Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The first cricket Test in India

This is an unpublished story I wrote for The Telegraph on the first ever cricket Test match on the Indian soil.

On a winter morning in December 1933, two giants of the game walked onto the turf of a British-formed gymkhana in Mumbai at 10.25 am. The toss that captain Col CK Nayudu won started Indian cricket's historic journey in India.

At 10.30am, the English side lead by wily Douglas Jardine, who had returned from the infamous Bodyline series in Australia a few months ago, did warm up exercises for 15 minutes. At 11 am, umpires Frank Tarrant and JW Hitch stepped on to the open ground at Bombay Gymkhana.

English fast bowler MS Nichols, who eventually picked up 108-8 in the match, sent down the first ball to the opening Indian pair of S Wazir Ali and JG Navle. India lost the match and the series 2-0, but began a journey that has eventually made it into the financial nerve centre of world cricket.

Memories of this historic match and 75 years of Indian cricket will be revived by the Bombay Gymkhana through year-long celebrations that began today. Former India captain Nari Contractor unveiled a specially designed logo at the 132-year-old gymkhana at Azad Maidan in the presence of former Test players like Jayanti Lal, Yajuvendra Singh. Vijay Nayudu, the grandson of India's first cricket captain Col Nayudu was also present on the occasion.

The first Test on Indian soil was part of a fortnight-long cricket festival. The visitors led by Jardine played four trial games during the period culminating in the four-day Test played between Dec 15-18, 1933.
Indian first innings folded up on 219, as English bowlers Nichols, H Verity and J Langridge each picked up three wickets. Jardine's team then piled on 438 with the experienced captain and CG Walters contributing 60 and 78 each, and debutant BH Valentine scoring 136.

In the second innings, India was reduced to 21-2, with EW Clark removing both the Indian openers. Then came together debutant Lala Amarnath, and Col Nayudu, and took India to 207, just 12 short of the first-innings deficit of 219 runs. Amarnath, who hit 118 in his debut test, was caught by Nichols at fine-leg off Clark. Nayudu bravely battled on and scored 67. But, India slid to 258 all out, with England needing just 40 runs for a win. Batting legend Vijay Merchant also made his debut in that Test.

The trial games before the Test had created an excitement about the England tour. "Thousands of spectators were turned away. Yet 20,000 managed to watch the match in the shamianas erected here. The tradition of fans rushing into a cricket ground and garlanding their heroes started with two fans who ran in when Lala Amarnath completed his century." said Yajuvendra Singh Bilkha, a former Test player who holds the Indian record of five catches in an innings and seven in a match.

Two other highlights of the first Test on Indian soil were the lavish praise bestowed on fast bowler Amar Singh by Jardine, and Mohammed Nissar's five-wicket burst in the England first innings. Nissar, who died recently in Pakistan, took 90-5. "Jardine praised Amar Singh stating he had not seen a better bowler than him," Bilkha said.

Nari Contractor credited Col Nayudu for making him the Indian opener. Recalling a dressing room chat with Nayudu, who was a selector for a university team in 1952, Contractor said, "He asked me why I don't open the innings. I said I have always been a no 3 or no 4 batsman. `Won't you have to open the innings if the bowler gets first two wickets in two balls?' he asked" Years later, regular opener Vinoo Mankad was unavailable for the second Test against New Zealand, and Polly Umrigar asked Contractor if he would like to open. "I remembered what the Colonel had told me. I said yes, and that's how I became an opening batsman," said Contractor laughing.

Vijay Nayudu, grandson of Col Nayudu, said the first Indian captain made his debut at the Bombay Gymkhana in 1916, and personally cherished the first official match at the gymkhana in 1926 between the Hindus and the MCC. The three-day match saw JF Earl scoring 130 runs for the MCC with 8 sixes and 9 fours, and a befitting reply from the Hindus who scored more than 300 runs. "Col Nayudu hit 11 sixes, and 14 fours in his 155 made in just 90 minutes. That match was somehow closer to his heart," Nayudu said.

So impressed were the MCC players by Nayudu's spectacular knock that they presented an autographed silver-coated bat to him. Contractor and Bombay Gymkhana president Narendra Bubna displayed the bat while unveiling the logo. "The knock is also believed to have played an
instrumental role in India winning the Test status ahead of Ceylon and other countries. India was soon invited to play the first test at Lords in 1932," Bilkha said.
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