PARTAB RAMCHAND | 6 JUNE, 2018
Down Memory Lane
Fifty six years have passed since arguably the most tragic incident associated with Indian cricket unfolded. But those around at the time can never forget the anxious and suspense filled days of March 1962.
The history of Indian cricket is littered with sorrowful stories but surely, there is no greater tragic figure in Indian cricket than Nari Contractor. It is not just that a promising career – both as captain and batsman – was cut short at 28.
It was the sudden, shocking and savage manner in which his international career was brought to an end – in a split second - that is difficult to accept more than half a century after that horrifying incident occurred.
When the incident occurred Contractor was at the peak of his popularity and power. Having led India to their first series victory over England he was the undisputed captain, was among the leading batsmen and his ability and technical skill in facing up to the fastest of bowlers was unquestioned.
As the Indian team left for West Indies in February 1962, he did seem set for a long reign at the helm. He had already led India in ten Tests and by the end of the West Indies series, he would have equaled Lala Amarnath’s record of having led India in most Tests, 15. He was just short of his 28th birthday and it did look like he could, with some luck, even lead the country throughout the sixties.
Such were the optimistic feelings expressed as the team landed in the West Indies. But the dreams came to a shattering end, suddenly, swiftly and violently. India lost the first two Tests and Contractor’s form too was not in keeping with his reputation. Scores of 10, 6, 1 and 9 were of help neither to him nor his team. There were still three Tests to be played.
But between the second and third Tests was the colony game against Barbados at Bridgetown. The hosts batted first and finished with a total in the region of 400. The Indians had just commenced their reply and immediately after lunch on the second day, came the blow that finished Contractor’s international career.
Charlie Griffith had already been a controversial bowler. His action was considered suspect by some batsman who had faced him and the Indians had been forewarned. He opened the attack with Wesley Hall. Contractor’s record against fast bowling was admirable. In the past few years, he had faced besides Hall, Ray Lindwall, Roy Gilchrist, Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, Alan Davidson and Ian Meckiff with the utmost composure.
The runs that he had scored had been compiled courageously, handsomely and consistently. His technique against fast bowling was exemplary and he invariably got well in line to play the fastest of deliveries. For the ``delivery that all but brought about a meeting between Contractor and St Paul,’’ as eye witness Dicky Rutnagur wrote at the time, again Contractor got right behind the line to play the lifting ball. But according to Wisden, ``he could not judge the height to which it would fly and bent back from the waist in a desperate split second attempt to avoid it and was hit just above the right ear.’’
Contractor was led off the field and at first the injury was not thought to be very serious. But his condition suddenly took a turn for the worse around dinner time. Haemorrhage set in and his left side began to get paralyzed. The nearest neurosurgeon was in Trinidad but waiting for him would have meant certain death so a general surgeon from Barbados set to work removing a blood clot on the brain.
The specialist from Trinidad arrived the next morning and immediately detected that another clot was in the process of formation. ``Within eight hours of the first ordeal the screaming, half paralyzed cricketer was wheeled back into the operation theatre for a second operation,’’ wrote Rutnagur.
Budhi Kunderan, who was not playing in the match, was in the dressing room. He gives a first hand account of what followed: ``We could hear the sound in the dressing room. Nari just stood up and initially thought nothing of it. We thought he was all right. But after a while he felt very uneasy as blood started to flow and he came in. In the dressing room, while he was resting, suddenly he started screaming. He was taken to hospital for an x-ray. At the end of the day, we heard that he would have to be operated upon. We all went to the hospital. Ghulam Ahmed (the manager) was very nervous. The whole team was at the hospital that night. The tension of waiting got to everyone.’’
For several days Contractor’s life hung in the balance. Polly Umrigar was a constant companion at his bedside. Besides, he, Chandu Borde and Frank Worrell donated blood. The rest of the team was in an agony of suspense.
Miraculously, Contractor survived the ordeal and the team members, the entire nation and the whole cricketing world heaved a sigh of relief. After all, the image of cricket was a noble one, a gentleman’s game and the thought of a player dying on the field of play after being hit by a cricket ball could never occur to anyone.
A steel plate inserted in his skull, as a grim reminder of what had happened, Contractor came back to India, the captaincy passing on to the Nawab of Pataudi. It was quickly taken for granted that Contractor was lost to Test cricket – and perhaps even the first class game.
But courage had always been Contractor’s trademark. In 1963-64, he was again opening the batting for Gujarat in the Ranji Trophy – and scoring hundreds. Then he opened for West Zone in the Duleep Trophy, getting another hundred.
In the meantime he lost his Test place. While everyone agreed that he would never play Test cricket again, Contractor had never given up hopes of making a comeback. As late as 1967-68, he was scoring centuries in first class cricket and the selectors must have given a thought to picking him for the tour of Australia and New Zealand that winter before giving up the idea.
And while he continued playing first class cricket till the 1970-71 season, he last played for India at Kingston in March 1962. Even without getting too emotional, it can be said that Contractor would have improved upon his Test record, which was suddenly terminated after 31 Tests, in which he scored 1611 runs at an average of 31.58.