Nariman Contractor Photo Courtesy: Shiamak Unwalla
Nariman Contractor Photo Courtesy: Shiamak Unwalla

The first thing you notice when you enter the Contractor household is the CK Nayudu Lifetime Achievement award on a table with a framed Farohar — a religious symbol of Parsi Zoroastrianism — on top of it. The next thing you notice is that Nariman Jamshedji Contractor still loves cricket.

A cricket show is playing on the TV; a group of Australian cricketers discussing Shane Warne’s ‘Ball of the Century’. Before the interview begins, Contractor asks whether there was any restriction on how long the article could be. It is a good thing there is none: Contractor — well into his 80s — comes across as a sharp man who remembers events vividly.

Contractor may not go down in history as an Indian legend. A Test record of 1,611 runs at 31.58 with 1 century and 11 fifties does not make for particularly impressive viewing. He was a stalwart at the First-Class level, but with 8,611 runs at 39.68 he does not stand out there either. And yet, Contractor — known for being incredibly tough — made history on more than one occasion. He was the first man since Arthur Morris to score twin centuries on First-Class debut, and a few years later became the then-youngest Indian Test captain. It was under his leadership that India first beat England in a Test series — a feat unachieved for nearly three decades till then.

That Contractor was mentally strong was evident on his First-Class debut. Playing for Gujarat against Baroda, he came in to bat at 70 for 4 and soon saw his slide slip to 81 for 5. He ended up scoring 152 and followed it up with 102 not out in the second innings as Gujarat won on first innings lead. And yet, Contractor is rather matter-of-fact about the whole thing. “See, if you jump into a swimming pool, you have to swim. You don’t think what you have to do.”

There is a rather interesting story surrounding the circumstances of his debut. He calls playing that first match a “blessing from God.” The year was 1952, and an 18-year-old Contractor was trying out for a coveted spot in the fabled Bombay line-up. With most of the first-choice Bombay team away on national duty, the Bombay Cricket Association decided to hold a few practice matches to try out the bench strength. They were to play the visiting Pakistan team later that season, and these matches would help the Bombay hopefuls make it to the senior side.

“Fortunately I did well in those games. I scored two or three 70s or 80s. At that time there was a gentleman sitting on the second floor at Brabourne Stadium. Usually no one would come to watch matches like these, but this gentleman had come and was watching the matches. After the last match was played, he clapped from the top and called me up. He didn’t even introduce himself. He said, ‘you were born in Godhra, so why don’t you play for Gujarat?’ That came as an absolute bouncer to me, as I wasn’t expecting the first line to be something like this!”

Contractor was flattered but felt he had a good chance of making it to the Bombay side to face Pakistan based on his scores. The gentleman did not take the snub kindly. Contractor says the man told him, “You forget about playing for Bombay, they will never pick you! Think it over. I’m talking about your future. I am not going to benefit by it”. He said that if Contractor decided he should contact Mr Pheroze Cambhatta at the Gujarat Cricket Association. “That is when I realised he was the bloody captain of Gujarat!”

When the team to play Pakistan was announced, Contractor’s name was not in the 15. Though he was bitterly disappointed, Contractor sent a telegram to Cambhatta at the GCA, stating that he would be available for selection. “The next morning I saw a newspaper article saying that the Gujarat team to play Baroda in a few days’ time was selected. I thought my telegram must not even have reached there. But after a few days I got a telegram saying, ‘proceed to Baroda.’ So I packed up my bags and went.”

However, since the team was already selected, Contractor knew that he would not get to play. He thought they merely wanted to test him out. “They made me bat for 45 minutes on a matting wicket against Shah Nyalchand and Jasu Patel, who were the giants of matting bowlers at that time. They were impressed. Next day again I batted well. On the following day, which was the day of the match, the team was announced at breakfast. Cambhatta read out the playing XI. Deepak Shodhan was captain! Cambhatta himself was not there. He kept taking names, and at No. 11 he said ‘Nari Contractor.’”

