Hemu Adhikari: The first world-class fielder produced by India
Hemu Adhikari is seen here with his wife Kamala at Osterly where the 1952 Indian team to England were playing the Indian Gymkhana Club © Getty Images
Lieutenant-Colonel Hemu Adhikari was born on July 31, 1919. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the man who fought for the national team on the ground and for the nation off it.
Lieutenant-Colonel Hemchandra Ramachandra Adhikari was perhaps the first man to introduce the concept of quality ground-fielding in Indian cricket. India had the odd good fielder like Lall Singh or Gul Mohammad, but it was Adhikari who actually revolutionised Indian cricket by laying stress on the fact that fielding was a dimension of the sport as important as batting or bowling. He was the first world-class fielder India had produced.
A perpetual threat at cover-point, Adhikari was perhaps the first Indian fielder who could hit the stumps with a direct throw on a consistent basis. His fielding was not built on natural talent: it was honed by relentless practice over many hours throughout his illustrious career.
Suresh Menon wrote of him: “It was [Hemu] Adhikari who laid emphasis on fielding and fitness from the grassroot level. In this he was a pioneer.” Perhaps it had to do with the strict regimen he had to undergo while being in the Indian Army. However, it was also because of his army duties that he could play in only 21 of the 47 Tests India played from his debut Test to his last one.
In Raj Singh Dungarpur’s words, “If television had captured him in action in those days — and I do not wish to sound one bit exaggerating — Hemu Adhikari would have been compared to a Jonty Rhodes. He patrolled cover point as if he was on the Line of Control with the dedication of a soldier.”
Adhikari scored 872 runs at 31.14 with a solitary hundred. An excellent player of spin, Adhikari was a giant at home, scoring 673 runs at 48.07 from 13 Tests. Till his retirement, only Vijay Hazare averaged more at home among Indians with over 600 runs. Outside India, however, his record dipped significantly to a tally of 199 from eight Tests at 14.21.
In First-Class cricket, Adhikari scored 8,683 runs from 152 matches at 41.74 with 17 hundreds and his leg-breaks fetched him 49 wickets at 37.93. He also held 97 catches. However, it was his discipline, resolve, and candidness – also by-products of his career in the army that set him apart from the others.
Adhikari made his Ranji Trophy debut for Gujarat in 1936-37 at Ahmedabad. Batting at No 3, he top-scored in each innings with 26 and 30, but Western India routed them by a massive margin as Gujarat were bowled out for 77 and 105.
He shifted to Baroda the next season, and picked up a career-best haul of three for two against his old team at Baroda in 1938-39. Thereafter he found a purple patch with the bat: he smashed his way to 160 against Nawanagar, whose attack was spearheaded by Shute Banerjee and Amar Singh, at Baroda; in the next match he scored 68 and 23 not out against Maharashtra at Poona.
Not content, he began the next season with a 90 against Ceylon for an Indian XI at Bombay followed by 91 and 29 against Maharashtra at Baroda; and to round of things he scored 88 and 106 against Gujarat at Baroda. From seven innings he had amassed 655 runs at 93.57, and was suddenly a name despite the healthy rivalry of the two champions — Vijay Merchant and Hazare — that dominated Indian cricket in the 1940s.
By the time World War II was over and international cricket had resumed Adhikari had turned 26. He had a run of six consecutive fifties (including 186 in the 1943-44 Pentangular final that was immortalised by Merchant’s 250 not out and Hazare’s 309: Adhikari and Merchant had added 345 for the third wicket).
During the last stages of the War, Adhikari ended up scoring four hundreds in eight innings spanned over two seasons; he missed out on the 1946 tour of England, mainly due to a very strong Indian batting line-up, but was eventually selected for the 1947-48 tour of Australia.
Hemu Adhikari (sitting in the centre on the ground) with the 1947 Indian team that toured Australia. Photo courtesy: Khandu Rangnekar family.
