against Saurashtra, and he dropped out. I was not aware then that I was the standby opening batsman. I was called to play and I was lucky, I got a century on debut. I had a good Ranji season.
That was the year India was going to England in 1952. Subhash Gupte and I were the aspirants. We didn't get in. And yet, I went to England to watch cricket, if possible to play, and that was on the advice of Vijay Merchant. I also had some secret thoughts of joining Oxford or Cambridge. But it so happened that the Pakistan team had come to India that summer, in October, and the Indian openers, Pankaj Roy and Datta Gaekwad had not done too well on the tour, so I felt maybe there was an opening, so I decided to come back and take my chance, and if not then think of Oxford or Cambridge after that. As it happened, I was not in the team for the first two Tests. In Delhi, India beat Pakistan, in Lucknow we lost on a mat wicket, and in both matches Pankaj didn't do well, so I got selected for the Bombay Test.
SJ: Was there a sense of being overawed?
MA: Of course, because I was there and my guru, Vinoo Mankad, was to open the batting with me, and to me, being initiated into opening the batting only four years ago, playing with him at the highest level was of course a thrill. But more importantly, or daunting is the word, was to play in the company of Hazare, Amarnath and Mankad. That match had a few debutants - myself, HT Dani and V Rajindernath.
In those days, in the '50s, Bombay was not a concrete jungle. There was a lot of dew. It may sound unbelievable now, but the Brabourne Stadium used to be white, it had that much dew.
Amarnath [the captain] called a team meeting in the morning in his room. Incidentally, the teams stayed at the Brabourne Stadium clubhouse. At the end of his speech he asked Vinoo Mankad in Hindi, "If we win the toss, what should we do?" Vinoo said, "Put them in", because of the dew. In those days, a captain winning the toss would have batted. To give away the batting was an exceptional thing. Amarnath was more worried about what the press would say. Vinoo said, "I don't know about that, but we will have the advantage of the dew." As luck would have it for Amarnath, he lost the toss and AH Kardar decided to bat, and Pakistan were six wickets down before lunch.
Amarnath himself bowled beautifully, he was a slow-medium bowler but moved the ball beautifully, and the dew helped. Gupte and Mankad got wickets, so it proved that Mankad's advice was very sound, and of course, lucky for me again. If we had to bat first, I would have had to face Fazal Mahmood under those conditions, and also Mahmud Hussein, so for me it was good luck that we batted second.
SJ: When you walked in with Mankad, what were your thoughts? Did it get to your head?
MA: I think it would be untrue to say it did not. That is natural.
They were the first Pakistan team to visit, so there was not as much tension as exists today between Pakistan-India games. There was a lot of interest. The Brabourne Stadium was full. Forty-five thousand people watched it. AH Kardar had played for India before, and so had Amir Elahi. When the fast bowler started his run-up, the crowd would all go into a chorus, and the last bit of it would be "boooooooowled", which for somebody playing in his first Test match is not the most comforting kind of encouragement! [laughs] But I suppose if you are playing at that level, you are trained to concentrate on that red cherry, not who is bowling.
SJ: Take us through your memories of the tour of the West Indies, and in particular, the third Test in Port-of-Spain.
MA: In the fourth Test [against Pakistan], in Madras, Vinoo Mankad and I opened again. He didn't get any runs, I got 40-odd. The selection for the West Indies tour was supposed to happen immediately after that. Vinoo Mankad was my room-mate in the hotel, and as can be expected when you are young, you are tense about selection. I kept saying, "I don't think I'll get in", and he would say, "Son, of course you will get there." I said, "But I have scored only 30-odd, ten not out, and 40," and he said "No, no, you will be there." Subhash Gupte, who was my buddy, was also tense. Mankad said, "Look, I'm telling you, you will be there. If you're still not sure, then let's make a bet and a promise. We have to sail from Southampton. If you get selected, on the first night you will open a bottle of champagne. [laughs]
We had no knowledge about life in the West Indies. It certainly came as a very pleasant surprise to be there. It was a ten-day voyage. Some of the West Indian players were also on the ship. [Sonny] Ramadhin was there, so was Frank Worrell, who was returning home after six years to Barbados. Roy Marshall and Alf Valentine were there. I was the youngest, and possibly the leanest, cricketer, and so Ramadhin would scare me by saying how fast and ferocious the West Indian bowlers were. Obviously, mind games were being played. I listened to it but did not take much notice of it, but it was a pleasant trip across.
