Legends say that the burden of captaincy prevented Vijay Hazare from being the best Indian batsman ever. Photo courtesy: Legends Club, Mumbai
Vijay Hazare © Getty Images

Vijay Hazare, born March 11, 1915, was the first of the many world-class middle order batsmen produced by India and the captain under whom the country won her first ever Test. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who scored two hundreds in an Adelaide Test against the furious pace of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller.

A lesson in modesty

The Second World War had just come to an end. The Indian team had travelled to England for the first official tour since the madness and mayhem.

Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi’s men had thus far given quite a good account of themselves. The first Test match at Lord’s had been lost by ten wickets, but there had been a fair amount of success against the county sides. The teams in England were still in the process of struggling with rationing and recovering from the aftershocks of the air raids and gunfire.

But, then they ran into that great cricketing county of Yorkshire. After being skittled out for 138 on a difficult Bradford wicket, the Indians spent the second day on the field watching Len Hutton bat impeccably for five and a half hours to compile an unbeaten 183. That night, after dinner, middle order batsman Rusi Modi went out for a stroll with another Indian batsman. And during the walk, Modi’s companion turned towards him and said, “Rusi, after seeing Hutton’s wonderful display today, I feel as if I don’t know a thing about batting.”

This was a comment from the man considered to be one of the two supreme run machines of Indian cricket of that era, someone who already had two triple hundreds in First-Class cricket under his belt. In the return match against Yorkshire, he amassed 244 not out.

Yes, Vijay Hazare took some time to stamp his name in the international arena, but when he did so it was with a seal of permanence. There were whispers that went around the Indian cricketing circles in the mid-1940s that regardless of his immense success in the Pentangular and Ranji Trophy, the middle order batsman was not quite suited for Test cricket. That was until the Adelaide Test, 1947-48, when Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Ernie Toshack, Colin McCool and Ian Johnson sent down the best they could and the Indian maestro serenely batted his way to 116 and 145 in two extraordinary innings. The feat has gone down in the folklore of Indian cricket.

Perhaps less frequently recalled is the other startling Hazare fact of the Australian tour. The Indians got Don Bradman’s wicket four times during the Test series in exchange of a paltry amount of 715 runs. And Hazare dismissed the great man twice. Apart from actually knowing quite a bit about batting, enough to live on in memory as one of the greatest ever Indian batsmen, Hazare was also a useful medium-pacer who could be quite devastating on occasions in First-Class cricket.

The Adelaide Test was a watershed moment. After that, in every Test series, official or unofficial, from 1947 to 1952, Hazare either scored the highest number of runs for India or, failing that, finished with the best batting average. During these five years, he scored 3,186 runs for India at 69 per innings, 1,875 of them from 22 Tests at 60.48, and 1,311 in the spate of unofficial ‘Tests’ at 87.40.

However, the figures are just about indicative of the sense of security he used to provide to an Indian innings, even as he sat in the dressing room quietly waiting his turn to bat. From his favoured position of number four, he revelled at his undertaking as the post-disaster reconstruction man. Often one saw him face as much of the bowling as possible, from both ends — a course of action dictated by security measures rather than selfish hogging of the strike. Hazare was often burdened with the plight of many an Indian batting great — that of being the only consistent man in the line-up, the foundation who was also expected to develop the structure of the innings.

Yet, in spite of all this, that comment to Modi was typical of the man. Hazare was eternally humble, modest, self-effacing and almost reclusive.

John Arlott, an ardent admirer, wrote about him during that 1946 tour: “Hazare is never satisfied with his score and is incapable of throwing away his wicket.  The century mark, the double-century mark, are only milestones in an unvarying pace of scoring … he is concerned with scores and is developing into a capable machine for making them.” And yet he added, “Vijay Hazare, a tiger-hunter, all-round cricketer and captain in the State Army of Baroda looks, at first encounter, none of these things. A slim man with a shy, gentle smile, much averse to walking in the rain, hiding within himself at social functions, rarely speaking unless spoken to, one could take the impression of an impractical recluse.”

