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By Partab Ramchand
There are innumerable striking aspects about Vijay Madhavji Merchant’s batting so let’s get the most impressive statistic first up. Only Don Bradman with figures of 95.14 has a better career average than Vijay Merchant’s 71.22 in first class cricket. That fact alone should be enough for Merchant, whose birth centenary falls today, to take his place among the all time greats.
Merchant was the pioneer of the Bombay school of batting. And what did that school teach? Let’s hear it from Merchant himself: ``Batting is built around a specific science. The secret is timing and patience. For example you do not play the hook shot till you are seeing the ball as big as a football. Eschew all risks. Get behind the line of every ball and play it on merit. If you stay at the crease, the runs will come.’’
Merchant followed these commandments like the Holy Gospel and the result is there for the cricketing world to gape in wonder. On good wickets or bad, against pace or swing, cut or spin, in good light or dim, he was simply the master. When one saw the short, capped, neatly dressed figure of Merchant walking out to bat, one was sure to witness a most technically sound innings - an innings straight out of ``How to play cricket.’’
The statistics associated with Merchant’s career are mind-boggling and eye rubbing. In a first class career that stretched from 1929 to 1952, Merchant amassed 13,470 runs with 45 hundreds with a highest score of 359 not out. Playing for Bombay in the Ranji Trophy, Merchant had a tally of 3639 runs at an unbelievable average of 98.75 including 16 hundreds in just 47 innings. In the Pentangular tournament, his tally was 1457 runs from only 12 innings at the Bradmanesque average of 162.12. These are the kind of figures that have been beyond other relentless run machines of the game, past masters who were known for their dedication, determination, concentration, an insatiable appetite for runs and a penchant for big scores. That is what gives Merchant a revered status in Indian cricket.
Merchant’s batting on the tour of England in 1936 drew this eloquent tribute from Neville Cardus: ``Merchant is, in method, the Indians’ good European. He could easily be England’s opening batsman. He is a thoroughly organized player. Here was international quality batsmanship, good enough to lay the foundation of any innings. If Merchant were English, he would solve the selection committee’s problem of finding a safe No 1 batsman for the trip to Australia, capable not only of defence, but of taking good bowling in charge.’’ Another critic wrote that Merchant’s strokes were so measured that one could see, as it were, ``the foot rule peeping out of his pocket.’’
Ten years later Merchant went to England with an even bigger reputation. Great things were predicted for him – and he surpassed even these expectations! It was a bleak summer, wetter than 1936 and one of the wettest on record. But for Merchant, the sun shone as usual. Having batted during the fickle English weather and on the dicey wickets, he brought all his experience into play. The result was an astonishing tally of 2385 runs with seven hundreds and an unbelievable average of 74.53. He strode like a Colossus, his other teammates – among them such greats as Hazare, Amarnath and Mankad – finishing way behind.
With such an enviable record, Merchant could very well have been satisfied and proud. But a story during the tour vividly illustrates his single-minded dedication to the art and science of batsmanship. It was noticed that Merchant carried a movie camera with him. It transpired that he wanted films taken of his innings during the tour so that when he was out he could watch the particular mistake he made and rectify it the next time. He used to shake his head with dismay while watching the films and in his next outing would take particular care to see that he did not commit that same error. He was the supreme perfectionist. It is this dedication, determination and concentration that has earned for Merchant the respect with which he is regarded today, nearly 25 years after his death.
To some of the modern generation, his big scores may give the impression that Merchant was a cold and ruthless run getting machine. Actually he had all the strokes – both pretty and powerful. His cut was felicitous. Especially superb was his late cut. It was at times executed so late that it seemed to race to the boundary off the wicket keeper’s gloves. He could hook with relish, though he avoided the stroke until it was absolutely necessary. Quick footwork and a keen eye saw him judge a ball and get to the pitch of it sooner than most batsmen. Suppleness of wrist saw him executive the cut and glance delicately.
Polished in his behaviour and impeccable in his manners Merchant’s later roles were as accomplished as his batting. He was a popular expert radio commentator in the sixties, shrewd and perceptive in his observations. As selection committee chairman he helped bring about a turnabout in the fortunes of Indian cricket with the appointment of Ajit Wadekar as captain in 1971. But perhaps his greatest contribution was his dedicated work among the handicapped. Merchant made life hell for bowlers but he made it a lot better for those less fortunate in life.