India's oldest living first-class cricketer is 6-days away from his second century
He can't remember that Sachin Tendulkar visited him last week, but rattles off Lala Amarnath's 1933 India-England Test match score just like that. Vasant Raiji on the 100 years of being in love with cricket.
The day we arrive at former first-class cricketer and cricket historian Vasant Naisadrai Raiji's home in Walkeshwar, which once overlooked the rocks of a placid Girgaum Chowpatty getting the name Rockside, it had barely been 24 hours since Sachin Tendulkar and former Australian skipper Steve Waugh had called on him. It was meant to be a surprise visit for the veteran, who will turn 100 on January 26. With this, Raiji becomes the only living Indian first-class cricketer to have scored a century in the game called life.
For Raiji, who has followed Tendulkar's game closely since he was a student of Sharadashram Vidyamandir English High School and who he, in an earlier interview, described as an incarnation of late right-handed batsman LP Jai, the visit was the perfect early birthday gift.
But, a day on, he has no recollection of it.
"Sachin ahiyaa avyo hato (Had Sachin come here?)" he asks his wife, Panna Raiji, 94, entering the drawing room with help from a walker, after wrapping up some reading in his study. When she nods, he apologises: "Sorry, my memory is failing me." First-class umpire Marcus Couto, also part of that meeting, reminds him that he had asked Sachin a question about "the toughest bowler he has ever faced." Raiji draws a blank. But, he is keen to talk cricket. "You need to be loud enough," Couto says, "he is hard of hearing".
Vasant Raiji enjoying a quiet moment on his terrace
This is our second visit to Rockside. The first was in late September 2017, when Raiji was 97. More agile then, he had discussed how Mahatma Gandhi influenced Indian cricket, without ever having wielded a bat. Today, we are here to discuss him, and his obsession for the game. "It was my father [Naisadrai Raiji] who initiated me and my brother [Madan Raiji] into the game as little boys. He encouraged us to play it."
His mother Jayshree, a Gandhian and Satyagrahi, participated in the independence movement, including the Salt March of 1930 when Raiji was 10. She was jailed twice at Yerawada in Pune. The children were, however, not exposed to this information. The focus was always on education and sport.
Raiji's wife Panna, 94, has been married to him for over 70 years
Raiji was 13 when he watched his first international Test match at the Bombay Gymkhana grounds in 1933. India was playing against England, and that's where Lala Amarnath Bharadwaj made his debut. "He got 118 in that game," Raiji remembers distinctly. It would make Amarnath the first Indian batsman to score a century for India in Test cricket. That spell would also mark his own fascination for the game. "Back then, there was no culture of deciding," he says, when asked, how and when he thought of becoming a cricketer. His father didn't want him to become a professional player; he was always meant to assist him at the family's chartered accountancy firm, NM Raiji & Co. "Cricket was a hobby."
In his early 20s, Raiji got two opportunities to play for Bombay in the Ranji Trophy; his performance, he remembers, didn't quite match up and he was dropped from the team. "In those days, the competition was very stiff in the Bombay team. On one occasion, I was run out, and then I was given one more chance. I played, but it was just too competitive. I hold no grudges [about being dropped]. Vijay Merchant and LP Jai were Bombay cricketers and they were good friends," he says. He was later invited to play for Baroda. "My grandfather was the Diwan of Baroda, and the team organisers somehow found out that I was born there. So, they approached me. In the very first match, I scored over 50 [68 and 53] in both innings."
Raiji referencing documents in his study before the interview
Around this time, Raiji moved to England for two years, to study chartered accountancy. Here, he played a lot of club cricket, representing the Indian Gymkhana, often opening for his team and occasionally "playing down the order". "I got over 1,000 runs in the two seasons that I played. But the club standards were quite ordinary. The clubs we played with, were not at par with those I had played with in India."
On his return, Raiji's parents introduced him to Panna Shah, who had completed her MA thesis from Elphinstone College on Indian films; they were married after a six-month courtship.
(From left) Raiji, his father Naisadrai Raiji and JRD Tata
Sitting across Raiji, Panna, who despite her age has been playing warm host and replenishing biscuits and tea at the table, remembers him being obsessive about the game. "It [cricket] was his life. He used to eat and breathe cricket. Every weekend, he'd go to the Cricket Club of India, where he and the friends would discuss cricket. There used to be a sports bookshop called The Marine Sports, owned by one Theo Braganza. He would go there every week, to browse through the sports titles. Every time Theo got a new consignment, he'd ring him up. At one point, he had over 300 books on cricket alone."
In all this, where did he have the time for work? "My husband was a conscientious worker," Panna says. "He was after all, running one of the three top accountancy firms in Bombay at the time." Raiji adds, "Play while you play. And work while you work."
(From left) Raj Singh Dungarpur, Madhav Mantri and Raiji during a function at Bombay Gymkhana. File pic
Before Ranji cricket, Raiji, his brother Madan—he describes him as a good all-rounder—and close friends Anandji Dossa and Uday Merchant had formed a club called Jolly Cricketers in 1936. Raiji who played the Kanga League for this club, led the team to glory in 1951. They shared the honours with Dadar Union Sporting Club. Five years later, in October, 1956, while smashing a century at the Police Invitation Cricket Tournament, for the Cricket Club of India, he ended up breaking a stump into three pieces, during a full-blooded drive. "I don't know how that stump broke," he laughs. "I later requested them [organisers] to allow me to keep it." The smashed wooden stump now finds a pride of place in a showcase in his bedroom. When we attempt to touch it, he admonishes us. His househelp says that it's a souvenir he is most protective about.
Many of the books in his collection, which also boasted the Wisden Almanacks, have been long given away. His prized correspondence with Sir Donald Bradman, his favourite cricketing hero after CK Nayudu, comprising eight letters, have been handed to his daughter, who is based in Australia.
Raiji remembers first writing to Bradman for an autograph. "He was the greatest batsman in the world, and I had the greatest interest in the game," he says. Bradman responded soon after. "I was actually expecting him to reply," he adds. That cemented a bond over a common love for the game. After Raiji stopped playing professional cricket, he continued his association with the game as historian. He has authored over 12 cricket books in his lifetime, including a biography on Nayudu, whom he calls the "shahenshah of Indian cricket". His last book, Cricket Memoirs: Men & Matches of Bygone Days that comprised a collection of his essays and articles, was published by Couto in 2010.
Former Test cricketer Madhav Apte (standing) with Vasant Raiji and Nari Contractor (blue shirt, right) during a function to celebrate 75 years of Jolly Cricketers club at the CK Nayudu Hall of the Cricket Club of India, Churchgate, on April 12, 2011. Pic/ Santosh Nagwekar
Raiji continues to follow cricket, watching matches when he can and reading sport headlines in the newspapers every morning. "[Virat] Kohli is a good batsman," he says, speaking sparingly of the younger lot.
He is, however, quite upset about Test matches falling out of favour. "IPL has managed to attract crowds. People don't have the time for Test matches. A four-day Test series won't work at all. There will be too many drawn matches."
As we are about to leave, he rises from the sofa—taking his time—so that he can lead us to the door. We ask him the secret to a long life. "There is no secret," he says. "You just need to observe the rules of a good life. Worry kills. Smoking kills."
My friend, Bradman
Every time Raiji wrote a book, he sent Don Bradman a copy. While he doesn't have the Australian cricketer's letters on him, except for a copy of one, he did make notes whenever Bradman had something important to share. Raiji reads out Bradman's response to one of his books, India's Hambledon Men: "I don't know what divides the people of India into various religious groups, but I do know that they are all united in the love of the game."
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