Chandu Sarwate (left) and Shute Banerjee during the course of their epic 249 run partnership for the last wicket against Surrey on May 13, 1946 © Getty Images
May 13, 1946. Chandu Sarwate and Shute Banerjee added 249 for the last wicket against Surrey at The Oval. Arunabha Senguptarecalls the day which saw the only instance of No 10 and No 11 of a line-up get hundreds together in a First-class match.
A tour to cherish
Back home politicians argued about right to India’s Independence, while the British continued to voice their scepticism. However, when 16 of the country’s top cricketers travelled to England, they provided sterling example of performing for a cause without being constrained by differences of race or creed.
To a war-ravaged nation, the Indian tourists of 1946 rekindled the flame of normalcy. The cricket they played delighted the Englishmen. Nay, they did more. According to Wisden, “By their cricket they won the hearts of the English public; by their modesty and bearing they earned the respect and admiration of everyone with whom they came into close contact. In anything like reasonable weather crowds everywhere flocked to India‘s matches. A profit of £4,500 in such a dreary summer told eloquently of their popularity.”
The team won 11 and lost only four of the 29 First-Class matches. Had sunshine followed them around instead of rain and biting cold, and had the wickets been hard and true instead of soggy and sodden,the results could have been even better. And although they lost the Test series 0-1, there were moments when they distinctly held the advantage at Lord’s and Old Trafford.
True, the Indians were helped by the circumstances. Captain Nawab of Pataudi Sr knew the conditions perfectly. And while the cricketers of the mother country had been busy performing duties in the battlefield, far away from the bombs and bullets the game had proceeded uninterrupted in India for the six War years.
The start of the tour had not been too promising. Worcestershire had defeated them by 16 runs in a tense, close affair. A draw had followed against Oxford University before the team had travelled to The Oval to play Surrey. It was this match which set the tone of the tour and marked the Indian team as one capable of mighty feats.
Getting The Oval back in shape
The great ground was still limping back from the effects of the war. It had been used as a searchlight sight and then a prisoner-of-war detention centre. German bombs had damaged the pavilion and stands. The square, fenced off, had not been touched for six years. It was not expected to be fit for hosting matches till late 1947 or even 1948, but the worthy groundsmen performed a near miracle. A trial match was staged on April 27, and the Indian team travelled to play the first major game on the ground since Len Hutton and Wally Hammond had struck hundreds against Learie Constantine and Manny Martindale in the 1939 Test.
The Surrey side, like most of the counties of 1946, were loaded with pre-War cricketers, boasting an average age of 36. Yet, their bowling attack was a fairly strong one with England paceman Alf Gover opening proceedings with Alec Bedser — who would be commencing his great Test career in another five weeks. Pataudi and Lala Amarnath had both caught cold and sat out of the game. India were led by Vijay Merchant.
Walking out to toss with Merchant was Major Nigel Bennett, appointed captain of Surrey through a curious case of mistaken identity. Legend has it that the intention had been to offer the position to Major Leo Bennett, a well-known amateur. Yet, Nigel Bennett, who had played just a few club games before the War, accepted the offer before the error came to light.
Merchant won the spin of the coin and opened with Vijay Hazare on what The Times described as “a beautiful Oval wicket”. However, Hazare and Modi were soon dismissed by Bedser. The soon to be legendary fast-medium bowler was playing only his second First-Class match and his previous appearance had come seven years earlier. He had been demobilised just eight weeks prior to the game. Now, however, the Indians found it difficult to deal with his in-swingers and leg-cutters. Merchant and Gul Mohammad added 111 for the third wicket, but once Stan Squires had bowled the stand-in skipper with an off-break, the batting collapsed to Bedser’s pace and swing.
It was just past four in the afternoon when Bedser picked up his fifth wicket, getting CS Nayudu caught close in. The score was 205 for 9 and last man Shute Banerjee walked out to join No. 10 Chandu Sarwate. As the latter recalled, “Banerjee came to join me. The Surrey captain then thought that we would last hardly a few minutes. He called the groundsman and was trying to tell him the roller that he would require.”
But, the two hardly qualified as tailenders. In the previous season, both men had scored a couple of First-Class hundreds in the Ranji Trophy. Banerjee, a fast-medium bowler of considerable skill and enormous experience, had notched up a fifty opening the innings for Bihar. Sarwate, a versatile spinner who could turn it both ways, had got a hundred in the Ranji semi-final, opening for Holkar. In 1945-46, the two had opened the innings for East Zone against the Australian Services team.
