Exactly 86 years ago, CK Nayudu slaughtered the strong MCC bowling to score 153 in less than two hours for the Hindus at the Bombay Gymkhana.Arunabha Sengupta goes in rewind mode and relates how the sensational innings was instrumental in making India a Test playing nation.
On a February evening in 1927, in the manicured lawns of Roshnara Club in Delhi, four men sat in wicker chairs as turbaned bearers ran around serving chota 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, who had brought a strong Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) side on a tour sponsored by Patiala, urged the men to form an Indian Cricket Board. De Mello later wrote, “We felt as if a man so cricket-wise as Gilligan considered Indian cricket had reached a state in its development where it could challenge the world. Gilligan promised to state our case when he returned to Lord’s.”
Gilligan kept his word. Two years later, India gained admittance as a full member of the Imperial Cricket Conference (as cricket’s governing body was then known) and further three years down the line made her Test debut at Lord’s.
India as a major cricketing power
This acceptance of India as a major power was a stark departure from the norm of the 1920s, when political Britain could not imagine Indians – or any non-white people – capable of such a feat. True, West Indies had been admitted into the game, but the people of varied stocks who formed their teams were always led by a white man.
Lord Harris, president of MCC, the former captain of England and an unpopular Governor of Bombay, had encouraged Indians to pursue the game, but that had been more of an attempt to ‘civilise’ them. “We can do indefinitely more work in their climate than they can, and they get fat and lazy as they rise in rank, whilst our civilian are as active as young men,” Harris summed up his contempt in a letter to Lord Cross.
As Gilligan was talking to the others in 1927, Simon Commission was creating furore and Lord Birkenhead’s analysis of the Indian society and people was not really proving to be an improvement on the assessment of Lord Harris.
What then propelled the British to bestow cricketing autonomy on India?
Firstly, Gilligan had none of the ideas of racial superiority hardwired in Harris and Birkenhead.
Besides, he had first-hand experience of the enormous cricketing talent that throbbed in India, waiting to be exposed on the greater stage.
The seminal knock of CK Nayudu
The defining moment of Gilligan’s realisation came on December 1, 1926, two months before the pivotal meeting in Delhi. The MCC side, including the likes of Andy Sandham, Bob Wyatt , George Geary and Maurice Tate, took on the Hindus led by Vithal Palwankar at the Bombay Gymkhana.
The visitors, who had won three and drawn nine games on the tour, piled up 363 on November 30, with Guy Earle scoring 130 studded with eight sixes. The wicket was green and lively, and the MCC fast bowlers relished the thought of bowling on it. At the end of the first day, the Hindu’s reached 16 for one with Janardan Navle and LP Jai at the wicket.
The next morning, Navle fell to Geary with the score on 67 and the tall, lithe and compact CK Nayudu walked in.
It was essentially the innings that Nayudu played that day that was instrumental in elevating India from a minor to a serious power in the cricketing world. Long of limbs and batting with free swing of his arms, the colonel from Holkar launched into the English attack.
Nayudu started by lifting left-arm spinner Stuart Boyes on to the roof of the pavilion. He took a particular liking for the slow bowling of Boyes, blasting him into the tents twice and then lofting him over the Gymkhana in the same over. Even the umpires applauded this last stroke.
As news spread across the city, office workers headed for the maidan in hordes to witness the devastating assault on the English bowlers. Every tree and roof-top affording some sort of a view of the massacre was soon filled to the brim.
Nayudu continued to hit as wickets fell at the other end, and each stroke was greeted with deafening roars that could be heard from miles away.
He proceeded to send a ball into the Esplanade Road just like Earle had done the previous day. And then came the only blemish in his innings when medium pacer Ewart Astill dropped him off his own bowling, failing to hold on to a skier with the sun in his eyes. The Hindus went to lunch at 154 for six.
On resumption, Nayudu steered Tate for four and followed it up with a six and four off Astill, both massive hits to the on-side.
This was followed by a mighty smite to square-leg off Tate. In contrast to all these massive hits, his century was reached with a quiet single. It was the first hundred against the MCC in the entire tour and was cheered by all the visiting players, led by captain Raleigh Chichester-Constable.
When Wyatt replaced Tate, Nayudu lofted him for two huge sixes, the second landing on the roof of the Gymkhana.
The carnage lasted less than two hours, but with 13 fours and 11 sixes, Nayudu amassed 153 during the period. Renowned statistician Anandji Dossa later estimated that Nayudu took 16 scoring strokes to get to fifty, 17 more to reach his century and another 16 to get to his final score. (Later, analysis of scorebooks indicate that the number of boundaries was actually 14)
Nayudu’s innings came to an end when he skied Geary to mid-off after one hour and 56 minutes of breathtaking entertainment. It was as if a raging storm had suddenly given way to calm. The 11 sixes set a new record in First-Class cricket.
The Hindu team finished just seven runs short of the MCC total.
The following day, a cartoon appeared in a local newspaper showing a group of spectators sheltering from the shelling on the ledge of the University clock tower pleading: “Don’t hit us CK, we are not playing.”
Gilligan noted, “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.”
Wyatt remarked that Nayudu’s ability to drive good-length balls back over the bowler’s head made it very difficult to keep him quiet. “The Indian batsman’s perfect poise, high backlift and long, pendulum swing brought beauty to his strokes.”
The MCC presented Nayudu with a silver bat for his stupendous innings. It now rests in the little Cricket Museum inside Polly Bar, within the premises of the Cricket Club of India.
The lore of Nayudu’s innings was everlasting. Half a century later, a tall and ramrod straight 19-year old batsman from Bombay created a stir by lifting Bishan Singh Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna for seven sixes in the course of a swashbuckling hundred in the Irani Trophy. He was immediately given the nickname ‘Colonel’. However, Dilip Vengsarkar never quite enjoyed the epithet he got.
The knock of Nayudu provided palpating evidence that India was a force to reckon with in world cricket. And when Gilligan went back with the proposal and the men in Lord’s deliberated about it, the cause of the nation was given a further boost by the hockey team which won the gold in the 1928 Olympics at Amsterdam.
It was fitting that just five and a half years after the seminal knock, CK Nayudu himself led India in their first ever Test match at Lord’s.
(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