Anindya Dutta, courtesy of The Cricket Monthly and ESPNcricinfo, 25 June 2018, where the title runs “A dinner in 1946″
The year was 1946. England was caught between the exhilaration of emerging victorious from the Second World War and the devastation the war had wrought upon the country, both in terms of people and resources. Rationing was still in place, and the economy was in tatters.
For six long years, while war raged, cricket had taken a backseat. There had been little first-class cricket, and the battlefields claimed some of England’s most talented players, like the venerated Hedley Verity. There were only 11 first-class matches in the 1945 season. Nineteen forty-six was the first year when a normal county season was scheduled and Test cricket could again be played. Cricket was seen as a way to restore a feeling of normalcy to a country severely affected by war and its consequences.
Meanwhile for India, while the war had limited direct impact, decades of exhausting struggle against British rule appeared at an end. An England much weakened by war, and rid of Winston Churchill, finally seemed amenable to a possible handover of power.
The Cabinet Mission sent in March 1946 by the government of Clement Attlee cleared the path towards freedom, but that process would prove tumultuous, with large-scale communal riots in Calcutta that August giving a taste of what was to come a year later when the country was partitioned into a Muslim-majority Pakistan and a Hindu-majority India.
In the meantime, cricket continued to grow in popularity and was spreading across the country undeterred by war and despite the continuing domestic unrest.
The Indians arrive in England
It was in this backdrop that an Indian cricket team arrived in England. The squad included Hindus, Muslims, a Parsi (Rusi Modi) and a Christian (Vijay Hazare), a side that represented the country’s diversity. It would also turn out to be the last team from undivided India to tour Britain.
Iftikhar Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, who had made his debut for England during the infamous Bodyline Series of 1932-33, was now leading the nation of his birth. The Indian cricket board had voted to give him captaincy over Vijay Merchant by ten votes to eight.
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The players arrived in batches in late April. Pataudi, Lala Amarnath and Shute Banerjee were the first to reach, travelling from New Delhi to Karachi, leaving the next day by a BOAC York plane for Bournemouth via Cairo. Mushtaq Ali, CS Nayudu and Chandu Sarwate met up with Raosaheb Nimbalkar and Gul Mohammad in Karachi, and this group arrived in England by RAF Dakota. Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Ranga Sohoni and Sadu Shinde came in another batch via Cairo, while a fourth batch of Vijay Hazare, Dattaram Hindlekar, Vijay Merchant, Vinoo Mankad and Rusi Modi, went by flying boat from Karachi to Poole on the southern English coast.
England, meanwhile, may have been depleted of young talent by the war, but the squad had most of the stalwarts that had made the country such a powerhouse before 1939. Denis Compton, Bill Edrich, Wally Hammond, Len Hutton, Cyril Washbrook, Godfrey Evans and Bill Voce constituted a team with enough experience to handle a relatively young Indian team in which only six players had played Test cricket.
Pataudi’s team would play 33 matches on a tour that lasted four months. Twenty-nine of the matches, including three Tests, were first-class. It was one of the wettest summers recorded in England, made worse by the early May start, but that did not prevent the crowds from coming out in numbers to witness the return of first-class cricket to the British Isles and see for themselves the talent of the Indian team.
In its recap of the tour, the Cricketer‘s annual issue for 1946 would record: “It is satisfactory to know that in spite of the bad weather, the tour produced a considerable profit and this will be an asset in the development of Indian cricket. We feel that so innate is the cricketing skill of the Indians that the day will come when they will defeat both England and Australia.”
Mushtaq Ali bats against Worcestershire © PA Photos/Getty Images
The Majlis Society organises a dinner
Despite the wet and cold conditions at the start of the tour, the Indians started off well in their first match against Worcestershire, losing narrowly by 16 runs. The team then travelled two hours by road to Oxford, for their second first-class match due to begin the next morning against Oxford University.
Rain washed out that first day’s play, so it would have been in a relaxed state of mind that the team would head to the Angel restaurant for a dinner hosted by the Oxford Majlis Asian Society.
The Majlis (“assembly” in ancient Persian), founded in 1896, is the second oldest student society at Oxford University, after the Oxford Union. It is also the oldest Asian student society in the world. Founded originally as a debating society to campaign for Indian independence, it continues to exist today as a “non-political” Asian society involved more with culture than current events.
In 1946, celebrating 50 years of its existence, the Oxford Majlis Asian Society was headed by Amalendu Bose, an Indian student reading for his doctorate in English at Christ Church college. Bose had started at Oxford a few months prior; his war years were spent teaching at the University of Dhaka, a hotbed of the independence movement. During Bose’s years at Dhaka, the Bengal famine had claimed the lives of 2.1 million people, the impact exacerbated by British refusal to send in food grains, and its diversion of boats away from areas that needed relief, prioritising its military needs over the lives of the rural poor.
