Cricketing Rifts 7 - Sparks in Indian cricket that lit up a drab 50s & 60s era

The bitterness Ajit Wadekar (left) felt about Tiger Pataudiâ s attitude was revealed at a dinner party hosted by an Indian family on the 1974 tour to England. With the refinement dampened by a generous amount of alcohol sloshing about inside him, captain Wadekar pointed at Erapalli Prasanna, Bishan Bedi and some others exclaiming, “You are all Pataudiâ s men.” © Getty Images

The Dhoni-Sehwag rift may have been true or blown out of proportion by the media. However, far from being unique, discords such as this have been commonplace in the history of the game. In this series, Arunabha Sengupta looks at some of the most famous feuds of cricket.
 

 

It was the drabbest, dreariest era in cricketing terms. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Indian cricket team was often referred to as the dull dogs of international cricket.

 

Indeed, there was ample reason for this undesirable epithet. The team seldom won, except the odd Test against a weak New Zealand and, maybe, another against a visiting English side whose stars had remained back home. When full-strength West Indian or Australian teams visited India, the hosts were resoundingly thrashed, seldom showing a semblance of fight. With teams such as Pakistan and second-string Englishmen, they often played out slow, sluggish draws, tedious enough to put a whole generation to sleep. And when they toured, they were once beaten beaten 17 overseas Test in a rowacross four series played over eight years.

 

With the team doing precious little to inflate individual egos, personality clashes remained limited. The nation was constricted by a ridiculous regulation of a maximum foreign exchange of £3 when travelling abroad, and this rubbed off on cricket as well. Every series – whether overseas tours or hosting other countries – had to be sanctioned through a channel of bureaucratic red tapes, every approval delayed till the last possible moment. There are tales of tours that almost got cancelled because some government officials did not get their desired quota of Test match tickets! Regular players of major sides, specifically England, refused to tour – fearing the climate, food, strange culture and stomach bugs.

 

Thus, these were years when Indian cricket limped along, hardly finding the excess energy to indulge in internal scuffles. Hence, it was not really surprising that the major stand offs during this period were some blasts from the distant past, the ripples of the last days of the Raj, when the willow walked hand in hand with the royal sceptre. And in one case, the fallout was conjectured to be a tale of rivalry continuing across generations, the son punished for the sins of the father.

 

British High Commissioner as referee and Vizzy’s last shriek

 

The Maharajkumar of Vizianagram, the villain of several chapters of the pre-independence era, was by now long past the days of pretending to be a cricketer. His influence remained considerable in different cricketing factions, and one could always expect adroit strings to be pulled by his experienced hands.

 

However, His Highness now chose to rule over the airwaves, forcing his way into the commentary box and thereby millions of unsuspecting homes, broadcasting the Test matches on All India Radio.

 

His pretentious idiosyncrasies continued well into the new profession. He travelled to the grounds with an attendant who carried a thick book full of cuttings of Neville Cardus. For every stroke of a batsman in the middle, Vizzy’s assistant supposedly turned pages till the Kumar could select an appropriate phrase and plagiarise it as he described the action – obviously without attribution.

 

In a diminished display of his regal bearing which had led him to travel to England as Indian captain with 36 items of personal luggage and two attendants, he now took to blocking off two seats in the press box of the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium, one for himself and one for his Cardus-carrying assistant. Supposedly, he was entitled to this because he had donated a pavilion to the ground.

 

It was during the 1961-62 series against England that EM Wellings, the famed English journalist from theLondon Evening News, had flown in to New Delhi. On reaching the press box, he and a colleague chose the very seats cordoned off for the Kumar and settled down  to watch the  game.

 

Soon, Vizzy’s attendant, carrying his thick book of Cardus cuttings arrived on the ground to find his master’s seats already occupied by two foreign newspapermen. He suggested to the Englishmen to move.

 

The answer he received from Wellings was brief and to the point – a crisp instruction to f*** off.

