Captain Grit, Nari Contractor
Najum Latif (L) and Nari Contractor (R)
Nariman Jamshedji Contractor was born on March 7, 1934 at Godhra Gujarat by accident. His pregnant mother was coming on a train from Dahod in Gujarat to Bombay for delivery when all of a sudden she went into labour. Contractor’s uncle was the driver of the train. He arranged medical assistance and dropped her at Godhra as an emergency case. His father owned a distillery and Nari grew up in Nasik.
After playing successfully for Gujarat, Nari Contractor made his Test debut against New Zealand in the second Test at Bombay December 2-7, 1955, under Polly Umrigar. Contractor came in to bat at No.7 and was caught behind the wicket by Eric Peterie off Anthony MacGibbon for 16.
In the second Test at Delhi, Contractor was asked to open the batting. He says “I was not to open, but Vinoo Mankad could not make it to Delhi for the Test. During the train journey at Matheran station Polly Umrigar, our captain, said to me, ‘If I ask you to open tomorrow, will you?’ Now Polly was my coach at St Xavier’s College Bombay at that time, so he knew me closely. I had batted well in the first match for my 16 runs, but had I failed again I could have been dropped.”
Since Nari Contractor was still a newcomer to the international scene, he remembered a conversation with C. K. Nayudu just before the Test. The great Nayudu had asked Contractor why he did not open? Nari replied that it was because he usually came in at No.3. Nayudu then guided him by saying that if the opener was out first ball then the No.3 batsman became the opener. This helped Nari to make up his mind and he agreed to open in the Delhi Test.
He opened with Vijay Mehra and scored a polished 62, before being caught and bowled by John Reid. He had now become an opener. He says “I was a stroke player in those days, but later on I became a very defensive player because I started opening the innings. Every ball is a ball which can get you out and every ball is a ball on which you can hit a boundary.”
In the fourth Test at Calcutta, opening with Vinoo Mankad, he was bowled for 6 by Hayes in the first innings and was bowled again by Hayes for 61 in the second innings. In the final Test at Madras he was to bat at No.7 but his turn did not come as India won by an innings and 109 runs. He also appeared against Australia in the third Test at Calcutta Nov 2-6, 1956 and was lbw Richie Benaud for 22 in the first innings and was bowled for 20 by Ian Johnson in the second innings.
He next opened with Pankaj Roy against the West Indies in the first Test at Bombay Nov 28 to Dec 3, 1958. In the first innings he was caught by Atkinson off Hall for 0 and in the second innings was run out for 6. In the second Test at Kanpur, he was lbw Sobers 41 in the first innings and made 50 in the second innings and was bowled by J. Taylor. He was the highest scorer in both the innings. He failed in the third Test at Calcutta as he was out lbw, Ramadhin 4 in the first innings and was bowled by Roy Gilchrist for 6 in the second innings.
In the fourth Test at Madras, he batted at No.4 in the first innings and was run out for 22. He opened in the second innings and was caught behind the wicket by Gerry Alexander off Gilchrist for 3. Playing the final Test at Delhi February 6-11, 1959, Nari Contractor was lbw Wesley Hall 92 in the first innings and was run out for 4 in the second innings.
Contractor then went on tour of England under the captaincy of D. K. Gaekwad. He was out cheaply in the first Test at Nottingham for 15 and 0 to Greenhough and Statham. His great moment came in the second Test at Lord’s June 18-20, 1959 where he faced the fiercest pace attack of Fred Trueman, Brian Statham and Allan Moss. He scored 81 out of a team total of 168.
He scored a neat 56 in the second innings being caught by Barrington off Rhodes at Old Trafford in the fourth Test. He then appeared against Australia in December 1959. In the first Test at Delhi. He was bowled for 41 by Alan Davidson in the first innings and was caught by Favell off Benaud for 34 in the second innings. He rates his knock in the second innings of the second Test at Kanpur when he was caught by Neil Harvey off Davidson for 74 as the best innings he played because India won the test by 119 runs and Jasu Patel took 14 wickets for 124 runs.
