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Vijay Merchant (left) with the man who he called his ‘guru: LP Jai © Getty Images

 Laxmidas Purshottamdas ‘LP’ Jai, one of the finest Indian batsmen of the early 1930s, was born April 1, 1902. A strong-willed man off field and an elegant strokeplayer on it, Jai was unfortunate to not play more than a solitary Test for India. One of the early superstars of Bombay cricket — indeed, he led them to the first ever Ranji Trophy title — Jai’s early reputation was built mostly around his spectacular batting performances for Hindus in the Bombay Quadrangular. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the man who Vijay Merchant called his ‘guru’.

1935-36. Jack Ryder’s men were touring India. The side was nowhere close to a full-strength Australian side, but this was not an unofficial ‘Test’ against an all-India representative side, which meant Ryder could rest a few key players. Bombay, champions of the inaugural edition of the Ranji Trophy, played hosts.

The Australians batted first. With Wendell Bill and Francis Bryant both scoring hundreds, Ryder declared on 455 for 8 at lunch on Day Two. Bombay were blown away by Tom Leather’s medium-paced bowling and Fred Mair’s leg-breaks: they reached 55 without loss and 190 for 5, but were eventually bowled out for 241. Ryder asked them to bat again.

Charlie Macartney did not play the match, neither did Ron Oxenham. However, Macartney was there at the ground. He had seen LP Jai score a top-quality 59 (“the exhibition of scientific batsmanship”) in the first innings, but it was not enough to save the match.

Jai knew he had to bat out of his skin to save the match, for the Australians had plenty of time to bat out. He walked out at No. 3, two positions higher than what he had in the first innings. The score read 4 for 1 when he came out. By the time SM Kadri, the other opener, fell for 5, Jai had taken the score to 37.

There was more to follow. A triple-strike from Mair reduced Bombay to 45 for 4, but Jai batted on, plundering runs with astonishing ease. Mair, whose triple-blow shook Bombay, went for 73 from his 13 overs. Stumps were drawn when Jai hit one back to Harry Alexander for 115. Bombay finished on 171 for 7 from a mere 40 overs, scored at a serious pace even by the standards of a First-Class match of the current generation.

Macartney was elated. He wrote for The Hindu: “I can truly say that I have seldom seen finer batting than that of Jai. His footwork and stroke execution were perfect. Every stroke was magnificently timed and powerfully made. Jai plays with easy confidence, charming style and above all is a good sportsman. On his representation of batsmanship today, India had no better player.”

Vasant Raiji wrote of the innings: “Driving, cutting, pulling and hooking with tremendous power, Jai completely dominated the play by his all-round brilliance. Those who watched this spectacle went into raptures and will remember it for many a long day as one of the finest seen on Bombay Gymkhana ground.”

Correspondents covering the match compared his wrist-work with KS Ranjitsinhji’s and his strokeplay with CK Nayudu’s. However, unlike Nayudu, Jai’s strokes, though hit extremely hard, almost invariably scorched the grass that day: somewhat uncharacteristically, Jai refused to loft the ball in the air, for there was a match to be saved. And yet, he made sure Bombay batted at 4.28 an over…

Less than a week after the match, India played an unofficial ‘Test’ against the Australians at the same ground. Astonishingly, Jai was left out of the side, which led Macartney to comment: “A team in which Jai cannot find a place must be a team of world beaters.”

Little was Macartney aware of the murky politics in the background that had rotted Indian cricket to the core. India were led by Yuvraj of Patiala, whom the Bombay crowd refused to accept as captain instead of Nayudu, and booed throughout the match.

India were thoroughly outplayed, succumbing to Oxenham, Mair, and Bert Ironmonger, losing by 9 wickets. The Yuvraj top-scored in the first innings, but it did not matter: the defeat meant that he was out of contest for India captain, leaving only Nayudu and Vizzy as forerunners. But that is another story.

