India's selectors during the 1958-59 series against West Indies spent more time on political infighting than addressing the team's problems
For much of the time cricket selectors have an unenviable job: ignored when their picks do well and lambasted when they do not. Often the criticism can be over the top, but at others it is fully justified. India's selectors during the series at home against West Indies in 1958-59 would without question fall into the latter category, although, as Wisden noted, the players hardly helped. In the five Tests four different captains were used, while behind the scenes civil war raged. In early November, West Indies arrived for a gruelling three-and-a-half month tour of India and Pakistan on the back of a hard-fought series win against Pakistan in the Caribbean earlier in the year. They possessed a powerful batting line-up and a bowling attack led by two fearsome fast bowlers, Wes Hall and Roy Gilchrist. India had not played a Test for two years, when they had lost a three-match series to Australia.
West Indies looked impressive in their five warm-up matches. Although they only won one, their batsmen quickly adapted to the conditions, and Hall and Gilchrist proved too fast for most provincial opponents.
Even before the first ball of the series, India had problems, almost entirely resulting from behind-the-scenes machinations. Lala Amarnath, who had been chairman of selectors since 1957 and was pushing for players to be picked on merit, as opposed to regional lobbying, found himself at odds with his colleagues from the start. The trouble started when Amarnath used his casting vote to pick 36-year-old Ghulam Ahmed as captain for the opening Test. A good cricketer, his best years were behind him and his fielding was questionable. Critics pointed out he was a friend of Amarnath's. There was also a bitter row over whether to include Pankaj Roy to open, and again Amarnath used a casting vote to secure his place. A week before the first Test in Bombay, Ghulam Ahmed withdrew with a knee injury. Amarnath cabled the BCCI suggesting Manohar Hardikar be drafted in to replace him, and was livid to find LP Jai, one of the selectors from the home city, had instead acted unilaterally and called up local spinner Bapu Nadkarni. Amarnath's anger was exacerbated when he found Jai, in the absence of a formally named vice-captain, had announced Polly Umrigar would lead the side. Under Umrigar, India drew the first Test. Jai sat alone in the pavilion while the rest of the selection panel fumed in a committee box. At the end of the match they finally got together but within minutes Jai had stormed out of an acrimonious meeting, subsequently reporting Amarnath to the BCCI for using abusive language. The Bombay newspapers attacked Amarnath for what they portrayed as his anti-Bombay behaviour. Jai, meanwhile, refused to resign, but he also boycotted the selection meetings. A fit-again Ghulam Ahmed returned for the second Test, but India lost by 203 runs and the selectors made four changes for the next match, at Eden Gardens. However, India were crushed by an innings and 336 runs, bowled out for 124 and 154 in reply to West Indies' 614 for 5. The players needed a police escort from the ground back to their hotel.
Despite these defeats, Ghulam Ahmed, whose own performances had been poor, and who had been subjected to personal abuse by the Calcutta crowd, was named captain for the fourth Test, only for him to announce his retirement a few days later to "make way for a younger man".
The selectors then turned on each other, as some of them sought to use the unrest to blatantly push their own regional favourites. They did at least manage to agree that Umrigar would be restored to the captaincy.
Then Vijay Manjrekar withdrew from the squad with an injury, prompting the BCCI secretary - not a selector - to contact Umrigar and inform him the board president favoured Jasu Patel, an offspinner. A furious Umrigar refused to accede to the suggestion, insisting a batsman and not a bowler would replace a batsman. The conversations were long and acrimonious.
The dust seemed to finally settle only for Umrigar to resign after the eve-of-match dinner. The selectors frantically tried to persuade him to reconsider but he refused, saying he had had enough. Bizarrely, he remained in the side.
With no time to summon anyone else, Vinoo Mankad, who had missed the first three Tests because of a pay dispute with the BCCI, was hastily appointed captain. Given the backroom chaos, it was no surprise India lost by 295 runs.
Amarnath announced the team for the final Test, in Delhi, would be one aimed at planning for the forthcoming tour of England, and immediately vetoed retaining Mankad as captain, as he felt Mankad was too negative. Yet another row ensued and eventually Gulabrai Ramchand emerged as the favourite.
Unanimity could not be reached but the panel was getting closer to a decision when the selector who had initially proposed Ramchand withdrew his support for him. A frustrated Amarnath then put forward 39-year-old Hemu Adhikari's name, and despite the panel again failing to agree, he forced through the appointment. Such was the chaos by this time that Ramchand, who had come within minutes of leading the side, was not even named in the squad.
Under Adhikari, India rallied and managed to draw the match, but the public's anger remained and Adhikari immediately said he would not tour England. Nine days after the series ended, India's parliament held a debate on what was described as a "national catastrophe". The cricketers were dismissed as "unfit ambassadors", the BCCI was singled out for criticism, being accused of "terrible rot and corruption", and one member said the trip to England should be cancelled.
Later that week, and seemingly oblivious of the need to put regional bias behind them for the national good, the selectors met to pick the side for the England trip. Within minutes the meeting had descended into a bitter argument. It was clear nothing was going to change in the short term.
What happened next?
- India were whitewashed 5-0 in the series in England, Wisden noting "one of India's biggest problems, that of captaincy, has been with them for many years"
- Amarnath remained chairman of selectors until the end of the victorious home series against Australia in 1959-60
- Umrigar toured England in 1959 and continued to play Tests for India for another three years. Mankad continued playing for another three years but was not picked for his country again. Adhikari and Ghulam Ahmed retired at the end of the 1958-59 season
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Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa