Transcript: Couch Talk with Madhav Apte

Couch Talk 146 (Play)

Guest: Madhav Apte

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ) – Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is former Indian opening batsman Madhav Apte. He talks about his career, playing alongside the likes of Vinoo Mankad, Vijay Hazare, and learning batting from Vijay Merchant, his memorable series in the West Indies, his thoughts on Subhash Gupte, reasons for Mumbai’s dominance in Ranji Trophy and his views on Sachin Tendulkar amongst other things.

Welcome to the show Mr. Apte.

Madhav Apte (MA) – Thank you.

SJ – You debuted as a twenty year old for India, and you took over for Vijay Merchant as opener, and you had perhaps one of the greatest all-rounders India ever produced, Vinoo Mankad, as your coach playing along with you, and you debuted under the captaincy of Lala Amarnath. So, what is that a twenty year old is thinking when you’re rubbing shoulders with the legends of the game, while you’ve also got to be thinking of the match itself you are playing in.

MA – Probably I’d take the clock back and turn it around a bit. I started my cricket career as a leg spin googly bowler. In ’48 Vinoo Mankad became my college coach, and he made me into an opening batsman. At that time I had lost my bowling skills, I would say. That was in 1948. You mentioned Vijay Merchant—he was also one of my gurus because when I became an opening batsman I had to learn the technique, and there was no one better than Vijay Merchant to watch. In fact, Vinoo Mankad as coach would ask us to go and stand behind the nets when Vijay Merchant batted in the early morning because of the dew so that he could play against a moving ball. I was doing reasonably well. 1951-52 was a good year, I had scored over 3,000 runs in local cricket, and yet I was not even on the Bombay team, not even the fourteen. Because the Bombay team was so strong, Vijay Merchant, Vinoo Mankad, Russi Modi, Dhattu Phadkar, Vijay Manjrekar, you name them, they were all on that team. So I had no chance of getting into the eleven, but I thought maybe in the 14, but even that was not there. But destiny has played a lot of part in my life, and Vijay Merchant got injured four or five days before the first Ranji match against Saurashtra, and he dropped out. What I was not aware then, was that I was the standby opening batsman. I was called to play and I was lucky, I got 100 on debut. Incidentally, after me Sachin Tendulkar was the one who got it after 30+ years. So that is one part of it. I had a good Ranji season. I got 100, 93, 98, et cetera, and that was the year that India was going to England in ’52. Subhash Gupta and I were the aspirants. We didn’t get in. And yet, I went to England to watch cricket, if possible to play cricket, and that was on the advice of Vijay Merchant. So anyway, I went there. I also had some secret thoughts of joining Oxford or Cambridge. But it so happened the Pakistan team had come to India that summer, in October, and the Indian openers Pankaj Roy and Datta Gaekwad had not done too well on the tour, so I felt maybe there was an opening, so I decided to come back and take my chance, and if not then think of Oxford or Cambridge after that. As it happened, the first two test matches I was not in the team. In Delhi India won against Pakistan, Lucknow we lost on a mat wicket, and both matches Pankaj played and didn’t do well, so I got selected for the Bombay test match. That was the break I got.

SJ – But still, was there a sense of overawed?

MA – Of course, I was just going to mention that, because I was there and my guru Vinoo Mankad was to open the batting with me, and to me, being initiated into opening batting only four years ago, playing with him at the highest level was of course a thrill. But even more important, or daunting is the word, was to play in the company of Hazare, Amarnath and Mankad. For anybody on debut, you are always tense. In that match a few of us were debutants, to use that expression, myself, H. T. Dani and Rajindernath. Amarnath was our captain.

As I said, it was a very daunting experience, but I will also tell you something about that match. In those days, in the 50s, Bombay was not a concrete jungle as it is today. There was a lot of dew. It may sound unbelievable now, but the Brabourne Stadium ground used to be white, it was that much dew. Amarnath called a team meeting in the morning in his room. Incidentally all of the teams stayed in Brabourne Stadium, in the clubhouse. At the end of his speech of sorts he asked Vinoo Mankad in Hindi, “if we win the toss, what should we do?” Vinoo said, “put them in,” because of the dew, and Amarnath did not think that. He was more worried about what would the press say, it will be a bombshell. You will perhaps realize in those days a captain winning the toss, a team winning the toss, necessarily batted. To give away the batting was an exceptional thing. So Amarnath believed that would be a bombshell in the press. Vinoo said, I don’t know about that, but we will have the advantage of the dew. As luck would have it for Amarnath, he lost the toss and Kardar decided to bat, and Pakistan were six wickets down before lunch. Amarnath himself bowled beautifully, he was medium slow, not even medium fast, but moved the ball beautifully and the dew helped. Gupte got wickets and Vinoo Mankad got wickets, so it proved that Mankad’s advice was very sound, and of course, lucky for me again. If we had to bat first, I would have to face Fazal Mahmood under those conditions, and also Mahmud Hussein, so in a sense for me it was good luck that we batted second.

SJ – When you walk in with your guru Vinoo Mankad, what are the thoughts in your head? Twenty year old upstart taking over for one of the greatest batsman India has ever produced as the opener, against Pakistan, at home, all these things. Did all these things go in your head at all?

MA – I think it would be untrue to say they did not. That is natural. But two or three things; first, they were the first Pakistan team to come, so in a sense there was not as much tension as there exists today between Pakistan-India games. There was a lot of interest. The Brabourne stadium was full, chock-a-block, absolutely. Forty-five thousand people watched it, because they were the first team to come. A.H.Kardar had played for India before, and so had Amir Elahi. They are two that had played for India, so they had played for both the countries. Also another kind of pressure is at the Brabourne stadium in those days, it doesn’t seat many more now, forty-five thousand people, when the fast bowler took his start, they would all go in choruses step by step and the last one would be “boooooooowled,” you know, which for somebody playing in his first test match is not the most comforting kind of encouragement (laughs). But then, I suppose if you are playing at that level you are trained to concentrate on that red cherry, not who is bowling so much. You may be subconsciously aware, those questions are there, but you are watching the ball all the time.

SJ – India won that match. At the end of the match you’ve had two go’s, what are you thinking of yourself as a batsman? Someone like Sachin Tendulkar, when on debut, said he didn’t feel like he actually belonged there because of the pace at which the game was moving and the players were moving he was wondering whether he actually belonged here.

MA – Okay. To respond to that, Sachin was much younger when he made his debut. Secondly, he had not played Ranji cricket as much as I had. I had one full season of Ranji matches. Either as opponents or as teammates, I had known most of my teammates. So in that sense, there was less tension. Amarnath I was meeting for the first time, or playing with for the first time, and Rajindernath who was also making debut, but other than that we were all good friends, so that tension of not belonging was less I would think.

SJ – I want to talk about that Pakistan series. After you debuted you played again in the West Indies. In five test matches you had twin 50s in the first test, decent scores in the second, and then you went on a tare in the third one and went on to score an unbeaten 160-odd, 163. I guess India had a first innings deficit and you and your guru went on to play together and he was 94 run out. Take us through your memories of that series and particularly that test match in Port of Spain.

MA – I think that’s a good question. Actually, after my first test in Bombay, the fourth test was in Madras, and Vinoo Mankad and I opened again. He didn’t get any runs, I got 40-odd. The selection for the West Indies team was supposed to happen immediately after that. If I remember right, the captain for the West Indies tour was to be decided then by the selectors, and possibly a few names from the team. Vinoo Mankad was also my roommate in the hotel, and as can be expected when you are young and there is a cricket tour ahead, the possibility of being picked or not being picked, the tension is always there. I kept asking my guru, I said, “I don’t think I’ll get in to the West Indies team, the team to the West Indies, and he would say, “____,” which in Gujarati means son, he would says, “son, of course you will get there.” I said, “but I have scored only thirty odd, ten not-out, and forty,” and he said “no, no, you will be there.” Subhash Gupte was no different, because Subhash, who was my buddy, was also tense about whether he would go to the West Indies or not. Vinoo Mankad, when I was pestering him, said, “look, I’m telling you, you will be there. If you’re still not sure, then let’s make one bet and a promise. We have to sail from South Hampton. On the first night you will open a bottle of champagne, if you get selected. So we are more than happy to accept that, and even happier to lose it (laughs). So for us, going to the West Indies, only having seen the West Indian players that came in ’48, or having known about it or read about the history of West Indian cricket like Learie Constantine or Black Bradman (George Headley), Martin Dell, people like that. As a country, to be quite honest we were as ignorant as possibly the indentured laborers who were sent by the boatloads to the West Indies. We had no knowledge about the life there and so on.

