Madhav Apte: Apt assessment of two eras

"Anger, being demonstrative after getting a wicket and doing all kinds of things were all unheard of. At the most Eric Hollies was gently congratulated after he dismissed Don Bradman in his last innings; there was no back-slapping at all. The gentlemanly character of the game is missing somewhere (today)," says Madhav Apte.

Former cricketer Madhav Apte in Mumbai.   -  Vivek Bendre

Apte giving tips to the 1000-run boy Pranav Dhanawade.   -  PRASHANT NAKWE

 

Madhav Apte played seven Test matches, faced champion seam bowlers like Fazal Mahmood and crafty spinners like Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine and scored a total of 542 runs with a century against the West Indies in Port of Spain in 1953. Why he was dropped after 1953 has remained a mystery for six decades and more. “The national and Bombay selectors were whimsical, otherwise why should 49 cricketers play only one Test match each?” asks Apte, 83, during the course of a two-hour conversation at the Bombay Gymkhana. He touches upon cricket as it was in the first half of the 20th century and thereafter, talks about some giants of the game, including Col. C. K. Nayudu. He also wonders why today’s cricketers have to get angry and demonstrate publicly.

Regarded as the walking compendium of Indian cricket he recalls nuggets of a glorious era in his own inimitable way, sufficiently conveying the romantic aspect of the game. After posing for a few photographs on the CCI veranda on the Dinshaw Vachha Road side, Apte, who attributes everything to luck, says: “I saw Cecil Pepper hit leg-spinner Subhash Gupte over the roof and on to the Veer Nariman Road.”

He was six years old in 1938 when he saw the Australian services team play at the Brabourne Stadium from the North Stand and played at India’s first famous cricketing venue for the Combined Schools, Bombay, against Sharad Deodhar’s Combined Schools, Pune, in 1945.

Apte improved his skills watching the greats of his time like Vijay Merchant, Vinoo Mankad and giving a keen ear to the likes of Madhav Mantri, Dattu Phadkar and Vijay Hazare. In school he earned a reputation as a leg-spin-googly bowler, before Mankad converted him into an opening batsman.

Excerpts from the interview:

Cricket in Bombay in the 1930s and 40s

It’s a matter of luck for me personally and for the Apte family in the mid 1940s. We moved from Sandhurst Road to Peddar Road where we bought a large property. It had a badminton and a tennis court and a small cricket pitch. My parents were fond of sports. My father was a regular at the CCI and P. J. Hindu Gymkhana. My mother was also keen on sports, but she was married at the age of 11. In a typical orthodox chitpavan Brahmin family, the daughter-in-law was not supposed to go to a Club although my father was a member; but my grandmother was alive. At the Peddar Road residence she would play badminton and knock tennis with me. It was in 1947 that I started stroking a cricket ball.

There was another piece of good fortune for me then. One of our tenants was a Bhatia family and Vijay Merchant and Uday Merchant were first cousins. Udaybhai played tennis in our courts and Vijaybhai also played occasionally. He was also a tennis champion.

We must have seen the Pentangular cricket tournament from year one till it stopped. That’s a kind of must. Again as a matter of luck the Children’s Academy, where I went, was taken over by the government and I moved to Wilson School which was keen on cricket. And this gave me a chance to play the Giles Shield.

When I got 10 wickets for 10 runs for Wilson School in a Giles Shield match, it gave a push to my career. I did not have a coach. Things were quite different then, the greatest enthusiast was the school’s peon Sadashiv Kalgutkar. He was called Sadhu and he was the whole and sole of the game of cricket, although there used to be one teacher who was in-charge of cricket. It was a Scottish Presbyterian school and it encouraged cricket to the extent that at the start of every year in June, every class room would have a wooden box with a cricket kit in it. So that’s the environment and that’s how I got a kick-start in cricket.

Leg-spin and googly bowling

There were two reasons for it. One was that I was short, 4 ft 10 in and not particularly well-built and strong. Secondly it must have been the influence of watching C. S. Nayudu and Amir Elahi (both were leg-break bowlers) in the Pentangulars. A small child had to throw the ball up for it to reach the other end. But that was the only year (1944-45) that I bowled with success. Then when I grew taller, I lost my touch with leg-spin; what used to be a good length ball turned out to be full tosses. In fact L. P. Jai, the famous cricketer, was a family friend and my father would worry about me being short in stature. Jai would tell my father that there’s no harm in my being short and that I would get a natural loop. But that’s what (loop) I must have lost when I gained height.

