Rahul Dravid, Jamaica, 2011
In the winter of 1947-48, the Indian cricket team visited Australia to play four Test matches. Australia, led by Don Bradman, were by some distance the finest team in world cricket. India, on the other hand, were greenhorns, having only played 10 Test matches, without winning any of them. To make matters worse, some of the country’s top players were not available for selection. These included three superlatively gifted batsmen: Vijay Merchant, Mushtaq Ali, and R.S. Modi.
Merchant and Mushtaq Ali were India’s opening pair; one was classical and orthodox, the other inventive and unorthodox, to quote one critic, “as dissimilar as curry and rice, but just as effective in combination”. Both had batted well on India’s tour of England in 1946, as had Modi. All three were automatic choices in any Indian eleven of that time. And all were unavailable for the tour Down Under.
The loss of the three Ms would have hurt the team in any case; here, because of the quality of the opposition, their absence was catastrophic. Australia had the deadliest opening attack in the history of the game, comprising Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, and the gifted left-handed seamer, Bill Johnstone. With bowlers like these, and batsmen of the quality of Bradman, Arthur Morris, Lindsay Hassett and Neil Harvey, Australia won the series by four matches to nil.
Only two Indians emerged with any credit from this unequal encounter. One was Vinoo Mankad, who always bowled restrictively and occasionally batted well. The other was Vijay Hazare. In the Adelaide Test, Hazare scored a hundred in each innings, his dominance of the opposition recalled by Keith Miller in his autobiography, written years later, where the Australian all-rounder spoke with feeling of the sublime onside play of the Indian and the impossibility of setting a field for him.
To play a lone hand was not an uncommon experience for Vijay Hazare. He did that always for The Rest, his team in the Bombay Pentangular, then India’s premier domestic tournament. In the 1943 tournament, for example, The Rest defeated the more fancied Muslims in the semi-final on account of a superb double hundred by Hazare. In the finals, Hazare’s team came up against The Hindus, who had within their ranks the likes of Merchant, Mankad, Lala Amarnath, and C.S. Nayudu. On the other side, The Rest had no bowlers of quality, and just one decent batsman. Although they lost by an innings, one man shone through the ruins — Vijay Hazare, who scored a staggering 309 out of The Rest’s second innings total of 387 all out.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Hazare bravely bore the burdens of The Rest; in the 1940s and the 1950s, he oftentimes did the same for India. When India were 0 for four in a Test match in England, it was left to Hazare and his fellow Vijay, Manjrekar, to come together in a retrieving stand that restored some respectability to his side. In the first part of the 1950s, three Commonwealth sides toured India — in the 15 fiercely fought, albeit unofficial, ‘Tests’ that they played, the man that bowlers of the quality of Sonny Ramadhin and Jim Laker found hardest to dismiss was Vijay Hazare.
Hazare’s character, and his status in Indian cricket, are captured in a fascinating, forgotten short story by the Marathi writer, N.S. Phadke. The story is called (in its English translation) “Thy Name is Burden”. Its main character, named Bihari, is clearly modelled on Hazare. As he went into bat, with the score usually reading 10 for two, “fifty thousand people would send up loud cheers of applause as soon as they saw him”. All expected him to repair the innings, set it back on track, and thereby save the prestige and self-respect of the Indian cricket fan.
Seeking to get inside his subject’s head, Phadke writes of how Bihari/Hazare “was inwardly groaning under this strange burden of popularity and responsibility”. When his side’s opening pair went out, he “wanted to look hard at the play going on in the middle, since his turn was due. He must study the swing and direction of the balls. He must decide how to face the bowling. He must watch each ball very carefully”. The demands of his profession called for such focused attention, and yet “his heart rebelled against the strain. How he wished to close his eyes, and stretch his limbs and go to sleep! … He had no strength left to walk this road to fame! He wished that this road would some day come to an end”.
Phadke writes of how Bihari/Hazare saved his side in England and Australia, and at home, and was thus “considered the backbone of India’s team. Match after match, he had to carry his side on his shoulders”. The popularity of Bihari/Hazare had gone on increasing, but “with popularity his responsibility too. He had carried this double burden on his shoulders endlessly. This tyranny of retaining his own fame and bringing more and more glory to India”.
Like the cricketers of today, Bihari/Hazare “had to play first class cricket almost all the year round. When the Indian season was over, he went to England to play in Lancashire League matches. When the English season was over, he returned to India to play in the Tests. India! Lancashire! India again! Struggle for runs! Struggle for wickets! Struggle for averages! Unending struggle! He never had an occasion to play freely and to enjoy himself! He didn’t even have time to be ill and to lie in bed….”
Towards the end of the story, Phadke speaks of a secret fantasy entertained by Bihari/Hazare. “He wanted to be done with cricket. He wanted to throw the bats away. He wanted to lead a quiet peaceful happy life — away from the madding crowd! He would purchase lands on the outskirts of his home town. He would grow vegetables and flowers. He would have a few cows and bullocks, and also hens. He would dig a beautiful well, draw water from it, swim in it to his heart’s content, get ill with cold, and enjoy the luxury of lying in bed. All this was going to happen some day…. His shoulders ached with the burden of fame and responsibility. His head was splitting with the strain of concentration. He would make his last appearance in some big Test like this, and then he would say ‘Goodbye cricket!’ He would put an end to the ordeal of living in the limelight of popularity.”
No historical analogy can be exact, but still, it may be worth pursuing the question — who is the modern Hazare? Going by Phadke’s account, one might say it was Sachin Tendulkar, who, for much of his career, has had to bear “this strange burden of popularity and responsibility”, to score hundreds upon hundreds to maintain his fame and keep his team afloat. But one can also make a case for Rahul Dravid. For one thing, his style is more akin to Hazare’s, sound and orthodox — coming in at 5 for one, which soon becomes 10 for two — he seeks to patiently rebuild the innings, whereas Tendulkar would seek rather to play some flashing shots and immediately take the initiative away from the opposition.
These past few weeks in the West Indies, Rahul Dravid had indeed been the modern Hazare. As in Australia in 1947, three of India’s finest batsmen — Sehwag, Tendulkar and Gambhir — cried off from the tour. Here, as then, there were only two experienced batsmen left to carry along a bunch of novices. Laxman, like Mankad in 1947, has batted bravely on occasion — but the Hazare of this tour has been Rahul Dravid. That India won the series is owed largely to the magnificent hundred he scored in the second innings of the Test match in Jamaica.
Like Hazare, Dravid is a man of courage and decency, content to play — and live — in the shadows of his more glamorous team-mates. Like Hazare, his contributions to Indian cricket have been colossal, and probably under-appreciated. It is time that one of the present, and very gifted, generation of Indian writers treated his achievements and his character in a subtle work of fiction. I suspect, however, that its ending will see its hero living not with animals in a farm, but among books in a library.