A Dream Indian Cricket Team

Sunil Fernandes
The advent of limited-over cricket from the 1970s has irrevocably changed the way the game is played. With all fixtures locked down, one cricket fan lets his mind wander to what might have been.
Vasant Raji, India’s oldest first-class cricketer, passed away recently. He was 100 years old. His passing, perhaps, is a time for cricket to remember and celebrate some of the other great stalwarts of Indian test cricket too – especially when the coronavirus pandemic has meant no sporting events can take place.
India played its ever first ever test match at the historic Lords Cricket Ground in 1932 against England. Forty-two years later, in 1974, India played its first ever limited-over international, also in England.
Unarguably, the advent of limited-over cricket, from the 1970s, has irrevocably changed the way the game is played. We have come across several compilations of All Time Best India XI but hardly any All Time Indian XI consisting of those cricketers, whose cricket wasn’t affected or influenced by the one-day game at all, those who played test matches only. The legends of a forgotten era. Here is that XI.
The openers
Mulvantrai Himmatlal “Vinoo” Mankad
Along with Pankaj Roy, this right-hand batsman scored 413 runs, the then highest ever partnership by an opening pair. A record that stood for 52 years till it was broken, barely so, by South Africans Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie against Bangladesh in 2008, who made 415 runs. Mankad scored 231 runs in that partnership, which was the highest Indian individual test score, till Gavaskar broke it in 1983 (236 against West Indies).
Such were his bowling skills, he would have merited a place in this XI solely as a left-arm spinner. He took eight wickets and scored a double century in an innings during the course of his test career, a feat that great all-rounders like Sobers, Kapil, Imran and Kallis haven’t achieved. He ran out the Australian batsman Billy Brown, when the latter had strayed too far from his crease, thereby coining the memorable mode of dismissal – “Mankaded”.
Vijay Merchant
The spiritual founder of the “Bombay School” of batting aka the “khadoos” style. Steely determination, unwavering concentration, terrific temperament. Technically, the best India had in the pre-Gavaskar era. Has the highest first class average (71.64) after Don Bradman.
Middle order
Lala Amarnath Bharadwaj (Captain)
He was independent India’s first-ever test captain, and also its first-ever test centurion. This Lahore-born stylish batsman was one of the select few who was equally loved on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. He was never afraid to take on the high and mighty for his team’s sake and for this reason, coupled with his astute cricketing brain, his uncanny ability to read cricket pitches and opposite players, he is my choice for the captain of this team. His son Mohinder played a stellar role in India’s 1983 ODI World Cup win.
Pahlan Ratanji “Polly” Umrigar
‘Polly Kaka’ scored the first ever double century by an Indian batsman (against New Zealand, in 1955). His free-flowing batting style was a treat to watch. One could safely bet, that had Polly Kaka played his cricket a decade later, he would have been a terrific ODI player too.
C.K. “Colonel” Nayudu
He was Indian cricket team’s original “Colonel” (a moniker that Dilip Vengsarkar rightfully inherited a few decades later). India’s first-ever captain in the debut test at Lord’s 1932, he is, in my view, one of the bravest batsman ever to don the India cap.
Batting in a first class match, while he in his 40s and understandably past his prime, Nayudu’s tooth was broken by a vicious bouncer from Dattu Phadkar, one of the fastest bowlers in India at that time. He shooed away the concerned fielders, picked his blood splattered tooth from the cricket pitch, kept it in his pocket, and calmly faced Phadkar again, smashing him and other bowlers for a fearless half century.
M.A.K. “Tiger” Pataudi (Vice-Captain)
In 1961, after a county match in the English countryside, a few first class cricketers implored one of their teammates from India to take a post-dinner walk with them. The offer was declined, with calamitous consequences. No sooner had the tired Indian player hopped inside another of his teammates’ car, there was a head-on collision with another car and a glass splinter from the windscreen permanently damaged his right eye and Indian cricket lost someone who could have been the best batsman-captain of the world in the 1960s.
‘Tiger’ Pataudi still played for India, for a decade more, with one eye and two names! Before the 26th Constitutional Amendment of 1971 abolished privy purses and royal titles, he played as the Nawab of Pataudi and post-1971 as Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. He led India to its first ever overseas test series win (vs NZ in 1967-68). He will also be my team’s vice captain. (Millennials may recognise him as the father of Saif Ali Khan, father-in-law of Kareena Kapoor and most importantly, the late grandfather of baby Taimur!)
All rounder
Vijay Samuel Hazare
He was the closest thing we had to a Kapil Dev before Kapil Dev. Prolific right-hand batsman and a handy right-arm seam bowler, he was the first Indian to score centuries in both innings of a test match, against Don Bradman’s “Invincible” Australians at Adelaide in 1947-48.
Wicketkeeper-batsman
Budhi Kunderan
The 1960s witnessed an epic tussle for the team’s wicket-keeping slot, between the Karnataka-born, Tulu-speaking Budhi Kunderan (sharing his birthdate with Mahatma Gandhi) and the flamboyant Bombay Parsi, Farookh Engineer. Both excelled at being “keeper-batsman” even before the term was invented.
In an era where you’d feel grateful if your keeper merely reached double digits, these two hammered three figure scores with ridiculous ease. Engineer played 5 ODIs for India and hence fails to make this XI.
Seam bowlers
Amar Singh and Mohammad Nissar
When India played its first test match, no one expected the Indians to trouble their colonial masters, who then had the best test team in the world. But the pace, bounce and movement generated by India’s opening bowlers in that tour remains etched in history. The Second World War stole some of the best years from these two bowlers. While Nissar was faster and considered to be the better of the two, Amar Singh was the more competent batsman and a world class slip fielder.
Subhas “Fergie” Gupte
The greatest all round cricketer ever to have played, Sir Garfield Sobers, called him the best spinner he has ever faced. Nothing more needs to be said for the inclusion of this Bombay born magical leg spinner in this team.
12th man. Dilip Sardesai
The first and only Goa-born player to play test cricket for India. With the middle order packed as it is, I sadly could not accommodate a player whose role was probably more crucial than Gavaskar’s in securing India’s test series win in the West Indies in 1971.
Selector’s logic
It can be argued that this team is reasonably balanced. Bats deep with Amar Singh coming in at No.9. Well stocked with bowling options too. Two terrific pacers, Singh and Nissar to open with Hazare, Nayudu and Lala ji would offering handy seam support. Gupte and Mankad would be the star spinners, capable of running through any side on turning pitches.
Five out of the 12 members in this squad played for Bombay (Mankad, Merchant, Umrigar, Gupte and Sardesai). Hardly surprising since we are talking of an era where getting in the Bombay team was considered tougher than getting into the Indian team. Bombay remains the only first class team, anywhere in the world, to win its domestic cricket championship (the Ranji Trophy) 16 consecutive times (1958-1974). Indian cricket has been glowing example of India’s syncretic, inclusive, secular culture. Religion (thankfully) has never been a criterion for selection. It was as late as December 1979 that India fielded a team consisting solely of Hindus. In a team of mere 11 players, it wasn’t unusual to see as many five religions being represented, which was unprecedented for any team anywhere in the world of cricket. This team has too has members from four religions – two Parsis (Merchant and Umrigar), two Muslims (Pataudi and Nissar), a Christian (Hazare) and the rest, Hindus. A Sikh sadly missed out (with A.G. Kripal Singh coming closest). This eclecticism in our cricket is something all Indians must take pride in, especially in these fractious times.
(The author is an advocate on record in the Supreme Court).