Friday, January 13, 2012

A trip down memory lane with India’s oldest Test cricketer

Peter May was at the striker’s end as Vinoo Mankad, one of India’s greatest spinners, ran in slowly and bowled a floater on middle and leg. The venue was Lord’s and the year 1952. As May went for the powerful pull, the crowds – in the replays era – cheered, anticipating a six, when suddenly the agile man behind the stumps sprang a surprise.

Umpire Frank Chester came running towards him from the square leg and said, ‘Well caught.’ The man was none other than Madhav Mantri.

Now 90, his face mostly hidden by black-rimmed glasses, a cervical collar round his neck, a little hunched by the years, dressed in a plain white kurta-pyjama — Mantri, better known as Sunil Gavaskar’s uncle, is also the oldest surviving Test cricketer in the country, is nowhere close to even being ‘old.’ Mantri still treasures the compliment that came from umpire Chester. He told him what a fine wicketkeeper he was when he sent May, the hero to many an English schoolboy cricketer, walking back to the pavilion. May was one of the best English batsmen of the post-war era and went on to become one of its greatest skippers as well.

As old as he is, Mantri displays a zest for life that is almost unmatched. He is a board member of a leading co-operative bank, the trustee of a prominent school and a former teacher whose students still seek his approval before sending anything for publishing.
He is a little hard of hearing now, and has to strain his eyes to read the letters his students send him; but his memory has not been blurred by the passage of time.

He remembers every minute he spent on the cricket field. The moment he starts talking about cricket, he comes alive.

He was only a boy of 18 when he scored his first century — but the excitement has not faded away– it is still clearly visible in his sparkling eyes which have many a story to tell. And it’s infectious.

Mantri played 95 first-class matches, and scored 4403 runs with seven hundreds including a top score of 200. He managed to play just four Tests for India, scoring 67 runs with eight catches and one stumping, but he had a career that was indeed ‘first-class’ in the eyes of many.

Like all other cricketers, Mantri’s first brush with cricket was Mumbai’s very own ‘gully cricket’. He played in the by-lanes of Hindu Colony in Dadar, and unlike now, the roads would remain empty, without a single bike or a car parked. “My father would give me four annas whenever I took more than five wickets in inter-lane matches,” he fondly remembers, breaking into a child-like grin. With that encouragement he moved on from the bylanes of Mumbai to the Mecca of cricket.

In 1933, as a 12-year-old, he went to Bombay Gymkhana with his father to watch the first ever India-England Test match played in India. England needed 39 runs to win, and Charlie Barnett completed the victory against the ‘minnows’ in a grand style as he hit two towering sixes. Nearly 20 years later, Mantri bumped into Barnett on his 1952 tour to England, and reminded him about the victory. Barnett was delightfully amazed. Little did he knew, that one day someone would praise him and remember his cricket as he remembered Barnett’s.

In the early 70s when Mantri met the UK Deputy High Commissioner, he was asked whether he smashed Douglas Wright (England spinner) for a six in Canterbury. “The ball came to me in the crowd,” he said. This time, Mantri was left amazed.

Mantri who stopped playing cricket for almost six decades ago still ‘thinks, dreams and lives’ cricket. He still retains his boyish charm, living his adolescent dream in a vicarious way. When asked about his love for the city, all the 90-year-old reminisces about is the gully cricket he played as a boy. This encapsulates Mantri in many ways. Mumbai, childhood, joy.. can all be summed up in one word; cricket.

Making his first-class debut for Bombay in February 1941, Mantri set an Indian wicket-keeping record of nine scalps that remained unbroken till 1980 when Mumbai’s Zulfikar Parkar got the perfect 10.

He goes down memory lane to relate a story that never fails to draw chuckle. He remembers the day he met Sharmila Tagore, but couldn’t recognise her. “In those days we didn’t have TV, and I didn’t go to the theatre much.” Sharmila Tagore wanted a seat to watch a match in which Pataudi was playing. Mantri without recognizing her gave her an ordinary seat from where almost nothing could be seen. Later, when he saw ‘Kashmir Ki Kali’, he jumped on his seat as he recognised the woman was the one whom he had once refused the premier seat. He bursts into laughter as he remembers the incident.

Summing up India’s latest performances he says, “This team doesn’t know how to field. We were always reminded, unless you are a good fielder, you are not in the team.” But suddenly waking up from the reveries of his past feats, Mantri slips almost unknowingly to the present scenario…and sighs “But, now they don’t care about those things anymore.”

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