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Official or not, it's cricket


IS history repeating itself? With so much competitive, international cricket played round the clock, who would have thought that India would end up playing an "unofficial" test at South Africa following the Mike Denness controversy? As I write this, I do not know who is going to win this "unofficial" test, but do I not care.

For someone who had been passionately following cricket since 1946, I am quite familiar with "unofficial" test matches featuring India. They were keenly fought out matches and not like today's masala matches where money is the main consideration. And in cricket-mad India, these "unofficial" matches created tremendous interest.

I was too young to follow the fortunes of the Australian Services Cricket Team, which toured India in 1945-46. The world was hungry for cricket after World War II and Indians turned up in large numbers to watch veteran Lindsay Hassett, the effervescent Keith Miller who was to become one of the best all-rounders in the game. I think India won the series, winning one of the "unofficial" tests and drawing the other two. Oh, how I would have loved to watch the handsome, athletic Keith Miller who was never seen in full bloom in India, in action.

The West Indies under John Goddard who toured India in 1948-49 were an "official" side and I watched my first test match at Madras, which the tourists won by an innings. The Windies, helped by a double century opening stand between Allan Rae and Jeffrey Stollmeyer, ran up a huge total of 500 plus and their pace bowlers, Prior Jones and John Trim, skittled out India cheaply in both the innings.

India was desperately hungry for international cricket in those days, but foreign teams were not keen to come here. England finally sent a weak team, minus all their stalwarts, in 1951-52 (it was led by an unknown Lancastrian, Nigel Howard), and we won our first official test match with a thumping innings win at Madras. Since England had won an earlier test match, the series were drawn.

Before the English tour, India hosted two Commonwealth teams which played "unofficial" test matches. Who bothered about the non-official status of the teams? Indians, as usual, turned up in thousands to watch the First Commonwealth Team (1949-50) and the Second Commonwealth Team (1950-51). We won the series 2-0 against the first team but lost to the second by the same margin.

Why Commonwealth? Because the players were drawn from England, Australia and the West Indies. The teams were chosen and managed by former Lancashire and England wicket keeper George Duckworth, who was known for his stentorian appeals. (They had no match referees in those days to penalise such appealers!) Many of the names were unknown to Indians, but there were a few stars, the top-one being the West Indian, Frank Worrell who was outstanding with both the teams.

Mystery West Indian spinner, Sonny Ramadhin accompanied the Second Commonwealth team.

I watched both the teams in action in the "tests" played in Madras and rejoiced when India clinched the series against the First Commonwealth team. The team was led by Australian "Jock" Livingstone, who settled down in England to play county cricket for Northamptonshire. Other leading batsmen were Norman Oldfield, Wally Langdon and of course, Worrell. The pace bowlers were the relatively unknown Harry Lambert, Desmond Fitzmaurice and Fred Freer while spin was in the capable hands of Cecil Pepper (who returned home early due to an injury), George Tribe and Jack Pettiford.

This was not much of a team, yet there was tremendous national rejoicing when India won the series. While recollecting the details, I was remained of the Tamil proverb, "Arpanuku panam kidaithal, ardhya rathriyal kodai pidipaan". We behaved as though we had beaten Don Bradman's invincible Australians of that era! India, of course, was represented by stars like Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare, Mushtaq Ali, Vinoo Mankad, Dattu Phadkar and so on.

The Second Commonwealth team was a different proposition. Strong in batting, it had some top English county stars (Gimblett, Fishlock, Emmett, Ikin and Worrell). The captain, former England wicket keeper Lea Ames could not play much because of an injury but vice captain Frank Worrell was in fine fettle. Australians Tribe and Bruce Dooland were great all rounders, off spinner Jim Laker made a mark before returning home with an injury. India was embarrassed when it was bowled out for 82 runs on a green top Brabourne stadium wicket. Yes, it was a green top in India! Captain Vijay Merchant made 37 but six Indian batsmen failed to score! But I watched young, tall and erect Polly Umrigar, in the Madras test of the same series, go from 90 to 102 with two towering sixers of Worrell who was the first to cheer the batsman! Garrulous commentator, the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram, immediately named Umrigar the "palm tree" hitter!

A third commonwealth team led by Australian Ben Barnett arrived during 1953-54 but it was called the Silver Jubilee Overseas Cricket Team (SJOC) and was convincingly beaten. For me the star attraction of the team was the mystery spinner from Australia, Jack Iverson, who took to cricket after practising spin with a table tennis ball. Iverson who had mesmerised the Englishmen during their tour of Australia two years earlier, did not pose problems for Indians. Again our victory was greeted with wild enthusiasm though the poor SJOC team was weaker than most of our State teams.

I followed the progress of these teams avidly, glued to the radio for the running commentary. So did millions of Indians. We were hungry to win against any foreign team. The foreign teams toured the country for nearly five months, played 30-odd matches and often travelled by train. The Indian players received around Rs. 150 for a test match. But India, being India, went crazy. And why not? I was among the lucky ones who watched Frank Worrell make an impeccable 161 in the Madras test for the first Commonwealth team. It compensated for standing in the hot sun without proper food or water for five days!

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