Ninety one years ago, Madhav Mantri, the oldest-living Indian Test cricketer was born. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of the fighting cricketer who also 'discovered' India's greatest opening batsman.
It was at Canterbury that he had hit Doug Wright straight out of the ground. That was 60 years back. 60. Few Indian Test cricketers have lived to tell a tale that old.
India’s tour to England had been a shambolic one. Madhav Mantri, then the captain, wicket-keeper and opening batsman of the Bombay Ranji side, had been picked after he had scored 94 and 152 in the Ranji final where his side had inflicted a 531-run defeat on Holkar.
Mantri had shared glove duties with Probir Sen on that tour, scoring 550 runs and effecting 39 dismissals. This included two Tests as well. It was at Lord’s – Vinoo Mankad’s Test – where he kept wickets immaculately for over 200 hundred overs in the first innings to finish with four dismissals - including those of Len Hutton, Peter May and Tom Graveney.
Legendary umpire Frank Chester had mentioned that Mantri should have played all Tests on the tour, but for some reason the selectors had decided before the series that Mantri and Sen would keep wickets for two Tests each.
After the tour, though, the selectors were keen on Sen as the principal wicket-keeper of the country. Mantri would make a comeback in 1955, where he got to play alongside Pananmal Punjabi, 19 days younger to Mantri and the second-oldest Indian living cricketer.
In the interim period, though, Mantri had played in the domestic circuit, representing Bombay and keeping Sen’s place under threat. It was no mean feat to retain a consistent place in the Bombay side: Mantri was a part of the side that had won the Ranji Trophy five times in 12 years, and was basically the foundation on which the Ranji behemoths of the 1960s were built. The 15-year run finally came to a halt when Ajit Wadekar slipped while attempting a single in the semi-finals, but that’s another story.
Mantri’s finest phase with the bat probably came just after he missed the ship to Australia in 1948. In the subsequent Ranji season, Mantri scored 117 against Bengal in the pre-quarterfinals, 116 against Madras in the quarter-finals and 200 against Maharashtra in the semifinals – his highest first-class score – in consecutive matches. He added 70 and 30 in the final for good measure to help his side win the Ranji Trophy by a whopping 468 runs.
As age crept in, Mantri had to give up wicket-keeping and make way for the young Naren Tamhane, but he still played on as an opening batsman. On a Brabourne dustbowl in early 1954, Mantri opened the Bombay innings and scored 193 out of 385 in a star-studded batting line-up containing Madhav Apte, Polly Umrigar, Ramnath Kenny and Gulabrai Ramchand. Still not content, he scored an unbeaten 35 in the second innings to pull off a ten-wicket victory.
As the years faded, Mantri faded into oblivion. He retired from First-class cricket after leading Bombay to yet another Ranji victory – this time scoring 62 in an innings victory over Services in the final. He did play in Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup even after he had turned 40; not only did he lead his side to victory, he switched to a new role and took a couple of wickets in the final!
Influence on Sunil Gavaskar
Somewhere around this time, Mantri’s nephew had shown a somewhat above-average aptitude in cricket. He was fond of the game, and at a very young age, found himself addicted to it.
Once, when he was visiting his uncle, he found the latter’s kitbag on the floor as the cricketer was getting ready for a Kanga League match. This consisted of several caps, including the Bombay cap, and more importantly, his Test cap. The kid wanted one. The caps were not there to be gifted: they had to be won – was the curt reply.
Mantri guided his nephew, though, and instilled in him a burning desire to win a Test cap. Win he did, all 125 of them – a Test record at his time of retirement, with 10,122 runs to boot, no less. Sunil Gavaskar has always maintained it was his maternal uncle who had instilled in him a sense of discipline and self-control: two attributes that turned out to be the trademark of his illustrious career.
Mantri turned up for the Koyna Relief Fund match at the age of 46 – in his last First-class match. Once again, as has always been the norm, he did lead his side to a victory.
Mantri did hang up his cricketing boots, but he had never really detached himself from the game. During his days he had helped strengthen Dadar Union – the club that had marked the arrival of his nephew Sunil Gavaskar, as well as those of Dilip Vengsarkar and Sanjay Manjrekar. He went on to become a Test selector as also became the President of the Mumbai Cricket Association.
As with Gavaskar, Mantri had spotted talent in another budding batsman as well. On his tour as the manager of the Indian team to England in 1990, Mantri was the ubiquitous support to the kid who went on to score his first Test hundred at Old Trafford. More than two decades later, the kid, Sachin Tendulkar, is still around. But so is Mantri, nine short of a well-deserved hundred – having now witnessed Unmukt Chand’s arrival as well.
(A hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobic 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)