Colourful cricketer

Published : Aug 19, 2000 00:00 IST

Lala Amarnath, 1911-2000.S. THYAGARAJAN

AN epoch in Indian cricket ended on August 5 with the death of Lala Amarnath. He was 88. Charismatic, classical and controversial, Lala was a mutli-faceted personality of a rare kind.

It is the eventful saga of a man who conquered adversities with courage, conviction and fortitude. His approach conveyed his personality - aggressive, abrasive, artistic and unconventional. Conformism was not his style, rather defiance was. He defied wit h relish the orthodox in cricket, which was built on the idiom and grammar of technique, and embellished his batsmanship with his inimitable skill for improvisation. The essence of it lay in footwork, which devastated the guile and wiles of the best spee dsters and spinners.

Lala arrived on the scene when cricket was gaining roots in India. At the age of 22, his genius manifested itself in the remarkable century (118) he made on his debut against Douglas Jardine's England team at the Bombay Gymkhana in 1933. That innings - t he first Test century by an Indian - compiled in 180 minutes, against bowlers of the calibre of Headley Verity, Morris Stantey Nicols, Edward Clark and James Langridge, is reckoned as one of the best in the history of Indian cricket. "The lucky few who s aw this sparkling innings will never forget it; those who did not will always regret it," wrote his contemporary, Rusi Modi.

The class, content and character of Lala Amarnath as an all-rounder cannot be studied merely in terms of statistics. He played only 40 Test innings against England, West Indies, Australia and Pakistan between 1933 and 1953, totalling 878 runs at an avera ge of 24.38; he claimed 45 wickets on an average of at 32.91 runs per wicket. He began his career as a batsman-cum-wicket-keeper and evolved into a first class medium pace in-swing bowler. The Second World War robbed the best years of him, as it did to m any cricketers, including Australia's Don Bradman and England's Len Hutton.

Lala Amarnath was born on September 11, 1911 in Lahore (some chroniclers record the birthplace as Kapurtala and the year of birth as 1906). He was a self-taught professional. He had a unique bowling action of finishing a short run-up with the right foot. He played for the Aligarh University before moving over to Lahore and represented southern Punjab in the Ranji Trophy and later the Indian Railways. He had a remarkable bowling analysis of four for two in a Southern Punjab match against Sind in 1938, wh ich he improved to four for zero while playing for the Railways against Patiala in 1958. He scored 2,162 runs averaging 40.79 and collected 182 wickets averaging 14.61 runs per wicket in Ranji Trophy matches from 1935 to 1959.

The aura associated with Lala's exploits on the field was very pronounced during the Pentangular tournament in Bombay in 1938. Playing for the Hindus, he scored a classic 241 against the Rest.

Two years earlier, he had been in the eye of a storm, following differences with skipper Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram (Vizzy), in England. He was sent back before the first Test at Lord's on charges of indiscipline and defying the captain in the match ag ainst Minor Counties. Chroniclers note that Amarnath, after being asked to pad up, was not sent to bat until about 10 minutes before close. In a fit of anger, he tore his gloves, threw away the pads, and voiced his disappointment to his colleagues, repor tedly in the choicest Punjabi expletives. Vizzy reported the incident to Maj-Gen. Britain Jones, recommending that the player be sent home. Requests from senior players like C.K. Nayudu, Wazir Ali and Mohammad Nissar to the manager were of no avail. Lala returned humiliated, but the Sir John Beaumont Inquiry into the incident exonarated him of the charges.

The 1940s marked the golden phase in Lala's career. Elevated as vice-captain to Vijay Merchant in the 1944 tour of India to Ceylon, Lala charmed spectators with a classic century (100 not out) against the Governor's XI at Chepauk. The home team's attack included M.J. Gopalan, C.R. Rangachari, Ram Singh, P.E. Palia and Ghulam Ahmed. He flourished again, conquering the attack of the Australian Services team in 1945 with a brilliant 113, before lunch.

As independent India's first captain to tour Australia in 1947 - after Vijay Merchant expressed his inability to make the trip - Lala matched wits with Australian captain Don Bradman. He played some remarkable knocks - 228 not out against Victoria, 172 n ot out against Queensland, 144 and 94 not out against South Australia. In six innings, he aggregated 691 runs, though his record in the Tests did not match them. After the splendid knock against Victoria, Vic Richardson, grandfather of the Chappell broth ers, Ian and Greg, who covered the tour for The Hindu, wrote: "I class this innings of India's captain as one of the greatest ever played. This will stand in my memory along with Don Bradman's 339 at Leeds in 1930, and (Stan) McCabe's 182 at Sydne y in 1932 when the alleged bodyline bowling was at its height. Amarnath has the whole of Australia talking and already worshipping at his shrine as much as Bradman's at any time of his career."

On the 172 not out against Queensland, Vic Richardson wrote: "It is difficult to find words which can adequately describe the innings of Amarnath as he flashed his bat to elegant success after success. Now every slow bowler, the nightmare of England's be st batsmen, has been whipped into submission by Amarnath's powerful strokes, the product of gliding feet, which carried him into perfect position at all times."

Two other commentators who covered the series for The Hindu, Jack Fingleton and K.S. Duleepsinghji, showered praise on Lala's batting, though they were critical of his captaincy. "I do not like to criticise Amarnath because I realise he has to do a very hard work, and also I like him as a cricketing personality and man," Jack Fingleton noted. The famous Australian cricketer and writer added that he rated Lala, along with Vijay Hazare, as the only one of Test material matching the Aussies. India l ost the series 0-4 but won a great deal of admiration.

Amarnath had a brush with authority again when West Indies, under J.D. Goddard, toured India in 1948. Antony de Mello, then Secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), and captain Lala did not see eye to eye on some issues. The differe nces cost Amarnath his place in the team during subsequent tours by Commonwealth teams. He bounced back during the series against England in 1951-52.

Recalled to captain India against Pakistan, during Pakistan's first tour of India, under the captaincy of Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Lala won the series 2-1 and chose the occasion to quit Test cricket in an emotional farewell in Calcutta's Eden Gardens in 1952 . The huge gathering at the venue chanted "We want Lala", even though he had not performed as well as expected. He was dropped for the next tour of the West Indies.

"To have succeeded as Amarnath had done in the face of odds needs great strength of character and determination, but to have lost one's position as frequently as he did, it also showed that he was lacking those qualities which sustain it. Often it became a conflict of personalities, his against those who ran the game," wrote noted cricket writer S.K. Gurunathan in Sport & Pastime.

Lala was a selector in the Board for two years from 1952, then took charge as chairman of the Selection Committee in 1954 and stayed in that position till 1960. He was not afraid to try out young hopefuls and the results were often positive. He formed th e Indian colts' team and arranged a tour of Pakistan. A brilliant raconteur and gifted with an insight into reading the pitch, Lala enjoyed the attention and adulation in any gathering.

Two of his sons, Surinder and Mohinder, played for India. While Surinder did not come up to the expectations of his father, Mohinder enjoyed a long and eventful stay at the top. The third son, Rajinder, whom Lala regarded the most talented, did not make it to the national level.

Rewards and recognition were not many for Lala, or for that matter any cricketer of that era. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1991, and the Board presented him a cash award of Rs.200,000 and a memento during the Golden Jubilee of the BCCI.

Rusi Modi's tribute sums it up all: "A great cricketer and a fine all-rounder, Amarnath was undoubtedly the greatest attraction in the arena of Indian cricket since C.K. Nayudu."

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