January 7, 1956, was a landmark day in Indian cricket. It witnessed what many still consider is India’s proudest statistical pointer in history. Jaideep Vaidya tries to go back to that day 56 years ago when India’s Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy put on what was then the highest opening partnership in Test history, which remained unchallenged till about four years ago.
The occasion was the fifth Test match of New Zealand’s tour of India in 1955-56. The hosts had entered the match, held at the Corporation Stadium in Madras (now Chennai), leading the series 1-0 and looking to wrap it up by batting first on an easy pitch.
It had been a rather high-scoring series already for India. They had notched up totals of 498 for four declared, 421 for eight declared, 531 for seven declared and 438 for seven declared in the four previous matches against a hapless New Zealand attack comprising Johnny Hayes, Tony MacGibbon, Harry Cave, John Reid and Matt Poore. Vinoo Mankad and Polly Umrigar had both scored double hundreds, while Vijay Manjrekar (118 and 177 not out), AG Kripal Singh (100 not out on debut), Gulabrai Ramchand (106 not out) and Pankaj Roy (100) had all reached three figures.
Mankad and Roy opened for India again after the first Test in Hyderabad, where Roy had got out for a duck and the former had scored 30. But this time they decided to trouble the scorers a little more, and trouble they did! The duo batted through the entire day and took India to 234 for naught, with Mankad on 109 and Roy on 114. It was the first time an Indian pair had achieved the feat and they were only the third in the history of the game to do so.
However, it was on Day Two, January 7, that majority of the records started to tumble. The highest partnership by an Indian pair in First-Class cricket was 293 between none other than Mankad and Merchant versus Sussex in 1946. This was passed in the afternoon. The next one in sight was the then world record 359 between Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook. This was passed shortly after lunch. Mankad then scored his second double ton of the series – only the great Don Bradman and Wally Hammond had recorded two double tons in one series before. As the second session progressed, India’s 400 came up. It was around this time that the duo decided to pick up their rate of scoring, with a declaration in sight.
A popular fable goes that India captain Polly Umrigar had sent a note out to the middle to buck up the scoring. Responding to the skipper’s orders, Roy began hitting the big shots and on 173, after 472 minutes at the crease, was bowled by Matt Poore. The partnership was broken at 413 and remained the highest opening stand ever until Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie scored 415 against Bangladesh at Chittagong in 2008. The tale goes on that Roy had expected a declaration at his departure, but was surprised to see Umrigar stride out to bat. The Indian captain batted more than 80 minutes before finally declaring at 537 for three – India’s highest ever Test total at the time. Roy was apparently furious with Umrigar; however, it has never been confirmed on paper. Mankad, meanwhile, went on to get 231, which remained the highest score by an Indian in Tests until Sunil Gavaskar made 236 not out against the West Indies in 1983-84, also at Madras but at Chepauk.
The Mankad-Roy partnership had lasted more than four sessions and remained the highest first-wicket partnership in Indian First-Class cricket till 1977-78 when Roger Binny and Sanjay Desai put on 451 runs in the Ranji Trophy. SK Gurunathan wrote of the partnership in the Indian Cricket Almanac: “It was by no means the best knock played either by Mankad or by Roy. Both were hesitant in making their strokes but there was no lack of concentration and determination to stay at the wicket as long as possible. Mankad now and again played his rousing pull shot and the drive to the off but he rarely brought off his dazzling cuts.”
Mankad and Roy had first opened for India against England at Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1951-52 and put up scores of 72 and 103 not out in their first outing. Their next few accumulations read 39, 7, 106, 7, 4, 7, 0, and 19. They were by no means a remarkable opening pair. In fact, all through that series, India had experimented with their opening batsmen and used four different combinations in five Tests. After Mankad-Roy flopped in the first Test at Hyderabad, the team tried out Mankad and Vijay Mehra (36) at Mumbai, Mehra and Nari Contractor (68) at Delhi, Mankad and Contractor (13 and 40) at Calcutta before switching back to the original pairing in Madras.
Contractor, who was playing his debut series at the time, recalled that it was the selectors’ decision to experiment with the opening pair. “I think Pankaj was not doing well at the time. So, when he failed in Hyderabad, they brought in Vijay Mehra to open with Vinoo. In the third Test at Delhi, Vinoo didn’t come for the match and I was asked at the last minute to open and I agreed. Then, when Vinoo came back for the next match, Mehra was dropped and I opened. Pankaj came in at three or four (he batted at four) and scored a hundred. That’s why he was asked to open in the last Test match,” said Contractor.
Contractor, now 78, is the only surviving member of that team. However, 56 years down the line, there isn’t much he can recollect about that magnificent record-breaking partnership. “All I can remember is that they batted and batted for hours,” he said.
Talking about the crowd’s response, Contractor said that the transistors were on in the stadium and the spectators knew that it was a world record. He also said that the press responded in a natural way as it would in instances of a world record. However, the team did not celebrate the occasion. “In those days, there was a very low key to all these things,” he said.
India, naturally, went on to win the match by a thumping margin – an innings and 109 runs – and took the series 2-0. But the series will continue to be remembered for that stellar stand between Mankad and Roy among the cricketing connoisseurs. Virender Sehwag, unfortunately, does not count in that bracket. Sehwag, who added 410 runs for the opening wicket with Rahul Dravid against Pakistan at Lahore in 2006, had famously said later that he had not heard of Mankad or Roy!
(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and Editorial Consultant at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog - The Mullygrubber )