Nari Contractor was appointed the 13th captain of India against the touring Pakistan team under Fazal Mahmood. At age 26 he was the youngest ever captain of India. Initially he was made captain for only two Tests but was retained for the rest of the series. He proved to be a cautious and sober captain. The series was a dull affair as none was willing to take risks for fear of losing.
In the first Test at Bombay December 2-7, 1960, Pankaj Roy and Nari Contractor opened the innings after 3 p.m. But before break there was a false joy when Fazal bowled Contractor with a no ball. Fazal bowled only two overs before tea and brought on Mohammed Farooq. Nari was caught by Javed Burki off Mohammed Farooq for 62. Earlier he was hit by Farooq on his pads with such an impact that he started hobbling. This handicapped his strokes and he tried to hook Farooq without coming in line with the ball and Burki took the catch. Contractor had batted for 245 minutes with four 4s.
In the second Test at Kanpur he was bowled by Haseeb Ahsan for 47. Haseeb again got him at Calcutta in the third Test when Fazal caught him off his bowling for 12 in the second innings. In the first innings Intikhab Alam had bowled him for 25. In the fourth Test at Madras Nari was caught by Intikhab off Haseeb for 81. Haseeb had taken Contractor’s wicket four times on the tour and was quite disturbing. In the final Test at Delhi he was unlucky to miss his century when he was caught and bowled by Intikhab Alam for 92.
As India’s captain Contractor took a decision to change the fixed pattern of same players sharing rooms. He started rotating the pairs so they could come to know each other better. More than strategy, Contractor rates man management as a vital aspect of captaincy. He also introduced team meetings at the end of the day’s play to discuss performances including his own but he received poor response.
My first meeting with 5′-8″ tall Nari Contractor who had worked for Western Railways, State Bank of India Bombay, Tata and Mafatlal, was at his home in Cusrow Baug in Colaba Mumbai in 2007. He was polite, accommodating and cheerful. I also met his wife Dolly who was lovely and very hospitable.
Commenting on the 1960-61 Pakistan series Nari said “Because I had played a lot on the matting wickets I could play Fazal. Fazal Mahmood was a great bowler and a very out-going person but he was not the Fazal of 1952 who had toppled India at Lucknow. He could swing both ways but had no speed and had curtailed his run up to a mere trot. However the batsmen showed respect to his accuracy and he would have been more successful if he had been supported from the other end. I feel he should not have made the trip. He only showed the glimpses of his old self in the Calcutta test where Fazal took 5 for 26.
Mahmood Hussain was quick but his action sent telegrams of a clear message that an in swinger was on the way. He did not bowl close to the wickets and could be easily read. He was not formidable and not much of a threat. Fazal beat me four times in winning the toss. He would say ‘It is a Friday, I will not lose.’ He eventually lost the toss at Delhi, but it was a Thursday!. Hasib Ahsan, Intikhab Alam and Nasimul Ghani were quite good.
Saeed Ahmed with his upright stance was an elegant stroke player. Hanif Mohammed was a great player but he had become Ramakant Desai’s bunny.
Contractor was again captain against Ted Dexter’s England team that toured India in 1961-62. He played only two notable innings. In the third Test at Delhi he was caught by Geoff Pullar of Tony Lock for 39 and in the fifth Test at Madras January 10-15, 1962 he was bowled by Bob Barber with a googly for 86 runs.
Nari Contractor led India on the West Indies tour of 1962. He lost the first two Tests to the West Indies in February. His own performance in the four innings was dismal. In the first Test at Port of Spain February 16-20, 1962 he was caught by Sobers off Hall for 10 in the first innings and was bowled for 6 by Wesley Hall in the second innings. In the second Test at Kingston, he was caught by Mendonca off Hall for 1 in the first innings and was bowled by Hall for 9 in the second innings.
In all his last four Test innings his wicket was taken by the fast bowler Wesley Hall. Before the third Test there was a side match against Barbados which originally Contractor had intended to miss but the squad’s injury problems forced him to play. When it was heard that Barbados had a mean hostile fast bowler Charlie Griffith to support the intimidating Wesley Hall, several Indian batsmen suddenly turned unfit for the match. Contractor decided to play.
