Down memory lane: Gujarat’s Boys Town hero, Nari Contractor

Nari Contractor recalls his days of school cricket in Nashik and club cricket in Bombay, writing to the Gujarat Cricket Association, leading the Indian Test team and more...

Nari Contractor, published in 'Sport and Pastime' on January 4, 1958, after scoring a century in each of his first four Ranji Trophy matches in the 1957-58 season.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

There is no way a Parsi can engage in any conversation without giving expression to the choicest native and colourful vocabulary that cricketers of Western India are familiar with, and laugh at it with gusto. Nariman Contractor, in the course of talking about his career from the Boys Town days in Nashik to his last first-class innings, was no exception to this. However, much of it, though said in lighter vein, cannot be reproduced here.

As usual, Naribhai was remarkable in his candour, expressing deep disappointment at being ignored by the Bombay selectors once his career began to take shape with a flurry of bright knocks in the highly competitive world of Bombay cricket.

The 86-year-old former India left-hander and captain, who had the good fortune of interacting with C. K. Nayudu and his ilk, Contractor recalled the dramatic moments of his birth in Godhra, sending a telegram to the Gujarat Cricket Association after being ignored by the Bombay selectors, and being informed by his captain Polly Umrigar at the Mathura railway platform that he would open the India innings in the New Delhi Test against New Zealand.

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Contractor is fifth in line among the oldest living India Test cricketers after Dattajirao Gaekwad, C. D. Gopinath, C. T. Patankar and S. R. Patil. His only regret is that he did not play a Test match after suffering a head injury off the bowling of Charlie Griffith in March 1962 in a friendly game against Barbados.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about your early days, from school onwards? You were born in Godhra in Gujarat...

I will come to Godhra later. Look, I am a product of a boarding school – Boys Town located west of Nashik. In a boarding school, games are compulsory. I used to play table tennis, football, this and that, and also cricket. Mr Bhada was our sports master. He told me one day to stop playing everything (else) and to concentrate on cricket. He straightaway put me with the players who were in the ‘A’ team of the school and we practised on matting wickets.

Why did Mr Bhada put you in the school’s ‘A’ team?

Why? Abhi woh toh uskho maloom tha na (Only he knew the reason, no). I was playing all games and also cricket, so that’s how cricket started for me.

How was school cricket in Nashik?

I was born in 1934 and I was in Nashik from 1941, from the age of seven till I came to matriculation. In 1946, our school won the junior tournament against Rungta High School for which H. T. “Bal” Dani and Bapu Nadkarni played.

Around that time, the Sasanian Cricket Club (Bombay) toured Nashik. They played a match against Boys Town and I got some runs. After the match, one Mr Fali Shroff came to me and said: “When you come to Bombay and feel like continuing to play cricket, come and see me at the Wellington Cricket Club at Cross Maidan. It was a Parsi club those days. Mr Shroff was a member of the Sasanian Club and he used to work for Union Bank.

You played one year of inter-school cricket in Bombay...

I came to Bombay for matriculation because there were some problems at Boys Town. I did my matriculation at Bharda New High School. I played the inter-schools final, but we lost to Anjuman High School. In the Harris Shield, I scored four centuries in a row and broke Vijay Merchant’s record.

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How did you get into club cricket in Bombay?

One day I was going from Churchgate to Flora Fountain and I saw Mr Shroff. He had gone to see a hockey match at the Bombay Provincial Hockey Association (BPHA). I addressed him as uncle and recalled the conversation we had in Nashik. He remembered that. I was 16 years old then in 1950 and I joined Youth’s Own Union, which used to play a match every Sunday.

And then in 1951, the Cricket Club of India (CCI) made Jagdhish Sheth, Taufique Hussain and me honorary playing members. Mr Homi Contractor was the president of CCI then. I played for CCI in the Kanga League. That was a two-year deal with CCI and thereafter I played for Parsi Cyclists. The Cyclists had a good team in Behram Govadia, Hoshang Dadachandji, Mehli Irani and Behram Irani. Polly Umrigar was a “yes and no” member. He played the Kanga League for CCI. That’s how my cricket started in Bombay.