That Cambhatta did not play the match was providence for the young Contractor, but the man himself believes otherwise. “He never said so. He never admitted, ever. I asked him ten thousand times, ‘uncle sacchu kau ni (uncle, please tell the truth)’ but he never admitted it. He claimed to have a back pain or a neck pain or a strain or something like that. But I know that he sat out just so that I could play. That is how I made my debut in that match. So actually, I was not at all mentally prepared for playing the match. That is how my cricketing career started.”

Given his history of batting in the middle-order, it was a bit of a surprise that in only his second Test, Contractor was asked to open batting. “I was not to open, but Vinoo could not make it to Delhi for the Test. On the train journey at Matheran station Polly Umrigar, who was captain at the time, told me, ‘if I ask you to open tomorrow, will you open?’ Now, Polly was my coach at St Xavier’s College at that time, so he knew me closely. I had batted well in the first match for my 16 runs, but had I failed again I could have been dropped.”

Still green in international cricket, Contractor was reminded of a conversation he had with CK Nayudu some time prior to the event in question. The great man had asked Contractor why he did not open. The young batsman said that it was because he usually came in at No. 3. Nayudu then proceeded to enlighten him that if the opener was out first ball then the No. 3 batsman became the opener. This helped Contractor make his decision, and he agreed to open batting in the Delhi Test.

Playing New Zealand at Delhi, Contractor walked out to open with Vijay Mehra — this was a huge departure from the usual opening duo of Pankaj Roy and Vinoo Mankad — and scored a composed 62. Contractor was now an opener.

Having had to make a shift from the middle order to being an opener, Contractor had to make a mental change. “I was a stroke-player in those days, but later on I became a very defensive player because I started opening the innings.” That being said, he has a philosophical view on batting: “Every ball is a ball which can get you out, and every ball is a ball on which you can hit a boundary.” One feels it is thinking like that which gave birth to Virender Sehwag’s style of batting.

Over the years Contractor made a name for himself as being someone who dug in when the chips were down. Arguably his finest innings came at Lord’s in 1959. Battling a debilitating injury, a fiery pitch, and the searing pace of Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, and Alan Moss, he scored a valiant 81 out of a team total of 168. “I was hit off the fourth ball I faced. I was still batting on 0 at the time. Brian Statham pitched one on the ridge at Lord’s, and it flew at me and hit me in the rib. I was barely able to breathe. Pankaj Roy was at the captain in that match, so I went up to him and said that I’m finding it hard to breathe. Pankaj asked me to try and bat on for a few more overs because it was still a brand new ball. Polly would bat at No. 3 and Vijay Manjrekar would bat after that, and he didn’t want them to face the new ball.”

Contractor realised that he had to stay in: “If the captain says this, what do you do? By the time the next few overs passed Pankaj was also out and Polly was also out, so what could I do? It was only during lunch time that I found out that I had broken two ribs, but then I had to continue.”

Contractor rues the fact that he could not score more in the innings despite batting so well: “I got out for 81, but I actually scored more than 100 runs; I could play my shots but I found running between the wickets very difficult. I had this superstition that every time I take a runner I get run out.” Contractor batted at No. 8 in the second innings and continued to battle it out, but ran out of partners. He remained unconquered on 11, but England chased down the 108-run target at a canter.

Contractor’s brave display at Lord’s came on the back of utter pandemonium that saw India field six captains in seven Tests (Roy was the 6th captain). It was for perhaps this reason that he was made India’s full-time captain when Pakistan toured India in 1960-61 at the age of 26.

Contractor was India’s youngest Test captain ever at the time. The decision to make a youngster captain of a team replete with senior players was a bold move, but one that made sense: “The fact is that nobody really wanted the job. Polly was the logical choice, but since he resigned he was blacklisted. No one criticised the decision to make me captain, not even the press.”

Contractor proved an admirable captain. In his first series as captain he held a strong Pakistan team to 5 drawn matches at home, but it was in his next series that India made history. Hosting England for a five-match series, the first three Tests ended in hard-fought draws.