Vijay Hazare batting at Old Trafford, 1952 © Getty Images
Vijay Hazare batting at Old Trafford, 1952 © Getty Images

Captures runs and wickets, not imagination

Hazare’s stance at the wicket was far from pleasing. Neither was his grip orthodox. One hand remained at the extreme top of the handle, and the other at the bottom pressing the blade. The bat rested between the pads, with the batsman’s entire weight thrown down upon it, the right shoulder stretched towards the off-side to render him almost square on with the bowler. It often seemed that with such a stance the bat could not be moved to produce a correct stroke, but somehow Hazare managed to do so without fail. The big gap between the hands hinted at possibilities of a catch at cover or mid-off on a turning wicket. Yet, Hazare was seldom dismissed that way. According to Raj Singh Dungarpur, his hands moved up and down the handle as he played his strokes, much like a musician playing the flute.

It seemed a miracle to see a man with the perfectly wrong stance and grip make runs. But, Hazare performed that miracle with unfailing regularity. The unorthodox stance seemed to melt away as he rocked on back foot to essay superb square-cuts, and sometimes the stroke was delayed to the final microsecond to beat the fielder. His lean, lithe frame would also swivel around like an athletic and optimised machine as he hooked forcefully to the leg side. He could move forward fluently, threading the on-side with facile drives or beating the covers with powerful ones. The on-drive was perhaps the most pleasing sight of his game. He eschewed all risks, and remained always difficult and sometimes impossible to dismiss, seizing his runs when they came his way. However, for all his dourness, he also scored a century before lunch on three separate occasions in First-Class cricket.

Hazare seldom moved writers to poetic eulogies — the flowery tributes came much later, wrapped in the gold dust of time, through a combination of the unseen innings and rosy retrospection. He was not known for grace and artistry. His value to Indian cricket was far more unique, in the currency of actual runs and consistency.

Hazare was comfortable against every form of bowling. Fred Trueman, who memorably clashed with him during his debut series in 1952, declared Hazare to be ‘as good a player of fast bowling as there was in the world at that time. He was a lean, resolute man who stood as erect as a Grecian pillar.’ More memorably, Trueman vouched that Hazare was a perfect ‘gentleman’.

The master batsman, according to Modi, probably relished leg-spin more than any other form of bowling. Quite natural that, given the Clarrie Grimmett connection.

As a bowler, Hazare was just about medium-pace, able to use the new ball if such were the demands placed on him. His run up was all of twelve yards, most of the walk back to his mark spent in gazing towards the long-on boundary. His action was round arm, and produced swing each way and also an off-break and a leg-break. The curious leg-break was spun with four fingers, without involving the wrist. And sometimes it went straight through.

According to Arlott again, “Hazare has the finest temperament for a cricketer, not a man with ‘no nerves at all’ but a man with nerves which key him to the peak of his powers when the situation most demands it … He captures runs and wickets, but not the imagination — a fact which, I am sure, does not disturb him a scrap.”

The Grimmett connection

Hazare was born in Sangli in March 1915, one of eight children of a schoolteacher. From his early days, cricket and football were much more down his alley than textbooks. He started out as a medium-pacer who could also bowl leg-spin and was a phenomenal schoolboy cricketer at Sangli High.

In 1934-35, the very season Ranji Trophy was set up as the national championship, Hazare made debut for Maharashtra, batting low down in the order and bowling medium pace.

He was employed by Maharaja Vikram Singh of Dewas during that time. Soon, it became known that the legendary leg-spinner Clarrie Grimmett had been overlooked from the Australian team and was available for coaching engagements. The Raja Saheb of Jath, a relative of the Maharaja of Dewas, invited the great man to learn the art of the googly. When Grimmett arrived, the Raja asked Hazare to come over for instruction.

Grimmett bowled to him with a tennis ball, and passed him tips about defence. Hazare soon realised the value of a sound defence as the foundation of technique. He asked Grimmett whether he could add the googly to his repertoire of bowling skills, which included the finger-spun leg-breaks. The leg-spinner wisely advised against it, and also asked him to concentrate on his batting.

Hazare played for Central India as a teenager and was included in the side to play Jack Ryder’s Australians during the unofficial 1935-36 tour. He also played for Maharashtra against MCC at Pune in 1933-34, against Lord Tennyson’s side in the unofficial Test at Lahore in 1937, and toured England with the Rajputana side in 1938.

