Pankaj Roy had scored 2,442 runs from 43 Tests at 32.56 with 9 hundreds © Getty Images
Pankaj Roy had scored 2,442 runs from 43 Tests at 32.56 with 9 hundreds © Getty Images

Pankaj Roy, born May 31, 1928, was an India and Bengal opening batsman. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the man who contributed to the highest opening partnership of his time — a record that stood for over half a century.

Till Sourav Ganguly came along with his stylish cover-drives, square-cuts, and lofted hits off left-arm spinners that cleared cricket ground, and a fiery attitude in general, Pankaj Roy was the undisputed king of Bengal cricket. As Ganguly himself said while garlanding Roy after he passed away, “The modern generation wants to be like [MS] Dhoni, [Rahul] Dravid, or Yuvraj [Singh], but when we started playing cricket all we knew was about Pankaj-da.”

Roy was one of the best Indian openers in the pre-Sunil Gavaskar era. Indeed, till Gavaskar came along and redefined Indian batsmanship, Roy had the most runs among Indian openers (2,220 runs at 31.71 with 4 hundreds from 41 Tests)significantly ahead of Nari Contractor’s 1,555. He still ranks fifth among all Indian openers in terms of runs.

Roy was also a master of the second innings: of all Indian openers with over 1,000 second innings runs, Roy comes third on the list with 1,028 runs at 35.44, just after Gavaskar and Gautam Gambhir. He also scored 354 runs at 50.57 in the fourth innings of Tests the ultimate test of batsmen to handle pressure.

There was no doubt whatsoever regarding Roy’s technique, either. He took on some of the champion fast bowlers of his time with virtually no physical protection, and had emerged with flying colours. He played with a straight bat, could concentrate for hours, and was brace enough not to flinch from fast bowling.

Speaking of Roy, Chandu Borde had said, “[Pankaj] Roy was one of the best technically sound batsmen I had ever seen. It was amazing the way he played the pace bowlers at a time when helmet was not introduced. I feel he could have done wonders if he had the privilege of having all the modern cricketing gears of today.”

In spite of the stature he enjoyed in Bengal cricket, he was an extremely humble and down-to-earth person, approachable by anyone. He was always Pankaj-da (elder brother) in the Calcutta Maidan. His son Pranab Roy (also a Test cricketer) has later recollected: “A man, who in spite of his deeds never forgot his roots. He used to mix freely with everybody and never tried to show that he was a great cricketer in his era.”

Despite his ability to handle pace and bounce, it was swing that undid Roy. In England Roy averaged a measly 13.70 with the bat (233 runs from 9 Tests with a solitary fifty), while outside the British Isles, Roy’s Test record read 2,209 at 38.09 with 5 centuries. Even on West Indian soil Roy scored 383 runs from 4 Tests at 47.87.

Overall, Roy had scored 2,442 runs from 43 Tests at 32.56 with 5 hundreds. The highlight of his career was definitely the world record 413-run opening stand with Vinoo Mankad at Madras in 1954-55.

In First-Class cricket he scored 11,868 runs at 42.38 with 33 hundreds from 185 matches.

Early days

Roy came from Kumortuli, one of the traditional North Indian localities whose history can be traced back to centuries. He was born with the proverbial silver spoon (his ancestors were the zamindars of Bhagyakul in Bikrampore; and were so rich that Pankaj’s ancestor Pramathanath Roy had once granted a significant sum as a loan to Indian Bank).

During his early days he was equally proficient in cricket and football (which is something that Ganguly’s contemporaries have said about him several decades later). Indian football legends Chuni Goswami (who also led Bengal in Ranji Trophy) and Sailen Manna, both contemporaries of Roy, had both agreed to the fact that he would have made a fine footballer if he had chosen the sport over cricket.

However, Roy stuck to cricketdespite the fact that Bengal dominated the Indian football circuit. He quickly made his way up the ranks and made his Ranji Trophy debut against United Provinces at Eden Gardens in 1946-47. Making debut alongside him was his friend Premangsu Chatterjee, who later went on take 10 for 20 still the third-best bowling figures in the history of First-Class cricket.