It certainly came as a very pleasant surprise to be there. Two of the destinations had a majority Indian population, ethnic Indians. We sailed from Southampton and it was a ten-day voyage. Some of the returning West Indian players were also on the ship. [Sonny] Ramadhin was there, so was Frank Worrell who was returning home after 6 years to Barbados. Roy Marshall and Alf Valentine were there. I was the youngest there and possibly the leanest looking cricketer, and so Ramadhin would scare me by saying how fast the West Indian bowlers were and how ferocious they were. Obviously, it was mind games being played. I listened to it but did not take much notice of it, but it was a pleasant trip across.

When our boat docked in Port of Spain, the whole pier was a sea of people, mostly full of ethnic Indians. Frank Worrell was such a gentlemen. As we were getting off the boat, he stopped all the others and gave us the honour of landing first, saying that we were the guests.

Since the West Indies had the three W’s, Ramadhin and Valentine, the fast bowlers, Jeff Stollmeyer was the captain, the feeling at home in India before we left our shores was that we were poor cattle being sent to the slaughterhouse. Not cattle, but lambs to slaughter. Our performance, as it turned out, surprised everybody including ourselves.

SJ – In terms of your batting itself in the series, you had twin fifties in the first Test and then the huge hundred in the third Test…

MA – Actually you know what, you have played cricket yourself. Almost every cricketer goes through a purple patch and nothing seems to go wrong. Even the umpire’s decisions seem to go in your favour sometimes, or dropped catches or whatever. I think my Ranji season had more or less continued through that purple patch. Also, along with it came some luck. I admit that I was lucky because I had some dropped catches in my favour. From Day 1, as it were, I felt comfortable, playing the colony game to begin with. It was played on Jute matting, and that was an experience because, in India in those days, many locations did not have turf wickets and had matting but it used to made of coir which is fiery!

In the Colony game, we were three down with 20 or 30 runs on board, and it was my first experience of playing with Hazare as captain and watching him from the non-striker end. Technically, Hazare and I had played in the Madras Test but he got out for a nought, I think. But in the Colony game, the first ball he faced, from a bowler called Butler who was like Gomez in moving the ball, it was an on drive through midwicket. His bat looked twice the size in breadth as what we would be feeling. It was right in the middle and he made 170 runs or something like that. It was quite an experience. I got 30-odd runs and perhaps got carried away and tried to hit the ball in the air and got caught at mid on. His only comment as I was passing by, in Marathi, translated to English was, “What? After playing so well, how can you just throw away your wicket like this?” Because, lifting the ball for both the Vijays – Hazare and Merchant – was just not done.

SJ – That seems to be at the heart of Mumbai School of batting and these two exemplified with the best defensive technique possible. I heard from you during the Legends Club meeting at the CCI the friendly rivalry they had…

MA – They were chasing each other in the Pentangulars. Both their careers began prior to the World War. But during the World War years, there was no cricket except for the Ranji Trophy and the Pentangulars. Pentangulars, I am sure, you are familiar with. Hazare played for the “Rest” that means Christians basically and Merchant played for the Hindus. Both of them would score double centuries, and if one scored 250, the other one would score 251, but there was no rivalry as such whatsoever. I knew Hazare well; I lived with him in the West Indies for 4 months together. As I’s somewhere, “Hazare did not talk, only his bat talked.” I have had great interaction with Vijay Merchant. He had the highest praise for Hazare’s batting. Anybody would have, really. If you were a true sportsman, you would not let this kind of rivalry corrupt your assessment of someone else’s ability.