However, Hazare made his first major impact in the domestic scene when he scored 316 for Maharashtra against Baroda in early 1940.

The rivalry between the two Vijays

The next season, he was transferred to Baroda in 1941. Here he made a reputation as a tiger hunter and was engaged as a captain in the army of Maharaja Pratapsinhrao Gaekwad of Baroda. And this stint with Baroda kickstarted the epic rivalry with the first great opening batsman of India, Vijay Merchant.

Like Hazare, Merchant was the very personification of humility. When comparisons were later made between his phenomenal first-class average with that of Bradman, he exclaimed with mortified horror, “Please never again mention my name in the same breath as Sir Donald Bradman. It is sacrilege.”

Yet, these two polite batsmen, with a lot of mutual admiration for each other, were bound together by a common appetite for huge scores. And soon it developed a well-established rivalry — much promoted in the media. When asked, both tended to play down the run-race, but the record breaking was so phenomenal that it nearly bordered on the ridiculous.

Playing for the Hindus against the Muslims in the Bombay Pentangular, Merchant hit the Indian first-class record score of 243 in 1941-42. In the very next edition of the championship, Hazare surpassed it scoring 248 for the Rest against the Muslims.

In the finals of the 1943 tournament, Hindus met the Rest at the Brabourne Stadium and piled up 581, including yet another record-breaking effort of 250 by Merchant. Hazare bowled 52 overs in the innings.

The Rest were bowled out for 133 in the first innings with Hazare scoring 59 of the runs. They crashed to an innings defeat with a total of 387 in the second. But in this relatively modest second innings score, Hazare’s contribution was an amazing 309.

It was perhaps the innings of his career, when he had a ready answer for everything thrown at him. When Ranga Sohoni dropped short, Hazare’s vicious hooks caused dents in the railings of the East Stand. CS Nayudu’s leg-breaks were dispatched with disdain and plenty of time to spare. As many as 300 were added with brother Vivek Hazare for the sixth wicket, the latter’s share being 21.

Within the span of one week, the two great men had broken each other’s record thrice. This tussle continued in the Ranji Trophy. When they faced off barely a week later, Merchant scored 141 in Bombay’s 487 and Hazare responded with 109 in Baroda’s reply of 297.

Another couple of weeks down the line, Bombay met Maharashtra and Merchant shattered all the previous records with an innings of 359.

This obviously caught the imagination of the public and the media, and both the cricketers continued to carry themselves with too much poise and dignity to confess the rivalry. Nevertheless, the saga of giant scores continued in England in 1946; when Merchant made 242 against Lancashire it was almost predictable that Hazare should immediately respond with 244 against Yorkshire.

However, there are a few who were rather critical of this competition. Brian Statham, the legendary English fast bowler, certainly felt there was a perpetual battle between the two that did not always work well for India.

In his autobiography Flying Balls, Statham wrote disparagingly about his first full tour, a visit to India with the English team of 1951-52. He found the conditions appalling, the food, accommodation and wickets unsuitable for good cricket. And he also mentioned that Merchant and Hazare carried their legendary clash of tall scores into the Tests.

Indeed, in the first Test at Feroz Shah Kotla, the tactics of these two men raised several eyebrows. England had been bowled out for 203 by the end of the first day. When India batted, Merchant and Hazare came together with the score reading 64 for 2. By the end of the second day, they had crawled to 186 for 2, adding 39 in the last hour-and-a-half. Merchant, in the process, had completed his century. The pair batted on well into the second session of the third day, adding 211 runs in 5 hours 10 minutes. Statham says that often the batsmen ran only one when two, or even three, were for the taking. Even when well settled, they did not seem keen on hammering a tired English attack on a docile wicket, although fast scoring was definitely the requirement of the moment.

When Merchant was finally bowled by Statham, he had batted seven-and-a-half hours for 154, a new Test record for India, passing Hazare’s 145 scored in Adelaide, 1947-48.

