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