Australia did not suit Adhikari. He later acknowledged that the pair of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller was the greatest he had ever encountered. After a couple of failures he finally found some runs against New South Wales at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), scoring 47 and 65 against the famed duo, backed by Bill Johnston and Ernie Toshack. In three weeks’ time he made his debut in the first Test at Gabba, scoring eight and 13.
It was a torrid series for both Adhikari and India: the tourists lost 0-4 (thrice by an innings), though to their credit they had taken an 81-run lead in the rain-washed second Test at SCG. Adhikari played in all five Tests, scoring 156 runs at 17.33.
In the fourth Test at Adelaide, however, he proved his mettle at the highest level for the first time: after Australia had registered a mammoth 674 they bowled India out for 381 despite Hazare’s 116 and Dattu Phadkar’s 123. Hazare, coming out to bat after two wickets without a run on the board in the second innings, defied the Australians with another hundred the next day.
On Day Five, however, Adhikari hung around with Hazare to provide India with some hope: the pair added 132 runs for the seventh wicket, but once Hazare was out for 145 India lost their last four wickets for six runs, losing by an innings. Adhikari had batted for 198 minutes, scoring 51 in 210 balls: the selectors were made to realise his fearlessness against quality pace.
For some unfathomable reason he was named an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year, despite the fact he had had several much better seasons before and after the one mentioned here. It was on this tour, however, that he saw a 39-year old Don Bradman fielding athletically and picked up a lesson or two that would go on to shape his career.
The Kotla Test
The touring West Indians were a formidable side, and in the first Test at Delhi they amassed 631 with four batsmen scoring hundreds. India fought hard as the tourists kept on picking up wickets at regular intervals. He walked out with the score on 249 for five and added 50 with Phadkar and 79 with Chandu Sarwate.
Thereafter he shepherded the tail with caution, turning down singles and keeping the strike as much as possible. John Goddard had to use eight bowlers, but to no avail. Adhikari batted for 245 minutes scoring 114 guiding India to 454. It would remain his only Test hundred. It was also the highest Test score by a No 7 against the West Indies till Alan Knott scored 116 at Headingley in 1976. It still remains the highest Test score by an Indian number seven against West Indies.
His job was not over, though: India were doing fine after following on till Robert Christiani came along with his innocuous off-breaks as the eighth bowler of the innings. He picked up the only three wickets of his Test career and suddenly India found themselves at 162 for six, still trailing by 15 runs with 80 minutes remaining.
The West Indians attacked, but Adhikari and Sarwate were immovable. Goddard brought back his main bowlers, but to no effect. Adhikari (29 not out) and Sarwate (35 not out) played out time as India saved the Test. He batted decently in the series, scoring 254 runs at 50.80.
The shift to Services
Back home, he assumed national duties and moved to the Services Ranji Trophy team as a result. Soon enough, he scored 105 against Southern Punjab at Patiala, and after top-scoring with 64 in Services’ second innings against the touring MCC at Dehra Dun he was picked for the first Test against the tourists at Delhi, thus becoming the first player from Services to appear in a Test for India.
He scored a career-best 230 not out in his next Ranji Trophy outing against Rajasthan at Ajmer. After the performance he had to be picked for the second Test at Bombay but failed again. In the fourth Test at Kanpur, however, he scored a defiant 60, lifting India to 157 from 44 for five, but in vain.
Despite all that, he scored heavily in the domestic season, amassing 766 runs at 76.60, thereby finding a slot in the touring squad to England in 1952 as the vice-captain. He struggled a bit but eventually found some form against Essex at Ilford where he top-scored with 61 and helped India reach 195 from 103 for seven. The innings earned him a spot in the second Test.
Batting at seven he registered a duck and was then promoted to first-down to play out Fred Trueman: he did a decent job, adding 52 with a rampant Vinoo Mankad, but managed to score only 16. He was retained for the next two Tests but fared quite poorly (though he top-scored with 27 in the second innings at Old Trafford when India were bowled out for 58 and 98 in the same day).
