|Former India captain and opening batsman, Nari Contractor, at his home in Colaba, Mumbai. Contractor was recently appointed as the chairman of the Cricket Improvement Committee (CIC) of the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA).|
Monday, July 16, 2012
‘I would love to play the IPL’: Nari Contractor
At a time when the anti-IPL sentiment is rife with the who’s who of the cricketing world questioning the BCCI’s motives and financial clout, former India captain and opening batsman Nari Contractor strikes a balanced pose—reminiscent of those taken while executing one of his sublime shots—and says he would have loved to play in the tournament in his hay days, albeit unsure whether his style would suit the format!
Nariman Jamshedji Contractor, 78, leans back into the couch at his Cusrow Baug home at Colaba, Mumbai, as the Indian Premier League (IPL) comes into the conversation. A yellow Labrador, Contractor’s pet, paws at the door separating the living room from the kitchen, as a car passes by the window and zips across the narrow lane of the baug. As if on cue, Contractor smiles and shoots, “The IPL is very good for promoting the game. It gets in a lot of money.”
Nari Contractor is a man who plied his trade in the fifties, sixties and seventies—when Test Cricket was bread and butter for cricketers. So, fathoming such a response from him was difficult. However, he isn’t done and goes on to even credit the cash-rich tournament with the revival of fading interest in the game. “In the seventies, when the first One-Day Internationals (ODIs) were played, they were responsible for reviving the interest in the game. The next big step was the IPL, on which it (the sport) is thriving. It is also very good from the entertainment point of view, compared to Test cricket.”
Contractor would know entertainment from not, since he began providing it right from his first competitive game. “It was more of a coincidence than anything”, he says, of the fortuitous beginning to his first-class career.
In February, 1952, an Indian team was to tour the West Indies. In those days, Bombay (now Mumbai) had quite a few Test players; only four or five players would come from other states, according to Contractor. So when the Indian team was to leave for the Caribbean, the erstwhile Bombay Cricket Association had to fill up the vacant spots in the team. Hence, they conducted some local matches, which Contractor contested. In the same year, a Pakistan team was to tour India in the winter. So the Bombay Cricket Association said that they would select four youngsters, based on the performances in these matches, who would play in the Pakistan series.
Contractor reminisces, “One gentleman was watching the matches at the Cricket Club of India (CCI), Mumbai. During the course of one of the matches, he called on me and asked me to play for Gujarat, since I was born there. But I was sure that I would get into the national side after these matches, so I turned down his offer. He wished me the best and reiterated that I should play for Gujarat. It was only later that I came to know that this man was Phiroz Khambata—the captain of the Gujarat team. Later, when the team for the Pakistan series was announced, my name wasn’t on it.” Contractor happened to score 250 at an inter-college match that very day.
Later that evening, taking a chance, he sent a telegram to Khambata saying ‘Available for selection’. “The next morning, when I checked the paper to see the Gujarat team, my name wasn’t there, naturally, as the team was selected the previous evening itself,” he recounts. Little did he know that fate was to take another turn for the better. “However, after two days, I got a telegram saying ‘Proceed to Baroda’. On the day of the match, when the playing XI were announced, my name was last on the list; Mr Khambata had injured himself.” Contractor went on to score a century in each innings of his debut first-class match, which is a world record he shares with fellow left-hand opening bat Arthur Morris. “Maybe God wanted it to happen, I don’t know,” is his reaction to the fateful turn of events.
Contractor wouldn’t even have been eligible to play for Gujarat if he wasn’t born there. He was born in Godhra in the year 1934, but his family immediately shifted to Bombay. Little Nari took to sports like a bear to honey at a young age. After playing cricket and hockey for a prolonged period, the southpaw was finally attracted to the cricketing willow.
Having begun his competitive career batting in the middle order, Contractor opened the innings for the first time only in 1955. Before the New Zealand series of ’55 (where he made his Test debut for India), there was a practice match—West Zone vs. New Zealand—where he opened the innings with Vinoo Mankad. But when he was selected in the Indian team (for the ensuing Tests against the Kiwis), he batted at no. 6 in the first Test. “However, in the second Test at Delhi, Vinoo couldn’t make it for the match and there was no other opening batsman (to replace him). So, Polly (Umrigar, the captain) said that I should open. I did, and scored 61.”