It was Sarwate’s first game of the tour. Banerjee had already scored a fighting 59 against Worcestershire from No. 10 when India’s second innings against Worcestershire.
It could have ended almost as soon as it started. Sarwate charged down the wicket to Jack Parker and missed it completely,but 42-year-old Gerald Mobey fumbled the stumping opportunity. No further chance would come the way of the Surrey men for long after that.
The two men were cautious and correct, and also capable of fluent stroke making. They drove handsomely, and picked the gaps with élan, with none of the anxiety generally attached to last wicket collaborations. When 39-year old Alf Gover limped off with a strained tendon in the heel, the Surrey attack looked clueless.
Bedser continued to run in industriously, but the Indians intelligently saw him off without trying to score too many. Sarwate did send one streaky stroke through the slips, but after the first stumping blemish, there was no genuine chance.
By the end of the day, Sarwate was 107 and Banerjee on 87. As many as 193 runs were added in the final two hours. The Indians were on 398 for 9. Both batsmen had driven excellently down the ground, while Banerjee had not hesitated to play some delicate late cuts.
After Sunday’s rest, play began at half past eleven on Monday. The two seemed more cautious in their approach, perhaps influenced by the numerous newspaper articles wondering whether they would beat the world record for the 10h wicket. In 1928-29, Alan Kippax and Hal Hooker had added 307 for New South Wales — propping the score from 113 for 9 to 420.
Just before noon, Banerjee completed his hundred, setting the only instance of both Nos. 10 and 11 notching centuries in a First-class match. And soon after that, he pushed a quick single into the leg side to go past the highest 10th-wicket partnership ever in England — 235 put on by Frank Woolley and Albert Fielder for Kent in 1909.
After 57 minutes of play on the second morning, Parker finally spun one past a defensive push of Banerjee, bowling him for 121. Sarwate remained unbeaten on 124 as the innings came to an end at 454. The world record remained unbroken, but the two had put on 249 in just 3 hours 10 minutes.
Surrey seemed to have lost the appetite for the match in the wake of this mammoth stand. Leg-spinner CS Nayudu became the first Indian player to take a hat-trick in England when he dismissed Laurie Fishlock, Nigel Bennett and Alec Bedser. The first Surrey innings folded at 135. During the innings, both the Indian centurions had been given a breather. Banerjee bowled late and picked up two wickets and Sarwate did not turn his arm over at all.
The home team did a little better the second time, racing to 172 for 1 by the end of the second day. However, with the wicket responding to spin, Sarwate was now among the wickets with 5 for 54. In the end India needed just 20 to win. Sarwate was promoted to open the innings and fell for one, but India cruised home by 9 wickets.
Half a century later, while the Indians were on the verge of celebrating their 50th year of Independence, the British politicians were still looking at this epic partnership for inspiration.
In 1996, British Prime Minister John Major was fast succumbing to the resurgent New Labour. Tony Blair exploited the Conservatives’ humiliation in the South East Staffordshire by-election, pressing the Prime Minister to explain the defeat, and then supplying his own explanation, “People don’t trust the Conservative Party any more”.
It was left to former Tory cabinet minister Peter Brooke to cheer the cricket loving PM with the analogy: “Does the Prime Minister take encouragement from the fact that this summer at The Oval will see the 50th anniversary of the longest and largest stand for the last wicket in the history of English cricket?”
A staunch Surrey supporter, Major said that he was aware of the anniversary. “I have absolutely no doubt that politically we will see their equivalent.” However, the Prime Minister made a dubious error in saying, “I look forward certainly at The Oval to seeing many performances like that by Surrey, perhaps by England.”
As Stephen Goodwin reported in The Independent: “Fortunately for the cheering Tories, nobody on the Opposition benches had a Wisden to hand. The record last wicket stand of 249 at The Oval in 1946 was scored by the opposition — by CT Sarwate and SN Banerjee playing for India against Surrey.”
India 454 (Vijay Merchant 53, Gul Mohammad 89, Chandu Sarwate 124*, Shute Banerjee 121; Alec Bedser 5 for 135) and 20 for 1 beat Surrey 135 (Laurie Fishlock 62) and 338 (Robert Gregory 100, Laurie Fishlock 83; Chandu Sarwate 5 for 54) by 9 wickets.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)