Vijay Merchant spoke much the same way he batted — unhesitatingly and with clarity. After Sir Stanley Jackson had raised a toast during a banquet at Lord’s in 1946, Merchant delivered a speech considered one of the best by any cricketer.
He reportedly said, “My Lords and Gentlemen, so often we hear that these exchanges of visits bring the people of two countries together. Don’t you believe that? They only bring a few cricketers together, because people of two countries are brought together in a spirit of understanding, give and take and brotherhood of a much higher plane.”
Referring to a cabinet mission in India, which was still a British colony then, Merchant added, “It is my sincere hope that the cabinet mission will succeed totally and that when our Indian team visits England, it will play the English cricketers on a level of total equality. Until then, we only hope and pray that wiser counsel will prevail.”
He realised that sports, despite its immense following, can never be a substitute for liberty or a national identity. What Merchant said then holds true even now, with cricket often being used as a tool of diplomacy by politicians.
It was this forthrightness that set Merchant apart. Be it his speeches or be it what he did best — batting. And that’s what gave him the aura of being an incredible cricketer and a person.
Long before the cricketing world had heard of Sachin Tendulkar and his subsequent comparisons with Don Bradman, fans in the sub-continent were debating over who is the greatest Indian batsman — Sunil Gavaskar or Merchant?
Before Gavaskar established himself, Merchant was also considered the greatest opening batsman in India. Even Bradman was not immune to this debate. He reportedly told the then BCCI president S Sriraman that Merchant indeed had technique and exploits better than that of Gavaskar’s. What makes the Aussie’s observation remarkable is that he hadn’t ever seen Merchant bat.
Merchant would have turned 100 today, and it would have been a rare century among cricketers even for somebody of Merchant’s calibre. However, what lives on is his legacy and splendid memories of his exploits in the glorious days of Pentangular cricket in Mumbai.
A quintessential Mumbai cricketer, Vijay Madhavji Thakersey ‘Merchant’ was born to a wealthy family on October 12, 1911.
There is no clear story about how Vijay Thakersey became Vijay Merchant. However, some believe that the change in name happened during young Vijay’s interaction with his English teacher in school. There was some confusion regarding his family business and name. He is supposed to have answered “Merchant” when the teacher asked him about his father’s name. And that stuck.
An outstanding college cricketer, he captained the Sydenham College and subsequently selected to play for the Hindus in the Bombay Quadrangular. Showing immense promise at every level, he made his India debut at the age of 22 against a visiting England side in 1933-34.
He was in international cricket till 1951, but only played 10 Tests, much of his best years were lost to World War II and India’s struggle for Independence.
And Merchant mostly had to rely on first class cricket to show his prowess and he proved it. With an average of 71.64, He stands second only to Bradman in the list of highest first class averages.
Also, Merchant along with Vijay Hazare and Vijay Manjrekar formed what came to be known as the “Vijay Dynasty” in Indian cricket, which lasted from 1933 to 1960.
However, it was with Hazare that Merchant had a prolonged rivalry. During a Bombay Pentangular, Merchant scored 250 not out against the rest and broke Hazare’s record of 242 set in the previous match. Hazare responded with a 309 not out in the next innings and Merchant, not to be left behind, scored 359 in a Ranji Trophy game against Maharashtra.
During his two tours of England, first in 1936, 24-year-old Merchant scored 1475 runs in all first class matches at an average of 51 and he was included in the Wisden’s five that year. He returned to England in 1946 and scored 2385 runs at an average of 74.
In Ranji Trophy, Merchant scored 3639 runs from 47 innings at an average of 98.35.
While he shone brightly in the first class, his international career also showcased him enough to establish his status as a cricketing legend. All his Tests were against England, in four separate series. And he managed to score 859 runs at an average of 47.72.
Merchant skipped series against West Indies and tour to Australia in 1947-48, reportedly due to poor health.
About Merchant’s decision to skip the tour of Australia, Bradman said, “Worst of all, we were denied the sight of Vijay Merchant, who must surely have claims to be the greatest of all Indian players.”
A great batsman, Merchant did not really enjoy much success as a captain.
Merchant was not coached during his growing up years and is largely said to have learnt the game on his own. He was only 5’7” but had the dexterity of a fox when it came to footwork. He is said to have filmed his batting and corrected himself often. and those who watched him play say that he played compact and flawlessly as if eliminating any errors from a craft that he has mastered over the years.
Against a visiting England side, Merchant played his last Test at the Kotla in Delhi in 1951. Forty-year old Merchant scored 154, his highest, and also became the oldest Indian to score a Test century. It stands till today.
When asked why he retired, he quipped that when a player retires “People should ask why instead of why not”.
After retiring as a player, he commentated on radio and became national selector in 1960’s and 70’s and blooded youngsters like Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Vishwanath, Ashok Mankad and Eknath Solkar. It was Merchant who brought in Ajit Wadekar to replace Mansour Ali Khan Pataudi as captain and ushered in one of the glorious chapters in Indian cricket history.
Merchant died of a heart attack on October 27 in 1987. He had gained prominence with his batting in an era dominated by Bradman, Hutton, Compton and many more greats. Even as a person and a man of integrity he held his own against the legends of the game.
English commentator John Arlott had reportedly said, “It is impossible not to like Vijay Merchant. His manners are polished to the last degree, his consideration for others impeccable, and he looks you in the face when he talks to you. His honesty is unmistakable, he speaks the truth, but never crudely.”
And the world knew this about Merchant when he gave his speech at Lord’s and vouched for India’s freedom.