Remembering a Doyen of Indian Cricket
September 7, 2013. I was hosting a panel discussion with a number of former cricketers—Bishen Bedi, Ajit Wadekar, Erappalli Prasanna and Angshuman Gaekwad at the hallowed CK Nayudu Hall of the Cricket Club of India. In the front row was Madhav Mantri, who passed away last Friday, then India’s oldest living Test player. The conversation veered towards Australia’s visit to India in 1945-46 under Lindsay Hassett. As Hassett’s name was mentioned, I could see a smile on Mantri’s face. It was he who captained the Indians against that Australian side. Here was someone who had captained India two years before partition and two years before the nation had won independence from British rule. He, of course, remembered every detail of that tour. My first thought was the BCCI should interview him for it to be archived for all future gen- erations of cricket fans and analysts. Mantri, a distinguished cricketer in the 1940s and 1950s, is better known today as Sunil Gavaskar’s maternal uncle. He is said to have inspired Gavaskar to aim for the Indian cap. Not without reason did Gavaskar offer him a glowing tribute. “I thought he was indestructible and this day would never come. He was the last of the disciplinarians… When I asked for his cap and blazer, he refused and said you have to earn your India cap. That’s why when I went on to play for India and I got the cap and blazer in West Indies, I didn’t play with the cap when I was playing tour games. I only wore it when I played a Test match for India.”
The last of the disciplinarians is an apt description. It was Mantri who taught Gavaskar the value of a wicket. “When I got out for 290 in college cricket, I went and told him we had a 400 partnership. He asked me what score was the other batsmen at? I answered he was not out on 300. He also asked me how I got out. I told him I got out playing a lofted shot. He advised me to never give my wicket away. Let the bowler earn the wicket. It stayed with me.” If the Gavaskar connection is known, the Tendulkar one is hardly talked about. Very few remember that Mantri was the manager of the Indian team during Sachin Tendulkar’s first tour to England in 1990. Sachin was just 17 at the time and had just about cut his teeth in international cricket having toured Pakistan and New Zealand. In fact, when Tendulkar got his first Test hundred at Old Trafford, it was Mantri who informed him of the need to go and face the media at the end of the Test match. A distinctly uncomfortable Tendulkar asked if he could skip it and was told that facing the press after scoring a century was part of convention. Mantri eventually ended accompanying the young Sachin. Mantri had incredible stories to tell about India’s 1952 tour to England. Why did the Indians flounder against the pace of Fred Trueman? How was Vijay Hazare as a batsman and captain? What were the problems plaguing Indian cricket then? Madhav Mantri was someone who had seen Indian cricket evolve and mature. He was someone who was part of the process as player, administrator and manager. My singular disappointment is that we have not recorded Mantri and his stories. It could have made for a fascinating historical account in the years to come. As we mourn Mantri, it is also time for us to celebrate the journey of Indian cricket, one that Mantri was part of. From a time when we were no more than a footnote in global cricket to being the sport’s nerve-centre— Mantri had seen it all.