By Ashish Magotra

Indian cricket has had its fair share of interesting stories to narrate over the years. A look at some of the famous anecdotes from the first era…

Not quite open and shut

With the Indian tour to Australia coinciding with the 1947-48 domestic season, it was decided that selection would be made on the basis of the 1946-47 season which had concluded nearly six months before India was due to leave for Australia. Long before August 15, 1947, the team to tour had been selected. Vijay Merchant, a captaincy candidate, withdrew and so did Mushtaq Ali (the vice-captain), initially. Ali’s brother died and he decided to stay back in India but then he was convinced by the Maharaja of Holkar to go on the tour but by that point BCCI president Anthony de Mello decided that he didn’t want Ali. Ali went from being vice-captain to not being wanted in a jiffy. So without the established opening pair of Merchant and Ali (who had opening stands of 203, 81, 64, 124 and 94 against England over two tours), India decided to open with Vinoo Mankad and Chandu Sarwate (who had usually batted at No 10 during the 1946 tour of England). It was a disaster waiting to happen and it went along expected lines with Mankad and Sarwate notching up opening stands of 0, 14, 2, 17, 124, 10, 6, 0, 3 and 0 in the five Tests. Selection, as it remains now, was a controversial matter and Ali’s omission never was quite explained clearly.

Independent India’s first Test in Delhi

As India came to be governed by Indians, cricket became part of the Indian scene. The withdrawal of the British, far from affecting the game, seemed to have increased its popularity. And India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was aware of this anomaly. So he became an active patron and supporter of the game. Nehru would also regularly turn out for the annual Parliamentary match. When the time came to decide the venue for independent India’s first Test, Nehru stepped in and decided that Delhi, which had never before staged a Test or representative match, would host the game between India and West Indies in 1948/49. He thought that it was vital that the first Test be played in the Capital. Many politicians have followed Nehru’s lead since then.

A princely sulk with a record on the line

In December 1948, one once again got a glimpse of how crazy Indian cricket was in the early years. Maharashtra’s BB Nimbalkar found form and hit 443 not out at almost a run a minute against Kathiawar. At lunch on the fourth day, Maharashtra were 826 for 4 and it seemed just like a matter of time before Nimbalkar would pass Don Bradman’s then world record score of 452 not out, the highest individual first-class innings. But during the lunch break, Kathiawar’s captain, a minor prince, declared that if Maharashtra declared their innings at lunch, he would bat. If not, he would not field. He would rather concede the match. Maharashtra pleaded with the High Highness the Thakur Sahib of Rajkot but he did not budge.

"They kept saying that you have already scored so many runs, why do you want to get more," Nimbalkar recalled years later. "Their skipper felt that the name of the Kathiawar team would figure in the record books for the wrong reasons. I was left stranded in the middle of the ground. I didn't like the approach of the Kathiawar team. How could they be so unsporting? Once I came to know that I was just 10 runs short of a world record, I was desperate to achieve it because it would have put Sir Don's name behind me. But this didn't happen."

Nimbalkar had further explained: "Had I known, I would have gone for the runs. My captain sent me a message that I should stay at the wicket, so I did just as I was asked. I did not put my personal objectives ahead of the side. I played for the team."

The first win

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru meets the Indian players.

For a while, it was suggested that India should be demoted and not recognised as a Test nation. They had played 24 Tests and failed to get a single victory. It wasn’t just India though. Pakistan and New Zealand were in the same boat as well. So looking at it from that point of view, the first Test win was vital. India needed it. Desperately. And that win arrived when a weakened England arrived in India in 1952. The England side included only two of their world-class players in Tom Graveney and Brian Statham. There was no Len Hutton, no Denis Compton, no Godfrey Evans, no Alec Bedser, no Jim Laker, no Peter May and no Freddie Brown. But it still needed a very special performance by Vinoo Mankad to seal the win.

As Wisden put it: “They made history by recording their first Test victory, and they did it in emphatic style. Undoubtedly India were the superior all-round side and they went all out for success from the first ball. Their hero was Mankad, who bowled superbly in each innings, taking twelve wickets in the match for 108. His performance of eight for 55 in the first innings has seldom been bettered in Test cricket when it is considered that the pitch gave him little assistance. Mankad's bowling inspired the whole side, the fielding being far better than in previous matches and the batting possessed a more adventurous spirit, necessary for the occasion. England disappointed badly. There was no real reason for the batting collapse in the first innings which virtually decided the match. Hopes that they could stage one of their renowned recoveries were dashed when the pitch turned difficult after the third day.”

How Gupte’s career ended

When Garfield Sobers said that Subhash Gupte was clearly superior to Shane Warne, many eyebrows were raised. But speak to those who watched him play or played with him and few will disagree. Former India cricketer Madhav Apte would say ‘he never saw him bowl badly’. Duleepsinhji would compare him to the legendary Australian leg-spinner Clarrie Grimmett. Erapalli Prasanna believed that ‘Gupte could bowl any line and length at will’. Gupte’s accuracy and guile were second to none but even he was foxed by the manner in which his career ended.

During the 1961 Test against England, a hotel receptionist complained to the Indian team management that one player was asking her out for a drink. Apparently, the player in question was Kripal Singh, who was Gupte’s room partner. When Gupte saw the BCCI president MA Chidambaram at the airport, he told him that Kripal had said the leg-spinner had nothing to do with the incident. But the BCCI president ensured that both were dropped and later they were not considered for the tour of West Indies. At the hearing, Gupte found himself reprimanded by one board member for not doing more to stop his room-mate using the telephone!

Skipper Nari Contractor later recalled the incident, "There was rain and play was not possible. Six of us including Subhash were playing 'Teen Patti' in my room. How could he harass the girl when he was with me? The other player, who was named, wasn't in the room and on my inquiry, he not only admitted it, but assured that he would clear the matter with BCCI president MA Chidambaram. I was called by the president on the last day of the match and was told that Gupte will not be considered for the next two Tests. I tried to reason out, but the president stood firm. I realised then that the guilty player hadn't met Chidambaram. I felt sorry for Subhash."

And that was how the career of one of India’s greatest spinners ended. In 36 Tests, he took 149 at an average of 29.55.

1947 - 1970