To most cricketers of my generation, Mulvantrai Himmatlal Mankad is the greatest allrounder produced by India. And for those who are not convinced, let me say that only Kapil Dev would even figure in a debate.
When I think of Vinoo, I think about his achievement of taking only 23 Tests to score 1000 runs and claim 100 wickets; the 27 consecutive matches he played on India’s 1946 tour of England; the two Test hundreds in the Australian summer of 1947-48 against Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller; the 1952 Lord’s Test, which came to be known as Mankad’s Test. But watching him in the Test against England at the Brabourne Stadium as a collegian in 1951 gave me the biggest thrill of all.
It’s 65 years after that first sighting and I am honoured to write an appreciation in Vinoo’s birth centenary year.
Cricket in India has benefited greatly from patrons and when we talk about Vinoo, we must mention the Jamsaheb of Nawanagar Digvijaysinhji. It was he who provided him the opportunities to grow as a cricketer. There were two more benefactors and Vinoo never forgot to credit them: Albert Wensley for his bowling, Duleepsinhji for his batting, although he was taught the basics of the game at school in Jamnagar by SHM Colah. However, India would never have had a cricketer of the stature of Mankad had it not been for the Jamsaheb.
At home he was called Minu. At school, they called him Vinoo. Although Arthur Gilligan, the former MCC captain, told Wensley he was convinced that Vinoo would go on to become a world-class allrounder, Vinoo’s start in Ranji Trophy cricket was far from spectacular. He went wicketless on debut for Western India and ended up with an unbeaten zero at No. 11 in the December of 1935. Vinoo was transformed into a spinner from a medium pacer on the insistence of Wensley.
Nawanagar made an entry in the 1936-37 edition of the Ranji Trophy and won it on debut under Wensley. Vinoo performed well enough (185 in the final against Bengal) to be part of the Indian team in the unofficial Tests against Lord Tennyson’s XI in 1937-38. Jamsaheb, then president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, was surprised to see Vinoo’s name missing from the original list, however. The president said he wouldn’t interfere, but insisted the selectors were making a big mistake.
Playing for Jamsaheb of Nawanagar XI, Vinoo showed how wrong the selectors were by scoring 62 and 67 not out against Tennyson’s team. And when it came to picking the team for the second match in Bombay, the 20-year-old was not ignored. With scores of 38 and 88 and the wicket of Tennyson and AW Wellard, Vinoo Mankad had arrived.
Even before I played a little cricket with him and came to know him, I could tell from afar where Vinoo was on the field when I watched him. He didn’t have to bowl to stand out. It was his demeanour, his neat attire and, most of all, his alertness that you just couldn’t miss. I have never seen a player so watchful, so agile. You can call it cricketing radiance.
He was never known to drop a catch but I saw him drop one at Brabourne Stadium in the 1951-52 Test. Tom Graveney went on to score 175. Even a schoolboy would have taken that edge, but that is cricket. It also showed that Vinoo was human. He was a brilliant fielder, especially off his own bowling. If a batsman pushed one to mid-off, he would be there to stop it. He knew exactly where the batsman was going to play. And if he thought the ball would go straight, he would swiftly move there. His bowling and fielding movements were in sync with each other. When Vinoo bowled he didn’t need a mid-off fielder. For us, in those days, Vinoo and Alf Valentine were the best left-arm spinners.
I don’t have to mention Vinoo’s Test statistics to endorse his greatness, but I can tell you, his career figures would have been far more impressive if not for the Second World War coming in the way of his playing years. Like Don Bradman, Vinoo missed out too. Bradman rightly supported him in the controversy over the Bill Brown run-out (after warning the batsman several times) in the Sydney Test of 1947-48. The term ‘Mankaded’ is still used, but Vinoo shouldn’t be remembered by the cricketing world for that incident alone.
Every plaudit he received for his batting was well deserved. After all, he and Pankaj Roy shared a record opening stand of 413 against New Zealand in Madras in 1955-56. That partnership was amazing and to us sitting in the dressing room, Pankaj and Vinoo never looked like getting out.
