Many cricket fans and critics have asked me who I consider to be the best Indian batsman. Having watched cricket since the early 1950s, it is a difficult question to answer.
A challenging task because I have been lucky to appreciate master batters from Vijay Merchant and Mushtaq Ali to Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Sardesai, Rahul Dravid, Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar via Vijay Manjrekar and Polly Umrigar.
But my number one hero will always be Vijay Hazare. A classy batsman with faultless technique, solid defence and elegant stroke play, Hazare was a man of few words. A crisis specialist, he often came to India’s rescue in her darkest hours.
India achieved her first Test victory under Hazare against England at Madras (Chennai) in 1952.
He was the first Indian to reach both 1000 and 2000 runs in Test cricket, scoring 2192 runs at 47.65 in 30 Tests. His most prolific home series was against the West Indies in 1948-49, when he stroked 543 runs at an excellent average of 67.87, including two centuries, both in Mumbai. His unbeaten 134 in the second Test saved India and his 122 brought India close to her first Test win.
Many of Hazare’s best innings were played when most needed. In the Leeds Test of 1952, India had lost their first four wickets for no run, with England’s raw fast bowler Fred Trueman and master seamer Alec Bedser threatening to rout the tourists for the lowest total in Test history. Hazare was nursing a painful injury but gallantly came out and blunted the attack scoring 56.
In the same series at The Oval, India was 5 wickets down for 6 runs with Trueman on a rampage on a wet, treacherous pitch. Hazare scored 38 out of India’s 98.
“It was the innings of my life,” Hazare said a few decades later.
His finest performance was in the Adelaide Test of January 1948 against Don Bradman’s Invincibles. India had lost the previous first and third Tests by huge margins and appeared set for further humiliation after Australia had amassed 674 runs.
Hazare came to the middle with India 3 for 69, facing oblivion. Undaunted, he scored 116. Forced to follow on, India was two wickets down for no runs on the board when he made 145. He became the first Indian to hit centuries in both innings of a Test, and that too against the fury of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller.
These gutsy centuries moved Bradman to write: “Hazare gave a display which ranks with one of the finest seen in this country. There is no doubt Hazare was among the most accomplished batsmen ever to visit Australia and cricket-lovers are indebted to him for the enjoyment he gave them”.
Former Test cricketer and famous cricket writer RS Whitington added, “The (Archie) Jackson-like grace of Hazare fired the imagination of the Australian public”.
Well-known Indian commentator Bobby Talyarkhan described him as “immaculate in appearance and studied in every movement, Hazare might well be dubbed the Indian Jack Hobbs”.
Hazare’s on-drives, hooks, cuts and cover drives were equally awe-inspiring. In The Romance of Indian Cricket, Sujit Mukherjee wrote, “Should ever a sculpture be made of Hazare, it should be in this, the most glorious of his batting postures, playing the cover drive”.
A change bowler, he twice clean-bowled Bradman, once each in the Sydney and Adelaide Tests of 1947-48. He said when interviewed in 2000, wiping away nostalgic tears, it was this feat he remembered more than his centuries.
If only Hazare had played for a stronger side. Often, he rescued India with a big score but before he could unstrap his pads a couple of wickets would topple, so brittle was India’s batting.
In a Ranji Trophy match for Baroda against Holkar in 1946-47, he added 577 runs with Gul Mahomed, a world record for any wicket that stood until 2006 when Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene added 624 runs against South Africa in Colombo.
In the Pentangular final for Rest against Hindus (a team including nine Test players) in Mumbai in 1943-44, he added 300 runs in 332 minutes for the sixth wicket with his younger brother, Vivek. As Vivek held one end up with 21 runs, Vijay smashed 266. He went from 294 to 300 with a six to become the first Indian to hit two triple centuries in first-class cricket. He went on to score 309 out of The Rest’s total of 387 all out. This 79.8 per cent monopoly in scoring was a world record in first-class cricket until 1977.
At first-class level from 1934 to 1966, he amassed 18,754 runs at 58.06, hitting 60 centuries (including eight double and two triple centuries). He also took 595 wickets at 24.61.
He was coached in 1938 by Australia’s legendary leg-spinner Clarrie Grimmett. After hitting twin hundreds against the mighty Aussies in the 1948 Adelaide Test, Hazare received a gold watch from the South Australian Cricket Association and Prime Minister Robert Menzies congratulated him.
Keith Miller paid him the ultimate tribute.
“Vijay Hazare, one of the most gentlemanly cricket giants of all time, has had his fair share of bumpers hurled at his head in his heyday. And how brilliantly and viciously he hammered this none-too-easy deliveries to master. He was a cricketing giant by any yardstick,” Miller said.
But for Hazare, the greatest thrill was the praise he received from his ‘Guru’, Grimmett who said, “Vijay, I am a very proud man today.”
Hazare had fond memories of Australia. “I wish it was possible for me to revisit Australia where I had such a delightful time,” he wrote to me in a personal letter in 1977.
When some Indian players’ involvement in match-fixing was confirmed in 2000, it affected Hazare greatly. His daughter-in-law said he cried uncontrollably that day.
In a nostalgic mood, he once said, “I remember the SCG [Sydney Cricket Ground] because it was here that I scored my first century in Australia, against New South Wales. But for me, the ground par excellence is the Adelaide Oval. It made a vivid spectacle with the St Peter’s Cathedral bestowing blessings on me”. A Catholic, Vijay Samuel Hazare passed away on 18 December 2004, age 89.
I think very highly of Merchant, Mushtaq Ali, Rusi Modi, Lala, Surinder and Mohinder Amarnath, Umrigar, Vijay and Sanjay Manjrekar, Chandu Borde, Nari Contractor, Sardesai, Gavaskar, Tendulkar, Dravid but my number one hero was, is and will always be Vijay Hazare.