What about Godhra?

I will come to that. After school, I joined St Xavier’s College. I scored a 400-plus score here at the Bombay Gymkhana in an inter-collegiate match and I think the record still stands.

You played the inter-university Rohinton Baria Cup for many years?

I played five or six tournaments and Bombay university won all of them. It was the forerunner to get selected for the Combined or the Indian Universities team, which those days played against the touring teams. It’s no longer there; universities cricket has gone down.

The Indian Universities team in those days was very good?

In those days, there was no cricket except in Bombay, Delhi, Madras and Calcutta. There was competition only among these four teams. Runs and wickets mattered in inter-varsity cricket; that’s how we were picked for the Indian Universities team. There was progress in my career. I played my first match for Indian Universities against Pakistan in Bangalore.

The Godhra question again...

I was born in Godhra more by mistake, by accident, than by purpose. We were a Contractor family. One of my paternal uncles, Kakasaheb, was based in Dohad, a famous railway junction. And another uncle, Dali Wadia, was an engine driver who was staying in Godhra. So my mother was to come from Dohad to Bombay for my delivery. My uncle’s duty ended at Godhra (from Dohad) and he decided to take leave of my mother telling her to have a good journey to Bombay. But my mother told Dali that she was not feeling too well. And he asked her to get down at Godhra and that he will help her board another train the following day. My mother came to Dali uncle’s house and in the night I was born. And after seven days, I was in Bombay. I was at Cusrow Baug for seven years till I went to Nashik. Call it accident or coincidence, but being born in Godhra made my career playing for Gujarat. It was difficult to get picked in the Bombay Ranji Trophy team.

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Why did your parents go to Nashik?

My father was in Tikamgarh (Bundelkhand) in Madhya Pradesh. He ran a distillery there. My forefathers were contractors to the maharaja of Tikamgarh. That’s how we took the surname Contractor. There was nothing in Tikamgarh and the nearest place with a boarding school was Nasik.

How a doctor got Contractor to play again

This is the remarkable story of a professional doctor persuading a virtually crippled sportsman to revive his stalled career following a terrible incident in Barbados in 1962.

Felled by Charlie Griffith ball in a warm-up match at the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown on March 17, India captain Nari Contractor gifted his cricket kit in the certainty that he wouldn’t play the game again.

The skull injury from the brutal ball had necessitated two surgeries on March 17, and Contractor returned home partially paralysed and with impaired vision.

“If my wife stood in front of me, I was able to see her frame, not her eyes,” recalls Contractor, whose third surgery at Vellore Medical Hospital in June 1962 revived his first class-career for an incredible nine years.

When asked about how many times he had thought of the Barbados incident and of not playing a Test match thereafter, Contractor, who played 31 Tests for India, 12 of them captain, said, “What I am today is not because of the two successful operations in the West Indies and one here in a matter of four months. When I returned to India, my left side was paralysed. My field of vision was impaired. But on the third day after the third operation in Vellore, Dr Chandy sent me a note saying he would like to see me. I was in the hospital bed. I was feeling groggy and all that, but I went to see him.”

Dr Chandy told Contractor that he had inserted a metal plate that was heat-, cold- and bulletproof. He also told Contractor that if he was hit at a particular place, nothing would happen, but if hit at another place, he would not know what would happen.

“I asked the doctor why was he telling me all this. And his reply was: ‘When are you going to start playing cricket again?’ I thought he was trying to bowl a bouncer at me. I could barely walk and had no vision. The doctor came back at me: ‘I am asking you a question and I want an answer.’ I told him I had given away my kit bag to someone because I knew I would never play cricket again.”

Nari Contractor is helped off the field after being struck by a Charlie Griffith bouncer on March 17, 1962.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

The good doctor then point-blank asked Contractor: “Do you want to live the rest of your life like a vegetable? It will happen, if you don’t start playing cricket again. I will ask you to do certain things. Everything will come back to you. Your paralysis will go and your vision will come back.”