When our boat docked at Port-of-Spain, the whole pier was mostly full of ethnic Indians. Frank Worrell was such a gentleman. As we were getting off the boat, he stopped everyone and gave us the honour of landing first, saying that we were the guests.
Before we left India we felt like poor cattle being sent to the slaughterhouse. Our performance, as it turned out, surprised everybody, including ourselves.
Almost every cricketer goes through a purple patch. Even the umpire's decisions seem to go in your favour sometimes, or dropped catches or whatever. From day one [of the West Indies tour], I felt comfortable, playing the colony game to begin with. It was played on jute matting, and that was an experience because in India in those days, many locations did not have turf wickets and the matting used to be made of coir, which is fiery.
In the colony game, we were three down with 20 or 30 runs on the board, and it was my first experience of playing with Vijay Hazare as captain and watching him from the non-striker's end. The first ball he faced was an on-drive through midwicket. He made 170 runs or something like that. It was quite an experience. I got 30-odd runs and perhaps got carried away and tried to hit the ball in the air and got caught at mid-on. His only comment, in Marathi, as I was passing by, was, "What? After playing so well, how can you just throw away your wicket like this?" Hitting it in the air, for both the Vijays - Hazare and Merchant - was just not done.
SJ: I heard from you during the Legends Club meeting at the CCI about the friendly rivalry they had.
MA: They were chasing each other in the Pentangulars. Both their careers began prior to World War Two. But during the war years, there was no cricket except for the Ranji Trophy and the Pentangulars. Hazare played for the Rest - that means Christians basically - and Merchant played for the Hindus. Both of them would score double-centuries, and if one scored 250, the other would score 251, but there was no rivalry as such. I knew Hazare well; I lived with him in the West Indies for four months. As I'd heard somewhere, "Hazare did not talk, only his bat talked." I have had great interactions with Vijay Merchant. He had the highest praise for Hazare's batting. Anybody would have, really. If you were a true sportsman, you would not let this kind of rivalry corrupt your assessment of someone else's ability.
SJ: You came back from the West Indies with your average just a shade under 50, and yet you did not play for India again. Were you ever given a reason why you were dropped?
MA: Frankly, that is an unsolved mystery, if I may say so, in Indian cricket. Cricketers of that period have never really found out why.
I came back from the West Indies and there was no Test cricket in 1954, and it was the Silver Jubilee of the BCCI. Like the two earlier Commonwealth teams, there was another Commonwealth team called the "Silver Jubilee Commonwealth XI" and I played in that first Test match against them in Delhi. Vijay Manjrekar came in to bat at No. 3 and batted brilliantly. I got 30-odd as opener. The fact was, not by design but by sheer chance, Manjrekar would bat four balls of the over and I would get to bat only the remaining two. That does not help you in terms of your flow, but now you will appreciate that in those days the batting time was only measured in minutes or hours, not strike rate. If strike rate were to be applied, perhaps I would have not been treated very unfairly, because my strike rate was not bad, but the opportunity to strike was not there. I was certainly not a liability in the field - if anything, I was recognised to be one of the better fielders, and yet, why I was dropped, only through hearsay I would say that I was slow in batting, because I took two hours or more for 30.
But the surprising thing was the person who replaced me was Naren Tamhane, who was not an opener! He is a dear friend of mine, but he did not open for his own club, and he was made to open for India. The selectors are, shall we say, quite whimsical!
