Vijay Hazare – The Wall Before Dravid

The two finest batsmen of the first era of Indian Test cricket share a Christian name, Vijay, and almost a Test average. The great Merchant averaged 47.72 in his ten Tests, the great Hazare 47.65 from three times as many. There weren’t too many similarities in their backgrounds however. Merchant came from a wealthy Hindu family. The Hazares on the other hand were Christians, and Hazare’s father a teacher rather than, as in Merchant’s case, a textile magnate.

The young Hazare was also a good footballer, a skilful winger. As such he came to the notice of the Yuvaraj of Dewas who offered him accommodation and financial assistance that allowed him to remain at school and gave him every opportunity to play sport.

The first major cricket match that Hazare played was for Poona against Douglas Jardine’s 1933/34 MCC tourists. The match was not First Class, and the first of the scheduled two days was rained off. When play did get under way on the second morning it was with the ball rather than the bat that Hazare made an impression. He took four of the five MCC wickets to fall before scratching around for four in Poona’s response. He was one of eight victims for the Yorkshire slow left arm bowler Hedley Verity, a bowler in a different class to anything Hazare had faced before.

For the next few years Hazare’s progress was unspectacular, but the Yuvaraj, now the Maharajah, kept his faith in him. He was clearly moving forward though, as he was selected to play for India in three of the five matches played against a strong side raised by Lionel Tennyson in 1937/38. His highest score was only 31, but then he was batting at nine.

In 1938 the Maharaja’s patronage took Hazare to England on a tour by what was described as a Rajputana side. There was a century against Cambridge University that was looked on with approval by the English press, and Hazare also had an opportunity to watch the touring Australians play before the tour ended in near farce, the manager running out of money and struggling to scrape together sufficient funds to get the party home on a cargo vessel.

The real turning point in Hazare’s career came when he got back from England. The Maharajah’s brother in law, the Raja of Jath was a keen cricketer. He was a wrist spinner and wanted to learn to bowl the googly so, as only an Indian Prince could, he made arrangements for Clarrie Grimmett to come and coach him and he asked Dewas, who readily agreed, to allow Hazare to join him. Grimmett was paid a fee of £2,000, the equivalent of around £125,000 in today’s terms, and in addition all his expenses were met. As well as being one of the best wrist spinners the game has seen Grimmett was also a fine coach, who published as many as three instructional books between 1930 and 1949.

Hazare was a serviceable medium paced off spinner who during his career took almost 600 wickets at less than 25 runs each. Grimmett taught him how to produce a finger spun leg break, but also realised he was never going to be a top class bowler and prioritised encouraging the batting talent he saw. As a result of Grimmett’s coaching Hazare ended up as a very fine player of leg spin, and the 1939/40 season saw a spectacular rise in his fortunes.

There is not a great deal of footage of Hazare batting around, so there is a good deal to be gained from reading the descriptions of those who did get to see his many long innings. The impression is given that Hazare, a slim and wiry man, was much like an early version of Rahul Dravid. Apparently slow and painstaking in his approach he certainly eschewed the spectacular, but as he himself would point out there were three occasions on which he scored a century before lunch. That is not to suggest that Hazare was anything other than modest in the extreme.

As Grimmett was dealing with a man who had already a distinctly unorthodox approach to batting he decided not to make any fundamental changes, preferring to make minor adjustments to accommodate the eccentricities. Thus the unusually large distance between the top hand and bottom hand remained, as did the bat being grounded between the feet, preventing its being readily moved straight backwards or forwards. The number of runs that Hazare scored were testament to the wisdom of Grimmett’s decisions.

Hazare’s average for the 1939/40 season was 139.40. The highlight was an unbeaten 316 for Maharashtra against Baroda, the first triple century by an Indian batsman. In India First Class cricket carried on during the war and over the next three seasons Hazare averaged 87, 52 and 94. Then in 1943/44 he exceeded even his remarkable efforts of four years previously when his mark was 177.87.

The most remarkable feat of that summer came in the Pentangular Tournament. The competition was held annually in Bombay (Mumbai) for many years but ended just after the war. With independence in the air the format was, understandably, considered divisive and inappropriate. As the name suggests by the end there were five competing sides; Muslims, Hindus, Europeans, Parsees and the Rest.

In the 1943 semi-final Hazare was the only future Test player in the Rest’s side. The Muslims were rather stronger, five of their number going on to play Test cricket. Although limited to three days these games had a tendency to become attritional as a victory on first innings was sufficient to progress to the final. The Muslims batted first and scored 353. The Rest dug in and when they were finally dismissed, half way through the final day, they had scored 395. Hazare had batted for seven and a half hours for 248, the highest score ever recorded in the tournament.

