Whenever anyone discusses Nari Contractor, it is inevitably about that Charlie Griffith delivery — whether it was chucked, whether Contractor had ducked, whether he could have gone on to play more Tests than he actually did.
A total of 1,611 Test runs at 31.58 do not indicate a career worth mentioning; nor do 8,611 First-Class runs at 39.86. However, it must be remembered that Contractor played mostly in the 1950s, when India were considered a pushover, and were still struggling to find a groove in world cricket. Above everything, Contractor was a very good leader, and led India to their first series victory over England. The victory paved the way for a long run of success of the Indians against England, especially at home: England did not win against India in India for the next 16 seasons.
Playing for Gujarat
Contractor had his roots in Bombay and should, in all likelihood, have turned out to play for Bombay. However, when his pregnant mother was coming from Dahod [in Gujarat] to Bombay, she suddenly realised that she would deliver her child soon. Contractor’s uncle, who was the driver of the train, asked her to get off at Godhra on an emergency basis. Nari Contractor was born in Godhra as a result.
Contractor grew up in Nasik. On his return to Bombay, Contractor tried to make it the Bombay team in 1952-53, and declined an offer from Gujarat captain Phiroz Khambata, who had seen him bat. However, after the Bombay rejection, he sent a telegram to Gujarat Cricket Association, who asked him to turn up for the nets in Baroda. Contractor impressed all and sundry at the nets against the likes of Jasu Patel and Shah Nyalchand, and was considered one of the probables.
As things turned out, Contractor played as a last-minute replacement for the Khambata (who woke up with a stiff neck) against a very strong Baroda. Coming out to bat at six, Contractor lifted Gujarat to 364 from a poor 81 for five, putting up 241 for the sixth wicket with Jyotindra Shodhan. Contractor had scored 152 before falling to his idol Vijay Hazare. After Baroda were bowled out for 246, Contractor, now promoted to five, scored 102 not out, enabling Gujarat to declare, and acquire first-innings points.
It was only the second time that a batsman had scored twin hundreds on his First-Class debut, the first being Arthur Morris. Since then, only four batsmen — Aamer Malik, Tharanga Indika, Noor Ali Zadran (Afghanistan) and Virag Awate — have been able to emulate the feat.
After a string of successes for Gujarat, Contractor made his debut in the 1955-56 series against New Zealand. He batted at seven, scoring 16, as Vinoo Mankad and Subhash Gupte won the Test by an innings. Surprisingly, Mankad did not turn up for the next Test, and Contractor was asked to open batting — something he had never done at domestic level. Up against New Zealand’s 450 for two declared, Contractor scored an impressive 62. Despite scoring a 61 in the next Test, also as an opener, he was dropped in the batting order to make place for Pankaj Roy, who immediately got involved in the record 413-run partnership with Mankad.
When the West Indies came along, Contractor had a poor series against Wes Hall and Roy Gilchrist. He opened the batting, and despite his 41 and 50 at Kanpur, and a 92 at Delhi, he generally failed with the bat.
It was on the tour of England the next season that Contractor played what was arguably the best innings of his career. After a failure at Trent Bridge, Contractor played a gem at Lord’s. Brian Statham broke two of his ribs with a short ball, but Contractor braved it and continued to bat. He scored a magnificent 81 out of a team total of 168, teaching his teammates how to confront the pace of Fred Trueman and Statham. He appeared to bat with a heavily plastered side, and remained not out in what is remembered at an amazing display of courage.
Back home, he made a crucial 74 at Kanpur in India’s first victory over Australia; he would probably have scored more, but a furious stroke stuck between a ducking Neil Harvey’s legs. He followed it up with a fighting 108 — his only Test hundred — and 43 at Delhi. With Mankad having retired, and 438 runs at 43.80 in the series, Contractor had now become a permanent fixture as an opener. Within a year he was asked to lead India in the home series against Pakistan. At the age of 26 he was India’s youngest captain at that point of time. It is amazing to think that he was not selected to play for Bombay a few seasons earlier.
