PARTAB RAMCHAND | 10 AUGUST, 2018
Down Memory Lane
When the West Indies team led by Gerry Alexander arrived in India in November 1958 for a five-Test series, hardly anyone would have predicted a comfortable victory for the tourists. The West Indians were in the rebuilding process following the retirements of older players and though they had several promising young stars in Gary Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, ‘Collie’ Smith, Basil Butcher, Conrad Hunte and Roy Gilchrist along with such established players as Eric Atkinson,‘Sonny’ Ramadhin and the captain it did seem that the Indians could hold their own, and a close contest was predicted.
And yet when it was all over in February 1959 West Indies had won the series 3-0 with two drawn. In both these games as well they held the upper hand. Moreover they became the first team to register three successive victories in India. After the first Test at Bombay was drawn, West Indies scored thumping victories at Kanpur, Calcutta and Madras before India just about salvaged a draw at New Delhi. The defeat at Calcutta by an innings and 336 runs remains till today the heaviest loss suffered by India.
How did this stunning setback take place? Were the West Indians all that formidable? Or were the Indians so badly lacking in technique and temperament? While there was a case for both theories the real cause for the humiliating defeats was the unhealthy atmosphere that prevailed off the field. Political machinations were in full swing, there were several seamy off-field happenings and all this led to players being dropped or picked without rhyme or reason. The upshot was that as many as 24 cricketers played in the five Tests, and four captains led India.
Ghulam Ahmed was chosen captain for all five Tests but only through the casting vote of selection committee chairman Lala Amarnath. It was clear that there were differences among the committee members and Ghulam did not exactly make things easier by withdrawing from the first Test at Bombay citing an injury. Polly Umrigar was named in his place and India earned an honourable draw after being at the receiving end for most of the game.
Ghulam was back for the second Test at Kanpur but an unexpected defeat by 203 runs, after a draw was very much on the cards on the final day, sullied his image as a leader. The critics said he had allowed things to drift in contrast to Umrigar’s tight handling of a rather similar situation at Bombay. Worse was to follow in the next game at Calcutta, which was lost in three and a half days.
All hell now broke loose. The poor performances were rapidly becoming a subject for national concern. Something was radically wrong it was said right down the order, from the BCCI to the selectors to the players. The BCCI was deemed to be playing regional politics. The selectors were targeted for picking the wrong players. The captain was next in line for being an uninspiring leader. By this time India’s defeats were being discussed even in Parliament.
Against a background of mounting public pressure, aware that they were becoming the focus of popular resentment, the selectors met to pick the captain and the team for the fourth Test at Madras. Ghulam had announced his retirement following the Calcutta calamity. The selectors fell back on Umrigar. Announcing their choice Amarnath said that Ghulam’s place would go to either Kripal Singh or Jasu Patel, depending on the wishes of the new captain.
But two more vacancies occurred on the eve of the match. C.D. Gopinath was injured in the pre-Test game between the visitors and South Zone and he reported unfit, while Vijay Manjrekar cabled to inform that he too had been injured in a Ranji Trophy game and would not be able to play. Chandu Borde, originally named 12th man, and Kripal Singh were called upon to fill the first two vacancies. For the third position Umrigar asked for Manohar Hardikar, who had played in the first two Tests, to be flown in from Bombay. Hardikar however could not obtain a seat on the last possible flight and Umrigar’s choice thereupon was A.K. Sen Gupta, the young opening batsman from Services who had scored an unbeaten century in the opening match of the tour and was among the original reserves.
About this time – and it was the evening before the match was to commence – only one selector C. Ramaswami was in Madras. The selection for the last place was not left to the captain or Ramaswami but dictated by the Board President R.K. Patel. Jasu Patel was to be played. Umrigar told the Board officials present that Manjrekar’s absence called for the selection of another batsman and when they refused to be convinced Umrigar threatened to resign from the captaincy. Later that evening Umrigar made a speech at a civic reception and on returning to the hotel he submitted his resignation to the Board, stating in his letter however that his services as a player would be available.
Umrigar’s action pinned the Board officials on the defensive. They now called on him in his room and tried to get him to withdraw his resignation. When Umrigar did not relent they even offered to let him have Sen Gupta or any other player of his choice, to no avail. It was then decided that Vinoo Mankad should take over the captaincy. By the time the arrangement was arrived at dawn was only a few hours away. Things were going from bad to worse as far as Indian cricket was concerned and in this surcharged, unhealthy atmosphere it was too much to ask the team to perform well. Not unexpectedly India went down by 295 runs in their third successive defeat and the series was already lost 0-3 with one match to go.
Mankad’s appointment however was only a temporary arrangement. A new captain had to be picked for the final Test at New Delhi and after showing interest in G.S. Ramchand the selectors finally plumped for Hemu Adhikari. The 39-year-old was obviously only another stop gap choice but at least he succeeded where Ghulam and Mankad had failed. He halted the West Indian juggernaut and India scrambled to a draw at the Kotla.
Overall there is little doubt that this was arguably the unhappiest Test series in Indian cricket history, thanks to the disreputable off-field happenings triggered by the BCCI’s shenanigans, symbolised by the events that led to Umrigar’s resignation.
(Cover Photograph: Polly Umrigar, Ghulam Ahmed, Vinoo Mankad, Hemu Adhikari, Datta Gaekwad, Pankaj Roy)