Vijay Hazare: Taming the Invincibles

Vijay Hazare died in 2004 when he was 89 years old. On 11th March 2019, he turned 114 years. Before there was Rahul Dravid, there was Vijay Hazare who invented ‘The Wall’ school of batsmanship. He was one of India’s early greats who took batting to another level while representing India both pre and post independence. A silent, thoughtful man, he was one of the finest to don India’s flannels.

Vijay Hazare: Taming the Invincibles Vijay Hazare: Taming the Invincibles Source : PA Photo

The fight that he showed against the run of play, when he scored twin hundreds against the ‘invincible' Aussies led by Don Bradman in a losing cause against Australia in Adelaide, 1947-48, in India's first ever tour down under is the stuff of legends. As a contemporary daily noted, "It didn't matter what the ball was, on or outside the off stump, what its height or pace, it was played with amazing certainty ... It was a display of batsmanship, which has very seldom been equaled, certainly not surpassed and never dwarfed. It was not so much the pace at which the ball traveled. It was the supreme artistry of it all."

Hazare was always at his best when his team was in the direst of situations. In his first match as captain against England abroad, Hazare came on and scored 56 against Fred Trueman, who was bowling at his absolute best, after India were four down without troubling the scorers.

Hazare's 115 against Commonwealth team at Bombay came in 1950 which he called his "most faultless and best innings." However, he equally rates his 38 in India's total of 98 at The Oval in 1952 against Fred Trueman, Alec Bedser, Jim Laker and Tony Lock on a rain-affected pitch as one of his best innings ever because of the quality of English attack and the treacherous nature of the pitch.

No cricket was played during the World War II and when it was resumed after the war, Vijay Hazare and Vijay Merchant deserve much of the credit for keeping the game alive in India. To a crowd of 20,000-30,000 in Bombay's Brabourne Stadium for Bombay Pentagular, they would rack up runs like a machine and made the tournament their own. In 1941-42, Vijay Merchant had scored the highest runs in the Pentangular, his 243 for the Hindus against the Muslims. Next year, Hazare bettered Merchant by scoring 248 against the Muslims. In the very next match, Merchant scored an unbeaten 250 against Hazare's team spoiling his joy. Hazare answered with a monumental 309. All of these records were broken in seven days-between November 29 and December 6, 1943. This was in 1943-44, Hazare's most prolific domestic season when he amassed 1,423 runs with five hundreds three fifties in 11 innings at a ridiculous average of 177. In his purple patch, his scores read 248, 59, 309, 101, 223 and 87, reaching 1,000 runs in only four matches.

Vijay Hazare was one of a kind batsman. He frightened the opposition not with his aggression, but with his display of patience and persistence. Hazare was a man of few words; he always let his bat do the talking. He was a cautious starter. Only after getting used to the conditions would Hazare play his wonted off-drive, on-drive, square cut and pull shot.

Before Rahul Dravid ‘the wall', there was Vijay Hazare whose defense was like a rock and his technique was flawless. "He played with the straightest of bats. Irrespective of a silly mid-on and a silly mid-off operating, he would play forward and put the ball on the ground absolutely dead in front of him. And he would never be ruffled by any amount of intimidation on the part of the bowler or the close-in fielders. He was patience personified" noted his contemporary and rival Vijay Merchant, another equally great batsman who was so consistent in first-class cricket that he was compared with The Don.

Vijay Hazare didn't make his debut until he was 31, but went on to score 2,192 runs in 30 Tests at an average of 47.65. He was the first Indian to score 1,000 Test runs. He famously led India to their maiden Test victory against England in 1952.

Hazare learned his cricket in the interiors of Maharashtra under the close watch of great Australian spin bowler Clarrie Grimmett. In his autobiography Hazare says that Grimmett refused to change his stance: "Purists would grumble at my stance. My hands are said to be too far apart on the handle of the bat to permit a free swing. And they say that as my bat is held firmly between the pads, almost locked between them, my strokeplay must suffer. Grimmett must have seen both these peculiarities of mine. Yet, beyond making a few corrections, he strongly advised me against changing my grip and stance."

Hazare could also roll his arm over for some round-arm medium-pace leg-cutters. He famously breached Bradman's defenses twice-once in the 1947-48 Adelaide Test, bamboozling The Don after he had scored a double hundred; the second time he bowled Bradman for just 13 in Sydney. 

Hazare wasn't a talker, he was breviloquent. When Polly Umrigar was asked what Hazare had said to him after India had registered their first win over England at Madras in 1951-52: "You know, Niran, Hazare does not speak much. He just said, `Well played'."

The Don wrote in his autobiography, Farewell to Cricket, that he preferred Hazare for his "soundness ... and the correctness of his stroke production", but his weakness was "a lack of aggression which prevented him taking charge of an attack". He also described him as "superlative", adding that his batting style reminded that of Frank Worrell.

It is widely acknowledged that the burden of captaincy affected his concentration with the bat. At his peak, from the Australian tour in 1948 till Pakistan visited India in 1953; he averaged over 70 runs per innings. But the captaincy took a toll on him and he couldn't bat the way he used to. He didn't have the required temperament to lead an inexperienced team. He was too mellow and accepted that he used hand gestures to communicate with his fielders. Merchant later regretted that Hazare could have been India's finest batsman, if it were not for the captaincy: "It was one of the tragedies of cricket."

In 1967, Hazare, aged 51, called time on his cricket career with a first-class average touching 58, scoring 60 hundreds. "We played cricket for the sheer love of it. We were not unduly concerned about defeats and victories. The game was greater, everything else was secondary. But I am not sure if some of the players of old would have displayed the same spirit if there had been so much money in the game." Indeed, Cricket is a gentleman's game after all, and Vijay Hazare epitomized the notion in its spirit as well as performance.

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