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V Ramnarayan

A captain a minute

Or that's what it felt like in India at the tail end of the 1950s

V Ramnarayan
V Ramnarayan
Polly Umrigar, Datta Gaekwad, Denis Compton and Vijay Manjrekar at the British Sportsman's Luncheon at the Savoy, London, April 21, 1959

"Fancy a game of pass the captaincy, chaps?" - Polly Umrigar, Dattu Gaekwad, Denis Compton and Vijay Manjrekar have a chat during India's tour to England in 1959  •  Getty Images

Captaincy is easy - until the job is yours. You always make the perfect decisions when someone else is out there leading the side and you are watching from beyond the boundary. Hindsight is a useful gift, especially when you are analysing the decisions of a losing captain; rarely is a winning captain subjected to such scrutiny.
India's new ODI captain, Ajinkya Rahane, is on a better wicket than MS Dhoni is after the recent drubbing by Bangladesh. Even Dhoni's vice-captain has been quoted as questioning his decision-making. Hopefully Rahane, who was dropped for his recent inability to get a move on, will be able to rotate the strike better in Zimbabwe, where the wickets may be quicker than those in Bangladesh. While Dilip Vengsarkar has reportedly welcomed Rahane's appointment as captain of the second-string side, Ajit Agarkar feels the Indian captaincy is an easy grab nowadays.
It can't be easier than it was nearly 60 years ago. The touring West Indies team led by Gerry Alexander must have rubbed its collective eyes in sheer disbelief as the Indian board paraded as many as four captains before it in the 1958-59 five-Test series.
Polly Umrigar led the team in the first Test, in Bombay, after the original captain, Ghulam Ahmed, withdrew citing injury. The match was drawn and Ghulam, fit again, came back and captained in the next two Tests. India were trounced in both of those last two by the mighty West Indies, whose batting machine was coming into its own, with the likes of Garry Sobers, Rohan Kanhai and Basil Butcher amassing runs at will. (Small consolation that in Kanpur legspinner Subhash Gupte took nine wickets in the first innings to rout the tourists for 222, only for them to bounce back from there on.)
Ghulam inexplicably retired at the end of the third Test, thus unwittingly setting an example for Dhoni to emulate more than half a century later. Come the Madras Test, and Polly Umrigar was named captain again, only for him to resign in a huff over a disagreement with the board following an attempt to thrust offspinner Jasu Patel on him when he wanted an extra batsman. Ironically, as Vinoo Mankad took Umrigar's place as captain - surprising the capacity crowd by going out unannounced to toss - India ended up playing that extra batsman, AG Kripal Singh, who made a fighting 53 in the first innings against the hostile pace of Roy Gilchrist and Wes Hall.
Mankad received a hero's welcome when he went into bat at No. 8, ahead of specialist batsman Chandu Borde, and chopped the first ball from Gilchrist delectably for four, only to be castled the very next. Borde and the tail did not last long - India were dismissed for that magic number of 222 again. Borde did make amends in the second innings, playing a lone and brave hand, making 56, but India lost by a huge margin.
Mankad was absent hurt in the second innings but the selectors were already looking for a new captain for the final Test, in Delhi. This time, their roving eyes fell on allrounder GS Ramchand, who had made a plucky 30 in the first innings in Madras, though he was hit on the head by a nasty bouncer.
According to a delightful account this writer heard from the horse's mouth, a board official arrived panting for breath at the Madras Central railway station to inform Ramchand of the happy news of his elevation to captaincy, only to find the train Ramchand was on chugging out of the platform. This was supposedly reason enough for the selectors to deny Ramchand not only the captaincy but also his place in the squad for the fifth Test.
By a stroke of genius, they zoomed in on someone who had not played in any of the earlier Tests - 39-year-old Hemu Adhikari.
Adhikari inspired India to an honourable draw in that final Test, in which Borde made 109 and 96, treading on the wicket in the second innings, even as his hook shot off Gilchrist raced to the boundary. The captain himself contributed 63 and 40, as well as three vital wickets. Naturally he was not among those selected for the India tour of England soon after, nor was Ramchand!
India, led primarily by Dattu Gaekwad - he had to hand the reins to Pankaj Roy for the second Test due to a bout of bronchitis - lost the series in England 0-5, and at the end of it, Gaekwad, like Adhikari against West Indies, had played his last Test match.
Incredibly, Ramchand was named captain for all five Tests of the 1959-60 home series against Australia. In Kanpur, he led India to their first Test victory over Australia, with Jasu Patel (9 for 69 and 5 for 55) running through the Australians. Patel's main bowling partner in the match? None other than Umrigar, who took 4 for 27 in the second innings.
True to form, India had a new captain, in Nari Contractor, when Pakistan toured India the next season. Ramchand had played his last Test in Calcutta, against the Australians.

V Ramnarayan bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s. His latest book is Third Man, Recollections from a Life in Cricket