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Out at 100, cricket’s grand old man no more

Patriot pays tribute to the life and times of India’s oldest first-class cricketer Vasant Rai, who breathed his last on June 13

Vasant Raiji, India’s oldest first-class cricketer at 100, passed away at his residence in Mumbai on June 13. Raiji is survived by his wife and two daughters. The final rites took place at the Chandanwadi crematorium in south Mumbai

“He (Raiji) passed away at 2.20 am in his sleep at his residence in Walkeshwar in South Mumbai due to old age,” his son-in-law Sudarshan Nanavati said in an official statement.

Sachin visits Raiji on his 100th birthday Photo: Twitter

When India played its maiden Test on home soil, Raiji was just a 13-year-old but managed to witness the historic match at the Bombay Gymkhana in 1933.

Six years later, he made his debut in 1939 for a Cricket Club of India (CCI) team against Central Provinces and Berar in Nagpur. The debutant scored a duck and one run in the game. At the same time, he got the chance to share the dressing room with Lala Amarnath, Vijay Merchant, CK Nayudu and Vijay Hazare.

Raiji played nine First Class matches in the 1940s, scoring 277 runs with his personal best being 68. His career as a first-class cricketer started with his debut match for Bombay’s [now Mumbai] Cricket Club of India (CCI) team which played Central Provinces and Berar (the area now falls under Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra) in Nagpur in 1939.

He debuted for Mumbai in 1941 against Western India under the captaincy of Vijay Merchant.

“He would play for the Jolly club and I remember watching him at a time when he was around 35. An off-spinner, he used to regularly play for the Jolly Club,” cricket writer Chandrankant Patankar reminisces.

A man of principles and punctuality — that’s how regulars of Mumbai’s cricketing circles remember Vasant Raiji. The country’s oldest First Class cricketer at 100, who passed away at his residence in the early hours of Saturday, may have featured in only nine First Class games in his career, but his knowledge and love for the game, made him stand out.

Raiji at his residence in Mumbai Photo: Twitter

Raiji was a man of many talents. He was also a cricket historian and had a successful career as a chartered accountant.

Playing first-class cricket for Bombay (as it was known then) and Baroda, Raiji had to join the family-run chartered accountancy firm. However, his love for the game never faded. He wrote quite a few books on cricketers — Victor Trumper, CK Nayudu, LP Jai. And also, he was one of the founding members of the Jolly Cricket Club.

“Raiji watched eight decades of Indian cricket and interacted with a plethora of cricketers. Few people would know about cricket as much as he does. But what makes Raiji so special is that he has never indulged in any kind of comparison between two players, ” cricket writer Makarand Waingankar wrote in his book, Bombay Boys.

Waigankar also wrote, ‘Raiji and Don Bradman would correspond with each other on contentious issues in the game. A private person like Bradman would be comfortable speaking his mind to Raiji. CK Nayudu was Raiji’s favourite cricketer and he, in fact, wrote a book on the Indian legend: CK Nayudu, the Shahenshah of Indian Cricket.’

Raiji wrote eight books that can be described as rare literature on cricket history. In the preface of his book, Story of the Bombay Tournament- From Presidency to Pentangular- 1892-93 to 1945-46, he talks about the various formats of the game and how important they are in the development of cricket in the country. He wrote: “No future historian of Indian cricket can ignore the important role played by the Presidency, Triangular, Quadrangular and Pentangular matches in the development of cricket in the country.”

A detailed book on Ranji, the father of Indian cricket Photo: Twitter

“He was a good student of the game and was a very simple man. He would write books and had contacts all over the world. He would regularly write to Sir Donald Bradman. But he was extremely down to earth,” says former India Test cricketer Chandrakant Patankar.

“When I joined as a sports secretary [at CCI from 1994 to 2009], he helped us immensely in organising lectures for the Legends Club programmes as well.”

The Legends Club is a gathering of cricket connoisseurs and it organises lectures on cricketing themes and hosts famous players. Patankar said, “We would work under his guidance. As a cricketer, I played little with him, but he supported us immensely in organising cricket-related events (CCI and Legends Club).”

Marcus Couto, a first-class umpire, has known Raiji for 37 years. According to Couto, Raiji had one of the finest collections of cricket books. “He finally decided to dispose them off. PR Man Singh (India manager at the 1983 World Cup), who is based in Hyderabad, got a lot of books. So did Dr Vijay Patil (the chief of Mumbai Cricket Association), who kept those fascinating books at D.Y. Patil Sports Complex”, he said in an interview to a leading publication

On his 100th  birthday on 26 January, former India captain Nari Contractor and Mumbai Cricket Association president Dr Vijay Patil visited Raiji at his Walkeshwar home. “He was a good cricketer. We have literally grown up watching him and his brother Madan Raiji. I may have been around 14, when I met him for the first time,” Contractor had said, walking down the memory lane.

Raiji attending a ceremony hosted by MCA Photo: Twitter

Those who knew him would vouch for his punctuality. “He was the most disciplined man I have ever met. He was very particular about timings. His office was in Fort, and Raiji would come to the Cricket Club of India at 12.30 sharp for lunch. That was his daily routine, ”Couto said. “He would come and visit all of us and enquire how things are. A thorough gentleman, he was always ready to help.”

A couple of weeks ago, cricketing legends Sachin Tendulkar and Steve Waugh visited Raiji to spend some time with him. They talked about cricket and celebrated Raiji’s birthday by cutting a cake.

“I met Shri Vasant Raiji earlier this year to celebrate his 100th birthday. His warmth and passion for playing and watching Cricket were endearing. His passing away saddens my heart. My condolences to his family and friends”, Sachin tweeted out after the demise of the legend.

(Cover: Raiji a prolific cricket and a historian passed away on June 13 Photo: Twitter)