DB Deodhar (left) and CK Nayudu. Photo courtesy: eBay
DB Deodhar (left) and CK Nayudu. Photo courtesy: eBay

If you walk out of Singapore’s beautiful parliament building, an unexpected sight greets you. Right opposite the parliament, in the middle of one of the most beautiful and modern cities in the world, and a twelve-hour flight away from the home of the sport, lies a breathtakingly beautiful cricket ground. There are no stands and no fences, and it is a quadrangle that has busy roads on three sides. But on the fourth extends a grassy promenade by the river on which you can walk, and more importantly, stand and stare. Or indeed, sit down on the grass and watch some cricket.

On a lazy Saturday afternoon, walking down the path, with the INA (Indian National Army) Memorial behind me (Lord Mountbatten’s first act on recapturing Singapore from the Japanese was to destroy the beautiful INA monument that had been put up; with a gratifying sense of deep history, the modern Government has reinstated it in memory of those brave souls) I chanced upon two teams in white battling it out on this beautiful green strip of grass. I didn’t know who they were, and I was too lazy to walk up to the gates of the adjoining Singapore Cricket Club to enquire. It was cricket, and that was enough.

 As I settled down on the grass to watch a young off-spinner bowl to a rampaging Virender Sehwag pretender, I couldn’t help but remember the words of Sujit Mukherjee. Words, that seemed penned for just such an afternoon: “On this pleasant and commonplace afternoon, there was apparently nothing remarkable about the batsman or the bowler, nothing remarkable about the ground, and a more casual follower of the game than I would have strolled on to discover other things to engage his eye and mind on a holiday afternoon. But I have been brought up to believe that whenever and wherever twenty-two yards of levelled turf are hemmed in by three exact stumps at either end and surrounded by thirteen cricketers and two umpires, there is no telling what might happen in that dedicated domain. So I spread out a handkerchief at a convenient spot, settled myself on it as comfortably as possible, and gave myself to the pleasure of anticipation.”

 The game in front of me, while undoubtedly high on energy from the weekend cricketers taking a break from their dreary existence in Banking or Technology (this being Singapore, those are high-probability guesses) was less than stellar in its quality. With unfocused eyes on the game, and the musical sound of red cherry on willow reverberating in my ears, I let my mind wander back to Mukherjee and something he described that made a deep impression on my teenage mind in the late 70’s when I first became a fan of his writing.

 The first MCC tour to India: Arthur Gilligan’s team

 In 1926, an MCC team under Arthur Gilligan made their way to Indian shores. It was the first MCC side to tour India and played 26 First-Class matches in India and 4 in Ceylon. Originally intended to encourage cricket-playing Europeans living in India, the team played Indian sides rather than the European sides envisaged by the tour’s organisers, given that it was being sponsored by the Maharajah of Patiala who expressed his strong desire that it be so.

In Gilligan the Maharajah had found the perfect ear for his vision on the future of Indian cricket. Unlike his mentor Lord Harris, Gilligan was happy to play Indian teams and actively encouraged Indians to organise their own cricket rather than leave it up to white Englishmen. As Mihir Bose was to say about Gilligan, he “met Indians on terms of perfect equality”.

 The team that Gilligan brought across the ocean was not to be scoffed at. Gilligan himself was an accomplished fast bowler and a competent lower-order batsman. Accompanying him were the likes of Maurice Tate, Maurice Leyland, Andy Sandham, Bob Wyatt, Arthur Dolphin, George Geary, Ewart Astill and George Brown.

 Tate, Gilligan’s Sussex teammate and new-ball partner, was England’s leading fast bowler between the Wars. In 1924, on his Test debut, he and Gilligan dismissed South Africa for 30 in just 12.3 overs in the first innings at Edgbaston. He took 4 for 12 with Gilligan taking 6 for 7. In Australia the following year, he had the most success of any English fast bowler since Syd Barnes in 1911-12.

 Leyland, a stylish left-handed batsman, would go on to play 41 Tests for England. However, at the time he joined Gilligan’s party, he was a successful county cricketer coaching teams in India that winter under the sponsorship of Patiala.

 Wyatt played 40 Tests for England, scoring 1,839 at an average of 31.70 and taking 18 wickets at 35.66. Serving as Douglas Jardine’s vice-captain on the 1932–33 Ashes tour, Wyatt was in charge of an early tour match that Jardine sat out of. He became the first captain to employ the controversial Bodyline tactic against Australia. Wyatt was also a man with tremendous determination. A ball bowled by West Indian bowler Manny Martindale hit him in the jaw during a match in Jamaica in 1935. He was carried unconscious from the field with his jaw broken in four places. When he regained consciousness in the dressing room, his first action was to signal for a pencil and paper: when these were supplied he wrote down an amended batting order for his team. At the time of Gilligan’s tour however, Wyatt had not yet made his debut in Tests.