Bengal were quickly reduced to 84 for 5, but Roy was not daunted by the situation. He shepherded the tail, and eventually remained unbeaten on 112, taking the score to 295. As the pitch deteriorated, Roy scored a crucial 28 before being dismissed by the curiously named DD Waugh (the first Waugh to play First-Class cricket) — also making his debut. Chatterjee took 9 wickets in the match, and Bengal won by 145 runs.

Due to the format of domestic cricket in India in the era around Independence, Roy played only two First-Class matches that season. He played only one more the next season against Holkar in which he scored a composed 106 before being run out, once again at Calcutta.

The next season began with another hundred, playing for the Bengal Governor’s XI against the visiting West Indians at Calcutta. After the tourists scored 255, the hosts were reduced to 141 for 8 — before Roy took over. He added 173 for the ninth wicket with Surjuram Girdhari against Prior Jones, John Goddard, and Denis Atkinson, and remained not out on 101 as the hosts managed a 60-run lead.

After another hundred — this time 163 against Holkar at Calcutta, Roy was selected to play for the Combined Universities against the touring MCC at Bombay. He opened batting and top-scored with a well-compiled 89, and his next First-Class match was in the first Test of the England series.

Test debut

Roy opened batting with Vijay Merchant in what turned out to be the legend’s last Test at Delhi, and scored 12 before falling to Derek Shackleton. He found his groove, though, in the second Test at Bombay: opening batting, he added 187 for the third wicket with Vijay Hazare, the Indian captain, against Brian Statham and Roy Tattersall, and was eventually out for 140.

In the third Test at Calcutta Roy scored 42 and 31 not out, and the teams went to the fourth Test at Kanpur with the series drawn 0-0. Roy top-scored in the first innings with 37, but India were bowled out for 121 and 157 and England won a low-scoring Test.

In the fifth Test at Madras, though, Roy came into his elements. After Mankad took 8 for 55 to bowl out England for 266, Roy began aggressively, and was fourth out after a belligerent 230-minute 111 with 15 fours — out of a team score of 191. India scored 457, and registered their first ever Test victory — that too by an innings.

Roy ended the series with 387 runs at a remarkable 55.28 with 2 hundreds, and was hailed as the next Vijay Merchant by one and all.

The fall

After a steep rise, Roy’s Test career suddenly came across a valley: he scored 19 and a duck at Headingley, 35 and another duck at Lord’s, a pair at Old Trafford, and another duck at The Oval. In all, he scored 54 at 7.75 with 5 ducks. No other opener has managed even 4 ducks in a Test series. In fact, of all batsmenAlan Hurst with 6 ducks in the 1978-79 Ashes is the only one (with 6 ducks) who has done better than Roy.

He did not fare too well in the tour matches either. Overall, he scored 788 runs at 21.88 from 23 matches. He top-scored with 163 in the first innings against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge and once again with 131 against Middlesex at Lord’s, but did nothing else of note.

Though he had a rather ordinary home series against Pakistan, he was still selected for the West Indies tour of 1952-53.

The resurgence

With no swing to bother him, Roy was back in his elements. He did fairly well in the tour matches, and was dropped for the first Test at Queen’s Park Oval.  In the next 2 Tests at Kensington Oval and Queen’s Park Oval, Roy scored 1, 22, 49, and 0 — putting his career at jeopardy once again.

He found back his form somewhat at Bourda with scores of 28 and 48, but was back at his prime in the final Test at Sabina Park: he scored 89, added 150 with Polly Umrigar, and India were bowled out for 312. Trailing by 264, Roy scored a defiant 150, added 237 with Vijay Manjrekar for the second wicket (a record that stood for over a quarter of a century), and helped India save the Test.

Once back home, he banked on his regained form to promptly score 170 and 143 in the Ranji Trophy fixture against Orissa at Cuttack. He was selected to represent India against the touring Commonwealth XI, where he scored his third century of the season — 141 against Peter Loader, Sam Loxton, and Jack Iverson, and ‘India’ won by an innings. Roy was back to form.

The record partnership

After a decent series in Pakistan, Roy was up against the Kiwis at home. By this time he had issues with his eyesight, and started wearing spectacles.