For Bose, the fact that an Indian cricket team was coming to Oxford was an occasion not only to honour the players, but to express his fierce national pride. By hosting the dinner he hoped to make the cricketers feel at ease among fellow Indians whose hearts were back home and whose eyes were on independence. It was also an excellent chance to discover the perspective of a diverse group of individuals who made up the Indian team, hailing from different parts of India, diverse in their religious beliefs.
With this in mind, the Majlis Society, in cooperation with another group of students at Oxford who called themselves the Hermits, organised the dinner at the Angel.
The dinner and Bose’s menu card
In post-war Britain, with severe rationing still in place, organising a dinner for 40 to 50 people was no mean task. One can only imagine Bose and his colleagues extending themselves to make the event a success. The few private restaurants still in operation were not subject to rationing but could only serve a three-course meal, and they could not charge more than five shillings per person.
We are indeed lucky that a copy of the menu of the meal that evening survives. Amalendu Bose’s son, Tirthankar, a retired professor of English who lives in Canada, was kind enough to send a copy to this writer.
When you take a look at the menu, it seems that Bose and his fellow students managed to whip up a treat for their cricketing heroes that night, although the omission of details is tantalising. Was the hors d’ouevre French, English or Indian? Was the soup Mulligatawny, to give a taste of dal to the lads who were perhaps already homesick? Did the chicken have a far greater sprinkling of spices than would be offered to the casual diner?
The remarkable feature of the menu and what enhances its historical value are the 15 signatures that Bose obtained from the members of the Indian team: the firm hand of Vijay Hazare, the flair of Pataudi, the hesitant scrawl of CS Nayudu, the beautiful flow of Mushtaq Ali and Sadu Shinde, the less elegant but clear etchings of the two stalwarts Vinoo Mankad and Vijay Merchant. The missing sixteenth signature is of Lala Amarnath, who stayed behind at the hotel, made other plans, or else just neglected to sign the menu.
CS Nayudu, Shute Banerjee and Chandu Sarwate at the Stuart Surridge bat factory © PA Photos/Getty Images
One imagines the conversation would have flown thick and furious over trifle and coffee. Merchant was a noted after-dinner speaker, and was not a man to hold back his views. John Arlott, in his tour book on the series, Indian Summer would say about him: “It is impossible not to like Vijay Merchant; his manners are polished to the last degree, his consideration for others impeccable – and he looks you in the face when he talks to you. His honesty is unmistakable – he speaks out the truth, but never crudely.”
As vice-captain of the side and its leading batsman, Merchant would attend a few such dinners over the coming four months, but none probably would have quite the electric atmosphere as this one given the nationalistic intensity of Bose and his fellow Oxonians.
For Abdul Hafeez Kardar, who had already gained admittance to Oxford to read philosophy, politics and economics after the tour, it was an opportunity to exchange notes with the students and get involved in the discussions on the situation back home. Kardar was destined never to go back to India. By the time he returned, it would be to Pakistan, to take over the captaincy of the new team. In 1952 he would lead Pakistan on their first tour, ironically to India, and indeed to their first Test victory, against many of his 1946 tour colleagues.
Pataudi was himself educated at Oxford and was a wonderful conversationalist, with a perspective that straddled the two sides of the fence. There would have been much to discuss. The country was at the cusp of something incredible. Decades of struggle were about to bear fruit. Who would form the interim government? Would it be Nehru or would it be Jinnah? Would the Muslim League indeed join such a government? Who would head the constituent assembly? Was the British parliament actually going to hand over power to representatives of independent India anytime soon? Would independent India indeed be a united India? Oh, what I would have given to be a fly on the wall of the Angel that evening!
Crowds queue up outside Lord’s for day two of the first Test © Getty Images
At least some friendships were formed that night over dinner that were to last a lifetime. For the six years until Pataudi’s unfortunate demise in 1952, from a heart attack while playing polo, Bose and Pataudi kept in touch and corresponded sporadically. Unfortunately none of the correspondence survives.
The record partnership and the rest of the tour
The next day a full-strength Oxford University team put on 256, as Mankad and Shinde took four wickets each. The Indians replied with 248 on the back of a brilliant 64 from Hazare; Oxford made 245 for 3 when stumps were called on the third and final day.
The quality and resolve of that 1946 Indian side was never as evident as in the next match against Surrey. Despite being the fastest bowler in the side, Shute Banerjee would not make his Test debut on the 1946 tour, just as he had failed to do in 1936. However, he lives on in the record books for a batting performance.
The Indians were 205 for 9 at The Oval when Banerjee walked out at 4.03pm to join No. 10 Chandu Sarwate. They put together a 249-run stand for the last wicket in a remarkable three hours and ten minutes, stroking around the formidable Surrey attack, which included Alec Bedser. Banerjee made 121 and Sarwate 124 not out. Neither before nor since have the last two batsmen both scored a century in a first-class match.
