CK Nayudu: India’s first world class cricketer

CK Nayudu © Getty Images

CK Nayudu, born October 31, 1895, was the first world class cricketer to represent India in Test cricket. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who was instrumental in getting India the Test status and played First-Class cricket till he was 61.

Hitting condescension for six

On a February evening in 1927, in the manicured lawns of Roshanara Club in Delhi, four men sat in wicker chairs as turbaned bearers ran around serving chhota pegs of whiskey. The motley group comprised two Englishmen and two Indians. Arthur Gilligan, the former captain of England, was the most vocal of the lot. Listening to him were the Maharaja of Patiala, Englishman Grant Govan and Anthony de Mello, an Indian working for Govan.

This was the meeting that laid the foundations of Indian cricket on the international scene. Gilligan, who had brought a strong MCC side on a tour sponsored by Patiala, urged the men to form an Indian Cricket Board. De Mello later wrote, “We felt that a man, so cricket-wise as Gilligan considered Indian cricket had reached a state in its development where it could challenge the world. Gilligan promised to state our case when he returned to Lord’s.”

Gilligan kept his word. Two years later, India gained admittance as a full member of the Imperial Cricket Conference (as cricket’s governing body was then known) and further 3 years down the line, made her Test debut at Lord’s.

This acceptance of India as a major power was a stark departure from the norm of the 1920s, when political Britain could not imagine Indians — or any non-white people — capable of playing the noble game at the highest level. True, West Indies had been admitted into the fold, but the players of varied stock who formed their teams were always led by a white man.

Lord Harris, president of MCC, the former captain of England and an unpopular Governor of Bombay, had encouraged Indians to pursue the game, but that had been more of an attempt to ‘civilise’ them. “We can do indefinitely more work in their climate than they can, and they get fat and lazy as they rise in rank, whilst our civilian are as active as young men,” Harris summed up his contempt in a letter to Lord Cross.

As Gilligan was talking to the others in 1927, Simon Commission was creating furore and Lord Birkenhead’s analysis of the Indian society and people was not really proving to be an improvement on the assessment of Lord Harris.

What then propelled the British to bestow cricketing autonomy on India?

Firstly, Gilligan had none of the ideas of racial superiority hardwired in Harris and Birkenhead.

Besides, he had first-hand experience of the enormous cricketing talent that throbbed in India, waiting to be exposed on the greater stage.

The defining moment of Gilligan’s realisation came on December 1, 1926, 2 months before the pivotal meeting in Delhi. The MCC side, including the likes of Andy Sandham, Bob Wyatt , George Geary and Maurice Tate, took on the Hindus led by Vithal Palwankar at the Bombay Gymkhana.

The visitors, who had won 3 and drawn 9 games on the tour, piled up 363 on Day One, with Guy Earle scoring 130 studded with 8 sixes. The wicket was green and lively, and the MCC fast bowlers relished the thought of bowling on it. At the end of the first day, the Hindu’s reached 16 for 1 with Janardan Navle and LP Jai at the wicket.

The next morning, Navle fell to Geary with the score on 67 and the tall, lithe and compact CK Nayudu walked in.

It was essentially Nayudu’s innings on that day, which was instrumental in elevating India from a minor to a serious power in the cricketing world. Long of limbs and batting with free swing of his arms, the Colonel from Holkar launched into the English attack.

Nayudu started by lifting left-arm spinner Stuart Boyes on to the roof of the pavilion. He took a particular liking for the slow bowling of Boyes, blasting him into the tents twice and then lofting him over the Gymkhana in the same over. Even the umpires applauded this last stroke.

As news spread across the city, office workers headed for the maidan in hordes to witness the devastating assault on the English bowlers. Every tree and roof-top affording some sort of a view of the massacre was soon filled to the brim.

Nayudu continued to hit as wickets toppled at the other end, and each stroke was greeted with deafening roars that could be heard from miles away.