The player

Laxmidas Purshottamdas Jai played in an era when First-Class cricket in India was scant. Indeed, only 67 of his matches spanned over two decades were given First-Class status. From these, Jai scored 3,231 runs at 32 with 6 hundreds. In Ranji Trophy his numbers — 1,071 runs at 43 — were significantly better.

The First-Class match count would have been more, had the strong-willed Jai not pulled out of the England tour of 1932, and not suffered an injury on the 1936 tour — but more of that later.

An average of 32 does not speak very highly of Jai. Even if we ignore the superlative numbers of later stalwarts like Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare, and Rusi Modi, on the ground that they were part of the run-fests of early 1940s, Jai was not even competitive during his era.

Nayudu, for example, averaged 36 (along with 29 with ball); Wazir Ali, 39; his brother Nazir Ali had 30, but he was primarily a bowling all-rounder; even DB Deodhar, a decade older to Jai, averaged 39; Vithal Palwankar, six years older to Deodhar, had 35.

No, Jai was not a big scorer, and there was a reason for that: it was his tendency of throwing his wicket to poor strokes that often brought about his end. Merchant wrote of him: “Had Jai possessed the patience and concentration of a Hazare, he would have scored more runs than any other Indian cricketer.”

Merchant analysed Jai’s bizarre weakness beautifully: “He had every stroke in his repertoire and there was not a single shot which he could not execute. Normally one would think that this would be a tremendous advantage for any batsman. But it was not so with Jai. Because he had too many strokes and inclination to make them, he wanted to give vent to his feelings of joy and happiness by making them all at once.”

Indeed, more often than not did Jai get out trying to play the most outrageous of shots. He would get to a gorgeous fifty and inevitably throw it away. That was typical of Jai, a man who did not believe in the concept of coaching. Batting came so naturally to him that the fact of teaching someone to bat was something he could not relate to.

And yet, Merchant always considered Jai his ‘guru’, despite the fact that Merchant was never coached by Jai. Merchant was influenced by Jai “by constant observation and contact with him”, later amalgamating Jai’s genius with a concentration that was matched by few.

Macartney and Merchant was not the only admirers of Jai’s genius. After batting with Jai in the Bombay Quadrangular, an awestruck KS Duleepsinhji commented that “had he missed seeing Jai batting he would have missed something in life.”

Everything about Jai was worth a watch. Let me quote AFS Talyarkhan here: “Jai walked to the middle very fast. He took a second to take guard. He rarely took stock of the placing of the field because (as he always told me) he had been studying this while awaiting his turn to bat.”

What about the stance? One must remember that Merchant was a man who seldom gave in to exaggeration; and yet, Merchant could not help but dish out the ultimate compliment to Jai: “The only person who can match him in the elegance of stance is the late Jack Hobbs.”

He looked completely at ease. His bat, though held firmly, seemed light in his hands. And then, if the bowler erred by the slightest of margin, the flashing blade was on to it in a flash. And the crowd went into ruptures.

Early days

LP Jai was born in Bombay. His father  Purshottamdas was a sub-share broker with DS Purbhoodas & Co. (it still exists in Stock Exchange Towers, Fort, Bombay).

Jai took to cricket during his days at Elphinstone High School. Surprisingly, he earned reputation as a defensive batsman who held an end up as big-hitters made merry at the other end.

Fortunately, during his days at St Xavier’s College, Jai came under the tutelage of Jehangir Sorabji Warden, a stalwart for Parsees who also toured England with the Indian team of 1911. It was under Warden’s tutelage that Jai’s strokeplay blossomed.

An 18-year old Jai made his debut in the Quadrangular final of 1920-21. With Janardan Navle, Vithal, Nayudu, and Deodhar all batting above him, there was almost no pressure on Jai. He came out at 258 for 5, and scored a polished 56.

The Hindus scored 428, and won on first-innings lead, and almost won by an innings (when stumps were drawn, Parsees were 9 down, still requiring 24 to make Hindus bat again).