With the Test series getting over and Trueman out of the way Adhikari found some runs. He masterminded a 214-run chase against Surrey at The Oval, top-scoring with 98 not out; then, in the next match, he scored 101 not out against Warwickshire at Edgbaston – his only hundred of the tour; and finally, in a nail-biter against Gloucestershire at Cheltenham he top-scored with 80 out of 138 (Pankaj Roy with 11 was the only one to have scored more than seven) and then pulled off a 108-run chase with a crucial 28 not out on a wearing pitch.
Hemu Adhikari on his way to 98 not out against Surrey © Getty Images
The record partnership
When Pakistan toured India later that year for their first taste of international cricket Adhikari etched his name in the record books in a partnership with Ghulam Ahmed. Ghulam Ahmed walked out to join Adhikari on the second morning with the score on 263 for nine: the pair ended up adding 109 in 80 minutes.
The Hyderabadi eventually fell for exactly 50 while Adhikari remained unbeaten on 81: it was only the fifth century partnership for the last wicket in Test cricket. It remained the highest last-wicket partnership for India for over 50 years till Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan added 133 against Bangladesh at Dhaka in 2004-05 (for the record, Harbhajan Singh and Shanthakumaran Sreesanth had added 105 against New Zealand at Hyderabad in 2010-11 – the only other last-wicket century-partnership for India).
A demoralised Pakistan then capitulated in front of Mankad who picked up 13 for 131 in the Test. Adhikari did not play in the second Test at Lucknow but was recalled for the Bombay Test where he failed again. It would be four years before he would be recalled.
Adhikari’s later years fluctuated between his Indian Army duties and Ranji Trophy matches for Services. He was eventually recalled to the Test when Ian Johnson’s Australia toured India in 1956-57. The comeback at Madras did not go to well but he helped save the Bombay Test with 33 (adding 95 with GS Ramchand) and 22 not out. He was dropped thereafter.
Back to Ranji Trophy, he became the first captain to lead Services to a Ranji Trophy final. After achieving the feat in 1956-57 he repeated the feat next season. These were the only occasions when Services had reached the Ranji Trophy final; they lost on both occasions, however, to Bombay and Baroda respectively.
It was not a coincidence that all cricketers from Services to have played Test cricket — Chandrasekhar Gadkari, Narain Swamy, Raman Surendranath, Apoorva Sengputa, and Venkatappa Muddiah — were all contemporaries of Adhikari.
Captain of India
In the tumultuous seasons of 1958-59 where India had six captains in seven Tests, Adhikari was suddenly recalled in the most bizarre of fashions. India had played four Tests till then in the series and were trailing by a 0-3 margin. Following the defeat in the fourth Test at Madras, it was decided that Ramchand would replace Mankad (who was himself appointed in the last minute — that too inside a toilet) as the captain.
However, the Bombay players (Ramchand was among them) had already left by the time the decision was taken; an official was sent, but he was too late. In a quixotic move the selectors dropped Ramchand from the Test altogether and recalled Adhikari — as captain!
He had not played a Test in over two years though he was in the contention with his success in the Ranji Trophy; a month back he had scored 167 not out and had picked up two for 27 to lead Services to an innings victory over Eastern Punjab at Delhi, so he was in decent form.
However, he had initially refused to lead India in the Test. At that point of time he was posted at Dharamsala on Army duty; he even turned down his wife’s request. It was virtually under ‘orders’ that he finally agreed. He later recalled: “My chief sent me a message asking me to come and report to him immediately. He told me the same thing: India needs you. Your country is bigger than the individual. Just go and play and let the public feel what wrong the Board has done to you.”
Adhikari’s appointment led to a change in the attitude of the Indian team: for the first time they had managed to look at the West Indians in their eyes. Wes Hall and Roy Gilchrist were, for once, tamed: Nari Contractor and Polly Umrigar added 137 for the second wicket, while Adhikari scored a 203-minute 63 to help Chandu Borde add 134 more for the sixth wicket. India eventually scored a respectable 415.