He proceeded to send a ball into the Esplanade Road just like Earle had done the previous day. And then came the only blemish in his innings when medium pacer Ewart Astill dropped him off his own bowling, failing to hold on to a skier with the sun in his eyes. The Hindus went to lunch at 154 for 6.

On resumption, Nayudu steered Tate for four and followed it up with a six and four off Astill, both massive hits to the on-side. This was followed by a mighty smite to square-leg off Tate. In contrast to all these massive hits, his century was reached with a quiet single. It was the first hundred against the MCC in the entire tour and was cheered by all the visiting players, led by captain Raleigh Chichester-Constable. When Wyatt replaced Tate, Nayudu lofted him for 2 huge sixes, the second landing on the roof of the Gymkhana.

The carnage lasted less than 2 hours, but with 13 fours and 11 sixes, Nayudu amassed 153 during the period. Renowned statistician Anandji Dossa later estimated that Nayudu took 16 scoring strokes to get to fifty, 17 more to reach his century and another 16 to get to his final score. Later analysis of scorebooks indicate that the number of boundaries was actually 14.

Nayudu’s innings came to an end when he skied Geary to mid-off after 1 hour 56 minutes of breathtaking entertainment. It was as if a raging storm had suddenly given way to calm. The 11 sixes set a new record in First-Class cricket. The Hindu team finished just 7 short of the MCC total.

The following day, a cartoon appeared in a local newspaper showing a group of spectators sheltering from the shelling on the ledge of the University clock tower pleading: “Don’t hit us CK, we are not playing.”

Gilligan noted, “A really great batsman. I cannot find enough words to express my opinion of him. His polished display of batsmanship was one of the best I have ever seen.” Wyatt remarked that Nayudu’s ability to drive good-length balls back over the bowler’s head made it very difficult to keep him quiet. “The Indian batsman’s perfect poise, high back-lift and long, pendulum swing brought beauty to his strokes.”

MCC presented Nayudu with a silver bat for his stupendous innings. It now rests in the little Cricket Museum inside Polly Bar, within the premises of the Cricket Club of India (CCI).

Captain of India

The knock of Nayudu provided palpating evidence that India was a force to reckon with in world cricket. And when Gilligan went back with the proposal and the men in Lord’s deliberated about it, the cause of the nation was given a further boost by the hockey team which won the gold in the 1928 Olympics at Amsterdam.

Just 5-and-a-half years after the seminal knock, India played in their first ever Test match at Lord’s.

When India toured England in 1932, the Maharajakumar of Vizianagram (Vizzy), and the Maharajah of Patiala were pitted in an epic duel of financial strength, one sponsoring the tour, the other the trials… both with the ultimate goal of becoming the captain of India.

When Patiala was preferred in 1932, and Vizianagram was given the post of the deputy vice-captain, it broke the latter’s ambitious heart. Vizzy then played a master card and withdrew from the tour, ostensibly in the interest of cricket, citing illness which had resulted in loss of form.

Almost immediately, Patiala also passed up the opportunity because of ‘urgent state matters’ to take care of. A Maharajah, however, had to be found, and the board zeroed in on Porbandar, who was appointed skipper of the first touring Indian team.

However, although this newly-appointed captain was woefully short of cricketing skills, he had enough self-realisation to stand down from the helm after some disastrous personal showing. KS Ghanashyamji of Limbdi also wisely opted out. Hence, deservingly, it was the commoner CK Nayudu who led India in their first Test match. Nayudu also led the side back home in 3 more Tests when the Englishmen visited the country for the first time for an official tour.

It was a pity that Nayudu was 36 by the time he played Test cricket. He was less than halfway through his mammoth First-Class career, but perhaps his very best days were behind him.

The formative years

Cottari Kankaiya Nayudu was born at Nagpur, on October 31, 1895. He played cricket for Hislop Collegiate High School of the city of his birth, and excelled in hockey and football as well. He is also said to have run 100 yards in 11 seconds during the early days of his youth.

