I was in the Maharashtra side that travelled to Indore to take on the formidable Holkar state outfit led by Colonel C. K. Nayudu in the 1952-53 Ranji Trophy semifinals.

The occasion afforded me my first sighting of Indian cricket’s original colossus. I couldn’t take my eyes off him — a towering personality with big eyes. An equally thrilling moment for me was to see his 6ft 2 frame leading his team out. I have known people who were excited by the mere sight of him walking to the centre. His attractive batting was another story.

We batted first and at one stage in our first innings, Nayudu stationed himself at silly mid-off where Marutirao Mathe’s fierce drive hit him on the shin. A lesser man would have made his way to the pavilion to treat the swollen leg, but Nayudu asked his bowler who had a concerned look on his face, to continue bowling.

Even at 58 years of age, he was the iron man of Indian cricket.

My memory of that match will be undiminished. Not for our seven-wicket loss, but among other things, how he did not want players from both teams to consume water at the drinks breaks. Only Khandu Rangnekar, who was playing for Holkar then, could make him change his mind. Ultimately, he said Maharashtra players could have drinks every 45 minutes in the extremely hot conditions, but not his players.

The previous year, we heard about how he requested his rival captain, Mumbai’s Madhav Mantri to instruct his reputed bowler Dattu Phadkar to continue bowling fast after Phadkar had dealt a blow to Nayudu’s mouth which resulted in the loss of two front teeth and a bloodied shirt at the Brabourne Stadium.

Indian cricketers didn’t come as tough as Nayudu especially in those days when batsmen were happy to thrive in home conditions only to come a-cropper when they toured abroad.

Nayudu, already 37 when he led India on its inaugural Test match, at Lord’s, was 67 when he played his last first-class match. Few players have a career spanning half a century, a tribute as much to Nayudu’s fitness as to his competitiveness.

He was tough and expected others to have the same kind of toughness. During the second Test of the 1951-52 series against England in Mumbai, Vijay Hazare was hit above the eyebrow while trying to hook a bouncer from Fred Ridgway. Just as Hazare was about to get the cut stitched up in the dressing room by the doctor, Nayudu walked in to ask what was the batsman doing in the room. When Hazare told Nayudu he was getting the wound treated, the old pro said sternly: “It can wait.”  

The India captain had no option but to get back to the crease and take on the fast bowler, who bowled another bumper which was hooked to the fence.

Hazare only returned when he was run out through a misunderstanding with Chandu Sarwate with 155 to his name. Only then was the cut treated.Show of bravadoEven the Englishmen witnessed his physical and mental toughness. I’ve heard the story about his bravado shown in the Oval Test of 1936 when England’s captain Gubby Allen hit Nayudu below his heart.

After dropping his bat, he made a quick, successful attempt to continue batting and hooked the next ball to the fence. His 81 denied England an innings victory and it was his highest Test score in what would be his final Test for India.

I am sure the Colonel, as he was called, had a role to play in my selection for India’s 1954-55 tour of Pakistan. The BCCI requested state associations to send their promising first-class cricketers to Delhi for selection trials conducted by Nayudu.

After dividing the lot into batsmen and bowlers, he asked us to queue up. Putting on his gloves, he walked into the net with a bat, but without pads. When he asked the young fast bowlers to bowl at him, they didn’t have the heart to do so at full throttle. He was 58 years old. Noticing their hesitancy, he yelled, “I want you all to bowl fast. Don’t you want to be picked for India?” When they obeyed his orders, we saw something that we will remember forever.

Nayudu middled every ball. Some of those bowlers like V. Rajindernath and G.R. Sunderam went on to wear India colours.

When it was our turn to bat, he took the ball and many a time bowled at shoulder height on the leg side.

Some batsmen hooked his deliveries and ended up being caught while I played with a straight bat and concentrated on hitting the ball along the ground. After my session, he asked where I came from. When I said Baroda, he smiled and asked, “How is Hazare?” He had noticed that I had modelled myself on Vijay Hazare.

He was stern and had gained huge respect among the cricket fraternity. Very few had the courage to contradict him, but he was a kind man in many ways.

Watching good cricket made his day. Long after he quit as national selector, he happened to be visiting Nagpur for a break and made it a point to watch a game which I figured in. To me, that was true love for the sport and it was only one of the many examples of Nayudu’s contribution to Indian cricket.

His popularity would match that of the biggest stars in the game today.

The late Dicky Rutnagur, the cricket writer, once wrote that schoolboys left their classes and businessmen stopped trading to be at Bombay Gymkhana when they heard C. K. Nayudu had arrived at the crease. After obliging a young boy with her autograph, Sarojini Naidu, known as the Nightingale of India, asked the kid if he knew who she was. “Yes,” he said. “You are C.K. Nayudu’s wife!”

In 1967, while waging a losing battle for life in Indore, his family had to insert an announcement in the local newspapers requesting admirers not to visit him for his birthday on October 31.

I felt deeply honoured to be a recipient of an award instituted in his memory by the BCCI in 2003.

It was also very special because the C.K. Nayudu Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to me at the C.K. Nayudu Hall of the Cricket Club of India not far away from the Bombay Gymkhana where the great man played some of his finest innings with grace, grandeur and bravado.

(This is an abridged version of an article published in Wisden India Almanack 2014)

More In: Cricket | Sport