The cricket environment in Bombay then

Firstly Bombay’s population was not what it is today. Most of the grounds were in South Bombay, like Azad, Cross Maidan and the Hindu Gymkhana. The population was also concentrated in South Bombay and all grounds were accessible. Even Vijay Merchant and Dattu Phadkar played local cricket. They were not busy as today’s cricketers are; they played Kanga League matches and weekend cricket. It was a routine to see all the star cricketers playing.

Initially, I was passionate about all sports. I played badminton, was runner-up at the Bombay Gymkhana in 1948. I won the tennis doubles at the P. J. Hindu Gymkhana and the junior squash title at the CCI in 1948.

Television had not arrived and for any young person, the pastimes were either sports or cinema. There was no third entertainment, except for some the Sunday dancing, which of course was not my thing. The Hollywood stars then were Gregory Peck and Clark Gable.

The influence in Bollywood then was very Bengali, many of the producers came from Calcutta. The Marathi film industry too was very healthy then with P. K. Atre, V. Shantharam and Prabhat Studio and Rajkamal around. But for young children to go for cinema alone was not thought of. I saw most of the Marathi pictures with my grandmother, it was a family affair.

The biggest influence

Obviously, Vijay Merchant. He was very accessible. He played occasionally with us. When I won the junior tennis doubles at the P. J. Hindu Gymkhana in 1948 and went to receive the prize, he asked me: “Madhav, which game are you going to pursue? Is it cricket or tennis? I was lucky with my choice and I hope you will be lucky with yours.” He knew my cricketing background. Luckily, I also chose cricket.

Apte’s first club match

It’s for Jolly cricketers in 1946-47. In those days, before the Kanga League came about, the major tournament was the Purshottam Shield for the Hindus, Pastakia Shield for the Parsees and the Islam Gymkhana held a tournament for the Muslims. I don’t think the Rest or Christians had a tournament. So Saturdays used to be half-day cricket after the offices closed at 1.30 p.m. Play used to start at 2.30 p.m. and usually time was not shared; captains used to declare.

The Sunday matches were called the friendly matches. The Bombay Cricket Association used to hold a meeting of all club secretaries at the P. J. Hindu Gymkhana in May. It’s like match-making with the Secretaries trying to arrange matches for the calendar year. So the clubs played only friendly matches, there was no competition before the Kanga League. This was a part of Bombay’s cricket culture. As a result of ‘match-making,’ Sundays were blocked.

As regards my first club match, Vasant and Madan Raiji were Jolly’s founders and played tennis at our place. Vasant Vaidya (he became chairman of New India Assurance) was also a member of Jolly’s. I did not know Jolly’s existed and one Sunday they were short of players and they were playing at the Burmah Shell Ground (now the Vengsarkar CA at the Oval). Vasantrao invited me to play that match and that was my first club match in 1947. I think I got three or four wickets in that game against Burmah Shell. Club cricket though friendly was played very seriously. They were not masala matches.

It was also around Independence time. The British influence was there and to get a fixture against the Bombay Gymkhana was great; one felt happy to play there. It had history.

BCA’s selection process for the Ranji Trophy team

The Bombay team was picked on the basis of performances in club cricket and also the Pentangulars. The BCA was aware of the performances in the Pentangulars. Also the P. J. Hindu Gymkhana had a strong influence on Bombay’s cricket. The Parsi Gymkhana was also very active; sadly it’s not today. All gymkhanas were strictly as per community. Today it’s very open.

If someone did exceptionally well from a particular community, it would be noticed; for example, Polly Umrigar, the Colahs and Jehangir Khot. Rusi Modi came much later and K. C. Ibrahim. They were four brothers: Ibrahim, Abdulla, Qasim and Habib. In that sense the sporting community was small. There would have been probably 50 to 70 clubs. Apart from the Purshottam Shield, there were also community tournaments like Pathare-Prabhu and Goud Saraswat.

The Vinoo Mankad-initiated change from a leg-spinner to opening batsman

After school, the option for me was to go to either St. Xavier’s or Wilson College, but Wilson did not have a cricket team. Their only famous cricketer was L. P. Jai and after that, Yatin Rele. So the choice was between St. Xavier’s and Elphinstone College. I chose Elphinstone because Vijay Merchant had been there as did Madhav Mantri and Dattu Phadkar. St. Xavier’s had Rusi Modi and Rusi Cooper.

So Sushil Dalvi (wicketkeeper at Wilson High School) and myself went to meet Prof. Gunjikar, he was in those days a wrangler. The first question I was asked was: “How did you bowl a googly ?” I had to go through the motion of bowling a googly.

