Vijay Merchant was not only a role model and an inspiration for my generation, but also a father figure to the unfortunate section of our society.
I grew up reading about the exploits of Vijay Merchant, his appetite for runs, his technical perfection, his fetish for improvement and his meticulousness in dealing on all matters. These characteristics were impressed upon me by those from whom I sought to know more about Merchant.
Madhav Mantri, my uncle, was the greatest source of information about Merchant as he had the privilege of not only watching the great man in action but also playing with him. As a colleague, my uncle could watch Merchant closely and see how he formed in different situations and under varying pressures.
The others I talked to were cricketers from India and England who had played with or against him. They were unanimous in their opinion that he was the best batsman India has ever produced. They rated very highly his performance of scoring over 2000 runs in a wet English summer on uncovered pitches. Not many reached 1500 that season.
My lasting impression of his cricket was when he was urged to do a film called “The Spirit and Technique of Cricket” by Zul Vellani in 1964-65. I was among the schoolboys invited to field, while Tiger Pataudi, Farokh Engineer and Ajit Wadekar were to demonstrate different aspects of cricket. Merchant was to demonstrate the late cut – a shot for which he was renowned.
He came immaculately dressed in cream flannels, boots polished and an India cap firmly pulled down his forehead. He looked as if he had never been away from the cricket field, though he was holding a bat after 10 years, as he said later.
Kailash Gattani was to bowl to Merchant a few practice deliveries after which the shooting was to commence. Gattani, at that time, was not only sharp but was also rated by pundits of the game as the best user of the new ball in India. He came and bowled a ball short of length outside the off-stump. Merchant took one step back and across and late cut the ball to the third man fence. Pataudi, Engineer and Wadekar exchanged glances in amazement, while we schoolboys were left with open mouthed. It was as perfect a late cut as one could see – a demonstration by a Master, and that too off the first ball he faced!
Unlike my generation, today’s generation is fortunate that it has video to record events. But the impact events made on impressionable young minds in the pre-video era can never be matched by the visuals on a video. The video will merely show what happened. We were perhaps more fortunate as our elders gave us the background to the events and enhanced the tale which had a lasting impact on our minds.
It would fill volumes writing about the several facets of Merchant’s personality. Others more qualified and those who have known him longer would do justice to Merchant. For me, he was he an inspiration as a cricketer and great human being.
(Sunil Gavaskar came into the Indian team in 1971 when Vijay Merchant was the chairman of the national selection committee. The above tribute to Merchant by Gavaskar is from “Vijay Merchant – In Memoriam” which is reproduced here with permission of Marcus Couto, editor of that book. The book was produced in 1988)