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Scoring a century

When food tycoon Sir Gulam Noon’s collection of cricket bats began seriously cluttering up his London apartment, he received a mock ultimatum from his wife Mohini: “It’s either me or the bats.”

Noon backed down without a fight and quietly moved the bats to his office in Westminster where they are lined up against three walls.

For Noon cricket bats are a passion. “I have 113 — and I’ll continue to add more for as long as I live.” Incidentally, he had a narrow escape during the terrorist attack at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel.

The collection includes antique willows and bats used by star batsmen to clobber centuries. And there are bats by most of the best known manufacturers, ranging from Gray-Nicolls to Gunn & Moore, Slazenger, Duncan Fearnley and Kookaburra.

Had it not been for the fire that destroyed his factory in Southall, west London, in 1994, he would have had another 20 bats, some antique pieces from the 1920s. He began collecting cricket bats 20 years ago.

His oldest linseed oil-soaked bat, which has mellowed into a rich brown, dates from 1926 when it was signed by members of the Australian side touring England, including W.M. Woodfull, W. H. Ponsford and C. V. Grimmett. Another in his collection is a gift from “my friend Owais Shah” after the cricketer scored an ODI century for England in 2007.

From a different era, there’s one signed by Sir Alec Bedser, who also exceptionally autographed a ball for Noon. Bedser, who turned 90 last year, made his England debut against India in 1946 by taking 11 for 139 at Lord’s and followed this in his second Test with 11 for 96 at Manchester.

Noon cherishes “a very nice bat”, that commemorates batsmen who had the distinction of hitting 100 first class centuries. The role of honour includes John Edrich, Geoffrey Boycott, Graham Gooch, Zaheer Abbas, Vivian Richards and, most recently, Mark Ramprakash, who’s now a close friend. He bought the bat for £3,500 at a dinner in London last year where nearly all the signatories were present.

Indian cricketers also loom large in his collection. He bought a new bat which Sachin Tendulkar obligingly autographed after inaugurating the India Room at the Oval cricket ground in 2005. Another, signed by Brian Lara and Tendulkar, was picked up at a charity dinner.

At a different level, a friend in Bombay gifted him a Slazenger V 1200 Panther signed by the 2005 Indian team. From an auction, he picked up an undated Gunn & Moore signed in Nottingham by the Indian and Pakistani teams, plus players from Surrey, Leicester and Glamorgan.

A large number of Noon’s bats have been picked up at auctions. For instance, he has bats signed by 15 members of the 2002 Indian women’s team. He has one signed by the 2004 Indian team and another signed by all the players from an England vs India match in 1990. Also, he has a bat signed by the Indian side that played in the 2003 World Cup in South Africa.

There have been similar acquisitions with Pakistani, Australian, West Indian, New Zealand and Sri Lankan signatures. A £1,150 “Golden Great”, bears the signatures of, among others, Sir Richard Hadlee, Clive Lloyd, Richie Benaud, Michael Holding, Asif Iqbal, Kris Srikkanth and Ravi Shastri.

Noon’s collection includes antique willows and autographed bats used by cricket greats to score centuries

Having emigrated to England from Mumbai, Noon has built himself up over the past four decades into one of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs by putting chilled Indian meals on supermarket shelves. He has also scattered his millions across a variety of worthy causes.

The food tycoon was the moving force behind establishing an India Room at the Oval. When told by the Surrey County Cricket Club’s management that the room would cost £500,000, Noon’s response was swift and generous. “I said I would underwrite it,” he recalls. “The first cheque I sent was my own for £100,000.”

After he persuaded fellow Indian tycoons, including the Hindujas, to come up with the remaining amount, Noon received a note of thanks from the former Tory prime minister, John Major, who was then Surrey’s president and principal fundraiser.

Growing up in Mumbai, Noon acquired his passion for cricket watching matches at the Brabourne Stadium where he and his brothers could slip in for a rupee a ticket. It’s here that he first encountered ‘the three Ws’ of past legend — Clyde Walcott, Frank Worrell and Everton Weekes. When Noon went to the West Indies in 2007, he chanced upon Sir Everton Weekes, now 84, signing books in a store. Says Noon: “There was a sign saying ‘Sir Everton will only sign books and not bats’. But I said, ‘Sir Everton, you can’t pull rank over me, I am also knighted like you.’ And he laughed.”

“My favourite bat from an emotional point of view is the one signed by Sir Everton,” Noon says, drawing attention to a still unbroken Weekes record of five consecutive Test centuries.

Noon and his family even spent time at the lush grounds of the University of the West Indies at the grave where Worrell lies buried under three giant stumps with Walcott in an adjacent plot. Weekes suggested that Noon visit the ground, with the quip: “I should know that because I’ll be buried there. I have my plot reserved.”

Back in Mumbai, Noon’s rising prominence in Britain brought a change in attitude at the Cricket Club of India which had rejected his membership application in the early 1960s. “They decided I was not a fit person to be a member,” he recalls with amusement. But after he was knighted in 2002, the CCI held a function and gave him honourary membership.

Noon’s bat collection reflects his friendship with cricketers from all over the world, including Pakistani greats such as Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad. After the India Room was established, Noon helped to ensure that the Pakistanis acquired similar space at the Oval.

He claims to have evolved into a dedicated England supporter but will stay up all night if India is playing in Australia or New Zealand. Though his strongest county links are with Surrey, he goes frequently to Lord’s where he’s an MCC member.

After watching a match either at Lord’s or the Oval, he’ll come home and irritate his wife by staying glued to the television for the day’s highlights. He says: “Mohini always shouts, ‘You’ve spent the whole day at the ground, you’ve seen the bloody game, why are you seeing the highlights?’”

“She’ll never understand,” he laughs. “It gives me great pleasure. I am mad about cricket.” 

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