Column | Nari Contractor's gritty tale

Nari Contractor
Nari Contractor on a hospital bed in Mumbai on April 7, 2022. File photo: Courtesy Hoshedar Contractor/ AFP

It is said that a single picture can convey what one thousand words cannot tell. The misery heaped on Vietnam population by the US forces was brought to light through a photo taken by Nick Ut which showed a naked girl screaming loudly in agony after suffering burns caused by the infamous “napalm” bomb. This photograph shook the conscience of the entire world and turned out to be a critical factor which turned the tide of world opinion against the US and led to withdrawal of their forces from this region. The girl in the picture, Kim Phuc, survived severe burns and became a doctor, before starting to work as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations.


A photograph that appeared in some newspapers last week had a similar effect in that it brought back a thousand memories. The picture showed Nariman (Nari) Contractor, former skipper of the national cricket team, recovering in a hospital after removal of a steel plate which was inserted into his skull in 1962. The sight of Contractor lying on the hospital bed after his surgery brought to mind the incident that caused the plate to be inserted into his skull and its consequences on Indian cricket.


Contractor was a doughty left-handed opener who made his entry into first-class cricket while still in his teens. His Test debut took place against New Zealand at Mumbai in 1955, when he was only 21 years old. He showed his guts and gumption with an innings of 92 against the West Indian attack led by Wes Hall and Roy Gilchrist at Delhi in 1959. He followed this up with another exhibition of top class batting during the tour of England during the same year. During the second Test of this series which India lost 0-5, Contractor battled a broken rib to score an unbeaten 81 out of an Indian total of 168. He was the top scorer during the three-Test series against Australia at home in 1959-60.


The consistent performances with the bat earned Contractor the nod of the national selectors for captaincy when Pakistan toured India in 1960. Contractor was only 26 years old when he led India for the first time which made him the youngest cricketer to lead the national side at that point of time. However, this series ended in a dull draw as both sides played it safe. But Contractor showed his mettle as skipper when England toured India in the winter of 1961-62, as he led the hosts to their first ever win against the opponents by a 2-0 margin. Salim Durani, a handsome Pathan, who had made his debut the previous season was the star performer for India and he was able supported by a band of new and exciting youngsters like Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Farokh Engineer, Dilip Sardesai and Erapalli Prasanna, who announced their arrival in style during this series.


Nari Contractor with Graham Gooch
Nari Contractor with former England captain Graham Gooch. File photo: AFP/Rob Elliott

Hence followers of the game in the country could be pardoned for their optimism about the prospects of the national side when it embarked on a tour of the West Indies immediately after the series against England. Selectors also appeared to share this mood of the public as they took the bold step of naming Pataudi, who had played only three Tests till then, as the deputy to Contractor. This was done with an eye on the future as Contractor, then only 28 years old, was expected to lead the side for another 5-6 years, after which Pataudi could take over. The side was well balanced with a good mix of youth and experience and fans were looking forward to some exciting cricket during the Tests against the West Indies.


These hopes were misplaced as the West Indies, led by Frank Worrell, made mincemeat of India during this series. In addition to skipper Worrell, they had in their ranks such all time greats of the game as Gary Sobers, arguably the best all- rounder that world has seen, Wes Hall, the fastest bowler of his generation, besides such brilliant players as Rohan Kanhai, Conrad Hunte and Lance Gibbs. They won the first two Tests easily as the visitors, despite their best efforts, were outclassed by the batting and bowling might of the hosts. The only silver lining was that the despite the reverses, the side appeared to be settling down as a unit with the youngsters like Engineer, Durani and Rusi Surti finding their form quickly in the Caribbean isles.


Contractor was not among the runs in the first two Tests and knew that his side was looking for a solid performance from him at the top of the order in the remaining games. As the captain and the opening batsman the responsibilities on his shoulders were onerous and he wanted to get some good batting practice during the tour game against Barbados that was to be played in the gap between the second and third Tests. Little would he have known when he landed at Bridgetown that this match would put a full stop to his international career. Pataudi, who had not played the first two Tests due to an injury, was also in the playing eleven for this game.


Barbados batted first and scored 394 with their innings coming to a close a few minutes before the lunch break. Before the match started Worrell had warned Indian batsmen about a young bowler named Charlie Griffith, mentioning that his bouncers had injured some batsmen in a domestic first-class game. When India batted Griffith opened the bowling but was handled comfortably by Contractor in the only over he bowled before players left the ground for lunch.


When play resumed after lunch, Griffith was a different proposition. He thundered in and bowled a bouncer which whistled close to the nose of Contractor. Two balls later another bouncer followed which Contractor defended awkwardly causing the ball to lob to short leg where Hunte dropped a sitter. By then crowd also started getting excited and as Griffith ran in to bowl the fifth ball of that over, someone opened a window in the dressing room temporarily distracting Contractor. There was no facility for having sight screens in tour matches and hence it was possible that Contractor might have even lost track of the bowlers arm as Griffith delivered the ball. This was another bouncer from whose path Contractor could not get away in time and the ball hit him a little above the right temple. Contractor sat down his haunches as blood began oozing out of his nose and ears. He felt dizzy when he attempted to stand up and was helped off the field by Ghulam Ahmed, the manager of the Indian side.


No sooner than he reached the dressing room than Contractor doubled up in agony and started throwing up. He was rushed to the hospital where the doctors detected an intra cranial bleeding. Unfortunately there was no neurosurgeon in Barbados and the one based in Trinidad could reach only the next day. Seeing that the condition of Indian skipper was worsening, the local surgeon took upon himself to conduct an operation to relieve the pressure inside the brain. This helped to stabilise Contractor and, more importantly, bought time till the arrival of the neurosurgeon. Players from both sides including Worrell, who was not playing this match, lined up to give blood to Contractor as his life hung in the balance. A second surgery was performed by the neurosurgeon the next day and Contractor regained consciousness after six days.


One of the first things Contractor did after becoming conscious was to absolve Griffith of all blame for the injury. He also turned down a demand for banning bouncers. He returned to India once it was considered safe for him to travel and resumed playing cricket after 10 months. He tried valiantly to return to the national side but the selectors did not oblige him despite a polished innings of 130 in the final of the Duleep Trophy ahead of the tour of Australia in 1967.


Contractor’s injury and his return to India paved the way for Pataudi to lead the country from the third Test of that series onwards. In fact Pataudi was to captain the national side through the entire decade, save a solitary Test when he was indisposed, and he used this long stint to mould a side that was capable of standing up to the best in the world. In all probability, Contractor too would have had a long reign at the helm had this injury not come in his way. But such are the ways of fate and it was Contractor’s destiny that his days in international cricket came to a sudden halt when his career was in full bloom.


Before we conclude, a thought must be spared for the conditions in which the game was played during those days. Hall and Griffith were certainly among the fastest bowlers that cricket had seen and they did not hesitate to bowl bouncers. There were no helmets at that time and the other protective equipment in use were rather primitive. Further pitches were not covered, there were no restrictions regarding the number of short-pitched balls and even sight screens were not available in all first-class matches. But batsmen surmounted all these challenges by their technical skill and mental fortitude. They never flinched nor took their eyes off the ball and seldom got hit by the red cherry. Contractor was one of the less fortunate ones who suffered a serious injury that curtailed his career but he showed the courage to get back to the game.


Let us salute Contractor and doff our hats. He showed us that he is a Nari (tiger) not only by name but by his actions as well.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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