A run-merchant

Vijay Merchant calls on Governor General C. Rajagopalachari along with the Commonwealth XI skipper 'Jock' Livingston in New Delhi in November 1949.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

A centenary tribute to Vijay Merchant, the founding principal of the Mumbai school of batting. By Haresh Pandya.

It was a measure of Vijay Merchant's class, even greatness, that until Sunil Gavaskar appeared on the firmament of Indian cricket, he was unanimously hailed as the best ever opening batsman from Asia. Merchant played his last Test in 1951 and Gavaskar his first in 1971. During that period neither India nor Pakistan produced any opener who could approach Merchant in sheer technical brilliance; not even Hanif Mohammad regardless of his phenomenal concentration and Promethean determination. (The Pakistani is on record saying, very modestly, “I was an average player, especially as an opening batsman.”)

But for occasional bouts of ill-health, India playing fewer Tests in that era and the loss of precious years because of World War II, Merchant would have left a richer legacy of achievements to inspire generations of young cricketers. Of course, even in his brief career of only 10 Tests, but spread across almost 20 years, beginning with the first on Indian soil, against England in Mumbai in 1933, he did remarkably well. And his exploits in first-class cricket were such that he is still remembered with a feeling of awe, both in India and in England, where also he paraded his talents.

Born on October 12, 1911, Merchant was the founding principal of the Mumbai school of batting known for its emphasis on technical excellence, marathon innings and mammoth scores, among other principles. The high standards for batting and success set by Merchant have been followed by a long line of Mumbai batsmen. Whether you talk of Rusi Modi, Dilip Sardesai, Ajit Wadekar, Ashok Mankad, Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Sachin Tendulkar or even Ajinkya Rahane, each one of them has been admired for his excellent technique and penchant for big innings.

A compact batsman with the patience of Job and an insatiable hunger for runs, Merchant had the knack of grinding the bowlers into the dust with his rock-like defence. Whether against speedsters or spinners, he never really was in trouble until he was dismissed, although he was said to have difficulties picking the perfect googly on odd occasions. He made up for his lack of flair and flamboyance with his sweet timing. Merchant, who excelled in the cut and the hook, was sure in his selection of shots. After coming across a treatise by Don Bradman advising batsmen to keep the ball on the ground, he vowed never to lift a shot.

Merchant, who exemplified true Test match batsmanship, was often accused of being a very slow batsman; one who sometimes gave the impression of playing for himself. But it was far from the truth. He knew his responsibilities only too well. He was essentially an opener and, being the mainstay of the Indian batting, he had to be cautious at times. Yet, the Indian captain Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram was alleged to have offered Mushtaq Ali a gold watch to run out Merchant during one of the three Tests on the 1936 tour of England as he was not happy with the opener's defensive batting. A gentleman to the core, Mushtaq refused to obey the royal gent. In fact, Merchant (114) and Mushtaq (112) put on 203 runs in less than 160 minutes in the second innings of the second Test at Old Trafford, Manchester.

“Merchant is, in method, the Indians' good European. He could easily be England's opening batsman. He is a thoroughly organised player. He thinks out his strokes, does not perform them by instinct. He has brilliant thrusts all round the wicket, but he is master of them all, not slave to them, selecting quickly but wisely, never a creature of impulse. Here was international quality batsmanship, good enough to lay the foundations of any innings — and lay it, not only soundly, but with method, wearing the dress of style. If Merchant were English, he would solve the selection committee's most pressing problem of finding a safe No. 1 batsman for the trip to Australia, capable not only of defence, but of taking good bowling in charge,” wrote Neville Cardus.

Not only Cardus, many other representatives of Fleet Street also praised Merchant, who scored 282 runs at 47.00 in the Test series. Despite not being able to play for three weeks owing to a damaged finger, he ended the tour with 1,745 runs at 51.32. He had a personally memorable match against Lancashire at Aigburth, Liverpool, carrying his bat through both innings, scoring 135 out of 271 in the first and 77 out of 161 in the second, helping India win by 84 runs. The ultimate recognition came from Wisden, which selected him as one of the Five Cricketers of the Year.

“Although barely more than 5' 7” in height, Merchant does not allow his comparatively small physique to handicap him in stroke production. What he lacks in reach he makes up by his perfect footwork and quick eye. He is not averse to going out to drive fast bowlers, he employs the hook as a safe scoring stroke, and delights onlookers by the neat skill of his glances and general placing to leg. His defence tells of long study of the game. Yet, except for a little coaching by the games master at his school, he is self-taught in the arts of cricket,” noted the hallowed annual.

It was as a highly experienced cricketer that Merchant visited England in 1946 during an extremely wet summer, having grown in stature as a batsman and led India in unofficial Tests against Lord Tennyson's side in 1937-38 and versus Ceylon and the Australian Services team in 1945-46. Besides scoring 137 for an Indian XI against Ceylon at Mumbai in 1940-41, he hit four consecutive big centuries — 170 not out, 243 not out, 221 and 153 — in 1941-42; and three more in succession — 250 not out, 141 and 359 not out — in 1943-44. In all, Merchant essayed 11 double hundreds between 1941-42 and 1946.

Yet, the man chosen to lead the side was not Merchant, but Iftikhar Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, who had represented England in the Bodyline series down under in 1932-33 but played very little cricket in India. To Merchant's credit, instead of feeling slighted, he proved to be an ideal lieutenant to his captain. He served the team loyally, scoring 2,385 runs (twice as many as the next touring batsman, Vijay Hazare), including five centuries (his 128 in the third Test on a terribly wet pitch at The Oval being outstanding) and two double hundreds, at 74.53.

“Bowl him six bad balls and he would hit every one for four. Bowl him six good ones and he would stop every one,” said John Arlott about the right-hander. Describing Merchant a “great” batsman, Trevor Bailey said that the Indian possessed “style, determination, immaculate technique and a wide range of strokes, including a delicious late late-cut”.

Captaincy in official Tests always eluded Merchant. Appointed captain of independent India's first ever tour to Australia in 1947-48, he had to withdraw from the team itself at the last moment owing to an old groin injury. Nor could he lead against the West Indies at home in 1948-49 and Lala Amarnath, who had captained in Australia, was retained. Made skipper for the unofficial Test series against the first Commonwealth Team in 1949-50, Merchant could not play after the first two matches because of recurring groin trouble.

But he led the team in all the five Tests against the more formidable second Commonwealth Team. The first Test against England in Delhi in 1951-52, in which Merchant scored 154 and shared a 211-run third wicket stand with the new captain Hazare (164 not out), turned out to be his last. He was already 40 and the injury sustained during England's first innings rendered him hors de combat for the remaining four Tests.

In all, Merchant scored 859 runs at 47.72 in 18 Test innings. In an even more impressive and glittering 150-match first-class career, he made 13,470 runs at a whopping average of 71.64 in 234 innings, remaining undefeated 46 times, hitting 45 centuries (the highest being 359 not out) and 52 half-centuries. It is a vital piece of statistics that although Merchant was nowhere near Bradman, his first-class average is second only to the peerless Aussie, who continues to be at the top of the totem pole of all cricketers with an extraordinary 95.14 .

Merchant passed away on October 27, 1986.