Though the series ended in a drab 0-0 draw, Contractor scored 319 from the five Tests at a more than impressive 53.16 with three fifties. And despite the defensive cricket, which was a salient feature of Indian cricket of that era, he was retained as captain in the England series that followed.
The victory against England
Contractor found a new opening partner in ML Jaisimha, and generally fared poorly with the bat as the series progressed. Though India managed to get England to follow-on in the second Test, they could not win the Test, thanks to Ken Barrington’s heroics. The teams moved to Calcutta after three drawn Tests.
For once, Barrington failed, and a fantastic all-round effort from Chandu Borde led India to a 187-run victory. In the second innings, Contractor took the second new ball and, after much deliberation, handed it over to his medium-fast bowler Ramakant Desai. However, as Desai was measuring his run-up, he changed his mind and opted for the spin of Salim Durrani and Borde from the two ends. Durrani removed Barrington and Borde dismissed Ted Dexter as India were 1-0 up when the teams left for Madras. The whole country followed the Madras Test in anticipation of a first-time series victory against their erstwhile rulers.
Contractor finally found form at Madras, scoring a crucial 89 in the first innings to help India reach a formidable 428. This time it was Durrani who took10 wickets, and India won the Test, winning their first series again England. Contractor was hailed as a national hero and the undisputed leader who could take the team to new heights.
As the Indian team left for the West Indies under Contractor, they were generally expected to put up a decent fight. India were blown away in the first two Tests, and the captain managed only 22 runs from four innings. Then came the infamous tour match against Barbados.
Contractor was not supposed to play the match. However, when it was heard that Barbados had a mean, hostile fast bowler called Charlie Griffith (to support the intimidating Wes Hall) who had already earned a reputation for injuring batsmen, several Indian batsmen suddenly turned unfit for the match. Contractor ultimately decided to play.
Dilip Sardesai fell early to Hall, and Rusi Surti joined his captain. Surti warned Contractor that Griffith was chucking, but the captain asked Surti to keep quiet. Soon, Conrad Hunte dropped Contractor off Griffith at short-leg. On hindsight, it turned out to be a crucial drop in the worst possible way.
The next ball struck Contractor on the side of his head. Blood oozed out of his nose and ears, and he was rushed to the pavilion, and then to the hospital. It was revealed that his skull was fractured. There were two emergency operations, players from both sides donated blood, an iron plate had to be inserted, and Contractor remained unconscious for many several days. However, to the relief of everyone, he survived the blow.
Not giving up
He did not give up cricket, though. Within a year he turned out for Maharashtra Chief Minister’s XI against Maharashtra Governor’s XI, and scored 37 against a very strong bowling attack. The next season he played Ranji Trophy for Bombay, and was good enough to be selected to play Duleep Trophy; on his Duleep return, he scored 144 against East Zone.
Contractor continued to play domestic cricket in India with reasonable success. He played till the 1970-71 season — almost nine years after his injury. But he was never considered to play Tests for India again.
On his retirement, Contractor became a coach at the Cricket Club of India Academy. Though his Test career ended prematurely at the age of 28, he does not hold a grudge against Griffith; he (never lodged a complaint on his bowling action, and took the entire turn of events rather sportingly. If anything, his sense of humour livened up the Gujarat dressing-room for a long time, and a lot of those jokes were based on his injury.
That sums up Contractor, in general. Despite the untimely end to his Test career, he managed to retain a rather philosophical and humorous attitude towards life, and never gave up the habit of playing pranks. In 1990, at the age of 56, he intentionally made sure that the metal detector at the Delhi airport beeped at the metal plate in his head, and confused the police for a long time.
Contractor was awarded with the CK Nayudu Lifetime Achievement Award by BCCI in 2007.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/
First Published: March 7, 2013, 11:02 am