It was during his high school days that he turned out for the Modi Cricket Club and soon became captain of the side. He also skippered the cricket teams in his school and college. During these formative days, he received some useful instruction from R Ranjanna, a local cricketer who had played against the Oxford University Authentics.

In his very early days, Nayudu had been a dour defensive batsman. It was his father who changed his outlook. Nayudu senior had been in Cambridge during the heyday of KS Ranjitsinhji. Now he encouraged his son to attack whenever opportunity presented itself. By the time he made his First-Class debut, Nayudu’s philosophy towards batting had undergone absolute transformation.

Nayudu played his first match as a 20-year-old, for the Hindus against the Europeans in the Bombay Quadrangular. His major role was that of a medium pacer and he walked in to bat at 79 for 7, with Frank Tarrant creating havoc with his slow left arm medium pace. Nayudu blocked the first 3 deliveries from Tarrant and smacked the fourth for six. He scored 27 in the first innings and 10 in the second and took 4 wickets in the match. The figures were not remarkable, but the strokes that reverberated around the Gymkhana Ground of Bombay definitely were.

The next year, he hit an unbeaten 80 in the final of the tournament against the Parsees. And in the winter of 1918, when Lord Willingdon’s England side played an Indian XI at Bombay, Nayudu scored his first hundred, hitting 122 as the hosts won by an innings.

The England tour of 1932

During the next few years, Nayudu’s consistent big hitting became part of the folklore of Indian sports. When he scored 120 for India against the Europeans in Madras in 1920, one strike cleared the boundary wall on the southern end of the Madras Cricket Club compound and landed near a coconut tree fifty yards beyond the ground. The hit was stated to be easily about 150 yards. However, the next year when he played against the same opposition for the Hindus, foreign recruit Wilfred Rhodes snared him for 3 in the first innings and another prize import George Hirst got him for 1 in the second. Yes, Nayudu had all the talent, but till then his exposure to top grade bowling had been limited.

However, with time the runs became more and more consistent and by the time Gilligan’s MCC side arrived in 1926, he was at his sublime best. By then he had also ventured overseas, scoring 43 and picking up 5 wickets against Dr J Rockwood’s Ceylon XI at Colombo.

By the timethe first official Indian tour to England was arranged in 1932, CK Nayudu was a legend, and his ultimate elevation to the role of captain in thosedays dominated by the Maharajas did not raise too many eyebrows.

Nayudu had already been to England in the summer of 1931 and had played fairly regularly for the Indian Gymkhana. His adjustment to the English conditions therefore did not take too long. He attracted attention with his hard hitting strokeplay, buoyed by supple wrists and a very good eye, and the unusual propensity to lift the ball.

He started with 67 against Sussex, following it up with 85 against Oxford University. And making his first appearance at Lord’s, he hit a spectacular 118 not out against MCC. Another century was scored as the team travelled north to play Lancashire. And then came the spectacular showing of the Indian team in their inaugural Test match at Lord’s.

With Mohammad Nissar and Amar Singh proving to be a superb bowling combination, Jahangir Khan and Nayudu stuck to nagging line and length, and England were reduced to 19 for 3, and then 149 for 5, before folding for 259. Nayudu claimed the important wickets of Douglas Jardine and Eddie Paynter, but had the misfortune of injuring his hand while trying to catch Les Ames at gully. He nevertheless batted through the pain and top-scored with 40 in the first innings. India were cruising at 139 for 3, when he fell to Bill Voce. Inexperience then had its say and the team collapsed to 189 all out and were ultimately defeated by 159 runs.

The disappointment of the Test defeat lingered, but some of Nayudu’s best performances on the tour came afterwards. He struck 101 against Middlesex, 162 against Warwickshire and 130 not out against Somerset. The innings at Birmingham particularly saw some vintage hitting, lending form to the reputation he had carried to England. India were 91 for 7 in the second innings, looking defeat in the face, when Nayudu was joined by Nariman Marshall. The two added 217 in 140 minutes. Nayudu’s 162 came in 3 hours, with 13 boundaries and 6 sixes. One hit over square leg cleared River Rea, the natural boundary between Warwickshire and Worcestershire. Nayudu thus actually hit the ball into the next county.

