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Rusi Modi: Among the batting giants of India’s pristine cricketing past

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Rusi Modi used to stun the audience with his grace, elegance and consistency – Caricature by Austin Coutinho

Rusi Modi, born on November 11, 1924, was one of the finest of the early Indian batsmen. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of a man with an insatiable appetite for runs who competed hard with the two legendary Vijays, Merchant and Hazare, for the spot of the best Indian batsman in the 1940s.

Rusi Modi died in the club house of the Brabourne Stadium, a ground that has given him more than any other. He was 71. It was an end as sudden as his disappearance from the world of international cricket.

If one puts a 10 Test cut-off, Modi ranks eighth in the list of Indian batsmen in terms of batting averages, ahead of the likes of VVS Laxman, Mohammad Azharuddin and Sourav Ganguly. In an era of uncovered wickets, Modi scored 736 Test runs at an average of 46.00. His 560 against the formidable West Indians in 1948-49 remained a series record for India for 13 years until Vijay Manjrekar went past him, though Polly Umrigar had equalled his tally in 1952-53.

Modi was one of those batsmen who could combine elegance with consistency. He scored hundreds with an efficiency that seemed almost mindless. Yet he managed to stun the audience with his grace. He was characterised by his trademark “thumbs-up” (a gesture towards the dressing-room from time to time that became quite famous), after which he resumed his batting. His faultless timing made him possibly the most attractive Indian batsman of the 1940s.

He was thin, almost frail. The English cold often made him pale, and he looked almost helpless in the damp English summers. But once he took the field he was a completely different entity; strokes flowed to every corner of the ground, bringing the crowd to their feet.

Modi made his Pentangular (an annual, communal tournament that was played in Bombay till 1946 between five teams — Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Europeans and The Rest) debut at the age of 17. He impressed all and sundry with his 144 against the Europeans. Two years later, he made his Ranji Trophy debut. He came into his elements in the next Ranji Trophy season, scoring 160, 210 not out, 245 not out, 31 not out, 113, 98 and 151 – a total of 1,008 runs from five matches. In the process he also became the first batsman to go past 1,000 runs in a single Ranji Trophy season. Sandwiched between the 160 and an unbeaten 210 came a 215 for the Parsis against the Europeans. His 1944-45 season tally eventually read 1,375 runs at 114.58.

The following season, when the Australian Services XI toured India, Modi scored 203 at Madras. It was an innings he considered his finest. It was also the first double-hundred scored by an Indian in a representative match. Coming in at 110 for four, Modi lifted the Indian XI to 525 against an attack comprising of Keith Miller and Cecil Pepper.

He was an automatic selection for the 1946 side that toured England. He had a decent tour in unfamiliar conditions in a very wet summer, scoring 1,196 runs at 37.37. He made his Test debut at Lord’s, alongside Vinoo Mankad and Vijay Hazare. Coming in at 44 for three, he top-scored with an unbeaten 57, after being dropped by Wally Hammond off Doug Wright. However, Alec Bedser routed India with 11 wickets on his Test debut, and India lost by 10 wickets.

He withdrew from the Australia tour next year citing “personal reasons”. It was in the home series against West Indies in 1948-49 that Modi really came to his elements. His combination with Vijay Hazare resulted in three century partnerships: 156 at Bombay; 129 at Calcutta; and 139 again at Bombay. He top-scored for India with 560 runs. The highlights of the series were the two Bombay Tests: after trailing by 356, he scored 112— his only Test hundred— and combined with Hazare to save the second Test for India. In the fifth Test, with India chasing 361 for an improbable victory, Modi scored a heroic 86, as India finished at 355 for eight.

After this series, though, Modi mysteriously faced a slump in form. He played fewer matches due to professional commitments. He figured in just two more Tests and failed in both. He still managed to retain a batting average of 46.00. His natural charm seemed to disappear from his batsmanship, and he sort of faded away from the forefront, though he continued to play domestic cricket through the 1950s. In all he scored 2,196 Ranji Trophy runs at 81.69.

After his retirement, Modi became one of the more renowned Indian cricket authors – and became probably the most-read among Indian Test cricketers before the advent of Sunil Gavaskar.

(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)

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