Excerpts from the freewheeling chat:
You are more active than most 80-year-olds. How do you keep fit?
I have been a sportsperson all my life. I am fond of not just cricket. I play badminton regularly. Sport has been an important part of my life.
Tell us how Vinoo Mankad coached you?
I was in Elphinstone College. Vinoobhai was appointed as coach. On the first day, I happened to be the first person on the ground. He asked me to bowl to him.
To impress Vinoobhai, I bowled a googly. He missed and it went on to hit the stumps.
Incidentally, my school record in Giles Shield still stands – 10 wickets for 10 runs against Robert Money High School (Grant Road).
He once asked me whether I would open the innings. I knew if I had to keep my place in the playing XI, I would have to bat well. I agreed and that is how it all started.
Vinoobhai would make us stand at the back of the nets to observe Vijay Merchant, who was a very good leaver of the ball.
What was it like opening the batting for India with your coach Vinoo Mankad at the Brabourne Stadium in the Mumbai Test against Pakistan in 1952 and putting on 55?
I debuted for Bombay in 1951-52. It was incredibly tough to get into the Bombay team. I got a chance through a stroke of luck. Vijay Merchant injured himself in the nets before the Saurashtra match. I did not know that I was a stand-by opening batsman. I got a chance and scored a hundred on debut. Vijaybhai graciously said that since Bombay has a young opening batsman, I do not need to be in the team anymore. I had a good season and was in contention for India selection. But I wasn’t selected for the England tour (of 1952). Vijaybhai asked my parents to send me to England with the Indian team to watch cricket and if there was an injury, I might get a chance to play as well. I toured with the team. I was fortunate to see Mankad’s ton at Lord’s from the scorers’ box. I was aspiring to join Oxford or Cambridge University in the UK. But I took another chance as the Indian team had done badly on the England tour. And fortunately, I was selected for the Pakistan series.
Your West Indies experience…. playing against a side which had the three great Ws… Weekes, Worrell and Walcott…
We were a young side barring Vijay Hazare, Vinoo Mankad and Dattu Phadkar. We went there as underdogs. In fact, everybody was worried that we would be massacred in the West Indies. But our performance was beyond expectation even for the West Indies team. Polly (Umrigar) had a great tour… he got two hundreds and I was second best. We fought hard. It was the best fielding side to visit the Caribbean, according to the West Indies team. We lost only one Test in that five-match Test series.
Now, your match-saving 163 not out in the Trinidad Test. Did the duck in the first innings (bowled by Gerry Gomez) strengthen your resolve?
I wouldn’t deny that my knock indeed saved the Test. I was lucky to get enough chances. Vinoobhai gave me tremendous confidence from the other end. He would tell me in Gujarati ‘deekra tu khali ubho re, hoon runs kari laish’ (You just hang in here, and leave it to me to score the runs). There was another interesting thing that happened during that match. I was on 99 and got very anxious to score that one run. Gomez was bowling and Frank Worrell was in the slips. In my anxiety, I was trying hard to get that single. Worrell from the slips told me ‘cool it, young man. Don’t throw away your innings. Have patience’. It was very sporting of him.
Anyone who is on a pair does not think of scoring a hundred. He thinks about scoring that first run and avoid the stigma of a pair. Incidentally, whenever I have been on a pair, I have scored a hundred. It happened on three occasions during my first-class career as well.
Amazingly, you were never picked for India after that series. What do you feel when you recall your in-a-nutshell record: seven Tests, 542 runs, Average 49.27?
It would be untrue to say that I wasn’t disappointed. It happened to be the silver jubilee year of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). In 1953, the board invited Commonwealth teams. The first ‘Test’ was in Delhi in which I played. I got 30-odd runs. After that match, I was dropped. Why, I don’t know yet. I could have understood that an opening batsman was given a chance for whatever reason. But for the following ‘Test’ at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai, Naren Tamhane opened the innings. He never even opened for his club side. I was really disappointed. My livelihood was not dependent on the game. I had a family business to look after. I was also pursuing other sports as well like tennis, squash and badminton.
Your Test career lasted only five months. How did you get over the disappointment?
There was no question of getting over the disappointment. My interests in the game did not diminish through the frustration of getting dropped. I continued playing for Bombay, my club, Kanga League etc. I had to just accept what had happened and move on.
Did the cricketing experience help in your family business?
Undoubtedly. Cricket is a good leveler. If you are out, it is over no matter what. There is no second chance like in the other sports. Cricket has taught me that success and failure are a part of life. You may be out for a duck, but next day, you can score a ton. It is same in business. There will be tough and happy times. It has been an all-round experience in life.
You became Sheriff of Mumbai. How did that come about?
