| Not lopsided
Counter-factual history has become hugely popular nowadays, with scholars writing imaginatively on what might have been rather than in more sober fashion of what actually did take place. There are now some entertaining 'what-if' books in the market, which discuss what the world would have looked like if Hitler had won the Battle of Britain, for example, or if Lenin had died of a heart-attack on the train that took him back to Russia in 1917. Such is the new taste among historians of wars and empires and, why not, among historians of Indian cricket as well. Consider thus these six questions:
One. What if the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar had allowed his nephew and ward K. S. Duleepsinhji to captain the All India Team that toured England in 1932' Duleep was Indian by birth and blood, and a beautiful batsman to boot. But when a proposal was mooted for him to lead the first official Test team to represent India, Ranjit shot it down with these words: 'Duleep and I are English cricketers.' But if he had allowed Duleep to be captain, then he would have had as his deputy Iftikhar Ali Khan, Nawab of Pataudi, who too regarded Ranji as his mentor, and would unquestioningly have followed a word from him to abandon England in favour of India. And if Duleep and the senior Pataudi had been there, then that first Indian Test side would have had a much needed stiffening of its middle order. For the bowling was crackerjack, led by the peerless new-ball duo of Mohammed Nissar and Amar Singh. That inaugural Lord's Test of 1932 was always going to be a low scoring match, and with Duleep and Pat on our side, we might actually have won.
Two. What if Lala Amarnath had not been sent back for 'insubordination' less than halfway through the England tour of 1936' Amarnath was then at the very top of his form: batting as he did when he scored India's first Test hundred (in Bombay in 1933-4), and bowling probing inswingers off a six-step run. But the forthright Punjabi fell foul of his captain, the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram, a prince who paid (as distinct from Duleep and Pataudi, princes who actually played). One reason was that Amarnath had made it plain that Vizzy should, at least for the Tests, vacate his place as captain in favour of the great C. K. Nayudu. Vizzy answered by demoting Lala down the batting order in a county match. After a sharp altercation, Amarnath was ordered to pack his bags and take a ship home. He did, only to leave a gaping hope in the heart of his side. Now if Amarnath had stayed, he would have provided fine back-up, with the ball, to Nissar and Amar Singh; and fine back-up, with the bat, to Merchant and Mushtaq Ali. To have had him instead of Vizzy (who, to his eternal shame, played all three Tests) might have meant that India would have made a good fist of what, in his absence, turned out to be a very one-sided series.
Three. What if that superb off-spinner, Ghulam Ahmed, had been chosen for the 1946 tour of England' He was left out mostly because he played for an unfashionable side, Hyderabad, which usually lost in the first round of the Ranji Trophy. As a princely state ruled by a reactionary Nizam, Hyderabad was also quite out of the mainstream of nationalist opinion, a fact which must have hurt Ghulam when the Indian selectors sat down to choose the side for England in that first year of international cricket following the end of World War II. As it turned out, the English summer of 1946 was one of the wettest on record; its wickets made for a tall off-spinner such as Ghulam. He would have made a perfect complement to the left-arm finger-spinner, Vinoo Mankad, who bowled magnificently on the tour. What Mankad needed was an off-spinner at the other end, instead of which he got a wrist-spinner, one of the three who were mysteriously chosen ahead of Ghulam that year. In 1946, as in 1936, had India had the 'right' team it might have drawn the series one-one, instead of losing two-nil.
Four. What if Vijay Merchant and Mushtaq Ali had toured Australia with the Indian team in 1947' Merchant did not go, pleading injury. Mushtaq's family was caught in the communal conflagration of those horrible months before and after August 1947; he first backed out because of threats to his family and then, when things sort of settled down, said he would go, only to be told by the Indian Cricket Board that they could not now take him. At this stage, Merchant and Mushtaq were in their prime, one orthodox, the other attacking; to quote one writer, 'as dissimilar as curry and rice, but just as effective in combination'. They might have been just the pair to combat the fearsome Aussie duo of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller. But in their absence, instead of the finest opening combination in the world, India had to make do with a makeshift pair, a misfortune that goes some way in explaining the four-nil defeat we suffered on that tour (one Test was drawn owing to rain.)
Five. What if Rajinder Goel had been picked in the playing eleven for the Bangalore Test of 1974 against the West Indies' Goel was chosen instead of Bishan Bedi, who had been suspended for one match owing to an interview he had given the BBC in defiance of the then very strict rules binding players to lifelong servitude to the Indian Cricket Board. Now Goel was a very different kind of slow-left-armer than Bedi; much faster through the air than the classically oriented Sikh. However, on the morning of the match Goel was unaccountably left out, with India going in with three spinners of varying methods, who all turned the ball mostly from off to leg. As even a cricket-illiterate could have foretold, the lack of variation was to hurt India. besides, as it turned out, the Test was played on a rain-affected wicket; just the kind of wicket on which Goel was at his most effective. Had he played, and had he taken wickets, then either Bedi's Test career would have been threatened, or Venkat or Prasanna would have been forced into early retirement. For Bedi and Goel bowled to good effect for North Zone, and there was no reason why they could not have done so for India as well.
Six. What if Ravi Shastri had been appointed captain of India in 1990 ahead of Mohammed Azharuddin' Shastri was known to be a fine student of the game, and had substantial experience of captaining sides from the under-19 level upwards. He should have been a shoo-in for the job, except that he was known to be a man who spoke his mind. The board much preferred to deal with a quiet sort of fellow, so they went for Azhar instead. Playing on designer pitches, India then won a lot of Tests at home, but performed dismally abroad. It is quite conceivable that with Shastri at the helm we would not have had a record quite as lopsided as this. And who knows, as a mere player rather than captain, Azhar might have been saved the temptations that were to so cruelly abort his own career.
The 'what-ifs' I have here examined are all plausible rather than fanciful, that is, they were all perfectly within the realm of possibility, and would actually have happened had a single human decided this way rather than that. Naturally, they are all presented to India's advantage, all soaked in the frustrated expectations that every Indian fan brings to the table whenever (and wherever) cricket is played.