A string of failures followed for Jai in Bombay Quadrangular, but he made up for it in college cricket. He had moved to Wilson College by then, and in 1923 he scored 192 against Sydenham College, then a record for in Bombay college cricket.

King of Gymkhana

But runs in the Quadrangular — Indian cricket’s premier tournament of the era — remained elusive. He was yet to score a fifty since his debut innings. Then came the final of 1924-25.

The Muslims piled up 368, with Wazir Ali slamming an emphatic 197. The Hindus sank without a trace, as Ahmed Botawala scythed through them with his mixed bag of left-arm seam and spin. He took 6 for 48 as Hindus were bowled out for 120, and were asked to follow-on.

Less than a week before the match, Botawala had single-handedly decimated the Parsees with 76 and a match haul of 10 for 83. He removed Navle early in the second innings as well. They all fell, one by one, Vithal, his brother Shivram, Nayudu: the four men had scored a mere 16 between them.

Jai had walked out at No. 3. Deodhar (at that time a Professor in Poona) joined him after the fourth wicket fell. Both men had scored ducks in the first innings. Then Jai exploded, spreading like a whirlwind across Bombay Gymkhana. Deodhar, one of India’s premier batsmen of the era, was reduced to a mere spectator; when Deodhar fell for 66, the partnership had already yielded 191.

Raiji later wrote that Jai’s 156 (his career-best) was an outcome of his “playing exhilarating cricket, hitting all round the wicket and beating the fielders with his full-blooded drives.” Evening News observed how “the student outshone the professor” during that partnership.

That innings opened the floodgates. In the next edition of the Quadrangular, Jai scored 104, 23, 80 and 71. The last of these came in the final against Europeans: set an improbable 355 for victory, Jai and Navle (75) set the foundation, taking the score to 154 for 1. A minor collapse followed, but Vithal and Shankar Godambe saw Hindus through.

Jai’s sequence from five innings (including that 156) amounted to 434 runs at 86.20. He was ready when Arthur Gilligan’s MCC toured India.

Imperial cricket

Jai played MCC four times, scoring 53 (9 fours) and 63 (9 fours, 1 six) in his first two outings but failing thereafter. The first of these outings, played for Hindus, is memorable for Nayudu’s iconic 100-minute 153.

The six hit in the second match was a pull off John Mercer that landed on the roof of a tent in the adjacent Parsee Gymkhana ground. No other Indian reached 30 in that innings.

Meanwhile, Jai had done his graduation, and had taken up a job at Imperial Bank. It was fortunate for us that Raiji (always reliable, unlike several cricket writers) had gone through the painstaking job of extracting data for bank cricket — of which no known document survives, even on CricketArchive.

Raiji wrote: “In 1927 Jai was in full glory…On a conservative estimate Jai must have scored over 2500 runs during the season.” Raiji mentions three innings between September 4 and 9: 180 for Imperial Bank against Hindu Gymkhana, 208* for Hindu Gymkhana against New Hindus, and 109 for Hindu Gymkhana against Gowd Saraswat. The last two innings were played on successive days.

Apart from this, he scored five other hundreds in the season. These innings amounted to 1,098 runs at 366. “He must have finished the season with a Bradmanlike average,” rued Raiji: “Unfortunately it has not been recorded.”

Duleep played the 1928-29 edition of the Quadrangular, which meant that Jai’s fans could see him bat alongside the great man. Hindus were reduced to 12 for 2 against Parsees when Jai joined Duleep.

Many regard the partnership between the two talented men as one of the best till date at Bombay Gymkhana. Duleep scored 84, while Jai, matching him stroke for stroke, made 76. Despite that, Bombay were bowled out for 260 and conceded a lead of 136. Once again Duleep (38) and Jai (46) got together; Vithal set Parsees 124; but it all went in vain.

Note: On a side note, in the second innings Duleep played the first recorded reverse-sweep with Jai at the other end. Wisden mentions that Duleep played a ball outside off “backwards towards third man with his bat turned and facing the wicketkeeper.” Jai wrote that “there was an appeal for unfair play but the umpire ruled it out.”