Our first coach was Phadkar. He came to the nets for a few days in June or July and then he got a job in Calcutta. So he left. Then Vinoo Mankad came after playing the Lancashire League in 1948. I had realised by then that my bowling was going nowhere. I was keen on getting into the college team, but I was not sure if my bowling would have taken me into the team.

On the first day he (Mankad) came, he had walked from the Churchgate Station to the last pitch at the Oval. There is one more pitch now.

I was an arts student and did not have to bother about laboratory practicals. It was a typical maidan scene, with myself, the groundsman, the nets, and the bench, with the kit strewn on the ground. Mankad walked towards me and asked: “You Elphinstone?” and I said: “Yes sir.” Nothing more happened for a couple of minutes; it was just him and me. Then he said, “bowl.” He picked up the bat and stood in front of the stumps and I picked a few balls and went to bowl. He did not know who I was, but I knew who he was. And to impress him I bowled a googly, first ball. He did not pick that and the ball came back and hit the stumps. He looked at me with piercing eyes and said: “Googly.”

After a few minutes he asked my name and I said “Apte.” He knew my father and asked: “Bhau Apte?” and I replied, yes, his son. Nothing happened for seven/eight days and then he asked me: “Will you open the batting?” I was desperate to be in the team and I said, “Yes Sir.”

Those days in school cricket there was a fast bowler named Bandodkar; he was to become a doctor later. I was scared of facing him. The training started and as luck would have it, we had an opening bowler called Raje (who worked with Cadbury’s later). He bowled huge in-swingers; then there was another bowler called Kothare, who bowled out-swingers. I got good experience.

The Elphinstone College cricket budget was Rs. 1500 for a season and Mankad was paid Rs. 600. The practice balls would cost Rs. 3 to 3 and a half and a match ball, Rs. 7. A Gunn and Moore bat or Jack Hobbs bat would cost Rs. 60. So every day, for my practice, two or three new balls would be used. Mankad would stand behind the net and instruct whatever was required. He must have seen that I had the basics in terms of footwork and defence. And that’s what made him think of me as an opening batsman.

Playing at the Bombay Gymkhana

I played my first match at the Bombay Gymkhana in 1947. I had played the Giles Shield creating a record of taking 10 wickets as a leg-spin-googly bowler for 10 runs against Robert Money High School. Pat Coates (of Burmah Shell) used to be a terrific batsman, he knocked me all over the place. I think he also died in that Air India crash in which Homi Bhabha passed away in Switzerland. In those days the Brits were still ruling us. There was a kind of aura or fear about, at least for juniors like us, playing at the Bombay Gymkhana. They were all whites. Everything with the Gymkhana is still the same, except the location of the bar. Even among the Brits of those days, the ladies would not walk in front of the bar. They would take a detour by going on the lawns and then to the Ladies’ room. That’s typically British.

Debut for Bombay

Again luck had a lot to do with it. Vinoo Mankad coached us only for one year at college. S. R. Godambe, who had played the Pentagulars, was the coach in 1949. He would have been probably in his 60s then. He had gone to England, had moved the ball, but was not quick. I got a lot of practice against the moving ball. He was a gentle soul and he bowled and coached as to how to leave the ball.

The following year we had Ranga Sohoni as coach; he used to move the ball both ways and was an attacking opening batsman. He and Sadu Shinde both worked at Sachivalay. Facing Ranga was good training. Then Mantri became the coach of the college. He did not even charge one naya paisa because he was ex-Elphinstone.

Most sportspersons had a purple patch in 1951-52; nothing went wrong. I scored over 3000 runs at all levels put together. The Combined Universities team was to go to Poona and the Bombay Ranji Trophy selection was to take place.

Now what’s the Bombay team then? Mantri, Merchant, Mankad, Modi, Phadkar, G. S. Ramchand, Vijay Manjrekar, Sohoni. It was such a powerful team. I was hoping to be in the 14. On the way back from Poona, we stopped at Lonavala where I bought a newspaper and found out that I was not in the team. I was disappointed, not hurt because the team was so strong.

But Merchant hurt himself in the nets before the match against Saurashtra. I did not know that I was the stand-by opening batsman for that match. So I got in and opened the innings with Mohini Amladi. I got a century on debut. Then Merchant said that since there was a young opening batsman, why should he play? So he opted out and I became a regular.

Improving as opening batsman

The BCA used to hold some coaching classes and Eddie Paynter and Charlie Hallows came for one year. Also Vijay Merchant used to bat in the nets early in the morning at 6 in 1949, facing all the promising youngsters. G. R. Sundaram was one of them. There used to be plenty of dewfall then. The CCI would look snow-white in November; in fact all grounds. Mankad was associated with the coaching and we would be asked to stand behind the nets to watch Merchant bat. I also became a member of Fort Vijay to improve my skills as an opening batsman and play with Merchant.