The teams then went to Eden Gardens for the fourth match. In England’s second innings, Contractor pulled a rabbit out of the hat by giving pace bowler Ramakant Desai the second new ball only to take it back and throw it to left-arm spinner Salim Durani instead. The change reaped huge rewards for India, and England crashed to 233. India won by 187 runs and led the series 1-0.

As always, there is another story. “At lunch England were in a decent position. So I asked Polly and Hazare and all the team members whether I should take the new ball. They all said to take it. So immediately after lunch I took the new ball and threw it to Ramakant. But something was going on at the back of my mind, ‘don’t take it, don’t take it.’ So I told Ramakant to give the ball back to the umpire and I asked Salim to bowl. Within the next few hours the match was over.” India won the following Test at Madras as well, which made Contractor the first Indian captain to beat England in a Test series.

Contractor is, however, philosophical about being called a good captain. “You may be a great captain, but you are only a good captain if your team makes you so.”

He cites the example of Ken Barrington. The England stalwart scored 3 centuries and a fifty in the series, averaged 99, and refused to get out in the first 3 Tests of that fateful series: “We were trying from the second Test to try and get him out hooking to fine leg or square leg, but either the bowlers did not bounce the ball properly or whatever the reason, we did not succeed. In Calcutta and Madras we succeeded. So as a captain you plan a certain thing, but your players should support you by doing that.”

It worked. Barrington did not make it to fifty in the last 2 Tests. His last 4 innings read 14, 3, 20, 48 after a deluge of 151*, 52*, 21, 172, and 113*.

More than strategy, Contractor rates man-management as a vital aspect of captaincy: “India has so many communities, so many religions, so many languages. What used to happen earlier was that players from a certain region wanted to be togetherif they could help it. So I felt that had to change. What I started doing was that after every Test the roommates used to change. I thought everyone should try to get to know their teammates. So I tried to bring people together, to make sure people understand each other and cooperate with each other. That regionalism had to stop. I don’t think it stopped in my time, but at least it reduced quite a bit.”

Contractor says the best captain he ever saw was Frank Worrell: “He was the shrewdest, but even as the opposition captain he would call you and advise you, which nobody does. He was very friendly both on and off the field. He was a good judge of the game, and his record also proves it. But then his team was also great. That team had the best pace bowlers, the best batsmen, the best all-rounders. They had guys like Garry Sobers, Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Alf Valentine, Lance Gibbs. He just had the best team. But then, to make use of those guys is also important.”

The conversation then, inevitably, shifts to T20: “I personally feel that today cricket is being played because of T20. Most cricket boards would be bankrupt without it. Even in English county cricket, their T20 matches are houseful. People come from work, watch the match for three hours and go home happy. People are ready to come and watch and pay for it. And it is that money that helps cricket. It is the IPL that earns you money, not Test cricket. When the crowd comes in, the money comes in and it is helping the game. But of course, the best form of cricket is Test cricket.”

At this point in the interview, Contractor remembers a humorous anecdote. He stands to demonstrate: “While I was coaching at CCI, there were some English schoolboys who had come for coaching. A 13-year-old right-handed boy was batting in the nets. I was standing a little far and talking to someone. Suddenly I hear a loud crack and felt the ball hit my knee. The boy played a reverse-sweep. I asked him what he was doing, and he said that he just played a perfect reverse-sweep! Now what do I tell him?”Contractor starts guffawing, and the delight is as contagious as it is palpable.

At various times in the interview he stands or shadow-bats to make a point. The interview was slated to last for just 15 minutes. It ends up over an hour long. Some things he says in confidence; everything he says is engaging. Throughout the interview he laughs and occasionally slips in some phrases in ‘Parsi Gujarati.’

It cannot be plainer that even after all these decades, even after all he endured, Nariman Contractor loves the game.

(Shiamak Unwalla is a former reporter with CricketCountry. He is an animal lover and comic, film and TV geek. A fast bowler at heart, he enjoys watching a good, low-scoring game of cricket. His Twitter handle is @ShiamakUnwalla)