CW Special: My close encounters with cricketing greats – Part I: Kersi Meher-Homji

Posted by on Tuesday, November 28th, 2017 in Cricket

 

 

 

My close encounters with cricketing greats 

 

By Kersi Meher-Homji

 

 

The next best thing to being a great is striking friendship with greats – cricketing greats. In the decades

that I have been associated with the sport, there have been occasions when I have been priviliged to rub

shoulders with the greats of the game. Here is a 4-Part series recalling some of these encounters,

penned exclusively for Cricket Writer.

 

 

Part I – My Indian connections

 

Let me start off with Indian connections, my encounters with India’s cricketing icons. Given my Indian

roots and the fact that I was born and grew up in India’s cricketing capital, it is but natural that I have

some affinity with and connections to the Indian cricketing greats.

 

 

VIJAY HAZARE

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The thrill of bicycling rather than love of cricket prompted me, a 10 year-old country boy in India, to visit

a stranger’s house miles away to listen to a cricket commentary. My elder brother Vispy was on vacation

from his studies in Bombay University and was keen to know the score of the Calcutta unofficial test

between India and Commonwealth XI under Jock Livingston in 1949-50. However, in out tiny village

Udvada electricity was available only from 7 pm to 11 pm and transistors were unknown. The only

battery operated radio was owned by a cricket fan in the next village.

 

At that time cricket left me cold despite cricket in my family; my uncle Kharshed Meher-Homji had

represented India against England in the 1936 Manchester Test. However, the prospect of a long bicycle

ride was exciting. When we reached the destination there were some 15 excited listeners already tuned in

to the radio commentary.

 

We joined them. There was a hush of excitement as Vijay Hazare was on 97. Had he reached his

century soon my interest in cricket would have remained lukewarm. But he took his time. It was gripping

and my heart must have missed a beat several times as Hazare defended. After 10 minutes he was still on

97.

 

Eventually he did reach his hundred and galloped to 175 not out. And a cricket-lover was born. Even

after 68 years Vijay Hazare remains my hero number one.

 

Few years later I watched my first ever Test, against England at the Brabourne Stadium in Bombay in

December 1951. And guess what? Hazare scored 155 run out. Under his captaincy, India registered her

first ever Test victory two months later in Madras.

 

I first met Hazare face-to-face after he had retired from Test cricket and was playing a festival match for

Catholic Gymkhana in Bombay. He scored a double century and I took his photo using my recently

purchased Brownie camera worth Rs 3.

 

I wrote a letter of congratulations to him when he received the Padma Shri award in1961and a pen

friendship was formed. Our correspondence continued when I migrated to Australia and I treasure his

hand-written letters recalling among other items his centuries in both innings in the1948 Adelaide Test

against Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller at their fastest. Being a Christian he revered Adelaide, a city of

churches.

 

 

VIJAY MERCHANT

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When living at Pedder Road in Bombay in 1967, I spotted a car driven by Vijay Merchant – an all-time

cricketing great whose first-class batting average of 71.64 is second only to Don Bradman’s of 95.14.

 

“It can’t be the great Merchant”, I told myself. What, a living legend in my neighbourhood? I checked

with the famous cricket statistician Anandji Dossa, my friend and guru. He confirmed that it was

Merchant and gave me his address.

 

That time I was doing research on hat-tricks in minor cricket and hesitantly mailed my draft to him. He

wrote me a letter full of praises in his beautiful handwritings. I submitted my article to Christopher

Martin-Jenkins, the deputy editor of The Cricketer, England, along with Merchant’s letter. And the

article was published, a highlight of my writing career.

 

Vijoba, the pet name of Vijay Merchant, became my good friend as he took me to his office in Flora

Fountain as we discussed cricket like old friends. The friendship continued when I migrated to Australia.

 

He was India’s greatest opening batsman till Sunil Gavaskar took over in 1970s. Apart from being a

batting legend, Merchant was national cricket selector, a cricket commentator, an industrialist and a

philanthropist who employed handicapped persons in his textile mills.

 

When I visited Bombay in 1978, he paid me a visit at my family home. He also invited me in the

commentator’s box during a Test match against the West Indies at Wankhede Stadium in Bombay and

interviewed me on air. What an honour!

 

I was thrilled to receive his hand-written letters from 1967 till 1987 when he passed away, aged 76. All

his letters are still preserved by me with love.

 

 

GAVASKAR, ENGINEER and BEDI

 

The Rest of the World team under Garry Sobers toured Australia in 1971-72 to replace the South African

tour that had been cancelled because of their then apartheid policy. The World team included three

Indians; opening batsman Sunil Gavaskar, the acrobatic wicket-keeper Farokh Engineer and left-

arm spinner Bishan Bedi.

 

After watching them at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) nets I introduced myself and invited them to

my place in Kirribilli, Sydney, for lunch. They readily agreed. I went to their hotel to pick them up and

what a delight to host them in our one bed-room unit. They chatted incessantly and played with our one

year-old son. No airs about them.

 

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Bedi was a big favourite with the Aussie crowds, because of his turban, left-arm spinning and winning

personality. He received cheers for just stopping a ball as they yelled “Baidi”, “Baidi”! He even eclipsed

the Sydney crowd favourite Doug Walters in popularity.

 

Since then I have continued friendship with the trio as also with EAS Prasanna, Dilip Vengsarkar and

Ravi Shastri who visited our humble home in St Ives whenever they were in Sydney.