A night before during a cocktail party the West Indies captain Frank Worrell warned Contractor about Charlie Griffith and advised that it would be better to get out than getting hurt
“As a superstition I never took the first strike and always batted at number two, but since Dilip Sardesai was opening for the first time I did not want to expose him in the one over before lunch. I took strike and faced the first six balls from Griffith and headed into the break relieved that Griffith in his only over had not seemed to be the beast we thought. As we walked back to the pavilion Sardesai turned to me and smiled. ‘Fast, my foot. He said.” Dilip Sardesai fell early to Hall for a duck in the first over after lunch and Rusi Surti joined his captain.
Griffith came on for the third over to Contractor and the first ball was short and whistled past the batsman’s nose. ‘My God, this is something’ I said to myself. ‘I thought maybe some lethargy had set in after lunch, so I did some spot running. The second ball was over the shoulder and I left it. The third was the same. The fourth ball I played was again shoulder height and Conrad Hunte fielding at short leg caught it on the half volley. Had he caught it, I would have been saved for it was the very next ball that hit me. When Griffith ran in to bowl the fifth ball, someone in the dressing room opened a window, which created a black square for me as there was no sight screen. I thought of moving away but I decided to play the delivery.
Eye witness Dicky Rutnagur wrote that Contractor got right behind the line to play the lifting ball. Wisden noted that ‘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 did not duck into the ball. He got behind it to play it. He probably wanted to fend it away towards short leg.
Contractor slumped to his haunches, clutching his head. Within a minute he had started bleeding from his nose and ears.” Remembering the play Contractor said, “Earlier when Griffith was bowling at lightning speed and after the third ball of his over Surti shouted across the pitch to me ‘Skipper , he is chucking.” I walked up to Surti and said, ‘You do not shout across the wicket like that. If you think he is chucking then tell the umpire.’ ‘That was playing on my mind too. My concentration was not there.
Meanwhile when he bowled and when I saw the ball it was right at my face and hit it at 90 degrees. The ball fell on my leg and I sat down with the support of my bat. I did not duck into the bouncer as Griffith wrote in his book. Soon I was bleeding from my noise and ears. I returned to the pavilion with the help of our manager Ghulam Ahmed and another person. Without their support I could not have made it to the pavilion on my own. I changed into a fresh set of clothes but the bleeding continued and I realised the injury was serious.”
Budhi Kunderan, who was not playing in the match was in the dressing room. He said, “We could hear the sound in the dressing room. Nari just stood up and initially thought nothing of it. We thought it was all right. But after a while he felt very uneasy. Suddenly Contractor started screaming loudly. At first the injury was not thought to be very serious, obviously he was in great pain. He was rushed in an ambulance to the hospital accompanied by Ghulam Ahmed and C. G. Borde.” An x-ray revealed a fractured skull and clotting of blood. Time was running out and Ghulam Ahmed took the crucial decision and allowed the emergency operation.
Sir Frank Worrell came to the hospital and donated his blood. So did Bapu Nadkarni, Borde, Umrigar and journalist K. N. Prabhu. The lights went off as the operation was in progress and it was thought to be a bad omen. Griffith too had come to the hospital and was visibly shaken. He kept muttering that he did not mean to hurt him, “It was just one of those accidents. God willing everything will be alright.” Dr. Leacock, though was not a neurosurgeon but he kept the treatment going through the night and performed emergency surgery to reduce the clot on his brain till Dr. Ghourilal arrived from Port of Spain, Trinidad the next morning, as there was no early flight.
Contractor was throwing up and was losing movement of the left side of his body. A two hour operation was conducted. Contractor’s family was informed and his wife flew out to join him. For several days his life was in danger. Polly Umrigar was a constant companion at his bedside. Miraculously Contractor survived and the entire cricketing world heaved a sigh of relief but his cricket career was cut short at age 28. He says he owes his life to late Ghulam Ahmed who called the doctor that night when I had taken a turn for the worse. After three weeks he was flown back to India with his wife.