Dr Chandy prescribed a list of dos and don’ts and asked Contractor to walk at the Oval Maidan as much as possible. “I could not think so much ahead. I was dilly-dallying. He wanted me to do a few things one month after the surgery. He called me frequently on the phone. This went on from June 1962 to March ’63, when he told me to play.”

It was around that time that four fast bowlers from the West Indies were in India for coaching, Charlie Stayers among them.

Dr Chandy called Contractor and warned him that the more he waited, the more harm he was doing to himself, and to start playing whatever he can. “And I started. Umesh Kulkarni was one of the trainees at that time under Stayers. They allowed me to train and practise. I played matches and scored some runs.”

Contractor came close to getting selected for India again after scoring 130 for West Zone in the 1967-68 Duleep Trophy final against South Zone at Brabourne Stadium. But his dream to play one more Test was not fulfilled. The selectors did not choose him in the Rest of India side.

“I played my last Ranji Trophy match against Baroda in December 1970. That was the end of my career,” Contractor said with a touch of disappointment.

What about formal coaching?

There was nothing. Even in 1962, there was no proper coaching. Batting came naturally to me. We had a coach called Mr Elavia at Bharda High School. If you played forward and got out, he would say play back foot, and if you played back foot and got out, he would say play front foot. That’s the coaching I received.

But in college (St Xavier’s), we had a good coach in Homi Vajifdar. He was a coach and more importantly a strict disciplinarian. Whatever discipline I have followed, that’s because of master Vajifdar. He had played for the Parsees in the Quadrangulars and Pentangulars.

Master used to coach the college team at the Baronet Club pitch. He would come for coaching at five minutes to 3pm every day. He was responsible for my upbringing in cricket, coaching and the thinking aspect of the game. He never allowed us to play a haphazard way in the nets, which normally coaches allow.

I honestly shudder to think what the likes of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, who play so much outside the off stump and miss, would have done had Vajifdar been their coach. It was half an hour of extreme tension for us. He will throw the new ball from half-pitch and make us play straight and leave anything going outside the off stump.

You made a career move in 1952...

The Indian team was going to the West Indies in 1952. And there were 11-12 Test cricketers in Bombay. I thought many would be picked for the West Indies tour and there will be scope for my selection in the Bombay team. And Pakistan was also to tour India in 1952.

The Bombay selectors decided to pick youngsters and form four teams like Bombay, Bombay A, CCI and Bombay University for selection trial league matches.

A gentleman used to sit on the second floor of CCI and watch us play. After the last match, he came to me and said that since I was born in Godhra, I should play for Gujarat by qualification of birth.

I had done well in all three matches and he had seen me play. I told him I will get a chance to play for Bombay against Pakistan. He retorted in a typical Parsi way that I cannot repeat. I did not say no, but just told him that I will get in touch with him. I did not know that he was the captain of the Gujarat team, Pheroze Cambhatta.

And when the Bombay team to play Pakistan was announced, I was not in the squad of 15 members. On that day, I was playing a match at the G. S. Medical College ground and I scored about 150-odd runs. I took the sea route, got down at Flora Fountain, and sent a telegram to the Gujarat Cricket Association saying that “as per discussions with Mr Cambhatta, I am available for the Ranji Trophy if selected.”

The next day, I read a report about the Gujarat team to play Baroda being selected. The team was selected before my telegram reached the association. I said to myself: “Okay, yeh bhi chance gaya.”

But after two days, I received a telegram asking me to report at Baroda. Those days, Jasu Patel and Nyalchand were terrors on matting wickets. And the Ranji Trophy match was played on a matting pitch at the Polo Ground. They put me against Jasu and Nyalchand, and I batted confidently in the nets, never got out. After seeing me bat, they thought I should play the match. And on the day of the match, Cambhatta said he has a stiff neck and would not be able to play. And his nonavailability enabled me to make my debut. I asked him a thousand times, but he never admitted he did not have a stiff neck. I scored a century in each innings (152 and 102 not out) of that match. Gujarat was 45 for no loss and 70 for four. I batted at No. 6 and made 152. That’s how my first-class cricket began. They say cricket is a game of chance, and this match turned out to be a game of chance for me.

