AG Kripal Singh
AG Kripal Singh. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan.

Tamil Nadu all-rounder AG Kripal Singh was born August 6, 1933. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a domestic giant who never made it to the top level.

In his book Wickets in the East, Ramachandra Guha had a chapter called Tamils and Turbans in Triplicane: Tamils I understood with respect to Triplicane (one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Chennai), but turbans? Weren’t they supposed to belong to the opposite end of the country?

Amritsar Govindsingh Kripal Singh was a second-generation Sikh to play for Tamil Nadu. The world ‘play’ does not mean merely turning up here: Ram Singh (who was born in Madras), the father of Kripal, played in the first ever Ranji Trophy match and was the second person to achieve the 1,000 run-100 wicket double in Ranji Trophy and missed out on the 1936 tour led by — no prizes for guessing — Vizzy. The ‘quota’ for the Tamil Nadu player had gone to Cota (or Cotar, or Cotah) Ramaswami.

Milkha Singh, Kripal’s younger brother, played 4 Tests for India; a third brother, Satwender, was a very good all-rounder for Tamil Nadu; Kripal’s sons Swaran Kripal and Arjan Kripal both played for Tamil Nadu as well; Arjan Kripal remembered as being one-half of the only occasion when two batsmen scored triple-hundreds in the same innings (WV Raman being the other).

The Singhs were as Tamilian in their lifestyle and culture as anyone of Tamil origin. Arjan Kripal Singh told in an interview to The Hindu: “The name AG was actually adopted by my great-grandfather after he noticed that in Chennai (then Madras), Tamilians used initials instead of surnames.”

They were widely renowned as “the only Sikh family in the world that can speak perfect Tamil”. Most importantly, they played a role more significant in the history of Tamil Nadu cricket than almost any other family.

Random trivia: Ram Singh’s sons played for different teams in league cricket in Madras — Kripal for EID Parry, Milkha for State Bank of India, and Satwender for Alwarpet Cricket Club.

Let us bring our attention back to the debonair and swashbuckling Kripal Singh, though. He was a tall, (5’10½”) elegant batsman who could play any stroke; a very good off-spinner; and a top-notch slip fielder (though he could field anywhere on the ground). He also proved his ability as an astute leader at domestic level.

“As a cricketing brain he had few equals. He could read a wicket, assess a player, or pull off the big bluff since he knew so much. I remember how we once ran through Mysore many years back. The wicket was soft, and Kripal decided that only off-spinners would be effective. Leggie VV Kumar was hardly bowled at all,” recalls Srinivas Venkataraghavan.

The match Venkat mentioned was the Ranji Trophy match in 1964-65. Kripal and Venkat, the two off-spinners, bowled 48 overs between them to pick up 15 of the 18 wickets claimed by the bowlers as Mysore scored 46 and 94: Kumar, one of the Ranji Trophy giants, got to bowl only 2 overs. It was for a reason that Suresh Menon wrote that Kripal was “by common consent, not only the best batsman Tamil Nadu produced, he was also one of the shrewdest brains.”

Kripal’s Test numbers were not impressive: from 14 matches he scored 422 runs at 28.13 with 1 hundred (on debut) and picked up 10 wickets at 58.40. In First-Class cricket, however, Kripal was a force to contend with: he scored 4,939 runs at 40.81 with 10 hundreds and took 177 wickets at 28.41 with 3 five-fors.

There was more to his bowling that met the eye. Kripal was intelligent, could bowl long spells, and had that knack of breaking partnerships. “Kripal was good enough to be picked for India on the strength of his off-spinning prowess alone,” wrote CS Lakshmi in The Unhurried City: Writings on Chennai.

The Ranji Trophy really brought the best out of him. In 40 matches he scored 2,581 runs at 49.63 and picked up 115 wickets at 21.75. More than his numbers, however, it was the impact his presence had on the Tamil Nadu side that helped their performance go up by a notch.