“Banerjee came to join me,” Sarwate was to later recall. “The Surrey captain then thought that we would last hardly a few minutes. He called the groundsman and was trying to tell him the roller that he would require. But that evening we couldn’t do anything wrong.”
Amarnath is bowled by Frank Smailes in the Lord’s Test © PA Photos/Getty Images
When the Indians took the field, Nayudu took a hat-trick and Surrey was bowled out for a paltry 135. Following on, they managed 338, but the Indians easily rattled up the 20 runs required to win, for the loss of Sarwate, cheekily sent out to open the innings by Merchant, captaining in the place of the indisposed Pataudi.
In the end the Indians won 13 of the 33 matches on tour and 11 of the 29 first-class games. They lost only four matches in four months, including the Test at Lord’s (the other two Tests were drawn). In the context of the times, and the fact that more than half the players were making their debuts, this was a remarkable achievement. The terrible English weather they encountered also meant that for four long months, much of the time the team was playing in unfamiliar and challenging conditions.
The star batsman of the tour was undoubtedly Merchant. He scored 2385 first-class runs at an average of 74.53 with seven centuries and a high score of 242 not out. Of his century against MCC, Arlott wrote: “His 148 at Lord’s was not Vijay Merchant’s highest innings of the tour, but it was his richest. The air held rain and little of the sun, yet, English as the setting was, this Indian batsman showed us there his best. I knew how anxious he was to make a hundred that day and I was amazed to see his stroke play flowering under his anxiety.”
The other star of the tour was Mankad, who really came into his own as a spinner and allrounder. A besotted Arlott wrote:
“His rebellious, straight black hair gleaming, laughter richly present in his deep-seated eyes, he bustles powerfully through his short run and bowls with a thick left arm – the orthodox left-hander’s spinner leaving the bat, or, when least expected and with no change of action, the ball that goes with his arm. And, the ball bowled, he is tense to scamper to mid-on or mod-off to stifle the single at conception. Give him the ball, for he wants to bowl again, his over will last little more than a minute and he has so much to do. There is no time for expressions of regret or surprise or disappointment, there are many ways of dismissing a man and he will try them all. From his first over in England Mankad was a good slow left-hander. By the end of the tour, there is little doubt that he was the best slow left-arm bowler in the world.”
Vijay Merchant on his way to 148 against MCC © PA Photos/Getty Images
Mankad became the first Indian and first visitor in England since Learie Constantine in 1928 to achieve the double of 1000 runs and 100 wickets on tour.
Hazare unobtrusively finished second in both batting and bowling averages. He recorded the highest score of the tour, 244 beautifully compiled runs against Yorkshire. At first glance, Arlott had this to say about Hazare:
“A slim man with a shy, gentle smile, much averse to walking in the rain, hiding within himself at social functions, rarely speaking unless spoken to, one could take the impression of an impractical recluse. See his stance at the wicket: one hand at the extreme top of his bat handle, the other at the extreme bottom pressing against the blade, the bad between the pads so that it cannot be moved straight forward or straight back, the batsman’s entire weight thrown down upon it, right shoulder pulling around to set him four-square to the bowler. How on earth can a man with such a stance, the perfectly wrong stance, make runs?”
But after watching him bat through the series, Arlott would become a fan for life: “Watch that awkward stance gradually melt as his square-cut finds the off-side gap, or his hook the leg-boundary, and see a batsman always difficult to dismiss, who seizes his runs as they come, taking no risks, but only a toll. Hazare is never satisfied with his score, is incapable of throwing away his wicket.”
Hazare went on to become one of India’s greatest batsmen, and also captained India to their maiden Test victory over England in Madras in 1951-52.
Iftikhar Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, may not have exhibited the brilliance in batting that he showed in his debut series for England in 1932-33, but at the fag end of his career he strung together a religiously diverse side into a single united team playing with national pride. Two decades later, his son Mansur(also an Oxford graduate) would exhibit the same leadership quality when he became the first Indian captain to effectively rid the team of regional divisiveness.
Vijay Hazare scored 1344 first-class runs and took 54 wickets on the tour © PA Photos
All in all, the 1946 team had not beaten England in the Test series, but by their attitude and performance, they had laid the foundation of a bright cricketing future for their nation. As Wisden remarked:
“While the politicians at home argued the rights of independence, the cricketers abroad showed to the world that they could put aside differences of race and creed and join together on and off the field as a single unit, working as one for the same cause. These young men came as their country’s ambassadors. By their cricket they won the hearts of the English public; by their modesty and bearing they earned the respect and admiration of everyone with whom they came into close contact.”
One would like to think that a fraternal evening at the Angel in Oxford, with its heady mix of cricket and nationalism while India took her first steps towards independence, had a small role to play in making this possible.
Anindya Dutta is a cricket columnist and author of two books – Spell-binding Spells and A Gentleman’s Game
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