The inexperienced Indian team of the 1940s had their fragile line up propped up by two pillars of run-making, the first two glittering gems in the riches of Indian batting.
While Vijay Merchant was the first great opening batsman of India – one of the very, very few openers deserving the adjective, Vijay Hazare was the vanguard of a long line of middle-order masters. Merchant, classical and correct, was the founder of the Bombay school of batsmanship. Hazare, sedate and solid, was the first sheet anchor of Indian cricket.
There was a lot of mutual admiration between the two men. While Hazare’s respect for Merchant was well known, Merchant for his part, felt that the burden of captaincy had prevented Hazare from becoming India’s finest batsman.
Their characteristics and personas converged in their phenomenal appetite for tall scores. It was this insatiable hunger of more and more runs and centuries that propelled the two peaceful men answering to the same first name into the domain of surprising competitive rivalry.
There are historians – notably Ramachandra Guha – who are reluctant to make too much of this run-race. According to them, it just happened that the two men in the prime of their careers broke each other’s record over and over again, and that lent a sheen of competitiveness to their tales.
That may be true, but race for milestones scripted a story so phenomenal that it nearly bordered on the ridiculous.
During the years of the Second World War, while the rest of the world was going through the madness of mutual destruction, the two giants of Indian cricket went about shattering each other’s records.
Playing for the Hindus against the Muslims in the Bombay Pentangular of 1941-42, Merchant hit the then highest Indian First-class score of 243.
In the very next edition of the championship, Hazare surpassed it scoring 248 for The Rest against the Muslims.
A whopping 79.84% of the total
In the 1943 tournament, the Hindus, led by Merchant, met The Rest in the finals. The Hindus were a strong outfit, boasting ten current and future Test players in the form of Ranga Sohoni, Vinoo Mankad, Hemu Adhikari, Khandu Rangnekar, Gogumal Kishenchand, Madhav Mantri, CS Nayudu, Shute Banerjee, Chandu Sarwate and Merchant himself. In contrast, Hazare was the only class player in the line-up of The Rest.
Hindus batted first and piled up 581 for five, including yet another record-breaking effort of 250 by Merchant. Adhikari got a huge hundred as well. The bowling burden was borne mainly by Hazare, plying his medium pacers for 51 overs, taking three wickets for 119.
On the third day, Nayudu, Sarwate and Banerjee proved too hot to handle for The Rest, and they collapsed from 103 for two to 133 all out. Hazare played a lone hand, scoring 59.
When The Rest followed on, Sohoni and Banerjee removed the openers to reduce them to14 for two, and Hazare walked in with a huge innings defeat looming ahead.
As Sarwate and Nayudu tucked into the feast of wickets, The Rest collapsed to 60 for five and Hazare was joined at the wicket by his brother, Vivek Hazare. A medium-pacer playing in his fifth First-Class match, used to batting at No 10 for Baroda and having a highest score of 21 till then, the younger Hazare decided to put his head down. He refused to be knocked over as quickly as the rest of the batsmen in the motley line-up.
With the formidable spin trio of Sarwate, Mankad and Nayudu getting help from the wicket, the elder Hazare opened up, providing a spectacular exhibition of batting. The field was pushed back for the more accomplished batsman, and Vijay Hazare found the gaps without undue risks, keeping the scoreboard, registering runs in strong protest against the one sided humiliation so far.
In just over three hours, he brought up his hundred with eight hits to the fence. By the end of the day, the siblings had put on 129 – Vijay Hazare was on 125 and brother Vivek on 14.
The next morning, December 6, 1943, witnessed remarkable history. The vaunted bowling of the Hindus could not dislodge the unheralded younger brother and Vijay Hazare went from strength to strength. He became more adventurous, advancing from hundred to double-hundred in just over two hours. Merchant tried all options, bowling Adhikari, Rangnekar, Kishenchand and even himself, but Vijay Hazare was in supreme form. Generally sedate and safety-first in his approach to batting, that morning he got 122 before lunch – racing to 247, three runs away from the newly minted record of Merchant.
Immediately after lunch, Hazare went past the milestone set in the first innings of the match. The last fifty had come in just 29 minutes with six fours.
With the score on 360, Vivek Hazare finally edged Nayudu into the hands of Merchant to depart for 21. He had managed to equal his previous highest First-Class score. The effort had taken 332 minutes during which he had put on exactly 300 with his brother. Vijay Hazare had contributed a mammoth 266 of the partnership. Now, as Vivek walked back, he was within striking distance of his triple century.
Two runs later AK Bhalerao was leg-before to Nayudu to give the leg-spinner his 300th First-Class wicket. Jacob Harris and captain Pierre d’Avoine departed quickly enough and Hazare was joined by last man J Roach.
With the end in sight, Hazare uncharacteristically launched Sarwate into the stands. He got to his triple hundred soon after that, in 405 minutes, with 31 fours and a six. And at 309, he drove one back to Nayudu to give the persevering leggie his fifth wicket of the innings.
Hazare left the ground after 417 minutes of a remarkably waged single-handed battle, having hit 32 fours and a six, accounting for a record 79.84 percent of the total. The rest of his colleagues had managed just 78 as the Hindus triumphed by an innings and 61 runs.
Sixty-nine years later, that epic knock still stands as the most remarkable individual effort in the history of the game.
(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)
First Published: December 6, 2012, 9:55 am