 

Some more words were exchanged, and soon things reached a stalemate. The arrival of Vizzy did little to help matters, the responses hardly reaching royal standards in his honour. His regal aura clouded by the colourful and largely anatomical rebuffs, Vizzy stood aghast, his peculiar bearing almost turned Dickensian in anguish.

 

The Kumar, in a throwback to the good old days of the Raj, had put up a sponsored marquee during the Test match where English journalists were invited for lunch and tea. Of course, due to the showdown, Wellings could hardly go there, and so Ian Todd, a young reporter for Daily Mirror, got him some bananas.

 

The matter was escalated to higher and higher echelons of administration, as the agitated Kumar stood his ground and the adamant correspondent resolutely remained lodged in his seat.

 

Finally, Paul Gore-Booth, the British High Commissioner in India, had to intervene and Wellings was persuaded to vacate the seat and move elsewhere, enabling the Kumar to finally settle down with his attendant and Cardus clippings.

 

Though he quoted Cardus, Vizzy was not blessed with a voice suited for the radio. His squeaks, somewhere between hoarse whispers and strangulated cries, often made him sound more comical than royal.

 

During a Test against Pakistan in Kolkata, 1960-61, Bapu Nadkarni was out to Fazal Mahmood off the last ball of the day. Vizzy, overcome with emotion, and perhaps totally forgetting that he was on air, emitted a wail that went on for close to a minute. All India Radio, knowing that the day’s play was over, and assuming the high-pitched noise from the stadium was some curious variety of static, ended the commentary and returned to the studios. The listeners did not get to know about the last wicket till they read about it in the papers the next day.

 

Grudge across generations

 

The cricketing principle that even the hard playing Australians swear by is that after the game, opponents become mates over a drink.

 

It is, unfortunately, not always true. Some feuds are carried from the popping crease beyond the boundary and well into the grave. Yet, it may be unique for a grudge to descend on the progeny of the rival. However, according to many ardent followers of Indian cricket, that is what transpired through a murky period, the seed planted in 1946 germinating through the 1960s and finally bearing unpalatable fruit in January 1971.

 

When India was about to tour England in the summer of 1946, the choice of the captain started out as a three-horse race, with the royal candidatures of the Nawab of Pataudi and the Yuvaraj of Patiala challenged by the currency of runs in the coffers of Vijay Merchant.

 

The early withdrawal of Patiala left Merchant pitted against Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi, and on form and experience, there should have been no hesitation on picking the former for the job.

 

However, at this juncture, Merchant incurred the wrath of Dr. P. Subbaroyan, the President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). It was during a Ranji Trophy encounter between Bombay and Holkar that Dr. Subbaroyan had been enraged by a few leg before decisions against Holkar and had sought out the umpires during the tea break and fired them. Merchant, not amused by the action, had protested, and the Board President had not taken it kindly.
 

When the captaincy issue was being deliberated, Subbaroyan started openly canvassing about Pataudi’s experience in English conditions. It is rumoured that several politicians were influenced by the Board President and some unverified rumours claim that even Jawaharlal Nehru put in a good word for the Nawab.

 

Merchant lost out 8-10 on voting verdict among the selectors. There was some apprehension that the master opening batsman would withdraw from the tour, but Merchant went, claiming to be a “disciplined soldier”. He topped the batting averages as well, scoring 245 in three Tests at 49.00, while the Nawab struggled to total 55 in five innings.

 

In the 1960s, a decade after the death of the Nawab, his son, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, took over the reins of the Indian team. His record during the first few years was not encouraging – not surprising given the limited resources at his disposal, especially when compared to the other sides of the world. Yet, his charisma was part of the cricketing folklore, Indian cricket and Pataudi Junior being almost synonymous.