SJ – You came back from the West Indies with your average just a shade under 50. Modern openers would give an arm and a leg for that kind of average and yet, you did not play for India again. Were you ever given a reason of why you were dropped or have you figured out why that was so?

MA – Frankly, that is an unsolved mystery, if I may say so, in Indian cricket. Certainly it was for me. Cricketers of that period have never really found out why. I came back from West Indies and there was no Test cricket in 1954, and it was the Silver Jubilee of the Board of Control. Like the two earlier Commonwealth teams, there was another Commonwealth team called as the “Silver Jubilee Commonwealth XI” and I played in that first Test match against them in Delhi. I got 30-odd runs. Pankaj and I opened and he got out early. Manjrekar came in to bat at number 3, batted brilliantly. I got 30-odd, I played for 2 hours, maybe a little more, 2 and a half. The fact of the matter was, not by design but by sheer chance, Manjrekar would bat for four bowls of the over and maybe I would get to bat 2 balls. That does not help you in terms of batting, in flow of your batting, but now you will appreciate that in those days the batting time was only measured in minutes or hours, not strike rate. If strike rate were to be applied, perhaps I would have not been treated very unfairly, because that was so that my strike rate was not bad but the opportunity to strike was not there. So in that context I got 30-odd runs, I was certainly not a liability in the field, if anything I was recognized to be one of the better ones, and yet, why I was dropped, only through hearsay I would say that I was slow in batting, because I took 2 hours or more for 30, etc. But the surprising thing was the other person who was chosen to replace me was Naren Tamhane, who was not an opener! He is a very dear friend of mine, but he did not open for his own club, and he was made to open for India. The selectors are, shall we say, quite whimsical.

SJ – But you did continue playing First Class until ’68. I want to talk about Mumbai’s dominance in Ranji Trophy. IS it because of the abundance of cricketers in the area that allows it to dominate so much or is it because of the quality of the craft that’s passed on from one generation to another?

MA – It’s a bit of both. Firstly, because of the Pentangulars we faced doyens like Vijay Merchant, as Bombayites. Not just for the Hindus, but the Muslims and Parsis, most of the players came from Bombay. In a sense, the cricket culture is there. The first cricket club in India was set in 1872, if I remember correct, called the Orient Cricket Club by a Parsi. So, Bombay has had a long history, and that could be one of the reasons [for dominance].

Secondly, the grounds. Shivaji Park had a lot of residential accommodations around it. Or Cross Maidan and Azad Maidan, very easily accessible. And last but not least, the British rule, Cricket was the King’s game, as it were. I am sure all that contributed.

But then, when we talk about performance and how Bombay dominated the Ranji Trophy, it needs to be looked at in the perspective that in those times, before Television came in, the game was restricted to the West Coast. It was Gujarat, Baroda, Holkar, Jamnagar and Saurashtra because the game was in a sense patronized by the Maharajahs. As a result, the game was concentrated in those areas and not widely spread, which meant that the competition was also less. So, Bombay’s dominance needs to be looked at from that perspective as well.

SJ –Yeah. Recently, Jammu & Kashmir beat Mumbai in Ranji, so perhaps the gap between Mumbai and the rest is not as much as it used to be…

MA – Undoubtedly so. There are some other issues as well. I think, in any sport, certainly in cricket which is a team game, your fountain of talent must really begin at the school level. In those days, the quantity of [Bombay] school cricket was less but the quality was high. Pune was another. The Maharashtra team used to be extremely talented in the Ranji trophy. But unfortunately now, this is my theory, the schools cricket in Mumbai is not nurtured, as it needs to be. That is one part. In another context, in those days or years, apart from sport there was no other avenue of entertainment for the youth. The youth these days is not as committed or dedicated to sport, any sport for that matter, because they have many other alternatives – whether dance bars or whatever that may be. In those days, that was not there and the social culture has changed.

