Deepak Shodhan scored a Test hundred on debut but played just two more matches. © Wisden India

If you want to know just how much cricket has changed, indeed if you wanted to momentarily travel back in time, spend half an hour with Roshan Harshadlal Shodhan when you’re in Ahmedabad. Deepak Shodhan, as he is known in cricket, is a sprightly 85, and among the five oldest living Indian Test cricketers. Polite to a fault in a manner that went out of fashion decades ago, dressed like he was ready to appear in front of an audience rather than spend a Diwali evening playing with his great-grandchildren, Shodhan welcomed Wisden India into his home in a manner unimaginable with today’s superstar cricketers.

Although happy enough to talk about cricket, there were other things that occupied him, mostly his large and extended family, all of whom were in attendance, doting on the man who scored a Test hundred on debut and yet played just two more matches.

“You could say my career was most unusual,” Shodhan told Wisden India. “But the way I look at it, it was only because of the grace of God that I even played Test cricket. I was in the reserves in Chennai, then in Kolkata I was set to be 12th man against Pakistan in 1952. When Vijay Hazare pulled out, I was brought in. If that didn’t happen, I may never have played Test cricket.”

Coming in to bat at No. 8 against Abdul Hafeez Kardar’s team, Shodhan made 110, becoming the first Indian batsman to score a century in the first innings of the first Test he played. “It was a very difficult situation. There was a lot of dew in the morning in Kolkata back then, and Lala Amarnath had just got out,” recalled Shodhan. “We were trailing and initially GS Ramchand and I had a partnership. At some point, I got the feeling that some of my team-mates were not too keen for me to reach three figures, but with Dattu Phadkar, we managed to get past Pakistan’s score.”

When Amarnath fell, India were 179 for 6 chasing Pakistan’s first-innings 257 and eventually, Shodhan was the last man dismissed, with the score on 397 and the Test ending in a draw.

After the Pakistan Test, Shodhan was picked to tour the West Indies, and his strongest memories are of the journey there. “It was a very small boat, the 14,000-ton type and it carried no cargo in the hold on the way there,” explains Shodhan. “When the sea was even slightly choppy, it would toss us about so badly that virtually everyone got sick. Towards the end, it was only Vinoo Mankad, CV Gadkari and myself on the deck. Then Gadkari started vomiting, Mankad developed a fever, and I was the last man standing. The journey back was much better, because the boat had picked up rum, bananas and much else in Jamaica and was stable.”

When you listen to Shodhan speak of playing just three Tests, ending with a batting average of 60.55 and still not being bitter, it’s difficult to understand the gripes of modern-day cricketers. The hardships players endured back in those days were very real – with the Test team having to travel two-and-a-half days by train from Mumbai to Kolkata, for example. Or the fact that they were paid Rs 200 for the game, and had to fork out from their own pockets for all incidentals, starting with laundry. “But when we travelled abroad, we used to get a small extra allowance called ‘smoke money’,” said Shodhan. “That would vary from place to place, but it was a little bit extra, maybe a couple of pounds, and we thought it was a treat.”

Having lived and played in a different era, Shodhan does not grudge today’s stars their earnings. “You must remember we did not play the game for money or love. Anyone who says that is not being honest,” said Shodhan. “We played cricket for the country. That was it. But those were terrible times. I know so many cricketers who fell in tough times. These days, thanks to the Board of Control for Cricket in India, players don’t have to beg. There’s nothing worse than the sight of a Test cricketer having to beg.”

Too few of Shodhan’s contemporaries are alive, but those that are ensure that they stay in touch. Whenver Shodhan is in Mumbai, he meets Chandrakant Patankar (81), Madhav Apte (80) and Bapu Nadkarni (79), all Test cricketers, at the Cricket Club of India for a meal. “When we old guys all get together, we talk about the times we shared,” said Shodhan. “But our group is reducing every year. When Raman Subba Row comes, he also joins us. He’s someone I played with for Combined Universities.”

While content with having played when he did, there’s one thing about modern cricketers Shodhan envies. “When I look at their kit, I am amazed. For us, each bat was a labour of love. We had to oil it, season it, clean it, look after it with great care. And the pads we wore? I tell you, when Wes Hall or Roy Gilchrist hit you on those pads, it felt like being hit by a bullet,” said Shodhan with a chuckle. “Today, the ball hits the pad and runs away for four! I faced Hall and Gilchrist for Baroda, and that was the quickest I’d ever seen.”

Shodhan has watched cricket for almost eight decades now, in one form or the other, but these days he doesn’t linger long. Cataract surgeries on both eyes have made him conscious of the fact that watching hours of TV does him no good. As for going across to Motera, he occasionally does that. “I first got my driving license in 1946, before India got freedom. Recently I renewed it for one last time, because I like to drive myself to the ground as occasionally the Gujarat Cricket Association sends me some tickets and a car pass,” said Shodhan, who has watched more cricket than most of us will in one lifetime. “But I’m not going to renew it again.”