Madhav Mantri was the grand old conscience of Mumbai cricket. When he passed away after suffering a heart attack in the early hours of Friday at 92, India also bid adieu to its oldest Test cricketer, also the maternal uncle of the legendary batsman Sunil Gavaskar.
While the wicket-keeper-batsman’s international playing career was a blur of four Test matches (63 runs; 8 catches and a stumping), it was as coach, manager, talent-spotter, mentor and finally the ever-upright patriarch of the city’s maidaans that Mantri would come to be known to everyone in Mumbai cricket.
Mantri took his reserved seat — the top chair of the Garware Club House for all Wankhede matches, and his was the silent approval that batsmen often sought amidst the raucous cheering all around, when they returned to the pavilion.
“One sight we will never forget is him in the first seat in the Garware Club House, at the top,” Ravi Shastri recalls.
“He came with Polly Umrigar or Bapu Nadkarni, who he had mentored, but that seat was reserved only for Madhav Mantri. Whether you got zero, 50 or 100, his was the first face to greet you when walked into the pavilion.”
Yet it was a sterner visage that had greeted Mumbai’s most-famous cricketing names, as he whipped their minds into shape. An elder statesman, much feared despite being diminutive, Mantri never minced words against errant cricketers.
Mantri was the mould in which a future typical Mumbai cricketer was carved. Legend has it that when Shastri and Sandeep Patil once arrived late for a game after being stuck in a traffic jam, they faced the wrath of the big man.
“We were five minutes late to report and Sunny had already gone for the toss. We were immediately dropped. But it did me good because I hit six sixes in next game,” Shastri adds, of the man’s much-respected standards of punctuality.
Mantri’s role in making Gavaskar the game’s legend is huge. In his autobiography, Gavaskar said that he had been inter-changed with the child of a fisher-woman soon after he was born. However, Mantri was quick to notice that the birth mark near the child’s ear was missing, and he brought it to the hospital’s attention and had the right child placed next to his mother.
A few years down the line, when Gavaskar, as a boy, asked his ‘mama’ to lend him the India blazer, Mantri refused, saying he had to earn the blazer, cap and jumper. And earn he did.
It wasn’t just Gavaskar’s career that he shaped. Mantri had a keen eye for talent and when he spotted one, he didn’t let it slip. He gave Ajit Wadekar the big break during India’s tour to West Indies in 1966 despite the resistance by MAK Pataudi and other selectors. He even took the bold decision to have Shastri open the innings in England during the 1990 tour, when Mantri was the manager.
As team manager during India’s 1990 tour to England, Mantri must’ve also left an impact on Tendulkar and Kumble, both greenhorns then. But whether it was the marching parades he put his Mumbai wards through (influenced apparently by WW-2 British army drills he watched at the Dadar Union ground) — or the wide-eyed Maharashtra Ranji players whom he went up to congratulate after their shock win over Mumbai last season, climbing the stairs at 92, Mantri remained the grand elder whose approval was cherished by every cricketer playing in Mumbai.