"In those days, the quantity of [Bombay] school cricket was less but the quality was high. The Maharashtra team used to be extremely talented in the Ranji Trophy. But unfortunately now, schools cricket in Mumbai is not nurtured, as it needs to be"
SJ: Regarding Mumbai's dominance in the Ranji Trophy, is it because of the abundance of cricketers in the area that allows it to dominate so much, or is it because of the quality of the craft that's passed on from one generation to another?
MA: It's a bit of both. Firstly, because of the Pentangulars, we faced doyens like Vijay Merchant. Not just for the Hindus but the Muslims and Parsis, most of the players came from Bombay. In a sense, the cricket culture is there. The first cricket club in India was set up in 1872, called the Orient Cricket Club, by a Parsi. So Bombay has had a long history, and that could be one of the reasons.
Secondly, the grounds. Shivaji Park had a lot of residential accommodation around it. Or Cross Maidan and Azad Maidan, which are very easily accessible. And the British rule. I am sure all that contributed. But Bombay's dominance needs to be looked at in the perspective of those times, before television. The game was restricted to the West coast. It was Gujarat, Baroda, Holkar, Jamnagar and Saurashtra, because the game was in a sense patronised by the Maharajahs. As a result, the game was concentrated in those areas and not widely spread, which meant that the competition was also less.
SJ: Recently, Jammu & Kashmir beat Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy, so perhaps the gap between Mumbai and the rest is not as much as it used to be.
MA: Undoubtedly so. There are some other issues as well. I think, in any sport, certainly in cricket which is a team game, your fountain of talent must really begin at the school level. In those days, the quantity of [Bombay] school cricket was less but the quality was high. Pune was another. The Maharashtra team used to be extremely talented in the Ranji Trophy. But unfortunately now, this is my theory, schools cricket in Mumbai is not nurtured as it needs to be. That is one part. In those days or years, apart from sport there was no other avenue of entertainment for the youth. The youth nowadays is not as committed or dedicated to sport because they have many other alternatives. In those days, that was not there.
Relatively speaking, this might not be the case in places like Jharkhand or Kerala. That may be one of the small contributing factors. The game has spread throughout the country. Who would have imagined that somebody from Jharkhand would be captaining India? This is basically the contribution of television.
SJ: Would you say that Subhash Gupte was perhaps the best legspinner?
MA: I'd say, without any friendship or nostalgia involved, that he was the greatest legspin bowler India has ever produced. Legspin bowler. One would need to define that. Bhagwat Chandrasekhar was not a [classical] legspinner. Nor was Anil Kumble. Narendra Hirwani, yes. Subhash Gupte was the greatest, and again, I do believe that comparisons are odious. Times change, opponents change, conditions change. Taking all of those factors into account, one cannot ignore the fact that he had to bowl against the three Ws, on hard West Indian wickets. And to contain them, to get 27 wickets in five Test matches, that itself speaks for his bowling. And even after he came back, the Madras match [against New Zealand], he got nine wickets. And against West Indies in '57-58, on a matting wicket, he got nine wickets in one game.
CS Nayudu was another legspinner. Pre-independence, Amir Elahi was another one. Amir was in the same mould as Subhash Gupte in terms of the flight and the loop. Nayudu also had flight. Not Chandrasekhar. Chandra was an exceptional bowler in many ways, bowled the topspinner and so on, but didn't have loop or flight. Elahi had that, CS Nayudu had less of that in Pentangulars and so on. Kumble again was not really a legspinner, he was more of a topspinner.
I'll narrate my conversation with Duleepsinhji (after a Test in Delhi), who was a family friend. Duleep had seen Clarrie Grimmett, Bill O'Reilly, and he said, "Madhav, on today's bowling, what I have seen, he would be as good as Grimmett." Now that is high praise coming from somebody who is very knowledgeable also.
