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Birth anniversary special: A tribute to Vijay Merchant from mid-day archive

From mid-day archives: When Sydney-based cricket historian Kersi Meher-Homji paid a special tribute to Mumbai batsman Vijay Merchant...

He was considered India's finest opening batsman till the advent of Sunil Gavaskar in the early 70s. Although injury and World War II limited his Test appearances to only 10 from 1933 to 1951, he finished with the creditable average of 47.72 including three centuries. He was a prolific scorer in domestic cricket and had the amazing first-class average of 71.64, second only to the peerless Bradman's.

Vijay Merchant at The Oval
Vijay Merchant batting against England at The Oval in 1946

About the same height as Bradman, Merchant was more than just a great batsman. He was a writer, a cricket commentator, a witty public speaker and chairman of national selectors. He was also an industrialist and a philanthropist who employed handicapped persons in his textile mills. But it is as an opening batsman that Merchant will be best remembered.

His defence was rock-like. Eagle-eyed and quick-footed, he relished cutting and hooking fast bowlers. His late cuts and fine leg-glances were a treat for the spectators, but a hazard for the wicketkeepers as they were executed as if as an afterthought.

Vijay Merchant
Vijay Merchant in 1936

A master of the front foot, his cover drives rivalled Len Hutton's in elegance. He won international fame in England after some marvellous batting in the two abnormally wet summers of 1936 and 1946. After his magnificent 114 in the Manchester Test and other notable innings he was named as one of Wisden's five cricketers.

In a wet England in 1946, the 35-year old Merchant scored 2385 runs (with seven centuries) at 74.5. Wisden 1947 commented, "No praise is too high for Merchant who, on any reckoning should be counted one of the world's greatest batsmen."

'Good European'
The eminent cricket writer Neville Cardus called Merchant "India's good European." The confrontation between the two mighty run-getters, Bradman and Merchant, was anticipated with excitement during India's pioneering tour of Australia in 1947-48. Merchant was appointed captain, but a groin injury forced him out.

Sunl Gavaskar and Vijay Merchant
Mumbai Legends: Vijay Merchant (R) with Sunil Gavaskar (L)at a function  during the 1970s. PIC/ MiD DAY Archives

Bradman summed up his disappointment by saying, "We were denied the sight of Vijay Merchant, who must surely have claims to be the greatest of all Indian players." First my hero, he later became my close friend and we exchanged many letters from 1967 to 1987 when he passed away. His hand-written letters have the same elegance as his cover-drives and leg-glances.

The author is an Indian cricket historian based in Sydney. This article was written to pay tribute to Vijay Merchant's birth centenary

In his own words...

>> Cricket has taught me to tackle problems as they come, the way one plays every ball on its merit.

>> Cricket has taught me to make up for the failures of others in a game. It has taught me to help those who are less fortunate than I am.

>> Cricket has given me a sportsman-like attitude to life, an attitude which I would have never normally developed.

>> I owe to cricket. Cricket does not owe anything to me.

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