India's original batting hero

Vijay Madhavji Merchant, the outstanding batsman of the India team in England last season, was born in Bombay on October 12, 1911. He first took part in the game at the age of eight at Bharda High School, Bombay, where he captained the Junior team and when only fifteen put together scores of 124 and 100 (both not out) in a match for the Seniors.

Going to Sydenham College, Bombay, Merchant captained the team, and in 1929 was chosen for the Hindus in the Quadrangular Tournament. This recognition gained, he improved by leaps and bounds. In 1931, when the College won the Shield for the first time in its history, Merchant scored 504 runs, average 84, and took 29 wickets for 12.13 runs apiece -- both records in Bombay Inter-Collegiate cricket.

In the same year, playing in the Moinuddowla Gold Cup Tournament, he scored 157 for the Freelooters XI. against Aligarh University, and such form against some of the best bowlers in the land earned him an invitation the following year to participate in the national trials, but for private reasons he could not accept.

Fortunately Merchant was not lost to India cricket. During the 1933 tour of D.J. Jardine's team, Merchant, playing for Bombay Presidency against M.C.C., scored 19 not out and 67 not out, and thereby hangs a tale.

Prior to that game Merchant, as he himself admits, felt a slight apprehension in facing fast bowling. Since, he has feared no bowler, and this is how the transition occurred.

In the second innings, Merchant received a blow on the chin from a ball delivered by Nichols, the Essex fast bowler, and was led injured from the field. An English doctor in attendance patched him up (Merchant today bears a scar in witness of the happening), refused to let him use a looking-glass, and sent him out to resume his innings. He stayed three hours and took out his bat.

This performance brought Merchant back into the limelight and, chosen for India, he played in the three Test Matches that year although he achieved nothing out of the common with 178 runs in six innings. In the Silver Jubilee Tournament games held in 1935 at Delhi as trials for the 1936 tour, he scored in four innings, 3, 125 not out, 81 and 100 not out, and although, owing to a strained shoulder, he could not play against the Australian team in any of the representative matches, he was selected on his Tournament form for the tour in England.

It should be interpolated here that Merchant was never an opening batsman in India, and was asked to go in first in this country only when Palia lost form and Hindlekar was injured. Merchant began in England with 366 runs in seven innings and then fell out of the game for three weeks owing to a damaged finger; it was on his return that he was requested to open the innings.

Landmarks along his road of progress here were, in his own opinion, his first hundred in England -- the 151 he made against Somerset -- and his scores of 135 not out and 77 against Lancashire at Liverpool. In the Test Matches, he did yeoman work in scoring 33 and 114 at Manchester, where the game was saved, and 52 and 48 at the Oval, and in all three-day matches registered 1,745 runs, average 51.32.

Although barely more than 5' 7" in height, Merchant does not allow his comparatively small physique to handicap him in stroke production. What he lacks in reach he makes up by his perfect footwork and quick eye. He is not averse to going out to drive fast bowlers, he employs the hook as a safe scoring stroke, and delights onlookers by the neat skill of his glances and general placing to leg.

His defence tells of long study of the game. Yet, except for a little coaching by the games master at his school, he is self-taught in the arts of cricket. Merchant, however, offers his thanks to L.P. Jai for much learned through force of example. For two years he played under that stylish cricketer for Bombay and to Jai, Merchant considers he owes more for his cricket success than to any other individual.

Merchant bowled a good deal at school and college, but of late years has not exploited his medium-pace off-spin bowling to any extent. A smart picker-up, he has a slight preference for the outfield. None of his relatives have met with success as cricketers, but he is coaching two younger brothers who are playing for their school.

© John Wisden & Co