Three West Indians scored hundreds as the tourists put up 644 for eight. Bowling his leg-breaks Adhikari picked up three wickets including those of Conrad Hunte and Basil Butcher. These would remain his only Test wickets.
Trailing by 229 with both Umrigar and Vijay Manjrekar ruled out of the Test West Indies found resistance in Roy and Datta Gaekwad. Then, coming out at 135 for three Adhikari played his second crucial innings of the Test, scoring 40 and adding 108 with Borde: India fought till the end and managed to save the Test.
Adhikari had finally managed to inspire the Indian side to compete against a mighty opposition. It was naturally expected that he would lead India on the England tour. As things turned out, Adhikari withdrew from the side because of lack of complete fitness and practice (he would certainly not one to play a Test until he was lethargic on the field!) and never recalled. He retired after one more season where he scored 364 at 45.50.
Everyone in the cricket circuit, however, was taken aback. Adhikari’s senior in the Army went to the extent of calling up the selectors and demanding a reason to which they responded that Adhikari had apparently withdrawn because of professional duties. When his senior confronted him Adhikari had to convince him that it was indeed not the case.
The second innings
Adhikari’s passion for Indian cricket remained intact for years after his retirement. He was appointed the manager on the 1971 tour of England. This was the same country where he had been humiliated by Trueman 19 years back and was not allowed to tour 12 years back. He had set out to prove a point. The fact that Trueman had greeted him with the words “Glad to see, Colonel [Adhikari], that you’ve got your colour back” on the tour had probably charged him up even more.
The Indian team at The Oval: Standing (from left): Ramprakash Mehra (official), EAS Prasanna, D Govindraj, Bishan Singh Bedi, BS Chandrasekhar, Ashok Mankad, Pochiah Krishnamurthy, Kenia Jayantilal, Syed Abid Ali and Hemu Adhikari (Manager). Kneeling (from left): Syed Kirmani, Gundappa Viswanath. Sitting (from left): Dilip Sardesai, Abbas Ali Baig, Ajit Wadekar (captain), S Venkataraghavan (vice-captain), Farokh Engineer. Kneeling (from left): Syed Kirmani, GR Viswanath, Sunil Gavaskar and Eknath Solkar © Getty Images
He started with fielding. It has often been documented that Indian fielding was hugely responsible for the victory on that historic tour: it was under Adhikari’s maniacal supervision that the practice sessions got more intense and the results showed. A shrewd reader of pitches, an astute judge of men, and a strict disciplinarian by nature, Adhikari’s role was no less than any of the performers on the field.
Bapu Nadkarni recalled: “I would say that much of the credit goes to him [Adhikari] for the way he handled the side. I was in England at the time, playing in the Lancashire Leagues, and I saw every match. It was because of his efforts that we won.” Not only was 1952 avenged, but the series also turned out to be a watershed moment in the history of Indian cricket.
He managed India on subsequent tours as well, and helped shape the careers of many Indian cricketers including future greats like Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev. Paying a homage Chetan Chauhan said of him: “[Hemu] Adhikari was a strict disciplinarian, perhaps because of his army background… He was always very helpful, and good at his job.”
Adhikari was also keen on providing facilities of all sorts for his side. Completely aware of the fact that the Indians were not great players of fast bowling, he always made a point that they started their tours well ahead of the Tests to accommodate a fair number of practice matches.
Personal life and awards
Kamala Adhikari, his wife, was one of the most dedicated, sacrificing, and accommodating wives — always supporting her husband throughout his dual career, both of which were remarkably demanding. The husband was never reluctant to acknowledge her contribution.
He was awarded the CK Nayudu Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999 for his contribution to Indian cricket, both as a captain and as a coach. He was immensely popular both on and off the field. In the words of Nadkarni, “As a person, [Hemu] Adhikari was always a gentleman, very humble and straightforward.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Adhikari passed away on October 25, 2003 at Mumbai.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)