Lifting the Ranji Trophy

Kripal Singh had an innocuous debut against Hyderabad in 1950-51. After playing 3 matches in his first 3 seasons, Kripal eventually got a decent run in the 1953-54 and made an immediate impact, scoring 90 against a visiting Commonwealth XI. His maiden hundred, a 140 against Travancore-Cochin, followed shortly.

By now Kripal had become a regular feature for the Madras side. Whatever doubt was still left regarding his ability was obliterated in the next season, which turned out to be a watershed moment for the history of Madras cricket. Kripal, 21 at that point, turned up only sporadically for Madras in the season because of his board examinations.

Despite his academic engagements, Kripal began the season with a bang, scoring 208 against Travancore-Cochin; he also picked up 2 for 46. He also scored 67 against a strong Hyderabad outfit as Madras went on to play Bengal for the semi-final.

Kripal came out to bat at 59 for 3 and scored 98, adding 225 for the fourth wicket with CD Gopinath. The size of the partnership turned out to be greater than any of the other 3 innings. A collapse followed as Madras were bowled out for 347, but their opening bowlers fought back to skittle Bengal for 174.

What followed was one of the greatest innings Ranji Trophy has ever witnessed. Coming out to bat at 2 for 2, Kripal realised that the best way to survive on a poor pitch was to counterattack, and was the only one who could stand up to Putu Chowdhury, who finished with figures of 6 for 35.

Kripal finished with a score of 97 out of a team score of 139 (there were 12 extras): no other batsman managed to reach even 10. Kripal had single-handedly managed to put the match beyond the scope of Bengal. His role was far from over, though.

Bengal began their chase well, and at 61 for 1 it seemed that they were not likely to give up easily. Enter Kripal. In a short burst of 6 overs spread over two spells his off-breaks picked up 4 for 18 as Bengal went on to lose by 157 runs. It was only the third time that Madras had made it to the final and the first time in 14 years.

Bad news struck, though: Kripal’s board examination dates clashed with the final. It was definitely a massive blow for Madras after his superlative performance in the semi-final. This was when the diplomat Kripal appeared in the scenario for the first time. As Satwender recollected, Kripal “talked his way into having the Ranji Trophy final postponed so that he did not have to miss it to appear for his board exams!”

The final against four-time champion Holkar was to be played at Indore. After Mushtaq Ali put Madras in Kripal played a composed 75 out of 478. Then, after the Holkar openers put up 114 he came on to pick up the first 3 wickets and eventually finished with 3 for 100 and took 2 catches to ensure Madras had acquired a 61-run lead.

The time had now come for Kripal to build on the lead. This time he top-scored with 91 as Holkar were set a target of 373, and looked quite comfortable in their chase at 212 for 3. Then lightning struck for the fourth time in the match as Kripal kept on picking up Holkar wickets, and eventually finished with 4 for 113 (plus 2 more catches) as Holkar slumped to a 46-run defeat.

Madras won the Ranji Trophy for the first time. Kripal had played a significant role in it, scoring 636 runs at 106, taking 13 wickets at 24.76, and grabbing 9 catches from 4 matches. He was an obvious choice for the Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year, but more importantly, he earned a Test cap the next season.

Test debut

Kripal made his debut against New Zealand at Hyderabad and came out to bat at a very comfortable 286 for 3 after Polly Umrigar (who went on to score 223 — the first double-hundred by an Indian) and Vijay Manjrekar had put up 238 for the third wicket (a new record for any Indian wicket).

The need was for quick runs, and Kripal was up to the task. He hit 12 boundaries, and the last of them, a straight drive off Tony MacGibbon, brought up his hundred on debut. The Indian Express wrote of him that he “batted with great ease”. He became only the third Indian to achieve the feat and remains the only player from Madras (or Tamil Nadu) to have reached the landmark on debut.

Warm wishes came pouring in. Vizzy (of all people), President of BCCI, congratulated him with the message that Kripal’s father (Ram Singh) “must be proud of having trained you as his colt”. In a way, thus, it was a sweet revenge for Kripal. Ghulam Ahmed declared the innings closed immediately after Kripal reached his landmark and 498 for 4 — yet another new record for India.