 

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I rank ‘Sunny’ Gavaskar as one of all-time great batsmen. We have continued corresponding to each

other, first by “snail” mail and now by e-mail. He was gracious enough to write a Foreword for my book

1000 Tests published in 1984 and recently for a new publication. We had a long chat when he was made

Bradman Honouree in 2010, the first non-Australian to receive this Award.

 

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Engineer oozes friendliness now as he oozed six-appeal in his playing days. A few years ago we had a

steak together as we recalled the pleasant past. When a newspaper falsely reported his “death”, he said

tongue-in-cheek:  “I am not only alive but also do not need Viagara!”

 

 

BEDI, PRASANNA AND UMRIGAR

 

When the Indian team under Bishan Bedi visited Australia in 1977-78 I went to watch them practice at

the SCG nets a day before their match against New South Wales. To my surprise Bedi threw the ball at

me saying: “Bowl, Kersi.”

 

“What me, bowling to Test cricketers?” I asked in shock. “Yes, bowl Kersi,” he repeated, a man of few

words. Bowling my slow, slow off spinners and half-volleys to Ashok Mankad and left-handed Surinder

Amarnath was an experience I’ll never forget. To bowl alongside spin wizards Bishan and EAS

Prasanna was an additional thrill. Awesome!

 

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Feeling 10 feet tall after my seven minutes of ‘glory’ I was emboldened enough to ask Prasanna as to how

I had bowled. Prasanna did not know what to say – to be honest and say “awfully” or be polite and say

“ok”? He chose diplomacy instead: “Stick to your writing.”

 

I had my revenge two months later. After the above net practice session he had given me his

autobiography One More Over to read. When he asked me, prior to the Sydney Test in January 1978,

how I liked his book, I replied: “Pras, stick to your off spin.”

 

He was not amused.

 

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Back to my “seven minutes of glory”, as mentioned above. Polly Umrigar, the manager of the 1977-78

Indian team, was watching me bowl at Ashok Mankad and Surinder Amarnath. Polly and I had a good

rapport, both being Parsees (a minority community in India). After my tete-a-tete with Prasanna, he

came to the nets with an old bat in hand. And he smacked all my deliveries for sixes, saying with a smile,

“That’s how good you are!”

 

And mind you, he had retired from Test cricket 15 years ago!

 

He presented me with a ball. When I visited Bombay next year he invited my wife and I to his house for

dinner.

 

When Prasanna retired he played first-grade cricket for Balmain Club in Sydney and also worked briefly

with GEC as an engineer. He honoured me by visiting me at home and bowling his off-spin to me and my

sons in the backyard.

 

 

RUSI SURTI

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When I migrated to Australia in 1970s, the two questions I was frequently asked was: how good is the

Sydney Opera House and how is former Indian Test cricketer Rusi Surti performing in Sheffield Shield

for Queensland?

 

I answered that the uniquely constructed Sydney Opera House looked magnificent and Surti is doing

very well, becoming the first Queenslander to take a hat-trick in Sheffield Shield. There were raving

reports about his all-round excellence in newspapers down under.

 

We became friends and whenever he visited Sydney with his sons Percy and Kaizad, he came over to our

house. He opened up his heart telling me all about his ups and downs, mostly downs – his divorce and

encountering racism in Brisbane. He could make friends as readily as he could enemies.

 

I looked him up when I visited Brisbane for a scientific conference in Virology. He was a gracious host

and took me to the Gabba (Brisbane Cricket Ground) where almost everyone knew him. In some circles

the left-hand all-rounder was known as India’s Garry Sobers.

 

When he passed away in 2013, it was as if I had lost someone near and dear.

 

 

Parts II and III will feature my close connection with Aussie legends Bert Oldfield, Ernie Toshack, the Benaud family, Alan Davidson, Bob Simpson, the Waugh family, Stuart MacGill, Mike Whitney and Lisa Sthalekar.

 

Part IV will highlight my personal interviews with Harold Larwood and Jim Laker from England, Peter Pollock from South Africa and Bruce Edgar from New Zealand.

 

 

6 responses to “CW Special: My close encounters with cricketing greats – Part I: Kersi Meher-Homji”

  1. Naresh Sadasvan says:

    Wonderful reminiscences, Mr. Meher-Homji. And those small things like partaking in one’s meal, or coming over home with family and spending a few minutes are worth a lot than many other, more visible interactions. Those letters are truly wonderful mementoes of friendships – past and present.

    Looking forward to the other parts.

  2. Thank you Naresh. Hope you enjoy my other encounters with cricket icons to be published weekly.

  3. Chinmoy Jena says:

    Tame statistics and feats of modern day glory pale before such moments of interacting with such great cricketers.For the first time I came to know about Vijay Merchant’s generosity as his surname suggests otherwise to the modern fan.These short encounters but worth treasuring for a lifetime do mean much to a genuine lover of cricket.The repartee with Prasanna was classic. Thanks Mr. Meher-Homji for giving us these moments to cherish.

  4. Ritesh says:

    Very nicely written and we are fortunate to get these gems from you. Thanks a lot and looking forward to parts 2, 3 and 4

  5. I appreciate your comments, Chinmoy and Ritesh.
    Vijay Merchant not only helped handicapped persons with money but gave them jobs. On occasions he became a “match-maker” and got a handicapped man and a handicapped woman together who eventually got married; wedding expenses paid by him. Only selected few know about this.

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