The one that got away

Mahatma Gandhi’s relentless protests meant that the Quadrangular (for it was, after all, communal) was suspended for four years. This also meant that there was no First-Class cricket in India, and the locals had to be content with club matches.

Jai was a certainty when India toured England in 1932 to play their first ever Test. Few, barring Nayudu, could match his prowess at the crease. Unfortunately, Hindu Gymkhana decided to boycott the tour, following several political arrests. Jai decided to stick to his club’s principles (he could easily have quit the club), and opted out of the tour — along with Merchant and Champak Mehta, two other certainties.

Test cricket, finally…

Vizzy, meanwhile, had built his own team, the Freelooters. Among others, there was Jai, who scored a dazzling 134 against Karachi, walking out at 48 for 3. Not much is recorded of Jai’s achievements thereafter, but when Douglas Jardine brought his MCC to India in 1933-34, Jai made his Test debut alongside Rustomji Jamshedji, Ladha Ramji, and two men who would play crucial roles Indian cricket in decades to come: Merchant and Lala Amarnath.

The match is remembered for Amarnath’s famous 118 and his 186-run stand with Nayudu in the second innings. Batting at No. 5 in the first innings, Jai scored 19 before Arthur Mitchell caught him off James Langridge. He fell for a duck in the second innings, caught by Jardine off Stan Nichols, and never played another Test.

Then came 1934-35, when Ranji Trophy started, the Quadrangular resumed, and Freelooters reached the Moin-ud-Dowlah final. Their semi-final was against Crescent Club of Lahore, where Learie Constantine, the Vizzy’s recruit, terrorised the batsmen with his ferocious pace, aiming for the body on a matting wicket.

After a session Jai asked Freelooters captain Fatehsinhji, the Maharaj Kumar of Alirajpur, to restrain Constantine. Alirajpur, of course, had no issues with the intimidating bowling, which was winning the match for his side.

So Jai approached Constantine, a man who had already attained iconic status in world cricket: “We are not objecting to your pace and your fast bowling even on a fiery matting wicket but we certainly object to your practice of aiming at the man and not at the wicket. Unless it stops, a few of us may have to walk off the field tomorrow when the match is resumed. I know this would be contrary to the discipline of the team but to us the spirit of cricket is more important than even discipline.”

Constantine took 4 for 60 and 3 for 53, and Freelooters won by an innings.

Ranji Trophy

Ranji Trophy took off that season. It was supposed to replace the Quadrangular. Ironically, it was also the season in which Quadrangular resumed, and Jai scored 94 against Europeans on his comeback.

The innings deserves special mention. The Hindus had lost seven star batsmen (Naoomal Jaoomal, Navle, Merchant, Nayudu, Amarnath, Deodhar, and Yuvraj of Patiala) for 122 when Amar Singh joined Jai.

Then followed one of the most astonishing hour (less, actually) of cricket Bombay Gymkhana has witnessed. Both men used their respective styles, Jai with his booming drives at every corner of the ground he felt like, and Amar Singh making merry, lofting the ball as per will.

The first 16 minutes yielded 43. The stand was worth a 100 in 37 minutes. They eventually added 130 in 51 minutes (even if one assumes an over-rate of 20 an over that amounts to 17 overs). Amar Singh’s 90 included 14 fours and 3 sixes; Jai’s ‘sedate’ 94 was studded with 11 fours and a six.

Greater success would come his way later that season. He led Bombay to a comfortable first-innings win against Gujarat. Against Western India he top-scored in the second innings with 55 not out, lifting Bombay from 47 for 5 to 164; Bombay won comfortably again.

The final, against Northern India, was played at Bombay Gymkhana. The tourists competed well (Jai scored 41 in the first innings), and at one stage Bombay, after acquiring a 47-run lead, were reduced to 70 for 5. But Merchant (120) and Hormasji Vajifdar (71) added 135, and set to chase 348, Northern India were bowled out for 139, Vajifdar taking 8 for 40.