Contractor was clearly enjoying talking about his Test career, even about instances which would unsettle the best of sportsmen. In the Lords Test match of the 1959 tour to England, speedster Brian Statham all but shattered Contractor’s ribs when the latter was on nought. “There was a ridge on the pitch at Lords,” he explains. “Thus, when the delivery hit the ridge, it flew. There was no chance of avoiding it. I fell on the ground and it was difficult to breathe. So, I told Polly that I can’t play. But he asked me to continue for two-three overs and see how it feels before making a decision. But in the next three overs, we lost two quick wickets. So, I had no choice but to stay at the crease. I only got to know at lunch time that I had fractured four ribs.” Contractor ended up scoring 81 with those four fractured ribs, and understandably describes it as an innings which is “special” to him. “But there were others too like my hundred against the West Indies in 1957-58 in Ahmedabad. I was also the top scorer in the match vs Australia at Kanpur in 1960, which we won.” He also rates Statham as one of the best bowlers he has faced. “He (Statham) was very accurate. He moved the ball well and at a good pace.”
Contractor would soon get the captaincy of the Indian team, making him their youngest ever captain (aged 26) at the time. Talking of how he got it, he says, “During the West Indies’ tour to India in 1958-59, we had Ghulam Ahmed, Vinoo Mankad, Hemu Adhikari and Polly Umrigar as captains. After that, we toured England in 1959 where Datta Gaekwad and Pankaj Roy, both, were captains. So, we had six captains in a period of few games. After that, the selectors decided that I was the future, so I was made captain for the Pakistan series (of 1960-61).”
Contractor’s stint as captain, however, was short-lived. The infamous, near-fatal incident of the 1961-62 West Indies tour where a towering Charlie Griffith rammed a bouncer into Contractor’s skull, leaving the latter unconscious for six days is, even today, one of the first things that come to mind when you think of Nari Contractor. He would never play for India again.
However, the remarkable matter-of-factness in Contractor’s tone when asked if he regretted the incident is inspiring. “What is there to regret?” he asks. “When you play a game like cricket, injuries are bound to happen. A fast bowler can try to hit you at will. But to hit you on this spot (pointing to his temple), is completely accidental.” Perhaps so, but this was a 90 degrees hit at more than 90mph on the most tender part of the brain. “Everybody gets hit, there is nothing new in that,” is the cool reply.
If this pragmatic response is inspiring, wait till you hear about the comeback. After getting his skull shattered in March, Contractor’s last operation was in July. A metallic sheet was inserted into his skull. Contractor recounts an amusing, but life-changing conversation with his doctor—Dr Chandy—who asked him “the most ridiculous question he could” - ‘When are you starting to play Cricket again?’
“It was another bouncer to me!” says Contractor animatedly. “My vision had gone for a toss and everything was a blur. I can’t see a bloody thing! And this man is asking me to play first-class cricket!” Contractor had then replied that he probably would never play the game again. What Dr Chandy would advise Contractor would stick with him for the rest of his life. He says, “The doctor gave me the best piece of advice that has ever been given to me. He said, ‘Look, if you want to be a normal human being again, the first thing you have to do is start training and play the game again. Otherwise, you will be a vegetable.’” Dr Chandy’s words were so strong and inspirational that Contractor was back playing for Gujarat within a year.
Even though Contractor never got a second chance to play for India again, it did seem like it was the country’s loss. He made 2,535 runs in the second half of his career. His first-class average between 1962-63 and 1970-71 was 38.40, just a shade below 40.50—which was his average prior to the freak incident.
Contractor loved his cricket. He once famously said in an interview – “Cricket has given me everything but money!” However, he warns that this must not be construed in the negative. He has no regrets of playing in an era where you got paid just Rs 250 per match, compared to the lakhs you get now. “We used to live more out of pocket, than in pocket,” he quips. “But it was fun! If I was asked to live my life again, I would live the same life,” he adds with a nostalgic smile.