The Hindu side that opposed the Rest in the final was an immensely strong one. Led by Vijay Merchant the eleven also included Vinoo Mankad and only one of them did not at any point play Test cricket. The Hindus piled up 581-5 before declaring, Hazare doing the lion’s share of the bowling. His final figures were 51-8-109-3 but his batting record had lasted less than a week, Merchant being unbeaten on 250 when he closed the innings. The Rest were quickly dismissed for just 133 Hazare, top scoring with 59, being one of only two men to halt the procession for any length of time. When the rest slipped to 60-5 in their second innings it seemed as if three of the four scheduled days would be sufficient.

It was at this point that Hazare was joined by his brother Vivek, four years his junior. An all-rounder, Vivek played the First Class game for more than twenty years, but his career never took off. In December 1943 however he stayed with his illustrious brother for five and a half hours. The pair added exactly 300 before Vivek was dismissed. In an innings of intense concentration he had scored just 21 in the time it had taken Vijay to score 266. After his brother’s dismissal Vijay was unable to prevent an innings defeat but he moved on to 309 before being the last man dismissed with the score on 387. He had scored 79.84% of his team’s runs.

When the rest of the world resumed First Class cricket after the war India were England’s first visitors, in the summer of 1946. Hazare was a certainty for selection and at 31 finally made his Test debut. In unfamiliar conditions and a wet summer it was no surprise when Hazare failed to fully demonstrate his prowess in England, although an unbeaten 244 against Yorkshire meant his overall average was just a fraction under 50. In the three Tests he disappointed. The first, won by England by ten wickets saw him make two starts, 31 and 34, before being beaten each time by Alec Bedser. In the first innings he had looked comfortable enough until the great medium pacer bowled him with a sharp off break. In the second innings, playing for the same delivery but not receiving it, he edged to slip. England should have won the second Test as well, but India’s last pair hung on at a damp Old Trafford. Hazare top scored with 44 in the second innings and, oddly given the rearguard action he was engaged in, hit the only six of his Test career. The final Test was ruined by rain.

The next two series for Hazare came in Australia in 1947/48 and at home against West Indies the following year. India lost 4-0 in Australia. Hazare did not fail at all, but seven times having got into double figures he failed to get to twenty. His remaining three innings were much better. In the fourth Test at Adelaide he became the first Indian batsman to score a century in each innings. He played superbly to blunt the threat of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller although it was not sufficient to prevent India losing by an innings. He added 74 in the first innings of the final Test. At home against West Indies Hazare scored two centuries and three fifties but he could not prevent West Indies’ 1-0 series win, the Indians’ main difficulty being bowling the opposition out.

Still employed by the Maharajah Hazare had some misgivings about accepting an offer of a contract with Rawtenstall in the Lancashire League for the English summer of 1949. His benevolent master was however happy to see his finest cricketer take five months holiday in order to boost his experience of English conditions. Hazare helped propel the side to the runners up position, and did the double, an exceptional feat in Saturday afternoon cricket. Only the Australian Cec Pepper matched him. It was the first of four summers in the leagues. In 1950 and 1951 he played for Royton in the Central Lancashire League before returning to Rawtenstall in 1955.

A very strong collection of league professionals travelled back to India with Hazare for the 1949/50 season. They were led by Frank Worrell and were styled as a Commonwealth XI and five matches against India had all the trappings of Tests. Hazare was the Indians’ best batsman by a distance, scoring 684 runs at 97.71 in their 2-1 victory. A similar side toured again the following year again under Worrell. If anything a stronger combination this one was successful, winning 2-0. Hazare was slightly less effective, but still scored 634 runs at 79.25.

The next official Tests for Hazare and India were back to back series against England. There were five Tests to play at home in 1951/52 and then four in England in the summer of 1952. The opposition on each occasion was very different. In India England were led by Lancashire’s Nigel Howard, who never got close to selection again. Amongst the names missing were Hutton, Compton, Edrich, Evans, Laker, Bedser and Washbrook. In the circumstances England did pretty well to share the series 1-1. For Hazare the series was a slight disappointment, as he averaged a mere 57.83. He started well enough, an unbeaten 164 in the first Test followed by 155 in the second, both drawn, but he achieved little in the remaining three, and indeed was dismissed for a pair in the Englishmen’s victory in the fourth Test.

The series against England saw Hazare given the Indian captaincy, a job which his innately cautious and modest approach might not have made him ideally suited for. Writer Dom Moraes who, as a thirteen year old wrote an acclaimed cricket book, Green is the Grass, produced an interesting description of Hazare the man; Hazare is the man who smiles shyly and keeps discreetly to a corner in pavilion gatherings; the man who hurries away if he hears himself being praised; the man who keeps himself in the rear, until he is crouched over his bat, his lips lifting with the beginning of a snarl, as he comes down on some bowler’s special, and pushes it down to short leg.