Jai, thus, became the first captain to win the Ranji Trophy.

1934-35
The Bombay side that won the first edition of Ranji Trophy, in 1934-35. LP Jai is middle row, third from right. Vijay Merchant is to his right. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan.

The next season he led Hindus in the final. He followed this with 59 and 115 against the Australians (of whom I have written in details at the beginning of the article). As mentioned, he was dropped for the ‘Test’ at Bombay.

Jai was selected for the ‘Test’ at Calcutta, when something that today’s readers may find hard to comprehend happened. Imperial Bank told Jai, then one of India’s stars, that his leaves were limited. This meant that Jai could either play the ‘Test’ or play Ranji Trophy. He chose the latter.

He started with 81 and 97 against Maharashtra, and led Bombay to the final. Unfortunately, he missed the final; it did not matter, for Vajifdar led Bombay to a resounding 190-run win over Madras.

This time there was no political issues, which meant Jai took the boat to England for the ill-fated 1936 tour.

The Blighty, and later

It was not a good outing for Jai. He played 13 First-Class matches on the tour, scoring 427 runs at 24. One must remember that three Indians — Merchant, Nayudu, and Mushtaq Ali — crossed a thousand runs in the same season, while Amarnath had a decent start before he was sent back unceremoniously. The fact that he broke a finger early on the tour did not help his cause.

There were a few high points. Against Surrey Jai scored 59 not out (his was the highest score) and 85; and in the thriller against Hampshire — India won by 2 runs — he got 50 and 46. There was also 100 not out against Indian Gymkhana in a Second-Class match.

Back home, however, he was up against challenge of a different nature in the Quadrangular, for the Europeans had acquired the services of Harold Larwood, no less. Leading the Hindus, Jai scored 22 and 20 against Larwood, Frank Tarrant, and TC Longfield; the heroes of the match were Merchant and Amar Singh, and Jai led Hindus to a tournament win.

Things changed rapidly in Bombay cricket after this. With the rise of Merchant, Jai, by then approaching the end of his career, lost his authority in the side. Not that it mattered to him, for he played under Merchant against Lord Tennyson’s XI.

The selectors replaced Jai as Bombay captain, appointing Merchant — perhaps rightly so. Unfortunately, they never bothered to inform Jai. A man of principles, Jai was deeply hurt, and pulled out of Ranji Trophy in 1939-40 and 1940-41.

He did make a return in 1941-42. In his last First-Class innings, against Sind, he scored 43, helping his once-apprentice Merchant (by then captain of Bombay) put up 79. Before that, however, he had one last hurrah — leading Hindus to a Pentangular title.

Post-retirement

Jai later worked for State Bank of India, and became a renowned philatelist and amateur photographer. His colleagues have narrated stories of Jai ‘targeting’ envelopes that arrived at the bank for the stamps. Everyone loved the unassuming vegetarian teetotaler in long coat and dhoti and his occasional childish excitement when he acquired a rare stamp.

He also served as a National Selector, resigning just before the 1958-59 home series against West Indies, perhaps in anticipation of the debacle that would follow (when India would appoint four captains in five Tests, and later, six in seven).

He was appointed Vice-President of Bombay Cricket Association and Hindu Gymkhana. In his post-retirement days that he emerged as a champion in billiards, ruling the Hindu Gymkhana circuit for eleven years as undisputed champion. He eventually decided to have mercy on the youngsters and move on. He was also competent in tennis and badminton.

Jai married Kanta, and had two children. While his son Shashikant became a businessman in Nairobi, his daughter Purnima Zaveri became a renowned singer.

On the morning of January 29, 1968, Laxmidas Purshottamdas Jai was listening to the All India Radio commentary of the Sydney Test between India and Australia when he suffered a massive heart-attack. He never recovered. He was 65.

As a fitting homage, the award for the fastest hundred in Ranji Trophy was named after him.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)