He scored a duck in the first Test at Hyderabad, and missed the next 2 Tests at Bombay and Delhi. He came back in the fourth Test of the series at Calcutta, and promptly scored 100. India should have won the series, but New Zealand held on and finished at 75 for 6.

In the fifth Test at Madras, Mankad and Roy opened batting after Umrigar won the toss on a flat track. Despite the favourable conditions, both batsmen played very cautiously. SK Gurunathan later wrote in the Indian Cricket almanac: “It was by no means the best knock played either by [Vinoo] Mankad or by [Pankaj] Roy. Both were hesitant in making their strokes but there was no lack of concentration and determination to stay at the wicket as long as possible. Mankad now and again played his rousing pull shot and the drive to the off but he rarely brought off his dazzling cuts.”

As the day progressed, though, both batsmen opened up, and Roy eventually reached his hundred in 262 minutes; he had hit only 6 fours. The duo went past 203 by Merchant and Mushtaq Ali the Indian record for the opening wicket at Old Trafford in 1936. India were 234 without loss at stumps with Roy on 114 and Mankad on 109, the latter bringing up his hundred in 287 minutes. They became the third overall pair and the first Indian pair to bat through a day.

The next morning the runs came faster than the previous day: 250 came up, then 300 and suddenly the world record opening stand of 359 between Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook at Johannesburg in 1948-49 looked assailable. The duo created a new world record; by this time Mankad had overtaken Roy, and raced to his double-hundred.

The 400 came up, and then something bizarre happened. In Roy’s own words, “I had an opportunity of getting 200 during that world record stand. However, Polly Umrigar instructed me to hit out. I did so thinking that he would declare. I got out playing a rash shot and was surprised to see that declaration was not being implemented. I would have certainly got my double-hundred if I had played my normal game.”

Indeed, the two had put on 413 in 472 minutes, and the declaration eventually came over two hours later, at stumps. By that time Mankad had scored 231, setting a new Indian record, and Umrigar himself had helped himself to 79 not out. India declared at 537 for 3, and Subhash Gupte took 9 wickets to bowl India to a victory by an innings and 109 runs. The record for the opening stand stood intact for 53 years till Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie added 415 against Bangladesh at Chittagong in 2007-08.

West Indies, home

After an indifferent home series against Australia, Roy found form again, scoring 4 hundreds in 4 innings spanning over two seasons: 159 not out against Services at Calcutta, 154 against Assam at Calcutta, 114 against Orissa at Cuttack, and then another 114 against Bihar at Patna. His form was back, and he was an obvious selection for the home series against West Indies a series that had been marred by the selection policies which resulted in the appointment of four captains.

Most of the Indians had never encountered bowlers as fast as Wes Hall and Roy Gilchrist – the latter known for deliberate intimidating bowling. It did not help that they were accompanied by the likes of Garry Sobers and Sonny Ramadhin. In the first Test at Bombay Gupte bowled out West Indies for 227, but Gilchrist and Hall simply blew the Indians away for 152. India were set to score 399 to win the Test, or, equally unrealistically, bat for 9-and-a-half hours.

And then, Roy walked out to bat. He lost Contractor early, but Umrigar hung around, and so did Manjrekar. India saw out the fourth day with Roy on 54 and India on 117 for 2 still requiring to bat a complete day.

Roy lost Manjrekar, and then Bapu Nadkarni, but he was immovable himself. With Gulabrai Ramchand for company he batted on, and on. Eventually fatigue got the better of him, and he hit one from Hall back to him for a 444-minute 90 one of the greatest rearguard actions in the history of Indian cricket against quality bowling. With Ramchand and Manohar Hardikar playing out time, the Test was saved.

India succumbed to Hall at Kanpur; Hall took 11 for 126 in Gilchrist’s absence, and India were bowled out for 222 and 240, losing by 203 runs. Roy, however, scored 46 and 45, and helped add 93 and 99 in two innings with Contractor. With his teammates being undone by pace, Roy stood tall among the ruins.

In the riot-struck third Test at Calcutta, and he took 9 for 73 to rout India by a whopping innings and 336 runs. India lost at Madras by 295 runs, but once again Roy scored a defiant 49. And then, in the last Test at Delhi, once again Roy scored 58, and batted out long enough for India to save the Test. Roy scored 334 runs in the series at 33.40 only 3 short of Umrigar’s 337 but he was definitely the one who had blunted Roy and Gilchrist throughout the series.