At Clarence Park, Weston-Super-Mare, Nayudu struck 130 not out in less than 2 hours in the second innings, with 16 fours and 3 sixes. He then dismissed the first 4 Somerset batsmen, missing his hat-trick only because Shankarrao Godambe spilled a straightforward chance.

He ended the tour with 1,613 runs at 42.44 with 5 hundreds and 59 wickets at 29.33. As many as 32 sixes were struck his bat during the summer. Even at 36, he had impressed everyone with his quick movements and anticipation on the field. Nayudu was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year for 1933.

There were supposedly some foolhardy comparisons to Don Bradman whose bat had destroyed attacks all over England 2 years earlier. While dismissing such parallels as stupid, Neville Cardus did pay the Indian captain a sterling tribute in his inimitable rhetoric: “Nayudu has stupidly been called the Bradman of India. He shows no resemblance to Australia’s great and flawless and rather steely master. Nayudu is lithe and wristy and volatile. Bradman is sturdy and concentrated, he never suggests that elusive and poetic quality which is best called sensitivity. Nayudu is a very sensitive batsman: for each of his strokes you get the impression of a new born energy, of a sudden improvisation of superb technique. Nayudu is not at all mechanical. Watching him from the ring you get a delicious suggestion in his play of his fallibility. Unlike Bradman his skill is his servant, not his master. The glorious uncertainty of cricket is not endangered by Nayudu.”

Throughout the tour, Nayudu also charmed the Englishmen with his modesty and willingness to talk about the game.

CK Nayudu: India’s first world class cricketer

CK Nayudu (left) and Lala Amarnath coming out to bat in the India’s first-ever Test match on home soil in 1933 © Getty Images

The 1936 tour, Baqa Jilani and end of Test career

He led India again in 3 Tests when England under Jardine visited in 1933-34. Brabourne Stadium at Bombay saw the first hundred by an Indian in Test cricket as Lala Amarnath struck an excellent 118. Nayudu played second fiddle for a change, scoring 67, but the partnership of 186 was proof of the enormous talent that throbbed in the fledgling cricketing nation.

Appointed as Aide de Camp to the Maharajah of Indore, Nayudu represented the Central Provinces through the 1930s. Although he did not get too many runs in the Tests against the Englishmen, he did score 107 and followed it up by taking 5 for 87 when the visitors played Central Provinces at Nagpur.

Nayudu continued to rattle up big scores in the Bombay Pentangular and the Ranji Trophy, and even at 40 he was one of the first names penned down in the list for the tour to England in 1936.

However, on this trip, he was no longer the captain. By 1936, Vizzy had played all his cards right for several years. He had recruited foreign cricketers, treated them as royal guests, fed them on mulligatawny soups, taken them on big game hunting and lubricated them with whiskey. The grateful cricketers had vouched for him as the right man to lead India. Some of the big names thus won over will shock many, the immortal English opening pair of Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe being two of the most famous.

The truth, however, was that His Royal Highness had little cricketing talent or acumen. Furthermore, he was whimsical, addicted to power and his decisions smacked of favouritism.

While initially some of the county sides fell for his gifts of expensive watches and bowled him one or two long hops, English professionals could not be expected to carry on the sham for too long. Soon, the Kumar was languishing at the bottom of the batting averages. The British press, those who could do away with politically correct diplomacy, were open in their criticism of the tactics — which included no fixed batting order and quixotic field placements.

Nayudu, the senior pro, was understandably not very happy with what was going on. And that did not rub off well on Royalty. A legendary and popular player who had been the captain of India did not make the Maharajah comfortable. Besides, he had not quite forgiven a man from the streets who had dared to lead the Indian cricket team.