The big guns of English cricket were back for the return series, but it was a new name who left the greatest impression on the Indians. A young National Serviceman, Aircraftman Frederick Sewards Trueman, was released to play in all four Tests and took 29 wickets at 13.31. The searing pace of Trueman was simply too much for the Indian batsmen and had the tour management not managed to persuade Vinoo Mankad’s employers, Haslingden of the Lancashire League, to release him for three of the Tests Hazare’s would have been a lone hand.

One accusation that could never be thrown at Hazare was that he lacked courage. Time and again in 1952 he was alone in standing up to Trueman, and while a number of his teammates were backing away towards square leg Hazare showed the Yorkshire tyro the full face of his broad bat. In the first Test innings of 89 and 56, the latter made after India had slumped to 0-4, helped make the scorecard look respectable, and 69* and 49 at Lord’s, alongside a monumental innings from Mankad, took the match into a fifth day.

Amidst the carnage of India’s dismissals for 58 and 82 at Old Trafford Hazare stood firm for an hour in each innings for 16, but reserved his best effort for the fourth and last Test at the Oval. The 38 he top scored with in the Indian innings of 98 was the difference between a draw and defeat even though almost two thirds of the playing time was lost. At one point in the innings five Indian wickets had fallen with just six runs on the board. Raju Bharatan wrote; Hazare’s innings will go down as the most courageous ever played by an Indian. He literally rescued India from a snake pit. The wicket for a time behaved in the most wicked fashion imaginable with the ball lifting almost vertically from the good length spot.

Just weeks after returning from England India played host to neighbours Pakistan for the new Test nation’s inaugural series. In his autobiography Hazare wrote of being deposed from the captaincy, but seems not to have been unduly troubled by the appointment of Lala Amarnath in his place. Hazare’s continued importance was demonstrated by his 76 in the first Test and an unbeaten 146 in the third, the two that India won. When he missed the second Test through illness Fazal Mahmmod ran through the Indian batting twice and Pakistan won.

Despite leading India to their first ever series win Amarnath in turn was removed as captain for India’s fourth series in 18 months, in the Caribbean in early 1953. The job came back to Hazare, who felt obliged to miss the final Test against Pakistan in order to ready himself for the West Indies trip. His  final Test series proved disappointing in that India lost the only match to reach a conclusion, but the Indians emerged with considerable credit in drawing four times, without too many alarms, against a side that had comfortably beaten England in England less than three years previously. With the bat Hazare made just a single half century, and averaged only 19.40. He did however thoroughly enjoy the tour which, at the age of 38, was his last as an active cricketer.

The 1953/54 season represented the 25th anniversary of the Indian Board of Control and to celebrate a third Commonwealth Tour was arranged, this time a side led by Ben Barnett, the 1938 Australian Test wicketkeeper who had settled in England after the War. The side was not as strong as its predecessors to start with, and the constantly shifting personnel (twenty different men played at various times) must have made it difficult to built up much team spirit. Again there were five ‘Test’ matches of which India won two to the Commonwealth’s one. Hazare, back in the ranks as India had a look at as many as four possible skippers for the future, played in the first three matches without great success, so his country did at least learn that they could win without him.

Hazare did carry on playing the game at First Class level after leaving Test cricket and the Indian fans certainly never forgot him. In 1956/57 an Australian side, fresh from being well and truly Lakered in England, played three Tests in India on their way home. The Australians won the first Test by an innings and were well on top in the second, drawn encounter. They won the third too, but not before the public in Calcutta mounted a campaign to have Hazare selected for the match. Sadly for them Hazare was a long way from Calcutta, and had no wish to come out of retirement anyway, but the show of loyalty did persuade him to visit the city in December where innings of 21 and 60 helped a Bengal Chief Minister’s XI beat a strong visiting side that had been raised by Lancashire secretary Geoffrey Howard. He also started well in the tourists other match, at the Brabourne Stadium in Bombay but was forced to retire hurt on 32 when struck on the finger by Trueman. The injury turned out to be a fracture, the fact it was his first ever such injury being testament to his skill with the bat.

In 1957/58 Baroda won the Ranji Trophy and Hazare rolled back the years. He scored 781 runs at 78.10 and there were three centuries including 203 in the final against Services. For three more seasons there were occasional Ranji appearances and, as late as January 1967, one final First Class match for a Board President’s XI against West Indies at Nagpur. The 51 year old scored 21 and 68 against an attack that included Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. The game was a benefit for Hazare and the two great fast bowlers did not bowl very much, but it seems unlikely that Hazare’s own description of his performance as somewhat lucky is entirely fair.

In 1959/60 Hazare had become a selector and in the Republic Day Honours List in 1960 he was awarded a Padma Shri, although his own writings suggest the award he valued most was subsequently being made an honorary member of the MCC. He lived a long life seeing in a new century as one of the enduring legends of the Indian game. Vijay Hazare was 89 when he died in 2004.

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