 

Changes were slowly creeping in under his stewardship. The captain’s brilliant fielding suddenly made the cricketers aware of a third discipline in the game. After repeated defeats abroad, the team had comprehensively won a series in New Zealand. The spin quartet was becoming a major force to reckon with and an artist with the bat, Gundappa Viswanath, had just flowered in the middle-order.

 

True, India had lost the last series against Australia in the winter of1969, but very few players or fans even considered a change at the helm.

 

However, Vijay Merchant, now playing the role of the chairman of the selection committee, had very different ideas. He had not really been too keen on Pataudi’s captaincy right through the decade. When interviewed 30 later, Pataudi Jr. claimed that this was due to two individuals who had different ideas about the game and was reluctant to attribute it to the events of 1946. However, what transpired on January 8, 1971, led many to think otherwise.

 

When Merchant and his colleagues, MM Jagdale, M. Datta Ray, HT Dani and CD Gopinath, met to choose the skipper, three names were considered. Apart from Pataudi, veteran Chandu Borde and young Ajit Wadekar were in the fray for the hot seat.

 

Borde, already 36, was soon left out of reckoning. Datta Ray and Gopinath voted for Pataudi while Dani and Merchant wanted Wadekar. Jagdale, who was known to be a close associate of Merchant, abstained from voting.

 

It is probable that Merchant had banked on Jagdale’s support, but on encountering a stalemate, he exercised his casting vote to select Wadekar.

 

It came as a shock to many, and while some conjectured about a Bombay- based bias, journalists and seasoned fans were quick to bring the rivalry of the previous generation into the post mortem.

 

It was also a surprise to Wadekar himself. So sure had he been of Pataudi getting the job, he had supposedly requested the latter to put in a favourable word for his selection.

 

On his part, Pataudi did not take the decision gracefully. He sent a telegram declaring his unavailability for the tour, claiming that he would be contesting the general elections from Haryana. It did not quite change his fortunes, as later, as a nominee of the Vishal Haryana Party, Pataudi got less than five per cent of the votes.

 

Wadekar famously led the team to unprecedented wins in West Indies and England, aided by a monstrous collection of runs by a newcomer named Sunil Gavaskar. 

 

Spirits revealing bitterness

 

Forty years down the line, in an interview given to Outlook India in 2011, Wadekar confessed that Pataudi’s decision not to tour made him feel really bad. 
 

The Nawab did return to play under Wadekar against England during the home series of 1972-73, but then decided not to tour England in 1974. Some of the apocryphal stories that surround this decision are similar to the rumours that hang around Geoff Boycott’s self imposed sabbatical from cricket during a period of low returns for England. There are opinions that Pataudi foresaw that the series would end in a disaster and shrewdly dissociated himself from the trip.

 

The bitterness Wadekar felt about Pataudi’s attitude was revealed at a dinner party hosted by an Indian family during the 1974 tour. With the refinement dampened by a generous amount of alcohol sloshing about inside him, the captain pointed at Erapalli Prasanna, Bishan Bedi and some others exclaiming, “You are all Pataudi’s men.”

 

India lost the 1974 series 0-3, and Wadekar was removed rather harshly after his sole series loss following three emphatic series victories, of which two had been pioneering. This also forced him into premature retirement from Test cricket.

 

Pataudi, making himself available once again, was reinstated as captain. The Nawab led India to two dramatic wins before losing the thrilling 1974-75 series 2-3 against the mighty West Indies – a fascinating end to a glamorous career.

 

(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)

 

Cricketing Rifts – 1: The Bradman-centric & religion-fuelled Australian feuds

 

Cricketing Rifts – 2: Vizzy, Lala Amarnath & CK Nayudu

 

Cricketing Rifts – 3: The intense animosity between Don Bradman & Wally Hammond

 

Cricketing Rifts – 4: India in the 1940s Merchant-Hazare and Amarnath-De Mello

 

Cricketing Rifts 5 – 1950s – Many mutinies against the skippers
 

Cricketing Rifts 6 – Ian-Chappell vs Botham other showdowns