Indian cricket was far from the juggernaut it is today in its early years. A distinct feeling of inferiority hung over the team, perhaps bred out of years of colonial subjugation. Victories in Test match cricket were few and far between, and simply achieving a draw against fellow minnows Pakistan and New Zealand was considered worthy of celebration.
Indian cricket had its stars in the post-independence era, from the charismatic Polly Umrigar to the legendary Vijay Hazare. However, none shone as brightly and as consistently as the immense Vinoo Mankad.
Mankad was born in the former princely state of Jamnagar, the home of the famous Ranjitsinhji and Duleepsinhji. Growing up on the tales of their incredible feats, Mankad impressed in the Ranji Trophy, scoring 185 in a victorious final against Bengal. He played four unofficial matches against a team assembled by Lord Tennyson in 1937-38, and topped the bowling and batting averages. Tennyson declared that Mankad would find a place in any World XI.
Unfortunately, Mankad lost the prime years of his career to World War II, just when he was about to enter the world of Test cricket, and had to settle for dominating domestic cricket in that time. He finally got his opportunity in 1947 when India toured England. Despite playing in a rather miserable Indian lineup, he achieved the classic English all-rounder’s double for the season, capturing 129 wickets and scoring 1120 runs across the tour. He was chosen by Wisden that year as one of its Five Cricketers of the Year.
He struggled in his next series against the immense Australian side of 1947-48. The team that would become the Invincibles the next summer in England proved themselves to be in an entirely separate class to the touring team. It is for this series that Mankad is best remembered in many cricketing circles. He ran out opener Bill Brown while he was backing up to far from his crease, provoking immense controversy. He was, however, supported in his sportsmanship by none other than opposing captain Bradman, and mankad has become the standard verb in the cricketing vocabulary to describe this sort of dismissal.
Mankad delivered the defining performance of his career against England at Lord’s in June 1952. He was initially not even selected in the touring party, and was playing club cricket in the Lancashire League. India was thrashed in four days in the first match of the tour after they were memorably reduced to 0 for 4. The team manager Pankaj Gupta, forced into action, convinced the BCCI and Mankad’s club to release the much-needed star for the rest of the tour.
Mankad opened the innings, having not even played first-class cricket all summer, and set the stage with a brilliant 72 against the fearsome Alec Bedser and Fred Trueman at their peak. Despite their strong start, India subsided to a meek total of 235. In response, perhaps the most powerful English batting lineup of all time got stuck in and amassed 537, with runs all the way down the order. Mankad bowled tirelessly, delivering 73 overs in the innings, claiming 5 wickets.
When India came out to bat in the second innings, Mankad cracked an amazing 184 at the top of the order, out of 270 while he was at the crease. He was on the field for nearly 17 out of 25 hours of play. Wisden declared that match “Mankad’s Test” and rated it the greatest ever performance in a losing cause up till that point of time.
Mankad died in 1978, the year Kapil Dev made his debut. The latter would come to establish himself with flair and captaincy success, claiming the throne as Indian cricket’s foremost all-rounder. Mankad’s feats have been relegated to the amnesia many Indian fans have attributed to that desperate period of their cricketing history.
However, Mankad is still immortalized in the record books, as he still holds the record for the highest opening partnership in Test match cricket along with Pankaj Roy. The New Zealand bowling was not particularly threatening, and the Chennai pitch positively docile, but their mark of 413 has remained unmatched in the 62 years of Test match cricket since. And so, every time partnership records are pulled up, we are reminded once again of that faithful servant of Indian cricket, matched in influence and achievement only by a few of his contemporaries and surpassed by none.