You played for Gujarat and Railways in the Ranji Trophy?

I was offered the captaincy of Bombay by Polly (Umrigar) around 1960. I would have given it a serious thought, but luckily from 1957-58 onwards, the Ranji Trophy became a zonal league and knockout tournament. I was already captaining Gujarat and the main reason for sticking to Gujarat was loyalty. I got a chance to play for Gujarat because of the choice made by Pheroze Cambhatta; he was a cricket lover and hotel owner in Ahmedabad. And in the first year of the league, I got a hundred in all four matches opening the innings. I stayed in Bombay, but played for Gujarat.

Contractor takes evasive action as a bouncer from Wesley Hall rears up in India's second innings in the second Test against the West Indies at Kingston on March 15, 1962. Contractor says Hall was not quick when India went to the Caribbean that year.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Did you idolise anyone?

There were Vijay Merchant, Madhav Mantri and Russi Mody. I had heard about Vijay Hazare, scoring centuries in Australia against Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller. There was also Vinoo Mankad. But Hazare was very approachable, very communicative. You never felt bad asking a stupid question to him. I used to ask him: “Dada, kai karaicha (Brother, what should I do)?” He was always helpful. His principle on batting was: “Never throw your wicket away.’’ We used to play a different type of cricket those days, never hitting the ball in the air. As time went by. I started idolising Vijay Hazare.

Were you disappointed at not being picked for Bombay in 1952?

I was very disappointed. That’s why I decided to score runs and send the telegram to Gujarat. No one knew that I was going to Gujarat. I just told Vajifdar master. And he said: “Jaav. Ema su che (Go. So what if you do)? When I read about the Bombay team, I felt that the purpose for which the trial matches were played (to pick a young Bombay team) was defeated.

Indian Universities was an important team during those days...

Why talk of Indian Universities? The Bombay University team was a stepping stone to the Bombay Ranji Trophy team. All the Bombay cricketers who were selected as youngsters were from the colleges. And hence, university cricket got the prominence. And so also the best youngsters were selected for Indian Universities.

Your impression of C. K. Nayudu...

We played a match in Delhi in 1958, Indian cricketers versus the past cricketers of India. CK played that game. He was 63 then. And he had a solid rivalry with Bombay players like Vinoo and Polly (Umrigar). Generally, teams gave the first run easily to CK in such matche.

When CK came to bat, the word went around that “isko run mat dena.” CK played two balls without being given a run, and he quipped: “Yeh baat hai.” He understood what was happening. Madan Mehra, the leg spinner, was the bowler in action.

There was big tree outside the boundary line. CK hit the third ball straight on the tree. I was playing the match, and when you see such things happen and the qualities he demonstrated on other occasions, you have nothing but admiration for the man. Once as a 65-year-old chairman of the national selection committee, he took on and hammered four prospective fast bowlers without (wearing) gloves and pads.

When did you become an opener?

I scored 16 and batted very well in the Bombay Test against New Zealand (in December 1955). I was pretty confident that I would play the Test match in Delhi. Vinoo and Vijay Mehra opened the innings in Bombay. And they were to open in Delhi, too.

We used to travel by train those days and we were at the Mathura station platform loosening our limbs. Polly was the captain. He came up to me and said: “Nari, you may have to open because Vinoo may not come.” Vinoo was not travelling with us and was only expected to reach Delhi in time for the Test match. Polly was my coach at St Xavier’s College and hence he knew what I was and all that. Vinoo did not turn up and I had to open the innings and that’s how I became an opener! Vinoo had some injury issues.

