Saturday, 9 June, 2007

First In First Out - Part III

You won’t find two opening batsmen, poles apart from each other - both in style and their outlook to the game - as Vijay Merchant and Syed Mushtaq Ali were.

Vijay Merchant was the epitome of concentration. Once, after getting out on 250, in a first class match, he said in a non chalant way, "My concentration ‘slackened a bit’, else I could have easily carried on." Mushtaq Ali on the other hand had a dare devil approach and often stepped out of the crease to hit fast bowlers. Remember, he did that in 1930s! In the words of Ray Robinson, "The only time he is still is when he takes guard from the umpire. Why he goes through the formality is one of the mysteries of the Orient because, after making his mark, he takes no notice of it."

Neither of the two started their test careers as opening batsmen. But when they opened together for the first time at Old Trafford in 1936, they put on 203 runs for the opening wicket, exactly the same no.of runs that Indian team had scored in its first innings. It was no fluke, for they combined together by sharing 81 and 64 run partnership in the very next test at Kennington Oval.

World War II robbed more than 7 years of cricket from their prime, but it failed to diminish the spark from their batting. In one of the wettest English seasons in 1946 (pitches were left uncovered then) they scored 124 and 94 runs in two of the three tests that they opened in. Alas, it was also the last series in which they opened together. In four tests as openers, their impressive record reads 3 half centuries, 1 century and 1 double century, all in away tests.

I can’t resist posting this beautiful piece on Mushtaq-Merchant opening pair by Sujit Mukherjee. He writes: "I wonder if the Mushtaq - Merchant combination did not contain the finest possibilities of Hindu Muslim collaboration in India. Sustained by profound mutual regard, they complemented each other – Merchant representing the wisdom, the endurance, the deep rooted nature of Hindu India and Mushtaq representing the dash, the vision and the grand design of Muslim India. Appropriately matched, it made an irresistible combination".

Like their predecessors, Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy were as different as chalk and cheese. Pankaj Roy was the more aristocratic of the two. It won’t be out of place to say that Roy often played in binary states - 0 and 1. He probably holds the record for the highest percentage of ducks for an opener during his time. But he also held up the Indian innings for a decade, first with Vinoo Mankad and then with Nari Contractor. His partner - Vinoo Mankad - was more gifted, in fact, one of the most gifted cricketers of his time. A pucca Gujarathi businessman, he had the audacity to ask the board to compensate him for the loss of revenues during the 1952 away series against England. No wonder he was a miser, both in giving away runs off his bowling and gifting his wicket while batting.

And as with Merchant – Mushtaq, Roy and Mankad first came together against England at Calcutta in 1952 and straightaway shared an opening century partnership, followed by a half century in the very next innings. The ‘Mankad’s test’ at Lords in the following series saw them break 100 runs mark once again, but it got overshadowed by otherwise disastrous tour. Their crowning glory came in the last test at Madras against New Zealand when they put on a 413 runs in 471 minutes, a world record that has stood test of times till today.

How badly India missed a good opening pair after them is brought out in the fact that in 15 years after this world record stand, India could manage only 4 opening century partnerships.

Gavaskar’s debut changed all that.

Two years before Gavaskar made his debut, Chetan Chauhan had opened Indian innings with Vinoo Mankad’s son, Ashok Mankad, against Australia at Madras. But he had to wait for further nine years to combine with Sunil Gavaskar. The Perth test of 1978 spelt the beginning of the most successful opening partnership, hitherto unknown in Indian cricket. In eight series including the Australian of 1978, Indian cricket witnessed a familiar sight of Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan walking out to open the Indian innings. For four years from then on, they provided much needed stability at the top. Only 4 of the 36 tests that India played during this period saw a different player in the opening role, Roger Binny and Anshuman Gaekwad being the ‘culprits’ on two occasions each.

Gavaskar’s debut is well documented. What is hard to believe, is that Chetan Chauhan’s first two scoring shots in tests were, a square cut for four and a flick for six! Other wise he was an out and out defensive batsman. But he was a perfect foil to the little master and carved out some memorable partnerships like the 192 at Lahore against the likes of Imran Khan and Sarfaraz Nawaz, the near match winning 213 at Oval against England in 1979, the courageous 124 at Manchester in the same series following on, the match winning (and series winning) 192 against Australia in Bombay and the superb 165 against Messrs. Lillee and Pascoe at Melbourne.

They remain the only opening pair in India to put over 3000 runs in test matches and by far, the best India has ever had.

Apart from these three pairs, only handfuls have threatened to be successful. Contractor – Jaisimha, Prabhakar - Sidhhu and of late Sehwag – Chopra, have flattered to deceive. A rather grim scenario, given that this June 25th, India will be celebrating 75 years of test cricket.

An opening pair is often a measure of team’s strength and overall success. In India’s case, the paucity of thoroughbred openers is a good measure of its long drawn failures in test cricket.


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