Those days the MCA would leave one Sunday open (no Kanga League matches) during Ganesh festival. And on that Sunday the Fort Vijay team would go to Poona and this continued for some years. Also at the end of the nets, we would sit with senior cricketers, whether it was Merchant, Raiji, Duleepsinhji or Mantri and all of us would chat about the game. Duleepsinhji was the Secretary of the CCI for some time. Every evening he would come to the nets and watch us.

Against Holkar in the Ranji final

I was batting on 63 when I started getting cramps in the calf. I walked up to Mantri and told him: “George, I am getting cramps.” The Indian team was to be picked for the tour of England in 1952 and Mantri felt that I could have a chance. Mantri suggested that I should not make obvious my predicament as Col. C. K. Nayudu, captain of Holkar, a fitness freak, may think that I was unfit. I carried on till 98, but was in pain. Both myself and Subhash Gupte were not picked for the tour.

Playing for India, Fazal Mahmood and Abdul Hafeez Kardar

I played in the third Test at the Brabourne Stadium. Pakistan batted first in that Test, but before the toss Lala Amaranth asked Mankad, “If I win the toss, what should I do?” Those days the wickets were uncovered and there was heavy dewfall. Mankad’s advice was: “Put them in.”

In those days, usually, if you won the toss, you batted. Luckily for Amarnath, Kardar won the toss and elected to bat. They were six down before lunch and we won that Test. If we had batted first, Fazal, on a wicket like that, would have been a more difficult proposition, than when I faced him actually. He moved the ball off the seam. He was good at bowling cutters.

Kardar was the captain of the team. He was not an easy man to get along with and had a chip on his shoulder. He had an exchange of words with Mankad following an incident when the latter warned Kardar not to leave his ground at the non-striker’s end. He hardly spoke on that tour. But many of the Pakistanis, having played in the Ranji Trophy, were friendly. Kardar did not mix. Nazar Mohammad belonged to Lucknow and sang exceedingly well and on our side Vijay Manjrekar sang very well. We shared a bus journey in Madras while going to a dinner party and they had a jugal-bandi.

Vinoo Mankad and Kapil Dev

Comparisons are odious because times are different and the opposition is different. They were both great. I would reckon Kapil as the best opening bowler post-Partition; having watched him, I would say probably he’s the greatest opening bowler. As a batsman, Kapil did make runs. So his claim to being an all-rounder is well-established.

But Vinoo Mankad scored centuries against Australia, a century against England and New Zealand and hence as a batsman he would have been far superior. Also he opened the innings. When it comes to fielding, Kapil would be a notch or two better than Vinoo, who was a fine fielder off his own bowling. He was a very intelligent cricketer.

Coming to bowling again, Vinoo bowled to Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott. He bowled to Don Bradman, Arthur Morris, Bill Brown and to Len Hutton, Cyril Washbrook and Denis Compton. I think in the balance, Vinoo would probably, between the two greats, have the marginal edge.

Similarly, both Merchant and Sunil Gavaskar were greats. But partly, maybe because of nostalgia, Merchant, because of the 1946 tour to England when he scored 2000 plus runs in a wet English season, would get a lot of credit.

Sunil has had to face the West Indian fast bowlers which Merchant did not have to. Probably on a turning track Merchant may enjoy the edge. Both were great ‘leavers of the ball,’ and I think both had a good repertoire of strokes. Sunil in terms of strokeplay was a little more fluent than Merchant was.

Col. C. K. Nayudu

My memories go back to the Pentangular days and also Ranji Trophy. In one match, he was hit on the mouth. He was exceptionally talented, there’s no question about that. But he was very stubborn. He believed that no bowler was fast enough for him.

It was my first Ranji final and Vinoo Mankad and Dattu Phadkar had something against him. As CK was walking out to bat, he was 57 then, I heard Vinoo telling Phadkar: ``Bhude kho bouncer dhena.’’

On cue CK wanted to show no one was good enough for him. He stepped out and Phadkar bowled a bouncer. It knocked out two of CK’s teeth. He spat them out. After all CK was CK and we all ran towards him. He shooed us away with the bat, took guard and made 66 glorious runs. When it came to CK’s batting, one must look at it in perspective. Bats were much lighter than what they are today; his timing in hitting the ball over the boundary was unbelievably effortless. I have not seen anybody of that era do that.