Nari Contractor says that he never thought he would play cricket again. It was Dr. Chandy at the Christian Medical College near Madras who gave him fresh hope after inserting a perforated steel mesh on his skull. Courage and humbleness personified Contractor returned to cricket.
Within a year he turned out for Maharashtra Chief Minister XI against Maharashtra Governor XI and scored 37 against a strong bowling attack. In 1963-64 he played some games for the Defence Fund and did well. He was also opening for Gujarat in the Ranji Trophy. West Indies fast bowlers Wesley Hall and Watson had come to India for coaching in 1964 and Contractor played them confidently. Four years later he made 152 in the Duleep Trophy and also scored 144 against East Zone.
Ironically in his final first class match he scored a century and 93 and retired in 1972. He made 2535 runs in the second half of his career. He said that “Cricket has given me everything but money. However he warns that this must not be construed in the negative. He has no regrets in playing in an era where you got paid Rupees 250 per Test compared to the lacs players get now.
Nari says that there are no regrets in his life except he never played for India again. When you play a game like cricket, injuries are bound to happen. A fast bowler can try to hit you at will but to get hit in the head like me is accidental and I do not hold anything against Griffith. Life has to go on. Every man has his setbacks but one should look ahead, not back. They played without helmets, chest guards, thigh pads and other protectors. They only placed towels on their thighs for protection. There were no limit on bouncers and beamers. As a left hand batsman and right arm medium pace bowler Contractor appeared in 31 Tests and scored 1611 runs with 108 as his top score. He appeared in 138 first class matches and scored 8611 runs with 176 his top score.
He took one wicket and held 18 catches in Tests. He took 26 wickets and held 72 catches in first class cricket. He was member of the Cyclists Club along with Rusi Surti, Farokh Engineer and Behram Irani. Contractor served as coach at the cricket academy at the Cricket Club of India where his philosophy was that “If you can make the player express his view point then half the job is done. The age gap between the coach(average age 60 plus) and the trainee (under 16) does not matter because the kids have respect for the elders and the transparency means that the unit gels well together.” He believes the best form of cricket is test cricket but T20 has taken over the world.
While he was coaching at the CCI there were some English schoolboys who had come for lessons. A 13 year old right handed boy was batting in the nets. Contractor was standing a little far and talking to someone. Suddenly he heard a loud crack and felt the ball hit his knee. The boy had played a reverse sweep. He asked him what was he doing like that? The boy replied that he just played a perfect reverse sweep! What can you say to that? How can you coach a 16 years old when they see reverse sweeps on the TV, Contractor asks! He has kept his humorous attitude towards life and in 1990 he intentionally made sure that the metal detector at Delhi airport beeped at the metal plate in his head and confused the security for a long time.
Contractor was awarded with the C. K. Nayudu Lifetime Achievement Award by the Indian Cricket Board in 2007. I asked Nari Contractor if he could give something of his for the Lahore Gymkhana Museum. He replied, “When I got injured in the West Indies, even my kit bag was lost. The coats became small so I gave them away. Only one necktie is left which I intend to keep. He further said that “When Umrigar and Mankad applied for a benefit match they were asked to furnish with their preferences. Just imagine! Therefore, because of this reason, to this day I never applied.”
Commenting on the great players of his time he ranked Sir Garfield Sobers as the Bradman of Athletes. Peter May was the finest and most polished batsman and never even edged a single ball. He played every ball with the middle of his bat. He rates Rohan Kanhai an extra ordinary and under played great.
He rates Ted Dexter a great player for his powerful hits. Hanif Mohammed was a great batsman with a solid defence but he had so obviously become a bunny of Ramakant Desai. He thinks Vinoo Mankad of 1952 was the greatest all rounder of his era.
Polly Umrigar, he thought was a doubtful starter against pace. He rates Ian Botham very highly as a performer. In his opinion Imran Khan was the greatest cricketer of Pakistan. Contractor believes that although Sachin Tendulkar has more records than Sunil Gavaskar was a much greater cricketer and Sir Frank Worrell was the best captain who even advised his opposing team.