Contractor turns the ball from Brian Statham past the fielder for two runs in the second Test against England at Lord’s on June 18, 1959. Contractor was hit on the chest by Statham off the fourth ball of the match but batted on. “It was only at lunch time I knew I had broken ribs. They took me somewhere for an X-ray. I continued to bat and made 81,” he says.   -  v

 

Your opinion of leg spinner Subhash Gupte...

He was light-hearted. I personally felt that he never took his cricket seriously. He was very accurate, like an off spinner. (From the) first ball he would be on the money. He had the variety of two googlies. You name it, he had it.

Subhash would have been a much greater bowler had he taken his cricket a little more seriously. He was most feared till 1960; he went down afterwards. His accuracy was fantastic.

I asked for Erapalli Prasanna’s inclusion in the team for the West Indies tour in 1962. Then I realised he was the off spinner who was going to make a mark. I told the selectors that I see promise in him.

Salim (Durani) on his day and when mentally proper was a champion spinner.

You led the team in 12 Test matches. What was the experience like?

When you know that you have been made the captain, after six previous captains in two series, you know what to expect. Lala (Amarnath) was the chairman of selectors. Polly was the captain in the first Test in Bombay (against the West Indies in 1958), Ghulam Ahmed was the captain for the Kanpur and Calcutta Test matches, Vinoo Mankad led the team in the fourth Test in Madras, and Hemu Adhikari led the team in the fifth Test in Delhi. And when the team was announced for the tour of England, Dattajirao Gaekwad was named the captain. And when Australia came to India, G. S. Ramchand was named the captain. And then me. It was nerve-shattering for the captain to lead the Indian team those days.

You continued to play after being struck by Brian Statham at Lord’s in June 1959...

I was hit on the chest fourth ball of the match. I fell flat on the ground. Pankaj Roy told me to stay on and not to return to the pavilion. But by the fourth over, both Pankaj and Polly were out. It was only at lunch time I knew I had broken ribs. They took me somewhere for an X-ray. I continued to bat and made 81.

You played four Test matches in England in 1959, and many county matches...

It was a good experience. The advantage was that each county had a coach. We could consult him and sort out our technical problems if we had any. The playing (pitch) conditions were completely different. Just green. About the tour, it was a mismanaged one.

The Bombay university team that won the Rohinton Baria Trophy in 1954-55. Nari Contractor is sitting in the middle.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Which tour did you enjoy the most?

Apart from England, I toured the West Indies in 1962. Enjoyment means what? You have to get runs and take wickets to enjoy. If you don’t, you cannot enjoy.

Were you happy with the numbers you achieved?

There were gaps between tours. I have one century and other high scores. My last five matches were bad.

You got out to Wesley Hall many times. Which was the best fast bowling pair you have faced?

Hall was not quick when we went to the West Indies in 1962. Roy Gilchrist and Hall in India (in the 1958-59 series) were quick. Alan Davidson was quick and Ian Meckiff was quick when he chucked. You never knew what was coming when Meckiff was bowling.

We are talking about raw pace and there was an example in the Madras Test against the West Indies. And Hall was bloody quick in one over. Polly and I were batting. And Polly told me not to cross over for a single, for heaven’s sake. I fended a delivery and how could I not take a single when the ball goes to fine leg? It was a 12- or 13-ball over. Polly survived because everything went over him. It was the fastest spell of bowling I have ever seen.

What are your views about Lala Amarnath?

He had the knowledge, but whether he put that knowledge to right use, I am not sure. To recall an incident, there was a match against Services. We (Railways) had to win the match and the pitch on previous occasions was plumb. With two days left. I asked Lala about the wicket and he said: “Tujhe aise wicket detha hoon, tu khela hi nahi hoga (I’ll give you the kind of wicket you’ve never played on).” Services won the toss, chose to bowl, and Railways lost the match by an innings, shot out for 33 and 168. There are no guarantees that you will win the toss on a green top.

What are the changes in the sport that have impressed you?

The quality of fielding, it’s been out of this world. Teams chasing 300-plus and winning in the last over...and you are not enjoying a match! Come on, yaar... The only thing is that the standard of fast bowling is going down, and it will go down further.