Vasant Raiji - a gentleman, a cricketer and an author

After celebrating his 100th birthday — a century, in the great game’s parlance — on January 26, Raiji, a walking compendium of Indian cricket, departed for the Elysian Fields on June 13.

Vasant Raiji virtually wrote the history of Indian cricket in different forms — about the Quadrangulars and Pentangulars, the Ranji Trophy and about Indian cricket’s great players. In all, he wrote more than a dozen books.   -  Vivek Bendre

Vasant Raiji has left a big vacuum at Rockside, his seven-decade-old family home in South Mumbai’s posh Malabar Hill locality, as has he in Indian cricket, whose progress and evolution he witnessed with a keen and perceptive mind right from the country’s pre-Independence days — from the colossus that was C. K. Nayudu to giants like Lala Amarnath and Vijay Merchant and modern masters like Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli.

After celebrating his 100th birthday — a century, in the great game’s parlance — on January 26, Raiji, a walking compendium of Indian cricket, departed for the Elysian Fields on June 13.

His son-in-law, Dr Sudarshan Nanavati, a senior gynaecologist, discovered that Raiji had breathed his last a little after 2am. Dr Nanavati, who left his practice in Ahmedabad in the midst of the lockdown imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, had spent a month with his ailing father-in-law, and he revealed that the grand old man’s zest for life had diminished considerably and that he wanted to leave the world.

Virtually on assisted living for five years, after a fragile hip bone caused a painful fall that necessitated corrective surgery in 2015, India’s oldest first-class cricketer (he did not play for India), Raiji was confined to his well-spaced-out sixth-floor apartment that’s filled with cricket volumes authored by himself and other distinguished writers.

Sachin Tendulkar and Steve Waugh had visited Vasant Raiji to wish him for his 100th birthday on January 26.   -  PTI

 

Without doubt, Raiji was a cricket romantic, the joy of watching the stalwarts of the game after World War I overwhelming him completely. He was a true-blue fan of the sport right through his life. His eyes lit up in a flash when the curious nudged him to reminisce about Nayudu, Amarnath, Merchant, Syed Mushtaq Ali, D. B. Deodhar, Dattu Phadkar, Vijay Hazare and L. P. Jai. Ranjitsinhji and Duleepsinhji had a special place in his heart.

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When the aristocratic Rajsingh Dungarpur, the president of the Cricket Club of India (CCI) at the turn of the new millennium, decided to found the Legends Club, he did not look beyond Raiji, who was instrumental in naming the first Legends of Indian Cricket — Vijay Merchant, Vijay Manjrekar and Vinoo Mankad.

And with the very number of times Raiji, Rajsingh, Chandu Patankar (the India stumper who looked after sports at the CCI), Marcus Couto (the Ranji Trophy umpire and who was employed at the CCI’s bakery shop that produced delicious savouries) and this reporter met at the Wet Wicket to give shape to the Legends Club, attention was inevitably riveted on the Bombay Boys. But while digging into his favourite fried fish and tartar sauce that became the standard lunch for him at the CCI — other than the Mini Meal — Raiji would jog his memory and describe the magnificent batting and bowling performances of the Indian cricketers who dominated the first half of the 20th century.

Raiji believed Nayudu to be the greatest Indian cricketer. He was only six and hence could not go to the Bombay Gymkhana when the tall and lithe batsman from Indore hit 11 sixes in his whirlwind knock of 153 for the Hindus against Arthur Gilligan’s Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) led by the bowling of R. C. Chichester-Constable. Instead, Nayudu’s remarkable effort — his century paved the way for India’s recognition as a Test-playing nation in 1932 — was witnessed by a 15-year-old Merchant at the ground.

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Writing about Nayudu in Wisden Cricket Monthly and Mid-Day (both in 1995), Raiji felt that his batting was akin to “spreading loveliness and beauty as they move along the path of glory.” Describing Nayudu as the shahenshah of Indian cricket, Raiji further wrote: “Nayudu is the only Indian cricketer for whom the word majestic can be used without the fear of being accused of hero worship or exaggeration. No Indian cricketer has singly contributed as much to the gate money as Nayudu has. He exemplified the spirit of ageless youth (he played from 1916 to 1963).”

Among overseas players, Raiji favoured the likes of the father of English cricket W. G. Grace, whom he described as “a genial giant;” Australians Victor Trumper, Don Bradman, Bill Ponsford and Bill O’Reilly; and the West Indian George Headley.

Raiji’s first-class career was spread over 12 seasons. He played one match for CCI, two for Bombay and six for Baroda between 1938-39 and 1949-50. His last match was against Madras. He played with and against some of the greatest players of his time.

“Raiji used to study at Sydenham College and I was at St Xavier’s. We had good cricket teams and therefore we were good rivals. I remember he scored a century against us. He opened the innings for his college. He was a keen and fair-minded cricketer. He was an off-side stroke player. I went to the UK for studies for seven years and for some more time. That was the time we were not in much contact. But thereafter we used to meet at the CCI. We used to discuss a lot about Duleepsinhji. I also remember him as a generous host,” said Rusi Cooper, now 98, who played for Bombay against Baroda in the 1945 Ranji Trophy season.

Some 20 years ago, Patankar and Raiji would meet at the CCI everyday. “I have played against him in the Kanga League. He was past his best then and he was just enjoying his cricket. I used to consult him a lot on cricket matters at the CCI.”

Vasant Raiji maintained till the last that C. K. Nayudu remained his greatest Indian cricketer.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Raiji did not make it big in India’s first-class competitions. He studied at Fellowship School, and played the Harris Shield inter-school tournament and the inter-collegiate. His highest scores in the Ranji Trophy came about in a match for Baroda against Maharashtra in the 1944-45 season — 68 and 53 as an opener at the Poona Club. He began his first-class career in the 1938-39 season as the No. 11 for the CCI against Central Provinces, which had the Nayudu brothers, Mushtaq Ali, Vijay Hazare and D. D. Hindlekar.

After his playing days, Raiji became a partner in his family’s accountancy firm — he had studied chartered accountancy in the UK. But Raiji also became a man of letters. He virtually wrote the history of Indian cricket in different forms — about the Quadrangulars and Pentangulars, the Ranji Trophy and about Indian cricket’s great players. In all, he wrote more than a dozen books, and his co-authors included Merchant, Anandji Dossa, Vithal Jhaveri and Mohandas Menon. Couto (Ernest Publications) and Sachin Bajaj (Global Cricket School) have also been part of Raiji’s writing work. A member of the CCI from 1936, Raiji loved to visit the club at Churchgate. But he had not been seen there in the last six years, the hip-related injury in 2015 putting an end to his movements. But Gavaskar, Tendulkar and Steve Waugh had visited him to wish him for his birthday. Raiji enjoyed the occasion and maintained till the last that Nayudu remained his greatest Indian cricketer.

With his passing, Raiji will be missed by those who were close to him, and this select group will always have tale or two to tell about the gentleman, cricketer and author.