Relatively speaking, I’d say that these other alternatively must be less in places like Jharkhand, Kerala or wherever. That may be one of the small contributing factors. The fact of the matter is that the success or failure of the Bombay team now has to be seen in that context. The game has spread throughout the country. Who would have ever imagined that somebody from Jharkhand would be captaining India? This is basically the contribution of Television.

SJ – I want to talk about some of your contemporaries and the great players you played with and against. You had mentioned Subhash Gupte, your good friend. Would you say he was perhaps the best leg spinner to come out of India?

MA – I think the straight answer would be, without any friendship involved and without any nostalgia, he was the greatest leg spin bowler India has ever produced. Legspin bowler. One would need to define that, the distinction or difference between the various spinners that have come. Chandrashekar, I played him once only on request in a friendly game. He was not a “legspinner” legspinner. Nor was Kumble. Hirwani, yes. I don’t want to be rude, but he was not in the same class. Not in same town, let alone same lane. Subhash Gupte was the greatest, and again, I do believe that comparisons are odious. Times change, opponents change, conditions change, et cetera. Taking all of those factors into account, one cannot ignore the fact that he had to bowl against the three W’s, in the West Indies, on West Indian hard wickets.  And to contain them, to get 27 or 29 wickets in five Test matches, that itself speaks for his bowling. And even after he came back, the Madras match [against New Zealand], he got nine wickets. And against West Indies in 57-58, Alexander’s team in Kanpur on matting wicket, he got nine wickets in one game. He was by far the greatest. C.S. Nayadu was another legspinner. Pre-independence, Amir Elahi was another one.  Amir was in the same mold as Subhash Gupte in terms of the flight and the loop. C.S.Nayadu also had flight. Not Chandrashekar. Chandra was an exceptional bowler in many ways, top spinner and so on, but didn’t have the loop or the flight. Amir Elahi had that, C. S. Nayadu had less of that in Pentangulars and so on. Kumble again, was not really a legspinner, he was more of a topper, topspinner. So comparisons with Subhash Gupte if one had to make, was S.G.Shinde, a legspinner, certainly, Hirwani yes, a legspinner, or the current boys who play.

Subhash I would rate as definitely the greatest legspin bowler, and I don’t have to say this. I’ll narrate my conversation with Duleep Singh. Now, the Duleepsinhji, no one knows cricket better than him, and this was after my last Test match in Delhi where Subhash got those wickets and so on. I was talking to Duleep who was a very dear family friend. I said to him “sir, how would you rate his.” Duleep had seen Clarie Grimmett, Bill O’Reilly, and I remember his words. He said, “Madhav, on today’s bowling, what I have seen, he would be as good as Grimmett.” Now that is high praise, coming from somebody who is very knowledgeable also.

SJ – You were instrumental in getting Sachin Tendulkar into the CCI team, and you watched him bat, you know “who is this Tendulkar,” and he already had the school record of 664 and stuff. Of course he would go on to play for India for so long. Did you have indications that this boy has got what it takes?

MA – Frankly, I think making that kind of claim would not be true or fair. One sees a hell of a lot of talent at the age of 14, 16, and so on. Not all of that talent really matures because the future, no one can predict. What one can say is a qualified statement: “If he does not do this or if he does not do that, he may reach wherever.” At that time, my comment in the dressing room was, “If this boy keeps his head on his shoulders, he will play for India sooner than later.” But even Lord Almighty could have seen that he would go on to get hundred 100’s and so on. Making that kind of claim, for me, would be stupid.

SJ – But, what was it that you were impressed with when it came to his batting itself?

