Due to an almost unbelievable chain of events, the slot for the Indian Test captain underwent a roller-coaster experience for the disastrous home series against West Indies 1958-59. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the appointment four captains – Polly Umrigar, Ghulam Ahmed, Vinoo Mankad and Hemu Adhikari – in five Tests – the fifth of which started on February 6, 1959. In fact, India had two new captains in its next two Tests to make it six captains in seven Tests!
First Test at Bombay: November 28-December 3, 1958
The pandemonium began even before the West Indies arrived on Indian soil. Lala Amarnath, the chairman of selectors, wanted Ghulam Ahmed as the captain. However, Ghulam did not turn up for the pre-series camp at Bombay. Ghulam played for the Board President’s XI against the tourists, but could bowl only 10 overs before a leg injury that put him out of the rest of the match. LP Jai and Cotah Ramawasmi, voted against Ghulam, but Amarnath used his casting-vote to have him as captain.
On the other hand, Ghulam was himself reluctant to lead at Bombay. His impression was the Bombay crowd did not like the Hyderabad spinner too much. Ghulam eventually pulled out of the match. The selectors appointed Polly Umrigar as captain and India went in with three debutants – Chandu Borde, Manohar Hardikar and Ghulam Guard.
To their credit India drew the Test, thanks to some brilliant bowling by Subhash Gupte and Pankaj Roy’s 444-minute epic of 90, but got their first taste of the lethal, intimating fast bowling from Wes Hall and Roy Gilchrist. They virtually ran in from the sight-screen, and came at the batsmen with hostile pace: they bowled bouncers and beamers, and though the umpires had the right to stop them – or at least warn them – under Law 42, they did not intervene.
West Indies 227 (Rohan Kanhai 66, Collie Smith 63; Subhash Gupte 4 for 86) and 323 for 4 declared (Garry Sobers 142 not out, Basil Butcher 64 not out, Collie Smith 58) drew with India 152 (Polly Umrigar 55; Roy Gilchrist 4 for 39) and 289 for 5 (Pankaj Roy 90, Gulabrai Ramchand 67 not out).
Second Test at Kanpur: December 12-17, 1958
For once there was no confusion. With Ghulam back, he duly replaced Umrigar, and the proceedings went on as planned. India started brilliantly, having West Indies reeling at 88 for 6 on day one. Gupte took nine wickets in the first innings – he could have got all ten had Naren Tamhane not grassed a chance. However, handling Hall’s pace turned out to be too much for them, and they lost easily.
The crowd went volatile when Hall bowled out India cheaply for the second time in the Test. In the second innings India collapsed from 173 for 2 to 240. So violent was the crowd reaction that the police had to escort the Indian team to their hotel.
West Indies 222 (Gerry Alexander 70; Subhash Gupte 9 for 102) and 443 for 7 declared (Garry Sobers 198, Joe Solomon 86, Basil Butcher 60) beat India 222 (Polly Umrigar 57; Wes Hall 6 for 50) and 240 (Nari Contractor 50; Wes Hall 5 for 76) by 203 runs.
Third Test at Calcutta: December 31, 1958 to January 4,1959
The West Indians had found their rhythm. They simply blew the Indians away at Calcutta. Rohan Kanhai, who had fallen to Gupte in three out of four innings rather cheaply, went on to bludgeon the Indian bowling, scoring 256. The Indians submitted meekly to Gilchrist and Hall, and scored marginally more than Kanhai.
India lost by an innings and 336 runs – their biggest margin of defeat ever. Ghulam resigned immediately after the Test.
West Indies 614 for 5 declared (Rohan Kanhai 256, Garry Sobers 106 not out, Basil Butcher 103, Joe Solomon 69 not out) beat India 124 and 154 (Vijay Manjrekar 58; Roy Gilchrist 6 for 55) by an innings and 336 runs.
Fourth Test at Madras: January 21-26, 1959
It was then that the drama began. The Calcutta Test ended with a day and a half to spare. The selectors met for 15 minutes on the evening of the fourth day to pick the side for the fourth Test. Ghulam was asked to withdraw his resignation. Ghulam agreed, albeit reluctantly. The selectors also decided to bring back Vinoo Mankad to help them out.
Just four days before the fourth Test commenced, Ghulam, unable to pull out of captaincy, surprised everyone by resigning from Test cricket. Now the selectors were faced with a double decision – to pick a new captain as well as a replacement bowler of Ghulam’s standard. To make things worse, Vijay Manjrekar, India’s leading batsman, declared himself unfit and pulled out of the Test.