I enjoyed watching him bowl. Accuracy, length, spin … he had everything. He had a good arm ball, but his most prominent art was the flight. Vinoo never relied on turning tracks. It was his flight that got him his wickets. Often, today’s so-called top-class spinners don’t reap rich rewards when they encounter flat tracks. On spinning wickets, his spin could be devastating, and on good tracks, he got batsmen befuddled by his flight.
Vinoo was the ultimate professional in Indian cricket. England was home away from home. The story of him being summoned from Haslingden club in the Lancashire League to join the Indian team, and performing with bat and ball in the Lord’s Test of 1952 is straight out a fairy-tale book.
Despite helping India win the Madras Test of the 1951-52 series – India’s first ever victory – with 12 wickets, the selectors/board could not guarantee him a place in the England-bound team. That’s how the establishment functioned in those times. Luckily, the Indian team had the venerable Pankaj Gupta as manager, who, I learnt, played a key role in convincing Haslingden that Vinoo would be better off playing for India.
Scores of 72 and 184 along with a five-wicket haul – no Indian has ever matched this performance at the headquarters of cricket. We followed it over the radio. I remember young Fred Trueman hitting Vinoo on his right finger. The bowler refused to go near the injured batsman and Vinoo didn’t like it. He hit 17 off Trueman’s next over. Vinoo had bravado written all over him.
I was fortunate to have played in the same Indian team as Vinoo for a few Tests. He swore by discipline although he didn’t say much in terms of advice to players new to the Indian team. Among the very few things he emphasised on was practising well. He was the first to land up at the nets and the last to leave. “Be prepared to bat at any number so practise accordingly,” he used to say. He didn’t speak much, but in those days, no one really was forthcoming with advice. “You are doing fine, just carry on,” was the standard line.
In fact, he said the same thing while I was batting with him on my Test debut (against New Zealand in Bombay in 1955-56) when he had completed his double-century. “Don’t worry, you are doing fine,” he said. There were no coaches to tell us what to do.
Let me give you another example of how things were in our days: The dressing room at Eden Gardens had a partition. The seniors sat on one side and juniors on the other. When I became captain I insisted on team meetings. In fact, I was the first Indian captain to hold team meetings and I encouraged even the junior-most player to speak out.
Vinoo had a dry sense of humour. He once asked Ray Lindwall what he was doing wrong when it came to tackling his yorker the night before batting against him in Melbourne in 1947-48. After he gained from Lindwall’s advice, Vinoo is believed to have asked him, “Ray, my bat is coming down well now?” He could tease you; at times his vocabulary was colourful.
I remember an interviewer asking him in the evening of his life whether he believed that luck plays an important part in cricket. Vinoo just said, “I didn’t believe in bad luck.”
I don’t have to mention Vinoo’s Test statistics to endorse his greatness, but I can tell you, his career figures would have been far more impressive if not for the Second World War coming in the way of his playing years. Like Don Bradman, Vinoo missed out too.
Vinoo, like the great Australian, had two 200-plus scores in a series (v New Zealand in 1955-56). Bradman had a lot of time for Vinoo, who treasured a signed photograph Bradman had presented him with the words, “Well bowled, Mankad.”
Bradman rightly supported him in the controversy over the Bill Brown run-out (after warning the batsman several times) in the Sydney Test of 1947-48. The term ‘Mankaded’ is still used, but Vinoo shouldn’t be remembered by the cricketing world for that incident alone. Those two hands did a lot more, like shaking the hand of the Queen of England, who not only congratulated him for his performance at Lord’s in 1952, but also stated that she had watched and enjoyed his exploits on television.
Despite his great feats, he was a simple man. Even after retiring from first-class cricket, he worked tirelessly at the LR Tairsee Memorial nets at Bombay’s PJ Hindu Gymkhana where he nurtured an array of first-class cricketers including one Eknath Solkar, who went on to play for India. His three sons, Ashok, Atul and Rahul, played first-class cricket too.
The term allrounder is used very loosely nowadays, but only a few cricketers have done full justice to it. And if I were to compile my dream team of allrounders, MH Mankad would be the first on the list because no regular opening batsman had such a great variety of cricketing skills.
April 12, 2017, marks the birth centenary of Vinoo Mankad.
This article first appeared in Wisden India Almanack 2017. You can buy your copy here.