SJ: You were instrumental in getting Sachin Tendulkar into the CCI team. Did you have indications that this boy had what it took to succeed?
MA: One sees a hell of a lot of talent at the age of 14, 16, and so on. Not all of that talent really matures because the future, no one can predict. What one can say is a qualified statement: "If he does not do this or if he does not do that, he may reach wherever." At that time, my comment in the dressing room was, "If this boy keeps his head on his shoulders, he will play for India sooner than later." But even the lord almighty could not have seen that he would go on to get hundred hundreds and so on.
SJ: What was it that you were impressed with when it came to his batting itself?
MA: I think, to repeat, one has seen a lot of talent in many sports. Cricket gave me so much. But I was, without sounding immodest, reasonably good at other sports like squash, badminton, winning championships at junior level, runner up etc. In all sport, you recognise talent. Now talent comprises many things. The technical part of it - when you play badminton, the touch or the stroke, or the stamina, or court coverage. Anticipation. It happens with all sports. So if somebody has all that, it is a total package. Like Nandu Natekar in badminton, Ramanathan Krishnan in tennis or Prakash Padukone [badminton]. All great champions need to have that.
This young boy, who was 14 and a half, showed all that. In cricketing terms, as a student of the game, what I observed was that his shot selection, running between wickets, calling, keeping the tempo of the game, apart from the technical defence etc were exceptional. To me, it looked like a total package. The boy has everything. After that, it is destiny, also. One need not make comparisons, but Vinod Kambli - both of them were contemporaries, both were schoolmates - for sheer natural ability, aptitude and talent, Vinod was no less. But look where the two careers ended up. Many other factors come in. And that's what it's all about.
SJ: When you played, there was a lot of leeway for bowlers with beamers and bouncers, uncovered wickets, no protection for the batsmen. Do you think about what might have happened?
MA: Yes, you've hit the nail on the head. Firstly, it is an occupational hazard as a cricketer. It used to be an occupational hazard, but now there is a lot more protective gear. Only last week we were talking about [Phillip Hughes' death] among some friends. What happened to poor Hughes was sad, very sad. Nari [Contractor] nearly got killed. And Manohar Hardikar. In fact, in that Test match in Kanpur, I was the 12th man. He got hit by a beamer, not a bouncer. [If he'd] got hit just half a centimetre or a centimetre away, behind the ear, doctors said he would have died. I was hit on the cheekbone. It's all reconstructed by surgery. I was talking to some friends, and I said when you look back, after such a thing happens, one cannot help feeling that you've been just bloody lucky. Nari was lucky to survive.
SJ: Was there a time when you were hoping for an India recall, or did you say, well, I'll just focus on the family business?
MA: Hoping. Of course, I was. But how long could it happen? This happened when I was 20. I retired when I was 34. Obviously one cannot expect that you'd be recalled at the age of 35. I think [I hoped] probably till when I got a hundred against Services and a hundred against Bengal in 1959. I would have been probably 30.
Till the age of 30 one would think there could be a chance of a recall. But again, if one is realistic and sensible enough, you also realise who your competitors would be and how you would rate against them. The public's sympathy is for someone who is playing his first Test. One he's a has-been, it's almost like a second-hand car. Even if you've used it for a day, its value drops.
At 82, all I can say is I wouldn't have wanted my life to be any different. Of course, the greatest gift is really the game of cricket. Because that's one game, and at least I have been saying it over and over again, that is a great leveller. And there is no recovery in that. The classic example is that of Sir Donald Bradman, bowled second ball off Eric Hollies when he needed only four runs to have a career average of 100. That's what makes for the glorious uncertainty of this game. There is no recovery. It may be an umpire's bad decision, it may be your partner's bad call, it may be your own mistake or it may be your opponent's brilliance. There is no recovery. So whether you are a Gavaskar or a Merchant or a Tendulkar, when the finger goes up you are back in the pavilion.