Amarnath wanted to get Umrigar as the new captain and Jasu Patel as the replacement spinner. Ramawasami wanted to include the off-spinning all-rounder Kripal Singh. To replace Manjrekar, Ramaswami wanted Hardikar, but he missed the last flight from Bombay, and was out of contention now. In the meantime, Umrigar refused to lead if Patel was chosen. Meanwhile, Apoorva Sengupta, who had scored a hundred for Services against the West Indians in their first match of the tour, was asked to make his debut.
The Board President (by coincidence or not, another Patel) was persistent on Patel’s selection. Ramaswami agreed with Umrigar, but could do little. On the eve of the Test, Umrigar gave the captain’s speech at a reception. After the speech he came back to the hotel and submitted his resignation.
On the day of the Test, when the selectors and the Board members tried to persuade Umrigar, he actually burst into tears, refusing to lead India. Fifteen minutes before, when Gerry Alexander asked Gupte who was supposed to lead India, he responded “we don’t need captain, it is all communal”.
The Board Officials were desperate now. They dragged Mankad to the toilet behind the dressing-room, and after a hurried discussion, Mankad went out to toss in his India blazer with Alexander. Hall and Gilchrist bowled menacingly once again, this time often going round the wicket and bowling with a packed field behind square on the leg-side. The Indians surrendered meekly once again, and lost the series at Madras. To make things worse, Mankad went down with food-poisoning during the Test.
West Indies 500 (Basil Butcher 142, Rohan Kanhai 99, John Holt 63; Vinoo Mankad 4 for 95) and 168 for 5 declared (John Holt 81 not out; Subhash Gupte 4 for 78) beat India 222 (Kripal Singh 53; Garry Sobers 4 for 26) and 151 (Chandu Borde 56) by 295 runs.
Fifth Test at Delhi: January 6-11, 1959
The pandemonium continued. During Mankad’s absence from the field, Gulabrai Ramchand led India courageously for a brief period. Impressed, the selectors decided to sack Mankad and give the responsibility to Ramchand. As an official went to inform Ramchand, it was found out that all Bombay players had left the hotel early, worrying that they might get stuck in traffic jams and miss their train. The train left before the official could make it to the station.
The selectors decided to stop pursuing the Ramchand idea and decided to give the job to Hemu Adhikari. Ramchand, who was supposed to lead India for the Test, found himself out of the side at Delhi. India fought back well, though. They crossed 400 for the first time in the series; Adhikari led from the front, scoring 63 and 40 and taking 3 wickets. Borde scored 109 and 96 – he was out hit wicket in the second innings. Debutant Ramakant Desai bowled bouncers at a brisk pace and gave the West Indians a dose of their own medicine. Manjrekar walked out with a broken arm in the dying moments of the Test to try and help Borde get his second hundred of the match and save the Test. All of this happened after Umrigar was declared unfit to bat in the second innings. West Indies required only 47 to win in the second innings, but time had already run out.
India 415 (Chandu Borde 109, Nari Contractor 92, Polly Umrigar 76, Hemu Adhikari 63; Wes Hall 4 for 66) and 275 (Chandu Borde 96, Pankaj Roy 58, Datta Gaekwad 52; Collie Smith 5 for 90) drew with West Indies 644 for 8 declared (John Holt 123, Joe Solomon 100 not out, Collie Smith 100, Conrad Hunte 92, Basil Butcher 71; Ramakant Desai 4 for 169).
What happened next?
The whims of the Indian selectors continued after this series as well. For the next tour to England, Ramchand was not picked; neither were Mankad or Adhikari, for both of whom the Delhi Test turned out to be their last. Datta Gaekwad, a veteran of 6 Tests, was appointed the captain, and India had five captains in six Tests!
To make things more complicated, Ghulam came out of retirement to declare that he was available now; Ramaswami was so infuriated at this that he resigned. When the reason came out in public, Ghulam promptly retired once again, and was replaced by Venkattapa Muddiah!
And then, when Gaekwad went down with bronchitis, Roy had to lead India in the second Test of the series at Lord’s, making it six captains in seven Tests!
(A hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobiac by his own admission, Abhishek Mukherjee is a statistical analyst based in Kolkata, India. He typically looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – not necessarily as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the game with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a rather steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers the sport has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks and googlies in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in)