So, it does come as a shock when Contractor bats for the IPL (read: the shorter format of the game). However, he does question whether the tournament and the format are good for the game from a technical aspect. “I do not know. Today, all Test matches finish within three-four days. Earlier, there were hardly any results and many matches ended in draws.” But isn’t that a good thing? “In a way, yes, but now everybody is playing ODI and T-20 Cricket in Test matches!” he exclaims, before getting up and taking a batting stance. “Today, you get away with bad habits such as hitting the wrong ball (in limited overs matches),” he says, before impersonating a poke outside off stump. “In the series against Australia earlier this year, 80 percent of the boys got out caught in the slips (playing this shot). In the IPL, it will get you four runs.”
Admitting that the IPL is having a retarding influence on the game from the Test cricket point of view, Contractor goes on to rue the seepage of limited-over cricket shots into the textbook of youngsters practicing the game. He recounts one particular incident when he used to coach at the CCI a few years back. Contractor was overlooking a young boy (aged 11-12) batting at the nets. The boy played a reverse sweep, to which Contractor remarked, “What the bloody hell are you doing?” The boy, clearly perplexed, replied, “But I played a perfect shot, sir!” Contractor laughs and says, “Now, what do I coach him? He has played the perfect shot!” adding, “Coaching is a misnomer today. How will you coach a boy? How can you stop him from playing the shot? How do you make him understand that you cannot succeed every time you play that shot?” It is then that Contractor admits that, “T-20 is a negative format. It doesn’t produce the top level of cricket, i.e. Test cricket.” He adds that if the country wants to produce more Tendulkars and Dravids, kids upto the age of 16 should strictly be taught “the correct format”.
However, being the definition of pragmatism, Contractor also points out that the IPL and T-20 are the “basic survival of cricket” due to the monetary benefits. “How can you not concentrate on them?” he asks. When asked if he would have played in the IPL if given the chance, Contractor laughs and quips, “I would have loved to play in the IPL! But I probably wouldn’t have been good enough to play in it.”
Contractor believes that the money earned by the BCCI through the IPL is going towards the betterment of the game, and also helps spreading it to the nooks and corners of the country. “Earlier, only boys from big cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Madras (Chennai) used to make it to the Indian team. But nowadays, you see boys from places like Jharkhand make it big (a clear reference to Indian captain M.S. Dhoni). Cricket has been spread very beautifully. If the BCCI earns two crores, at least 75 lakhs are spent on cricket.”
Contractor takes the recent example of the BCCI remunerating its former players, including himself, who retired before 2004. “Why did they not give us this money earlier?” he asks, before himself replying, “Because earlier, there was no money! Money started flowing into the BCCI coffers only after 2004.” Contractor believes that sports such as Football and Hockey have also similarly started progressing. “It’s only a matter of time,” he says, before these sports catch up with cricket.
So does Contractor only follow cricket, or is he a total sports buff? “Oh, I follow all sports!” he remarks, adding, “This period from May to August is a real headache!” referring to the various sports tournaments being played—the French Open, the Wimbledon, the Euro, the Olympics and, finally, the US Open. “It’s madness!” he exclaims.
Although coming across as an astute, pragmatic thinker, Nari Contractor is your typical Bambaiya Parsi—fun-loving, jovial and simple to the tee. He walks around the house dressed in the characteristic Parsi loose shirt and trousers, and haggles with the mango-seller like every other Mumbaikar. His simplicity is exemplified by the solitary trophy that adorns the showcase in his living room. In 2007, Contractor was given the CK Nayadu Lifetime Achievement Award by the BCCI—which is the highest honour the board can bestow on a former player. He is unperturbed by the millions of rupees and overflowing cabinets of trophies earned by today’s cricketers. “I earned just about 8000 rupees playing cricket,” he says, with a twinkle in his eyes.
Knowing him, he wouldn’t have asked for a paisa more.