Baqa Jilani was a medium-pacer of mediocre ability, who had the good fortune of being asked to be the general to manoeuvre operations in this battle for regal honour. Vizzy lured the young man with the promise of an undeserved Test cap if he insulted Nayudu at the breakfast table.

The instructions were carried out and the upstart, with the backing of the regal captain, heaped abuse on the then greatest cricketer of India. (A precursor of the modern day of Internet forums which need only the cloak of firewall protected invisibility for non-entities to abuse all-time greats?)

Jilani won his only Test cap at The Oval because of following the captain’s instructions to perfection, scoring 4 and 12 and taking no wickets for 55 in 15 overs. India lost the match by 9 wickets. It was in this very match that Nayudu signed off his Test career with 81 in the second innings. It was his highest score in Test cricket.

Nayudu’s 1,085 runs on the tour at 26.46 and no hundreds, along with 41 wickets at 37.70 was a big disappointment to his fans. One such fan was a future President of India, S Radhakrishnan, who came down from Oxford to London to watch him at the wicket. According to the 1936 Wisden, “Nayudu, so brilliant a success on his previous visit to England, disappointed both himself and his friends.” However, there were some bright spots. In the match against Yorkshire, during which the swing of Bill Bowes and the spin of Hedley Verity routed India by an innings and 151 runs, Nayudu top scored with 41 out of 86 and 30 out of 115. Celebrated Yorkshire chronicler Jim Kilburn wrote, “Only when Nayudu was batting, the wizardry ofBowes’ swing disappeared and Verity’s spin vanished from our conscience.”

The next Test India played was in 1946 and by then Nayudu was 50. Thus, his Test career was limited to 7 matches, in which he scored a paltry 350 runs at 25.00 with 2 fifties. He also captured 9 wickets at 42.88.

The long career

However, Nayudu, disciplined and Spartan, remained lean and fit for years after that. He continued to shine in the Ranji Trophy and the Pentangulars. In 1940, the Maharajah of Holkar, his employer for whom Nayudu served as a Colonel, supported the abolishment of the Pentangular. Hence, Nayudu refrained from playing in the tournament from the 1940-41edition.

Nayudu continued to lead Holkar in the Ranji Trophy, scoring 141 against Bengal and 52 against Madras en route the final in the 1944-45 season. Nayudu was 49 at this stage. The final was a marathon affair in which Bombay triumphed in spite a famous double hundred by the star recruit Denis Compton. It is said that the strict disciplinarian that Nayudu was, he allowed Compton to enjoy his drink. The other indulgence that he allowed was his own chain smoking which probably dragged him to an early grave.

Just before the 1944-45 final, the cricket board had celebrated Nayudu’s golden jubilee by organising a match at the Brabourne Stadium between Cricket Club of India and CK Nayudu’s XI. In a star studded affair, Vinoo Mankad, Vijay Merchant and Vijay Hazare scored centuries for CCI while Gul Mohammad and Denis Compton piled hundreds for Nayudu’s team. Brother CS Nayudu, a leg spinner and a hard hitting batsman of considerable merit, took 5 wickets in CCI’s innings.

In the next season, at the age of 50, Nayudu scored 101 against Mysore and 200 against Baroda in back to back matches.

Showdowns with Mankad

In the 1951-52 Ranji Trophy final, Holkar faced off against Bombay. By then Nayudu was the chairman of selectors. He had refused Vinoo Mankad a tour guarantee for the 1952 England tour due to his commitments in Lancashire League. As a result, Mankad was not a member of the touring party.

Whether this had anything to do with the incident that followed is best left to conjecture. Dattu Phadkar bowled a bouncer at the 56-year-old man which struck him on the mouth. Some, including Raj Singh Dungarpur, have suggested that the bumper had been bowled on Mankad’s insistence, but we can never be sure. Nevertheless, as blood flowed down his face onto his flannels, fielders rushed to his assistance and a doctor charged out of the pavilion. However, Nayudu spat out pieces of broken tooth, swept them off the wicket, and took guard again. He also informed Phadkar not to relent because he was feeling well enough to continue. He scored 66.