Geary, a right-arm medium pacer, was able to swing the new ball very effectively but relied for most of his success on his amazing persistence and ability to bowl with slight yet well-disguised variations of pace and cut. While serving in the Air Force during the Great War, Geary was unlucky to have his leg cut by an aeroplane propeller and this affected, at least temporarily, his strength and powerful build. His great strength of character was however evident in the fact that most of his successful cricket career came after recovering from this injury.

 Such, then, was the collection of fine cricketers that Gilligan had at his disposal as he took on the Indian sides.

 CK Nayudu makes a statement

MCC played the Hindus at the Bombay Gymkhana on November 30, 1926 in a 2-day match. The Hindus had not given much reason for the gentlemen from MCC to raise their game to any extraordinary heights. The opposition thus far, while not pedestrian, had not been of a quality that stretched the visitors. All that would change on the second day of this extraordinary match.

 The opening day saw a penetrative 4 for 80 from medium-pacer Shankarrao Godambe that included a peach of a delivery on the off stump that left the formidable Wyatt. The edge carried to wicketkeeper Janardan Navle’s safe gloves with Wyatt’s score at 20. But the highlight of the day was an extraordinary 130 from Guy Earle, studded with six towering hits over the ropes, on the back of which MCC was able to reach 363.

 One can forgive the visitors for relaxing until late on the manicured lawns of the Bombay Gymkhana with their gin and tonic after the Hindus ended the day at 16 for 1 with Navle and LP Jai at the wicket, secure in the knowledge that no Indian could be expected to emulate such an innings as Earle had played.

The next morning, with the wicket still green and playing true, and no result expected in the match, the MCC fielders were beginning to relax when Navle fell to Geary with the score on 67. The tall, lithe, compact form of CK Nayudu walked in.

 There are many versions written on what happened next. There have also been later analysis of scorebooks that switched around from early versions the number of boundaries that were hit. But for sheer imagery, it is worth going back to Mukherjee for his version of events: “Sensation took place next day in the form of a dark whip-like man from Nagpur who sprang to retributive action without much preamble. While his colleagues came and went, this batsman reached his first fifty in even time with streamlined drives and powerful pulls. His next fifty he achieved in a fine frenzy lasting thirty minutes, having repeatedly endangered — besides limbs and lives of fieldsmen and spectators — rooftops and roads outside the ground. In a last demoniac burst he wrenched his score to 150 in another twenty-two minutes, the major strikes of this incredible innings being 13 sixes and 11 fours, before a juggling catch in the deep finally removed him.”

 The importance of the innings that CK Nayudu played that first day of December in 1926 cannot be overestimated. Arunabha Sengupta writing in CricketCountry about the innings said it all when he remarked: “It was essentially Nayudu’s innings on that day, which was instrumental in elevating India from a minor to a serious power in the cricketing world.”

 Gilligan, a man who had seen many a great innings in his time, watched helplessly while Nayudu launched into his assault on the English bowling cheered by over 25,000 spectators. Gilligan later wrote that Nayudu was “a really great batsman. I cannot find enough words to express my opinion of him. His polished display of batsmanship was one of the best I have ever seen.” This was high praise indeed from a man not known for his hyperbole.

Waiting for Nayudu at the changing rooms of the Bombay Gymkhana Club that evening when the teams came off the field, was a congratulatory telegram from none other than the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, KS Ranjitsinhji.

Nayudu’s knock, in one afternoon, had dispelled the notion that Indians played cricket at a lower level than their colonial masters and put in motion discussions that would in a few years have far-reaching consequences for the future of Indian cricket. As Boria Majumder said in a blog last year in The Economic Times, “This innings may be regarded as that moment when Indian nationalism took off on the cricket field.”

 DB Deodhar seals the issue

Back in Singapore, the persistence of the off-spinner tirelessly pegging away finally paid off as the Sehwag pretender missed an extravagant pull and found his stumps knocked back. He was replaced by a bespectacled grey-haired banker (a fair assumption, for there are very few grey hairs in Singapore’s booming young fintech industry). As my banker friend settled down to play some beautiful cuts and elegant drives, my senses dulled by the beautiful sound of willow on leather, the mind wandered back once more to that seminal MCC series 90 years ago.

