Gandhi and Richie Benaud's perfect storm

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Over But Not Out: My Life So Far, by Richie BenaudI have just finished re-reading Sebastian Junger's great book, The Perfect Storm — a true story which makes one marvel at, among other things, the way events separated by vast distances and times, and decisions made in isolation, can conspire to produce unpredictable and unmanageable results.

At the same time I was well into Richie Benaud's latest, Over But Not Out: My Life So Far. I'd just reached Benaud's account of a highly eccentric figure in the history of Indian test cricket, a character called the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram, or Vizzy, as he became known.

Vizzy's path crossed Benaud's when, in the second test of the 1959–60 tour, India defeated Australia — the first Indian win against Australia on home soil. Generously recognising the importance of the occasion, Benaud went on to the ground to shake hands with the victorious Indian captain, Gulabrai Ramchand, then lined the Australian team up to form a guard of honour for their opponents and joined them in the dressing room celebrations.

It was a splendidly sporting gesture which Vizzy, reporting for the local paper, praised extravagantly, while rating the victory itself as equal to that other epic event of 1959, the first moon rocket.

In a different and contemporaneous article, however, written for the distant Northern Indian Patrika and a different audience, Vizzy slated the Australians and Benaud as cheats and poor sportsmen. When Vizzy visited the Australian dressing room before the start of the third Test at Bombay (Mumbai), Benaud confronted him with both articles and threw him out when he refused to apologise.

As far as Benaud was concerned, that was that. But in an eerie way, their fractious meeting and Vizzy's acrimonious entanglement with an Australian test cricket captain was like the perfect storm: distant events and forces seemingly buried in the past had inexorably found their moment ...

... In 1930, the year in which Benaud was born in far off Penrith, NSW, Mahatma Gandhi's civil disobedience campaign began in India with the famous Salt March, and the resultant tumultuous civil unrest forced the cancellation of a planned MCC tour of India.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man: Vizzy stepped into the breach with a team of his own to tour India and Ceylon. Pre-dating the seductive IPL by some 80 years, he induced two of England's greatest batsmen, Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe, to play for this team.

The tour was a great success, with Hobbs and Sutcliffe both scoring heavily. They were no doubt unburdened by anxiety or nervousness because neither of them regarded the matches they played in as anything more than exhibition games and they duly used their extraordinary batting talents to provide the expected entertainment.

Wisden, the cricket bible, also saw the matches as having less than first class status but some later cricket statisticians took a different view so that both players have two versions of their career statistics, one that recognises their feats on Vizzy's tour (500 odd runs and two centuries to each of them) and one that does not.

But Vizzy's self indulgence would have a bigger impact on cricket history. Sutcliffe had declined to join an MCC tour to South Africa in 1930–31 which clashed with Vizzy's Indian/Sri Lankan venture. He was replaced by Andy Sandham, a capable, recognised batsman. Sandham started the tour well with 72 against Western Province but was then injured in a car accident and took no further part.

As Wisden bemoaned it: 'The absence of [Sutcliffe] became a very serious matter when [his replacement] Andy Sandham ... met with a motor accident which prevented him from playing any more during the whole course of the tour'.

South Africa won the first Test by 28 runs and the ensuing four were drawn. Returning home as a 1-0 loser, the England captain, the charismatic but by that time declining Percy Chapman, was replaced by Douglas Jardine.

Jardine thus took the English team to Australia for the 1932–33 series and it was Jardine who masterminded and conducted the infamous 'bodyline' or leg theory attack which, designed expressly to nullify Bradman, almost brought the series to a standstill during the Adelaide Test, and looked likely to provoke a diplomatic incident.

It is doubtful if Vizzy would have noticed but his initiative in securing the services of Hobbs and in particular Sutcliffe was the precipitating move that created the conditions for the storm of bodyline.

When Benaud banned Vizzy from the Australian dressing rooms he was on the distant end of an extraordinary series of connections. A perfect storm: indirectly initiated by Mahatma Gandhi, given momentum by Vizzy's rampant ego, shaped and structured by the calculating Jardine and concluded with a last explosive dressing room confrontation a generation later.

The butterfly effect in action as I live and breathe!

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Richie Benaud, Maharajkumar of Vizianagram, Vizzy, Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger



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"The butterfly effect in action as I live and breathe"? A splendid example of drawing a long bow more like.

Paul | 08 August 2011  

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