Vijay Merchant, whose birth centenary was (desultorily) observed last month, was the founder of one of the two great traditions of Indian cricket, the Bombay School of Batsmanship (spin bowling being the other). A correct and orthodox player, equally adept against slow and fast bowling, he had a magnificent record in England, where he was far and away the best player on the Indian tours of 1936 and 1946. With a first-class average second only to Bradman's, Merchant was the first in a long line of superb batsmen from the island city, a line that continues via Vijay Manjrekar and Dilip Sardesai through Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar on to Sachin Tendulkar.
Cricket fans of younger generations know something of Merchant's achievements with the bat. But they are perhaps largely unaware of his exceptional qualities as a human being. He was a thorough-going patriot - so much so that he dropped out of the tour of England in 1932, since Mahatma Gandhi and many other freedom fighters were then in jail. He went four years later, only because the nationalist leaders were now out of prison and preparing to contest elections scheduled under the Government of India Act of 1935.
When the Indian cricket team toured England in 1946, discussions for the British withdrawal from the subcontinent were well advanced. However, the onset of independence was marred by bloody riots between Hindus and Muslims. On the sidelines of a Test match, the young cricket writer John Arlott asked Merchant whether in view of the ongoing sectarian violence, India really deserved independence. Should not the white man, he said, stay on to secure the peace? Merchant reminded his friend that the British had to undergo a civil war to obtain their own political liberties.
Arlott had grown up with the prejudices of a conventional British upbringing. Friendship with Merchant broadened his social and political horizons. When he accompanied an English team to South Africa some years later, Arlott was asked to fill out an immigration form which asked what his race was. The options he was supposed to choose from were "white, Indian, coloured, black". Rejecting them all, he instead wrote: "Human".
By the 1960s, Arlott was cricket's best known and most respected voice, successor to Neville Cardus as cricket correspondent of the Guardian, and featured commentator on BBC's Test Match Special. Using his stature and influence, Arlott played a key role in allowing Basil D'Oliveira to escape from apartheid South Africa and make his name and cricketing career in England. In an interview shortly before his death, Arlott told Mike Brearley that had it not been for those early encounters with Merchant, he may have never spoken out against racism in cricket and beyond.
Merchant was born into a prosperous family of factory owners. Yet he always lived simply, and helped cricketers down on their luck all through his life. When his Test team-mates Amar Singh and Sadashiv Shinde died young, Merchant raised money for their families.
Merchant's ability to transcend barriers of race and class extended to the more entrenched barrier of caste as well. Some years ago I became interested in the careers of two Dalit brothers, a bowler, Palwankar Baloo, and a batsman, Palwankar Vithal, who had shone brightly in the Bombay Quandrangular of the 1910s and 1920s, which, in those pre-Ranji Trophy and pre-Test days, was the premier tournament of Indian cricket. After many phone calls and some fruitless trips to the Palwankars listed in the Mumbai telephone directory, I was finally able to locate Vithal's son, KV Palwankar, who then lived in the back of an old building in Dadar.
In an interview shortly before his death, John Arlott told Mike Brearley that had it not been for those early encounters with Merchant, he may have never spoken out against racism in cricket and beyond
On my first trip, Palwankar gave me a copy of his father's autobiography, in Marathi. A friend translated the book for me - the whole book, including a foreword written by Merchant. There the first great Indian batsman wrote of how, as a young boy, his hero and role model was Palwankar Vithal. Here, in part, is what Merchant wrote: "'Vithal': a slim, alert personality with that well-known green tweed hat on his head and a gracefully held bat in his hand that would swing easily when he reached the wicket… From thousands of cricket lovers there would come the spontaneous cry: 'there comes Vithal'.
"'Vithal': the moment one heard the name… spectators would visualise all the grace and charm of Indian batsmanship…. With supple wrists, keen vision, perfect judgement of flight and agile footwork, Vithal had mastered the art of [batting]. He used to play his strokes with ease whether in front of the wicket or behind it. But one superb stroke of his that I cannot forget is the cover drive. Nowadays a lot of effort and power goes into this stroke because of the off-side cordon. But due to his timing Vithal used to score more runs on this side of the wicket, effortlessly, through perfect coordination of wrist and leg movements…. He used to score fast because of his art of placing the balls in the gap."
This quote and the man's own superb record in the Quadrangular suggest that a case can, perhaps should, be made that it was Palwankar Vithal who is the unacknowledged founder of the Bombay School of Batsmanship. At any rate, the acknowledged founder venerated him, so much so that after Vithal retired from cricket with no savings to speak of, Merchant got him a job in the textile mill that his family owned.
On my second or third visit to KV Palwankar, he pulled out a letter that Merchant had written to him. After Vithal died, his son wrote to the industrialist to thank him for his moral and material help. Merchant wrote back that "all we did for your good father, the late Mr P Vithal, was out of tremendous respect for him, both as a cricketer and as a man. Very few of his generation, with the handicap that he suffered from, would have risen to such heights but for great determination and outstanding talent".
No city in the world, not even Sydney, has produced as many great batsmen as Bombay has. In a line that extends back almost a century, three names stand out - those of Merchant, Gavaskar, and Tendulkar. All were, in their time, the best batsmen in their city, their country, and the world.
Connoisseurs of technique and method can spend hours, days, weeks, discussing their respective merits - Merchant's ability on bad wickets versus Gavaskar's colossal powers of concentration versus Tendulkar's dazzling and often devastating range of strokes. But if the conversation turns, even briefly, from cricket to character, there can only be one winner. Merchant may or may not have been the founder of the Bombay School of Batsmanship. He may or may not have been the best all-round batsman produced by Bombay. He was, however, something more distinctive and arguably even greater - namely the most politically aware, and socially conscious, cricketer ever to play for Bombay, or for India.
Historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha is the author of A Corner of A Foreign Field and Wickets in the East among other books