Sharad Pawar and Ajit Gulabchand, who are my good friends, told me that my name has been recommended for the Sheriff’s post and I shouldn’t say no. I think it is only recognition for contributing something to the city. It was an interesting experience as I got an opportunity to interact with all the strata of the society.
Are you still a regular at Wimbledon?
We go to Wimbledon, but that is not the only reason we go there. We go to England in summer because there are a lot of sporting events happening there… cricket, tennis etc. Our family is a sports-loving family. My brother (Arvind) played Test cricket for India. My son Waman is a successful India squash player. My daughter was an inter-school badminton champion. My entire family is a member of the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club). We have a flat very close to Lord’s. So, I can just walk across the road to watch a match.
How do you reflect on your long first-class career from 1951-52 to 1967-68?
Bombay had an extremely strong team. I had the good fortune to captain the team once, but not as a regular skipper. Cricket had not spread as widely across India as it is now. There were not many teams playing then. There is more competition now and that is why the Bombay team does not win Ranji Trophy as often as it used to during the earlier days.
How talented was your brother Arvind?
I have no qualms in accepting that Arvind was a better batsman than me. We both were opening batsmen, but I was luckier. He deserved more chances. He got only one Test – against England at Leeds in 1959.
The Kanga League, which you played for 50 plus years, must have given you unadulterated joy…
The Kanga League tested me the most. It was the most interesting tournament I have played. Playing in overcast conditions was the most challenging part. It helped in making your technique sound.
You were rarely seen without that Harlequin cap…
(Laughs). That is not the case. After becoming a member of the MCC, I was entitled to wear that cap. Prior to that, I would wear any cap. I must have run out of other caps, so that is why I would wear that cap. It had flashy colours, so it became attractive on the maidans. There was no other reason for wearing that cap.
Do you still have that Stuart Surridge bat?
Yes, I have four or five. But I would use more of Gunn & Moore (bats). Gunn & Moore were in Nottingham while Stuart Surridge was close to London. It was convenient to go to London, so that is how I switched over to Stuart Surridge. But my original brand was Gunn & Moore.
What do you remember of playing a club game which featured a young Sachin Tendulkar in the late 1980s?
I played against him when he was a 14-year-old. I was playing for the CCI in the Purshottam Shield quarter-final at Shivaji Park Gymkhana. One of my teammates Hemant Kenkre told me to watch Tendulkar closely. I asked him in Marathi ‘ha kon re?’ (who is he?). He told me he is Sachin Tendulkar. I had obviously read about his record partnership (664 runs) with Vinod Kambli in inter-school cricket. He was the best talent I had seen at that age. My only concern was about him keeping his head on his shoulder. Luckily, he did and played for India soon after that. He was in a different league altogether.
You were president of the CCI when Sachin played for the club as a 15-year-old and you had to break the dressing room rules. Tell us all about it?
Raj Singh Dungarpur and I were discussing about drafting Sachin Tendulkar as a playing member of the CCI. But there was a technical issue as under-18s could not use the dressing room facilities. We were keen to get Sachin to CCI. We went to the committee and requested them to bend the rules and they unanimously agreed.
How would you compare Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar having watched them from close quarters?
I would not like to do so as comparisons are very subjective. They both played in different eras. There are various factors that need to be evaluated (for comparison). But if asked who has given me more pleasure, I would say Tendulkar. I would not say watching Gavaskar was no fun, but Tendulkar’s aggression was thrilling. The audacity of some of his shots was mind-boggling.
In 2000, Sharad Pawar asked you to head Mumbai Cricket Association’s first Cricket Improvement Committee. How do you look back at that stint?
Mr Pawar took the decision that the managing committee of the association should leave cricketing decisions to the experts. I was lucky to have a team who were on the same wavelength. I don’t think the MCA is yet clear about the role of the CIC. Improvement of what? That means something is wrong. Then, what is wrong? We have to first identify that. Secondly, by what standards will we be judging the health of Mumbai cricket? Will it be decided on the number of Ranji Trophy titles we have won? There was no specification on various factors. We have to be realistic that Mumbai cannot be a dominating team as it used to be because the competition has increased.
What is ailing Mumbai’s cricket?
The real problem lies at the grassroot level. School cricket is completely ignored. Matches are ill-organised. Beyond giving grounds, the MCA does not manage inter-school tournaments (Harris and Giles Shield). It is governed by the Mumbai Schools Sports Association. The MCA should take charge. Good umpires stay away from officiating inter-school tournaments. MCA should invest in junior level cricket, provide good ground conditions so that the talent can grow.
Finally, how are you going to celebrate turning 80?
With friends and family. Wine and dine, although I am not sure about the order of that (laughs).