Ambar Roy: the quintessential Kolkatan. Photo Courtesy: India autographs
Ambar Roy, in the opinion of many the most talented batsman Bengal has produced, was born June 5, 1945. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the man whose approach to cricket has epitomised the Bengali in a way matched by none.
Till Sourav Ganguly had come along, Pankaj Roy remained the only batting superstar in Bengal cricket. Ganguly changed that with over 18,000 international runs. There have been others, from Gopal Bose to Pranab Roy to Manoj Tiwary and several others. Some were gifted; some others, especially Father and Son Roy, were embodiments of discipline and determination.
Few, however, have epitomised the average Bengali the way Ambar Khirid Roy’s approach to batting has. Witnesses have often gone to the extent of calling him the most talented batsman to have come out of the state: he was a champion stroke-player who could take on any attack, dismiss any ball to any corner of the ground — in a manner that would be a treat for sore eyes — and then play a ridiculous stroke and get out.
The phrase “lazy elegance” is often used to describe the batting style of the most graceful of left-handers. Ambar Roy was lazy and elegant: so elegant that he could bring the Eden Garden crowd to its feet with his exhilarating shots; so lazy that he often never bothered about net sessions.
What good were net sessions anyway? It’s your teams turn to bat; you pad up and go to sleep; your teammates wake you up in a hurry when your turn comes; you go out and score a hundred or a duck, return with the same reaction on your face, and light a cigarette, completely unperturbed about the innings he had played. Nobody could get as Bengali as that.
As Arun Lal had said in an interview with CricketCountry, Bengal cricket has “a greater appreciation for elegance and finesse and often ended up compromising efficiency for art.” In perhaps the only city in the world where the impoverished poet is held in higher a stature than a billionaire, Ambar holds a special place in the hearts of the residence.
Pranab, his cousin, was full of admiration of the genius that was Ambar Roy. “Ambar-da was from a different planet. He was a hero, a star. He was a happy-go-lucky person. He never took responsibility for anything; he was never stressed. He was like that,” he said in an interview with Shamya Dasgupta for Wisden India.
It was not that his numbers were poor: from 132 First-Class matches he had scored 7,163 runs at 43.15 with 18 hundreds; in Ranji Trophy alone his numbers read 3,811 runs at 49.49 with 11 hundreds. The numbers could have been better had he had a finer temperament, but Ambar Roy was the kind that evoked the Bengali emotion that goes on the lines of “just imagine what he could have been had he practiced harder!”
Indeed, had he been somewhat ambitious he would certainly have scored more than those 91 runs from 4 Tests, and would have had a longer career at the highest level. But then, that would certainly not have been very Bengali of him.
Pankaj Roy (left) with Ambar Roy. Photo Courtesy: Pranab Roy
The Roys hail from a zamindar family of Bhagyakul (now in Bangladesh) — a family so affluent that Pramathanath Roy, one of the members, had actually granted a loan to Indian Bank. The family mansion is now classified as a Heritage Building by Kolkata Municipal Corporation.
Roy made his First-Class debut at an age of 15 in a Ranji Trophy encounter against Orissa at Eden Gardens, but did not get a chance to bat. Runs did not start coming in the early days, and the first hundred took four seasons, when he slammed 103 against Bihar at Keenan Stadium.
Then the deluge started: it started with an innocuous 42 for an Indian XI against EW Swanton’s XI at Eden Gardens before he was snared by Garry Sobers. Soon came the 135 (out of 298) for Indian Universities against Ceylon, and a career-best of 197 (Bengal scored 313 after being 16 for 3) against Orissa at Cuttack. No batsman from either side managed to reach forty in the entire match.
He finished the season with 507 runs at 84.50, and was named an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year. Not content, he scored 103 in the Duleep Trophy encounter against North Zone at Kotla next season. He continued to deliver, and after he top-scored for Indian Universities against the New Zealanders at Brabourne Stadium, he was drafted into the team for the second Test against New Zealand at Nagpur.
A smashing debut, then oblivion
India were 1-0 up in the series when the sides met at Nagpur. Graham Dowling batted first, and the tourists piled up 319. Srinivas Venkataraghavan batted as a night-watchman, which meant that the debutant Roy got to bat at eight. India lost Ashok Mankad before Roy managed a run, and were left reeling at 161 for 7 when Farokh Engineer joined Roy.
Overshadowing Engineer is a partnership was never an easy task for any batsman, but Roy’s form that day would have outdone any batsman. The 48 was studded with 10 dazzling boundaries, and the Indian Express headline next day ran AMBAR ROY DELIGHTS. Reporting for the newspaper, NS Ramaswami wrote: “This charming innings played in difficult circumstances seems to mark out a new Indian stylist.”
Roy was last out when Vic Pollard ran through his defence. Set to chase 277, India collapsed for 109 with no batsman reaching 30; Roy fell for a 27-minute 2 before Hedley Howarth (who returned figures of 23-11-34-5) took a “fantastic catch” to dismiss him.
Retained for the next Test at Hyderabad, Roy scored a 17-minute duck and a 53-minute 4, edging to Ken Wadsworth off Dayle Hadlee in each innings. India were saved thanks to some gritty batting by the middle-order, and finished on 76 for 7 in pursuit of 268.
Roy was dropped for the first two Tests against Australia at Wankhede and Green Park, but was brought back for the third Test at Kotla thanks to Vijay Merchant’s youth policy. He scored a duck, and retained for the fourth Test at Eden Gardens, managed 18 and 19. With a middle-order that boasted of the likes of Ajit Wadekar, Gundappa Viswanath, Eknath Solkar, and with Dilip Sardesai being reborn, Roy did not play another Test. He was only 24.
Back to domestic cricket
Roy, by then captain of Bengal, returned to domestic cricket with a vengeance, piling up 173 against Assam at Eden Gardens and adding 308 for the fourth stand with Shyam Sundar Mitra — a Bengal record that still stands. Two matches later he managed 133 against Bihar at Patna.
He had another shot when England toured India in 1972-73, when he scored 70 out of a team score of 148 for East Zone at Keenan Stadium against Derek Underwood, Tony Greig, Bob Cottam, and Jack Birkenshaw. This was followed by 124 and 37 for State Bank of India in the Moin-ud-Dowlah Gold Cup Tournament Final against Karsan Ghavri, EAS Prasanna, Padmakar Shivalkar, and Salim Durani.
One of his finest knocks came in the quarterfinal of the 1974-75 Ranji Trophy against Karnataka at home: after the tourists had put on 492, Roy, still the captain of Bengal, saw his side being reduced to 100 for 3, and eventually played a lone hand with 154 not out, dominating Prasanna and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, but the effort went in vain.
Roy played till 1977-78 (while still leading Bengal), finishing with 27 and 21 against Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy quarterfinal as Bengal were knocked out.
Following his retirement, Roy went on to become a Bengal selector — a post he served for 15 years — and is generally credited to be the person who had first spotted Ganguly. He also went on to become an Indian selector from 1984 to 1986, and was a part of the panel (Chandu Borde, Hanumant Singh, Kripal Singh, and Bishan Bedi were the others) that had decided to drop Kapil Dev for the 1984-85 Test at Eden Gardens against England.
He was diagnosed with a serious heart condition and the doctors had warned him that his days were limited, but Ambar being Ambar, did not bother and continued with to smoke. He passed away from a heart-attack (though Wisden attributes it to malaria) on September 19, 1997. He was 52. The Under-14 Sub-Junior and Under-17 Junior tournaments in Bengal have been named after him.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)