Nayudu led Holkar to a win in the 1952-53 finals against Bengal and retired from First-Class cricket. He also resigned from his post as a Colonel of Holkar. After the game, Yashwant Rao, former ruler of Holkar, held a party for the players at Grand Hotel and presented everyone a generous purse.

In 1955, CK Nayudu became the first cricketer to be awarded the Padma Bhushan.

However,  in 1956-57, at the age of 61, he was asked to come out of retirement to assist Uttar Pradesh in their Ranji Trophy campaign. In the second match in their Central Zone group, Uttar Pradesh played Rajasthan in Benares. The Rajasthan attack boasted Test stars Gulabrai Ramchand and Nayudu’s old foe Vinoo Mankad.

The old man came in to bat with the score reading 4 for 26 and Mankad in the middle of his spell. The first ball of the left-arm spinner came in with the arm, beat Nayudu’s bat and struck him plumb in front of the stumps. However, the umpire refused to give him out. The furious Mankad now ran in and sent down a beamer. It narrowly missed the grey head and went for four byes. The third ball was pitched up and Nayudu hit it down the ground for the straightest of sixes. Mankad glared down the wicket and Nayudu stood there, his back as straight as ever, ready for whatever could be thrown at him. The next ball went back over Mankad’s head, straight as an arrow and landed outside the boundary. That day he was finally run-out, having dropped his bat on his way to a third run. But, before that he had amassed 84. It stands as one of the most incredible innings ever played.

Nayudu’s final serious game was the quarter-final of the Ranji Trophy of 1956-57, when Uttar Pradesh took on the might of Bombay. There was no stone he left unturned to make a match out of it. Brother CS Nayudu had joined him in the Uttar Pradesh side as well as son CN Nayudu. CS captured 5 wickets and CK 3, but Polly Umrigar and Ramnath Kenny hit hundreds and Bombay piled up 575. CK Nayudu scored 52 in the second innings, but it was far short of enough. Bombay won by an innings.

Nayudu appeared for the last time on the cricket field for Maharashtra Governor’s XI against Maharashtra Chief Minister’s XI, a Defence Fund Match played in 1963-64. He was past his 68th birthday.

The pioneering world class cricketer of India walked away from the scene with 11,825 runs at 35.94 with 26 hundreds and 411 wickets at 29.28.

Death and legacy

A few months before his 72nd birthday, Nayudu suffered a stroke that rendered him unconscious. He remained confined to a bed for half a year before his death. During his last days, he lost his power of speech and visitors were not allowed to meet him. According to DB Deodhar, it was his chain-smoking that brought about this sudden end, merely 4 years after he had played his last cricket match.

The lore of Nayudu, however, remains everlasting. Almost a decade after he passed away, another tall and ramrod straight 19-year old batsman created a stir in Nagpur by lifting Bishan Singh Bedi and EAS Prasanna for 7 sixes in the course of a swashbuckling hundred in the Irani Trophy. He was immediately honoured with the nickname ‘Colonel’. However, Dilip Vengsarkar never quite enjoyed the epithet.

From the 1973-4 season, the national Under-25 championship has been known as the CK Nayudu Trophy. In his hometown Nagpur, a street has been named after him and a bronze bust stands near the Vidarbha Association grounds. In Indore, the other city with which he had a spiritual association, CK Nayudu’s statue stands in front of the Nehru stadium. The CCI Banquet Hall has also been named after him.

One of the most prestigious honours in Indian cricket, bestowed for lifetime achievement, is named The CK Nayudu Award.

It is fitting enough, because this was the man who had placed Indian cricket on the international map for the first time — with powerful hits that reverberated beyond the limiting boundaries of the nation.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at