October 12 marks the birth centenary of Vijay Merchant, one of the greatest batsmen ever. The right-hander from Mumbai could play only 10 Tests, mostly due to the war. But in 150 First Class matches, he averaged 71.64, next only to Donald Bradman’s 95.14.
KR Guruprasad pays his tribute to the master batsman in DNA, saying before Tendulkar, Gavaskar’s closest rival in the Indian pantheon of batting was Merchant:
Merchant was not coached during his growing up years and is largely said to have learnt the game on his own. He was only 5’7” but had the dexterity of a fox when it came to footwork. He is said to have filmed his batting and corrected himself often. And those who watched him play say that he played compact and flawlessly as if eliminating any errors from a craft that he has mastered over the years.
Against a visiting England side, Merchant played his last Test at the Kotla in Delhi in 1951. Forty-year old Merchant scored 154, his highest, and also became the oldest Indian to score a Test century. It stands till today.
When asked why he retired, he quipped that when a player retires “People should ask why instead of why not”.
After retiring as a player, he commentated on radio and became national selector in 1960’s and 70’s and blooded youngsters like Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Vishwanath, Ashok Mankad and Eknath Solkar. It was Merchant who brought in Ajit Wadekar to replace Mansour Ali Khan Pataudi as captain and ushered in one of the glorious chapters in Indian cricket history.
The greatest of all Indians: Bradman
In Mid Day, the Sydney-based cricket historian Kersi Meher-Homji writes:
The eminent cricket writer Neville Cardus called Merchant "India's good European." The confrontation between the two mighty run-getters, Bradman and Merchant, was anticipated with excitement during India's pioneering tour of Australia in 1947-48. Merchant was appointed captain, but a groin injury forced him out.
Bradman summed up his disappointment by saying, "We were denied the sight of Vijay Merchant, who must surely have claims to be the greatest of all Indian players." First my hero, he later became my close friend and we exchanged many letters from 1967 to 1987 when he passed away. His hand-written letters have the same elegance as his cover-drives and leg-glances.
Master of the late cut
CricketCountry.com have reproduced Sunil Gavaskar's tribute to Merchant in a 1988 book, Vijay Merchant - In Memoriam.
My lasting impression of his cricket was when he was urged to do a film called “The Spirit and Technique of Cricket” by Zul Vellani in 1964-65. I was among the schoolboys invited to field, while Tiger Pataudi, Farokh Engineer and Ajit Wadekar were to demonstrate different aspects of cricket. Merchant was to demonstrate the late cut – a shot for which he was renowned.
He came immaculately dressed in cream flannels, boots polished and an India cap firmly pulled down his forehead. He looked as if he had never been away from the cricket field, though he was holding a bat after 10 years, as he said later.
Kailash Gattani was to bowl to Merchant a few practice deliveries after which the shooting was to commence. Gattani, at that time, was not only sharp but was also rated by pundits of the game as the best user of the new ball in India. He came and bowled a ball short of length outside the off-stump. Merchant took one step back and across and late cut the ball to the third man fence. Pataudi, Engineer and Wadekar exchanged glances in amazement, while we schoolboys were left with open mouthed. It was as perfect a late cut as one could see – a demonstration by a Master, and that too off the first ball he faced!
This is at par with Jeff Thomson's story about Bradman.
On a rest day during the Indian tour in 1977-78, Don Bradman was around in the nets. I was bowling only legspin to him, but he had a couple of young blokes trying to get him out. With no pads, no nothing ... for a 68-year-old, he belted the hell out of them on a turf wicket. And he hadn't batted for 20 years. I went back in and said, "Why isn't this bastard playing with us tomorrow?" That's how good I thought he was.