MA – I think, to repeat, one has seen lot of talent in many sports. Cricket gave me so much. But, I was, without sounding immodest, reasonably good at other sports like squash, badminton, winning championships at junior level, runner up etc. In all sport, you recognize talent. Now talent comprises of many things. The technical part of it; when you play badminton, the touch or the stroke, or the stamina, or court coverage. These are various aspects. Anticipation. It happens with all sports. So if somebody has all that, it is a total package. Like Nandu Natekar in Badminton, Ramanathan Krishnan in Tennis or Padukone. All great champions need to have that. This young boy, who was fourteen and a half, showed all that. In cricketing terms, as a student of the game, what I observed was that his shot selection, running between wickets, calling, keeping the tempo of the game, apart from the technical defense etc. was exceptional. To me, it looked like a total package. The boy has everything. After that, it is destiny, also. One need not make comparisons, but Vinod Kambli, both of them were contemporaries, both were schoolmates. Again, comparisons are odious, but for sheer natural ability, aptitude and talent, Vinod was no less. But look where the two careers ended up. Many other factors come in. And that’s what it’s all about.

SJ – I want to get your take on a current event. Your good friend Nari Contractor was hit on the head by a short ball from Charlie Griffith and this basically ended his India career. Recently, you had the unfortunate passing of Phil Hughes, a complete freak accident. When you played you had lot of leeway for the bowlers with beamers and bouncers, uncovered wickets, no protection for the batsman. At times do you reminisce about what could have been might have been, that you got away with because of sheet luck I suppose?

MA – Yeah. You’ve hit the nail of the head. Firstly, it is an occupational hazard as a cricketer. It used to be an occupational hazard because now there is a lot more protective gear. As it happens only last week we were talking about this among some friends. When I look at it, what happened to poor Hughes was sad, very sad. Nari, it could have happened. He nearly got killed.  And Hardikar. In fact, that Test match, I was the 12th man in Kanpur. He got hit. He sat into a beamer, not a bouncer. [If he’d] got hit just half a centimeter or a centimeter away, behind the ear. Doctor said he would have been dead. I was hit on the cheekbone. It’s all reconstructed. I had surgery. I was talking to some friends. And I said when you look back, after such a thing happens, one cannot help feeling that you’ve been just bloody lucky.

SJ– Dodged a bullet?

MA– Dodged a bullet. Yes. Absolutely. Could have happened to any one of us. Because, again, occupational hazard. And we’re lucky that it didn’t take the path that poor Hughes suffered. Nari was lucky to survive. It’s part of the game.

SJ– Lastly, going back to your career, were there times, you played first class till sixty-eight, were there times when you kept hoping that there would be recall back into the Indian side although you were into the family business. Was there a time when you were hoping for it, or was there a time when you said, well, hell with it, I’ll just focus on the business.

MA– Hoping. Of course I was. But how long could it happen? This happened when I was 20. I retired when I was 34. Obviously, one cannot expect that you’d be recalled at the age of 35. So that would be out of the way. I think probably till when I got a hundred against Services and a hundred against Bengal in 1959. I would have been, probably 30. Till the age of 30 one would think there could be a call. But again, if one is realistic enough, and sensible enough, you also realize who your competitors would be and how you would rate against them, and whether there would be a realistic possibility of a recall. In my experience it is easier for a player to make a debut rather than a debut. Because the selectors mind and frankly even the public’s sympathy is for someone who is playing his first Test. One he’s a has been, its almost like a second hand car. Even if you used it for a day, its value drops.

At 83, all I can say is I wouldn’t have wanted my life to be any different. Of course, the greatest gift is really the game of cricket. Because, that’s one game, and at least I have been saying it over and over again, that is a greater leveler. And there is no recovery in that. The classic example is that of Sir Donald Bradman, bowled 2nd ball off Hollis when he needed only 4 runs to have a career average of 100. Which, I think, highlights a point that, in theory, 10 consecutive balls can finish an innings. That’s what makes for the glorious uncertainty of this game and that there is no recovery. It may be umpire’s bad decision, it may be your partner’s bad call, it may be your own mistake or it may be your opponent’s brilliance. There is no recovery. So whether you are a Gavaskar or you are Merchant or you are Tendulkar, when the finger goes up you are back in the pavilion.

SJ– On that note, thank you so much for being on the show. Its been an absolute pleasure.

MA – Thank you.


Episode transcribed by Kathleen Galligan, Subash Jayaraman & Kartikeya Date