 A bit more than two weeks after Nayudu’s extraordinary knock, MCC was back at the Bombay Gymkhana to play what would later be acknowledged as India’s first unofficial Test. Led by stylish left-handed batsman and penetrative seam bowler Colonel Kekashru Mistry, the best of the Parsees (Parsee Gymkhana), Hindus (Hindu Gymkhana) and Muslims (Mohammedan Gymkhana) came together for the very first time as a cricket team called ‘Indians’. This in itself was an extraordinary moment in history.

For Patiala, the sponsor of the tour, this was the crowning moment of the tour when a combined Indian side played MCC comprising some of the finest First-Class players England had on offer. In an extraordinary decision endorsed by Gilligan, the Maharaja, no mean cricketer himself, decided to stamp his mark on the match by playing for MCC, allowing as many of India’s best talent to fill the national side as he could.

 Gilligan won the toss and decided to bat first in this encounter. Notwithstanding an excellent spell of fast bowling from Ladha Ramji, during which he picked up 3 wickets cheaply, MCC scored 362 runs. This time Wyatt was the highest scorer with 83 before he fell, trapped leg before by a deceptively slow off cutter from Nayudu.

The Indians showed their combined class right away with an excellent hundred-run opening partnership between wicketkeeper Navle and Wazir Ali. Wazir would later go on to play 7 Tests for India. However, the strong bowling attack of MCC then put the brakes on the batting, picking up wickets at regular intervals. At 238 for 7, the Indians were 124 runs behind and only DB Deodhar, who had come in at the fall of Nayudu’s wicket (this time, alas, there would be no pyrotechnics from Nayudu who fell with his score on 18) remained among the recognised batsmen.

For what happened next, we revisit Mukherjee’s account, which once again conjures up imagery that perhaps does more justice to the proceedings than a mere recounting of the innings: “Thereafter a rot set in and it did not seem that the Indian team would reach the three-hundred mark, until the 52-year old skipper came in at the fall of the seventh wicket and stemmed the collapse. In his work of rehabilitation the veteran left-hander found an able supporter in a Poona professor, whose off-side bias grew more and more assured as the minutes went by. The Colonel departed after the MCC score was crossed, having claimed a handsome half-century himself — three more runs than the number of years in his age. But the cricket-playing academician from Erandwana remained to publish a veritable compendium of batsmanship. Late-cutting and off-driving with superb timing, the first century-maker in India-England matches of any description batted over four hours for his 148 runs, to announce to the world that Indian cricket had ‘arrived’.”

Notwithstanding some inconsistencies in detail like the fact that Col Mistry’s final score was 51 rather than 55 as Mukherjee writes, the Cardusian description of the innings underscores the importance Sanskrit professor Deodhar’s innings held for the future of Indian cricket along with Nayudu’s innings earlier that month.

The aftermath of the MCC tour and India’s Test status

The timing of the two innings was immaculate. The previous summer at a conference held at The Oval, the decision had been taken to induct India into the Imperial Cricket Conference along with New Zealand and West Indies. The membership of the ICC was to comprise ‘governing bodies of cricket in countries within the empire to which cricket teams are sent, or which send teams to England.’

In an article on CK Nayudu in CricketCountry Arunabha Sengupta recounts what happened right after the tour ended: “On a February evening in 1927, in the manicured lawns of Roshanara Club in Delhi, four men sat in wicker chairs as turbaned bearers ran around serving chhota pegs of whiskey. The motley group comprised two Englishmen and two Indians. Arthur Gilligan, the former captain of England, was the most vocal of the lot. Listening to him were the Maharaja of Patiala, Englishman Grant Govan and Anthony de Mello, an Indian working for Govan. This was the meeting that laid the foundations of Indian cricket on the international scene.”

Gilligan was a man of his word and conveyed his views and observations when he returned to London to Lord Harris. The next step, as suggested by Gilligan, was for India to form a Cricket Board. This was duly done the next year, and the decision was taken to grant India Test status.

Finally, in the English summer of 1932, India played her first Test, at Lord’s. Appropriately enough, leading India on to the hallowed turf at the home of cricket was the man who had started it all that first day of December in Bombay, six years earlier — Colonel CK Nayudu.

Back in Singapore, the grey haired banker had just hit the winning runs with an elegant drive through cover. I got up to continue my walk, shaking off the memories of other afternoons when two gentlemen of similar vintage had played the innings’ of their lives to put their nation firmly on her path to cricketing glory, Mukherjee’s words playing in my head: “whenever and wherever twenty-two yards of levelled turf are hemmed in by three exact stumps at either end and surrounded by thirteen cricketers and two umpires, there is no telling what might happen in that dedicated domain”.