He was dictatorial as a captain. He was like a General, not questioned. He would instruct Hiralal Gaekwad where to pitch the ball and the field placements he should have. The bowler had no say. He perhaps belonged to an era where the bowler had a ball in hand the batsman had a bat in hand and the game was all about attack. A defensive field placement was not his cup of tea. He was aggressive to the point of being at fault. So as a captain I would not rate him very high. Talking about captaincy, Mantri’s understanding of the game was very good; he had a bad temper though and that’s another matter.

In the Caribbean Islands

Well, out of the three Ws, we had seen Weekes and Walcott in India in 1948, Worrell did not come. To be quite honest we had read about the Caribbeans and seen their players. As as a student of the game, whether it was George Headley (Black Bradman) or Martindale, those names were not unfamiliar. But regarding the cluster of nations we did not know where we were going.

We were sailing in a boat called ‘Banana Boat’ and in it was Frank Worrell, his wife and daughter, Everton Weekes, Sonny Ramadhin, Alf Valentine and Roy Marshall; all boarded from Southampton. It was 10 days of sea-life for us. Most of the team members were as sick as one could be. The boat rocked, rolled and did everything. It was a 10,000-tonne boat going virtually empty. We were 60 passengers, including sugarcane planters.

After the sea had calmed down, we would play deck cricket. I was the youngest and Ramadhin would scare me talking about the fast bowlers and how big they were. In the 1948 team Prior Jones and John Trim were the two fast bowlers. We were conscious that the Three-Ws were going to play against us.

In his farewell speech, Justice Tendulkar, President of the BCA advised us to enjoy the tour and not worry about the results. Fortunately for us Worrell was out of touch in the first four Test matches.

One season (1957-58) for Bengal

I have said even before that the Indian selectors were whimsical. My case is there. There are worst cases too. Bal Dani played only one Test match. He never got a chance to bat, got a wicket and never played for India again. He went to Pakistan, but did not play a Test match.

The Bombay selectors were no less whimsical either. I was playing local cricket and getting runs and getting frustrated. Mantri was the Bombay captain and guru. I never asked him why I was not included in the XI; I was in the 14 for two seasons and had not played. It so happened that I met A. N. Ghosh (the then BCCI President) who asked me why I was not playing. I said I was not being selected. He then asked me to play for Bengal.

Prior to that I was keen on playing for Maharashtra and even became a member of the Deccan Gymkhana, so that I could play weekend games and become eligible to play for Maharashtra. We were so disciplined to the system in Bombay, but in Poona it was a case of the ground and pitch not being ready or the umpires not reporting and the matches getting cancelled.

This happened for three weeks and hence I went to Bengal. We opened an office in Calcutta, ‘Naam ke wasthe’ to fulfil one of the eligibility rules either by birth or doing business there.

Amarbabu (A. N. Ghosh) was associated with Sporting Union and so was Pankaj Roy. I used to stay with Subhash Gupte and Balu Gupte after Anil Roy Chowdhary of Kalighat requested me to do so. But the next season I returned to Bombay.

Apte and seven Ranji wins (two each against Holkar and Rajasthan, one each against Bengal, Mysore and Madras)

There are two things to it. I think one has to look at it in proper perspective. Firstly the game had not spread across the country. The West Zone was a good region. Holkar was the only team in Central India, Madras was good in the South and Bengal in the East. Then if you won the West Zone league, you virtually won the Ranji title or certainly reached the final.

Even in the Indian team eight or nine were from Bombay. So this said that Bombay was a strong team. We played a lot more cricket than other states. This was because of the large number of clubs. Bombay cricket was always 11 months a year, barring the month of May. If practice made one perfect, that’s what Bombay had then and nothing succeeds like success.

Changes in the sport: Then and Now

The big change, I have to say, is that somewhere the spirit of the game, culture of the game, ethos of the game, is getting lost. As a student of sociology, I could go on analysing it, environmental differences, advent of TV and money in the game. I talk of sportsmanship and to have respect for the opponent

I am not suggesting that incidents did not happen in our times. If a 1000 players are playing on a Sunday, you would find someone who is an idiot, but that was an exception.

Anger, being demonstrative after getting a wicket and doing all kinds of things were all unheard of. At the most Eric Hollies was gently congratulated after he dismissed Don Bradman in his last innings; there was no back-slapping at all. The gentlemanly character of the game is missing somewhere.

On cricket administration

I enjoy the game and I would like to think that I am student of the game even today. Administrative lapses are only seen through the selection process.

There were whimsical selections even then; why should 49 cricketers play just one Test match each? That’s a reflection on the selectors and the selection process. Maybe it’s happening now to a much lesser extent. And that’s because of the visibility of the selectors through the media. Whether there is money involved or not, I would think not.