India’s oldest-living first-class cricketer, Vasant Raiji hits a century
On December 1, 1926, the Bombay Gymkhana grounds teemed with people. George V was then “emperor of India”. BEST buses had been introduced in Mumbai (then Bombay) barely a few months back. And the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) team was visiting to play a game that was still largely the domain of India’s colonial overlords. On that day, MCC was playing a team called “The Hindus”, the strongest local team of the era, but one expected to roll over without a fight against a team that boasted the likes of Andy Sandham, Test cricket’s first triple-centurion.
A six-year-old boy named Vasant Raiji was at the grounds with his father to be initiated into cricket.
It could not have been a better introduction—that was the day when CK Nayudu scored 153, hitting an incredible 11 sixes in a frenzied innings, and bringing in more and more crowds till even the rooftops and treetops around the Gymkhana were hives of cheering people.
Raiji was hooked. Ninety-four years later, Raiji, who will celebrate his 100th birthday on Sunday as the oldest living first-class cricketer in India, can still recall the incredible buzz of the day he first fell in love with the game.
“That would be my greatest memory,” Raiji said, sitting in an easy chair in his spacious South Mumbai apartment that has balconies facing the sea.
“I enjoyed Frank Worrell’s batting too; he was a very graceful batsman. I have enjoyed watching Mohammad Nissar’s bowling, he was a great fast bowler. Then, Vijay Merchant and Vijay Hazare’s technical excellence.
“I watched Lala Amarnath’s 118, also at the Gymkhana, the first century in Test cricket by an Indian batsman. It was a great innings. I was only 12 or 13 years old. I still have memories of the crowds shouting and backing him up.”
Raiji has seen it all—from before India had a Test side, to the country’s first Test at home, and now, when they are the top Test-playing team in the world. In between, in the 1940s, he opened the batting for Mumbai and Baroda, playing nine first-class matches.
“Naturally, I am happy,” he said.
Early on in his playing career, Raiji decided he was not cut out for top level cricket. He left the game to make a living as a chartered accountant, but the game never left him—all his leisure hours were spent watching, reading, talking or writing about cricket.
“The secret of his longevity is his passion for the game. It has not died,” says his daughter Renuka, who is visiting from Perth.
Raiji, wearing a light brown half-sleeved kurta is himself in good cheer.
“Well, it is a feeling of joy that I am celebrating my 100th birthday,” he said, sitting next to his wife Panna, who is 94. “I am not bedridden, that’s why I am enjoying my 100th year. If the health is down and if you are bedridden then there is no point living. It is a gift from God.”
Sometimes, these days, his memory plays truant. But he tries to catch Virat Kohli and his men on TV regularly. He reckons he has seen more cricket than anyone else in the country.
“Cricket means a lot to me. I have played cricket, watched good cricket. I have written books on cricket, including one on Col CK Nayudu, my favourite cricketer. I am absolutely mad on cricket, you can say.”
Cricket’s legends are reciprocating that love; Sachin Tendulkar and Steve Waugh visited him together this week. Sunil Gavaskar came by for a leisurely chat.
When Waugh asked him what gift he would like for his birthday, Raiji said a simple birthday card would be good.
“I have asked my family to bring the same,” he said.
A Cricket Club of India regular, Raiji liked to lunch there, over generously long conversations on cricket.
Raiji’s passion for cricket conversations has not dimmed, and inevitably talk turns to who may be anointed the greatest Indian player.
“It is not possible to choose one,” he said. “I would put Nayudu in the same category as Gavaskar, Tendulkar and Kohli. Nayudu is the first great Indian cricketer. There were no dull moments when he was batting. After that 153, MCC captain Arthur Gilligan recommended that India is ready for Test status. Maurice Tate, who was one of the world’s greatest bowlers, was playing for MCC.”
Among the things Raiji is most proud of is his correspondence with Don Bradman.
“I have gifted the letters to my daughter,” he said. “We exchanged six-seven letters and I am amazed that he found time to write because he must be receiving so many letters from various countries and cricket fans. Stamp charges must be also high.”
On Sunday, Raiji will celebrate his birthday with family coming over from all around the world, and his many friends from Mumbai’s cricket fraternity.