Chennai history must not escape SA openers

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My preoccupation with history is at times looked upon as unnecessary and, probably, even a measure of one-upmanship. Not that it has ever concerned me in the least. One of cricket's premier historians, H.S. Altham, did ask, "Can they do without us?" The historian and the statistician are essential in any field of human activity and cricket is privileged that it has always had more than its fair share of such invaluable contributors. Like Altham, let us in the same breath bless the admirable statistician, Bill Frindall.

In the middle of the first Test between India and South Africa at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium, the record-breaking opening duo of South African skipper Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie might be interested in seeing a slice of history which concerns it. It is always possible that these players might or might not come back to Chennai, so there can be nothing better than getting things over and done with. Even a photograph or two might help, though is little evidence these days that the venue that the duo must visit had seen interesting Test match playing days.

Just a few kilometres away from the Chidambaram Stadium is the Nehru Stadium (formerly Corporation Stadium). But, it once used to be a Test match centre and it was here, between January 6 and January 11, 1956 — at the first ever Test match staged at this venue — that Vinoo Mankad (231) and Pankaj Roy (173) surpassed the then existing world first wicket record of 359 and put on 413 against New Zealand. The earlier record had been established by Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook against South Africa at Johannesburg in 1948-49. This did not last as long as the Mankad-Roy record.

Though the latter was threatened more than once, it seemed to have a halo of invincibility. And, till it was eventually surpassed by Smith and McKenzie, created another record for having survived the longest in history. I was eight years old when I accompanied some people to the Corporation Stadium, mainly because there was talk about the impending world record. If I am asked to recount the record-breaking stroke, I do not remember and then my sense of or involvement with, cricket history had not developed to the extent that I could become excited. But there was a link with the record because of Pankaj Roy, who was my cricket hero from Calcutta (now Kolkata). Though a Tamilian by birth, Kolkata had been my home and to me there was no better batsman than Roy. I remember that Roy did not go on to make a double century, though he seemed to have it for the asking. Much later, of course, I heard from him that he was deliberately deprived of this distinction. There was a lot of dirty business in Indian cricket in those early years.

The most famous photograph of Mankad and Roy is the two posing under the manual scoreboard at the Corporation Stadium with the score showing 413 and their individual contributions of 231 and 173 respectively. A black and white photograph, the two batsmen looked extremely tired and I am not sure whether the photograph was taken by the veteran cameraman K. Narayanachari. I would like to think it was.

I am willing to believe that Smith and McKenzie would be proud of this piece of history and maybe the duo is aware that the record came the closest to being beaten by Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag, who put on 411 against Pakistan for the first wicket. When asked about what his feelings were for having come so close to the record, Sehwag's reaction stunned people. He asked, "What record?" And in a way, to add insult to injury, quite brazenly - or, was it innocently? - stated that he had never heard of Mankad and Roy. If Smith and McKenzie are better equipped in cricket history, the two would find a trip to the Corporation Stadium memorable.

And as far as Roy's missed double century is concerned, here it is from the horse's mouth. "The skipper, Polly Umrigar, asked me to hit out as he wanted to declare. I did and was bowled by one Poole. Umrigar batted on and made an unbeaten half century before declaring. He never thought it necessary to give me an explanation."

Republished with permission from The Asian Age