Captain of India

India toured England next under Dattajirao Gaekwad, with Roy as the vice-captain. Roy began the campaign well with a 155 against Oxford University, and for a while everything it seemed that he had been able to overcome the England nemesis when he scored a 183-minute 54 and a 169-minute 49 against Fred Trueman and Statham at Trent Bridge (India lost by an innings).

In the next Test at Lord’s, Gaekwad pulled out due to an injury, and Roy got to lead India for the only time in his career. It wasn’t a happy outing: Roy scored 15 and zero, India scored 165 and 168, and lost easily.

Thereafter it all went downhill: Roy scored 2, 20, 15, 21, 3, and 0 and ended the series with 179 runs at 17.90. If the first Test is discounted, the score tally read 76 at 9.50 — almost as bad as the previous outing in 1952.

Back home, he was still good enough to score 99 out of a team total of 206 at Delhi against a very strong Australian side, and followed it up a match-saving 57 at Bombay, but did nothing of note in the other Tests. And then, after scoring 23 in the first Test against Pakistan in a ‘yawnathon’ at Bombay, he was dropped for good.

The one last hurrah

In a valiant effort to come back to the Indian team, Roy plundered runs in Indian domestic cricket, but to no avail. Even Contractor’s injury could not help him to break through. He had one final moment of glory, though.

After the debacle of India in the West Indies, the Board decided to invite four West Indian fast bowlers to play Indian domestic cricket in order to improve the batting standard of Indians against fast bowling: as things turned out, Roy Gilchrist played for Hyderabad, Lester King for Bengal, Charlie Stayers for Bombay, and Chester Watson for Delhi.

The Ranji Trophy quarter-final between Calcutta, thus, had Roy up against Gilchrist (whose first name, incidentally, was Roy). Gilchrist was already fired up and bowling with express pace and cleaned up Bikash Chowdhury. This brought the strokeful Kalyan Mitter to the crease.

Mitter had never faced anything so fast. There was already a rumour (Mitter had later confirmed this) that Gilchrist, who had not forgotten Roy’s resilience in 1958-59, looked upon this match as a vengeance, and had vowed to send at least six Bengal batsmen to the hospital.

Watching Mitter struggle, the senior batsman (as he always did), walked up to him, and with the most reassuring of smiles, told the youngster “There’s nothing to worry. I’m there. Just play your strokes.” Mitter counterattacked with panache and scored 29 in a partnership of 36, and once he was dismissed, Roy held fort: he scored 112, and Bengal reached 386.

Some inspired bowling from King gave Bengal that coveted 25-run first-innings lead. Roy had stayed up the night in a hospital attending a close relative. The match seemed to be over, but then — Gilchrist struck on the third afternoon, and Roy had to walk out at 42 for 4. Bengal finished the day at 103 for 5, just 128 runs ahead.

Roy, with his nephew Ambar (who also played Tests, and his lazy, disoriented elegance was a complete contrast to Pankaj’s style), added 99 with his uncle. Pankaj Roy, with two sleepless nights on the trot, batted out over after over against Gilchrist, blunting him out. Gilchrist got so furious that he ran up and tried to bowl a beamer from a distance of 18 yards, but Roy had already backed out. He eventually scored 118, and saw Bengal out of danger.

He continued to play on till 1967-68, after which he called it quits. He loved batting, he was proud of turning up for Bengal, and he cherished challenges. As Borde said later, “He has always played the game for the love of it”.

A first-day cover in honour of Pankaj Roy. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan
A first-day cover in honour of Pankaj Roy. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan

Post-retirement

Roy became a national selector, and was a part of the panel that picked the team for World Cup 1983. He later ran into controversies when he commented that the axing of Mohammad Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja and others before any proof was obtained was unfair: “Look, charges of match-fixing against them have not been proved. Unless you have sufficient proof against them, you should not take any disciplinary measures against them.”

A popular man with a great image, Roy was appointed the Sheriff of Kolkata in 2000. He passed away shortly afterwards from a heart attack on February 4, 2001.

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