Hazare, then the captain, could have declared around tea, with a huge lead, to have a go at the exhausted Englishmen. However, he decided to bat on and declared only at the end of the last session, thus enabling the visitors to enjoy the rest day before starting their second innings. By then, with his 8-hour-35-minute vigil he had regained his record with 164 not out.

When a dogged England held out for a draw, the tactics did come under a lot of criticism. Although both the men later denied any on-field rivalry leading to slow scoring and delay in declaration, quite a few, like Statham, were convinced otherwise. It was a case when the two great batsmen, responding to a first name that meant Victory, could not go beyond their own fame and win it for India.

Rebirth as an international star

With his Wartime exploits, Hazare was a natural choice for the tour of England in 1946. However, his form in the Tests turned out to be mediocre. He did get through the tour with 1,344 runs at 49.77 and used the conditions masterfully to pick up 56 wickets at 24.75, but the three Tests saw him score just 123 runs at 24.60.

Yet, the run machine resumed the process of producing epics in the domestic season of 1946-47. Against Holkar in the Ranji Trophy final, Hazare hit 288 and Gul Mohammad 319 as they added a world-record 577 for the fourth wicket.

Hazare was already 32 when he went to Australia with Lala Amarnath’s men, with 13 years of First-Class cricket behind him but no international success to show for it. He had only three centuries in all the matches considered international — 244* against Yorkshire and 193* against Middlesex on the 1946 tour of England and 117 against Cambridge University for Rajputana in 1938. His inherent modesty and the tendency to underestimate himself perhaps stood in the way of realising his true potential.

On the Australian tour, Hazare was rather slow to discover himself. He did get 95 against South Australia, 83 against Victoria and 142 against New South Wales, but Test success continued to elude him. The first six Test innings against Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller yielded just 74 runs.

And then came the Adelaide turnaround. Perhaps the regular and absolute collapses of the side suddenly made him aware that he had to become the bulwark of the Indian batting. The fourth Test saw the rebirth of the gritty batsman as a world class performer.

In the first innings, Hazare scored a serene 116, adding 208 with Dattu Phadkar. Yet, it was not enough to take India past the follow-on mark. When the side batted again, Vinoo Mankad and Amarnath were both dismissed without a run on the board. In went Hazare again, with the fire-breathing duo of Lindwall and Miller going for the kill. Miller bounced him twice and Hazare responded excellent hook shots, both played down onto the ground,  to send them screaming to the fence. The bowler asked Bradman for one more fielder on the leg-side. The legend simply replied: ‘please go on bowling’. Miller completed the over with much slower deliveries. Hazare went on to score 145 and Bradman was one of the first to shake his hands and congratulate him for his twin hundreds.

When India played the fifth Test at Melbourne, Hazare was a picture of new-found confidence as he hit 74. The side was routed in the series, but in Mankad, Phadkar and Hazare a pattern for the future was discovered, embroidered in golden thread.

The following Test series was at home against West Indies. Hazare scored 543 runs in all, including two flawless hundreds in separate Tests at the Brabourne Stadium, and three half-centuries, two of them in the Test at Calcutta. In the second Test, his 134 rescued India. In the final Test at Brabourne, with 361 to win in the fourth innings, Hazare’s 122 took them within striking distance of a near-unbelievable win. He was sixth out for 285, and Phadkar determinedly pushed the score along. Indians finished 6 runs short of the target, with 2 wickets still standing, the Test brought to a halt after umpire Bapu Joshi miscounted and called stumps with time enough for another over.

The next international series would not take place before 1951-52, and Hazare spent the summers playing in the Lancashire League. He scored 1.075 runs at 71.66 and took 104 wickets at 9.82 for Rawtenstall in 1949; and followed it up with 760 runs at 44.70 and 89 wickets at 10.02 for Rayton in 1950.

Burden of captaincy

Hazare was made captain of India for the 1951-52 series against England. It was not really a move that met universal approval. The man himself had all the right credentials as a player and had an unblemished image far away from controversy. However, in many quarters it was felt that he was not really cut out for the job and the responsibility would affect his batting. As Merchant later said, “The burden of captaincy prevented Hazare from becoming India’s finest batsman — which is one of the greatest tragedies of cricket.”