Kripal scored 63 in the next Test at Bombay and 36 more at Delhi. After missing the Calcutta Test he came back for the last Test — his first against his home crowd. Unfortunately for him, Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy picked out this occasion to put up a world-record stand of 413 and Kripal didn’t get a chance to bat or bowl in the Test.

His form had began to dry out a bit, but he scored 122 against Andhra Pradesh, adding 210 with his old partner-in-crime Gopinath. This was enough for him to retain a spot in the series against Australia. Things did not turn out to be good, though. Forty-seven runs from 2 Tests did him little good, and he was dropped for over two years.

Captain of Madras

Kripal led Madras for the first time against Ceylon in 1957-58, and was retained as a captain soon afterwards. It took two years for him to become a full-time captain — and he soon established himself as the backbone of the Madras team. In between all this he made a solitary appearance in the “series of four captains” in 1958-59.

In the previous 2 matches Kripal had scored 114 against Andhra and 199 against Hyderabad. Roy Gilchrist and Wes Hall formed, however, a completely different opposition. Playing in the fourth Test in front of his home crowd with India already down 0-2, Kripal walked out with as Ramchand had to retire hurt with the score on 121 for 4.

The pace never bothered Kripal: he carved out a resilient 53 against Gilchrist, Hall, Garry Sobers, and Eric Atkinson; it turned out to be the highest score of the innings. West Indies then set India a target of 447 and India folded for 151, conceding the series. Kripal scored 9 and was dropped for the next Test. He promptly scored a valiant 133 against Bombay the next match — making it 3 hundreds in 3 Ranji Trophy matches.

English experiences

Kripal toured England in 1959 — his first international tour outside Ceylon — but did was selected to play a solitary Test despite the 0-5 whitewash and his decent performance, which included a spectacular 178 against Lancashire where he lifted his side to 448 from 123 for 5 against Brian Statham and Ken Higgs.

In all he scored 879 runs from 19 matches at 33.81 but had a tough time with the ball in unfamiliar circumstances.

India in England, 1959. From left: Surendra Nath, 'Mama' Ghorpade, Nari Contractor, Bapu Nadkarni, ML Jaisimha, Chandu Borde, Datta Gaekwad, Abbas Ali Baig, Kripal Singh, Nana Joshi, Pankaj Roy © Getty Images
India in England, 1959. From left: Raman Surendranath, ‘Mama’ Ghorpade, Nari Contractor, Bapu Nadkarni, ML Jaisimha, Chandu Borde, Datta Gaekwad, Abbas Ali Baig, Kripal Singh, Nana Joshi, Pankaj Roy © Getty Images

Back home he did not really regain his form but was selected when the English toured India. In the interim period he became the first South Zone captain in Duleep Trophy. His side defeated North Zone but lost to West Zone in the final.

The first Test at Bombay witnessed three Madras players in an Indian Test XI for the only time with both Kripal and Milkha playing alongside VV Kumar. Kripal played the first 3 Tests with limited success but set a world record in the third Test at Delhi that still stands.

After India amassed 466 (Kripal had by now been demoted to No. 9) Kripal had Geoff Pullar caught by Vijay Manjrekar: this was his maiden Test wicket. It was also his 651st ball in Test cricket: it still remains the most number of balls a bowler has bowled to take his first Test wicket. The dubious record was previously held by John Warr (551) who has subsequently been pushed to the third spot by Roger Wijesuriya (561).

Trivia: The undesirable record for the most number of balls bowled by a bowler without taking a wicket in Test cricket belongs to Len Hopwood (462 balls).

The phone-call that went wrong

Kripal was dropped from the Indian side for the fourth Test at Calcutta. The intriguing bit was the omission of Subhash Gupte, who was without a doubt the greatest bowler India had produced till then. With 149 wickets from 36 Tests at 29.55 Gupte still ranks as one of India’s greatest.

The Calcutta Test was expected to turn (it eventually did as the Indian spinners picked up 9 wickets between them in the first innings and 5 more in the second). The exclusion of a spinner of Gupte’s calibre on such a surface baffled everyone.