Yet, there was no real indication at first that leadership would affect his batting. Hazare scored 164 not out at Delhi, in that game of mid-pitch rivalry with Merchant. At the next match at Brabourne Stadium, he took 15 minutes after winning the toss to decide to bat. In the first innings, he scored another slow and steady 155, continuing his superb run in Test cricket. However, on the second morning, he tried to hook a short-pitched ball from Fred Ridgway and played it on to his forehead over his pith helmet. The result was a deep cut, and when he tried to retire hurt he was ordered back on to the field by manager CK Nayudu. Hazare’s confidence took a nasty beating, his batting was never really the same in the three remaining Tests of the series.

However, the series did end with the historic win at Chepauk. It was India’s first victory after nearly two decades of Test cricket, and Hazare was the skipper at the helm when it happened. Not many give him too many marks as a captain, but according to the man himself, he did have a hand in Mankad’s excellent performance that won India the game. In an interview given years later, Hazare claimed that he had goaded Mankad by telling him that Ahmed at the other end would walk away with all the credit.

But, this was followed by India’s disastrous tour of England in 1952, when they came against the explosive speed of Freddie Trueman. The visitors were routed 3-0 in the series, saved from a complete rout by merciful rain at The Oval. But Hazare did manage scores of 89, 56, 69* and 49 to end with 333 runs at 55.50. It was a series that tested his ability as the rescuer to the full, the scores reading 42 for 3, 17 for 5, 7 for 2, 6 for 5 and famously 0 for 4 in the five innings when he came in. Hazare countered the situation with placid calm and assured approach, battling Trueman and Alec Bedser, emerging as one of the best batsmen of the world. He ended the tour with 1,077 runs and his bowling feats included 7 for 50 against Middlesex, including three wickets in four balls.

According to the retrofitted ICC batsman rankings, in November 1952 Vijay Hazare (right) was number two in the world after Len Hutton (left) © Getty Images
According to the retrofitted ICC batsman rankings, in November 1952 Vijay Hazare (right) was number two in the world after Len Hutton (left) © Getty Images

However, his indomitable spirit did not really move his teammates to similar feats. In the end, Wisden noted, “With all due respects to Hazare, a thorough gentleman and a great cricketer, he was far from the ideal captain. His shy, retiring disposition did not lend itself to forceful authority.” According to Merchant, “Hazare was always a disciplined soldier, never a commander. Captaincy affected his otherwise unflagging concentration and he was never the same batsman again.”

End of Test career

Relieved of captaincy, Hazare’s bat continued to notch up huge scores when Pakistan visited. He underlined his class by scoring 76 at Delhi and 146* at his favourite Brabourne Stadium on a difficult wicket. According to the retrofitted ICC batsman rankings, in November 1952 Hazare was number two in the world after Len Hutton.

With Amarnath leaving the Test scene at the end of the series, the captaincy was handed back to Hazare for the series in West Indies in 1952-53.

It hastened a rather sad end to his career. Although the team performed creditably enough, losing only one of the five Tests, Hazare failed miserably with the bat, crossing 50 only once in 10 innings.

Returning to India, he announced his retirement from Test cricket. He continued in the First-Class scene for long, the appearances getting more and more sporadic with years till he finally called it a day in 1967 at the age of 52. By that time, he had already served as a selector and the chairman of the selection committee. He had also been awarded the Padma Shri in 1960.

Hazare appeared in 30 Tests for India, leading the side in 14 of the matches. He scored 2192 runs in all, at a very impressive average of 47.65, with seven hundreds. In First-Class cricket, his amount of runs stands at 18,740, at a staggering 58.38 with 60 centuries.

His efforts with the ball brought him scant success in Tests, with only 20 wickets at an expensive 61 apiece. However, at the First-Class level he could often be quite a handful, scalping 595 wickets at 24.61 with three ten-wicket hauls and a hat-trick.

In 1997, Hazare was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. He was operated upon, but a recurrence set in 2004. BCCI insisted upon paying all his medical expenses, but the treatment was not successful. He passed away a much loved and respected man in December 2004.

The national one-day cricket championship in India has been renamed the Vijay Hazare Trophy in his honour.

(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 http://twitter.com/senantix)