Then the news broke out. Nari Contractor announced that the two had been dropped on disciplinary grounds. The Indians were put up at the Imperial Hotel where Kripal and Gupte had shared No 7. After the Test got over, Gupte helped Kripal pack and the latter left for Madras.

After Kripal left, Gupte was called by Contractor to his room. He then got to know that Kripal had apparently called the hotel receptionist out for a drink, and the call had been traced to their room. This was a big blow to Gupte, more so because he was married. Accompanied by Ramakant Desai, Gupte rushed to the airport. Kripal confessed and told Gupte, “You have nothing to do with it.”

Both Gupte and Kripal were dropped for the Calcutta Test. Then, when the team for the West Indies was to be announced, the Board Secretary asked Gupte, “Did you try and stop Kripal making the call?” Gupte responded, “He is a big man. How can I stop him?”

Gupte later recalled: “Kripal had not raped the girl or assaulted her, he just asked her out for a drink.” Contractor later informed him that he was out of the tour. Gupte added: “My father thought of suing Kripal but he had no money. I would have liked to have played against the West Indies, make it my last trip.” He was 32, and never played another Test.

Mihir Bose rightly put in The History of Indian Cricket: “India’s first greatest spinner — if we classify Mankad as an all-rounder — ended his career because he happened to share a room with a man who wanted a drink with a girl. Only in India could it have happened.”

Final days

The event probably had an impact on Kripal as well. He was still short of his 30th birthday but it was evident that his best days were already behind him. His batting deteriorated as time progressed, and despite an amazing match-winning haul of 12 for 49 (Kumar took 8 for 88) against Hyderabad at Madras his bowling was more of a support to the other two spinners — Kumar and the young Venkat.

Kripal made yet another comeback in the home series against England in 1963-64. He was completely out of form with the bat that season, but was in quite good form with the ball (18 wickets at 15.67 but without a five-for) despite his role as a third spinner.

Playing at Madras, Kripal flopped with the bat yet again but managed to pick up 3 wickets. Then, injuries and illnesses of all sorts plagued England, and they had exactly 10 fit men — including the two wicketkeepers Jimmy Binks and Jim Parks — for the Bombay Test.

Henry Blofeld, covering the Test for the Guardian, was asked to ‘go to bed early’ by the manager David Clark in case he was needed to play the next day. Eventually, with an hour to go, the English vice-captain Micky Stewart got himself discharged from the hospital and rushed to the ground.

By tea, Stewart was back to where he belonged. With England short of a substitute fielder Kripal ended up fielding as a substitute for England in the last session of Day One before Hanumant Singh took over the next morning. He earned a recall in the Delhi Test, picked up the first 3 wickets of the innings and finished with 3 for 90, and was mysteriously dropped for the fifth Test.

On the basis of his 9 for 54 against Mysore (mentioned above by Venkat) he earned a final recall to the Test side against Australia at Madras. He picked up a career-best 3 for 43 but was dropped subsequently after scoring a duck and one.

He moved to Hyderabad next season and played exactly one Ranji Trophy match against Mysore, scoring 43* batting at No 10. He quit First-Class cricket after that.

Personal life and later years

During his career, Kripal had a relationship with a Christian lady and converted to Christianity during his career, making him probably the first Test cricketer to do so (Mohammad Yousuf and Wayne Parnell have done the same later). Gone were the beard and long hair, but an almost unrecognisable Kripal practised both religions.

Kripal did not, however, remove the AG before his name. Guha mentioned that he had changed Amritsar Govindsingh to Arnold George to keep his initials intact. However, some sources suggest this was not the case.

After retirement, Kripal became a member of the State Selection Committee in 1972-73 and became its Chairman in 1980-81. Even as a selector he was peerless. Menon wrote of him: “As a selector there were few who could argue with him simply because he took it upon himself to drive to the various grounds where matches were held, to take the detailed scores, and above all, to see for himself.”

He became a National Selector in 1984-85, and held both positions till his premature death from a cardiac arrest on July 22, 1987. Even on the day before his demise he was performing his role as a selector, driving from ground to ground, looking for fresh talent…

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)