Mohinder Amarnath, born September 24, 1950, is synonymous with guts and glory in Indian cricket, the man who hooked the fastest bowlers off his face and for one golden year enjoyed magical success against the best of them. H Natarajan and Arunabha Sengupta look back at a career which saw some staggering highs and an equal number of inexplicable lows.
A study in curious contrasts
He was often the best of batsmen, and could as easily and as frequently be one of the worst. His broad blade could gallantly carry the hopes of the nation against the most formidable foes, and it could also be the harbinger of inexplicable failures and despair.
Mohinder Amarnath ebbed and flowed through 19 long years of international cricket, tracing a peculiar fluctuating path.
He played 69 Test matches — and missed 64. He scored 11 hundreds and never went beyond 138. One almost lost count of the number of times he got hit, frequently on the head and with near fatal consequences. Yet, down the line he was hailed as the best player of fast bowling. He fearlessly hooked the fastest West Indian bowlers in their backyard, scoring nearly 600 runs in five Caribbean Tests at 66.44. During that phase, Sunil Gavaskar even proclaimed him as the best batsman of the world. And within a year he came back to India to score one solitary run against the same set of bowlers in six innings, averaging 0.16. He rose like again like a phoenix, as he had done throughout his career, almost recapturing his full glory. And yet again, in his final series in 1987-88, against the same old West Indian foes, he was little more than an abject embarrassment to himself and his fans.
Amarnath is almost synonymous in Indian cricket with guts and grit, spirit and spunk. He is also the face that appears with Kapil Dev, holding aloft the Prudential Cup — the tournament that changed Indian cricket forever. And he played a pivotal part in that triumph, with Man of the Match awards in both the semi-final and the final.
In those days, when television had just started to beam live pictures of Test matches in Pakistan and the World Cup in England, Amarnath captured the imagination of the country when he frequently ended up as the last man standing. The nation watched spellbound as he held firm in Pakistan against a rampaging Imran Khan. They revelled and rejoiced as he carried India to the epochal victory in the World Cup final. In between filtered in the news of his heroic exploits on the fiery wickets of West Indies against four fearsome bowlers. It was rumoured that he got hit, washed blood from his shirt and resumed his innings. Some said he hit the first ball that he faced after resumption for six. The legend grew.
However, the Amarnath Indians saw at home after that was often infuriatingly unsuccessful — often mystifyingly so. He never quite carried the glamour of his 1982-83 period to the later days — and by then the focus of the nation had once again shifted to the saga of Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev.
Ups and downs and comebacks
Even now, if one is asked to recall Amarnath’s career, those two series in Pakistan and West Indies stand out — along with the tour de force in the World Cup. The memories of a 19-year career often bafflingly get restricted to one golden season and a half. And of course, he is also remembered as the Frank Sinatra of cricket — the master of comebacks. Every time he was ousted from the team, he came back to prove himself at the top level over and over again. That added to his aura, his lore.
In popular Indian methods of analysis, bravado followed by frequent axing in turn followed by triumphant returns hint at serial victimisation. This perception is enhanced by the family heirloom of controversy, where the sins against his father, the great Lala Amarnath, are well remembered. Did the son also suffer due to the conflicts endured and enhanced by the father? It is easy enough to fall prey to this belief. And then, of course, there was the parting shot fired by Mohinder Amarnath himself, when in a hasty statement he branded the selectors a “bunch of jokers”. In those pre-internet days, few would check to see that he had scored 56 runs at 11.20 in his last series against the West Indies, and had one 50 and an average of 23 in the last 14 innings encompassing nine Tests.
Whether he was victimised or not may not be that easy to answer. In the serpentine paths of Indian cricket, there are too many blind alleys. But as we trace his career we may be able to see that the unique twists and turns of Amarnath’s career were dictated much by his own sinusoidal periods of near-greatness and weird capitulations than by whims of the wise men on the panel.
The early days
Amarnath was born in Patiala in 1950, where his father, the star cricketer of that period, was employed by the sport-loving Maharajah to encourage the development of cricket.
Lala Amarnath’s approach to fatherhood bordered precariously on the tyrannical. The Amarnath brothers, Surinder, Mohinder and Rajinder, were forbidden from playing any sport other than cricket. Games were played in their garden, but the encounters resembled military rather than family affairs. Lala planted pots around the field and the sons were thus instructed in the art of placement. And short balls were to be hooked, there was no other way of playing them. All the three brothers played First-Class cricket, and Mohinder and Surinder made their way into Tests.
Amarnath made his debut in First-Class cricket for Vazir Sultan Tobacco Colts in the Moin-ud-Dowla Trophy in 1966-67. Amarnath was part of the Indian schoolboys team that toured England and Australia in the late sixties — tours from which emerged several future Test cricketers, including the Amarnath brothers, Surinder and Mohinder, Brijesh Patel, Karsan Ghavri and Syed Kirmani. Mohinder Amarnath impressed as a top-order batsman and a medium-pacer. The following season he started turning out for Northern Punjab in the Ranji Trophy.
Amarnath’s Test debut was rather premature. As a 19-year-old, with just 10 First-Class matches behind him, he played for North Zone against the visiting Australian team led by Bill Lawry. He opened the bowling and batted at No 6, picking up a couple of wickets and scoring 68. This was enough to earn him a place in the struggling Indian team for the fifth Test at Madras.
Amarnath made his debut as a swing bowler who batted at No 8. He scored an unbeaten 16 in the first innings and a duck in the second. With the ball, he bowled tidily and picked up two wickets in the second innings — Keith Stackpole and Ian Chappell, both bowled. However, India lost and the young man did not make an impression big enough to earn further opportunities.
It was seven years later that he played Test cricket again. And in this context, it may be worthwhile to note that he did not really do much to merit selection in the interim years. His maiden First-Class century came in 1972 in his 61st innings after six years of top grade cricket. If anything, he was rather fortunate to make it to the twin tour to New Zealand and West Indies. Till that point of his career, he had played 72 First-Class matches scoring just two hundreds, totalling 2509 runs at 29.52. With his slowish medium-pace, he had taken 150 wickets at 29.39.
It was more as a seamer who could bat that he travelled to the most ridiculously planned ‘twin-tour’ covering two extremities of the world. Brother Surinder scored a century on debut at Auckland. Amarnath batted decently down the order, starting with a valiant 64. He was handy with the ball too. At Christchurch in the second Test, he finished with career-best figures of four for 63, while Madan Lal accounted for five more batsmen — pace bowlers picking up nine of the 10 wickets was rare in those pre-Kapil Dev days.
However, by this time, he was quickly discovering that batting was his forte. His bowling, military medium at best, would become gentler and gentler till turning almost apologetic by the 80s.
It was the West Indian leg of the tour that witnessed the first chapter of Amaranth’s bravura. Pushed up the order to No 3, he hit a nonchalant 85 in the historic triumph at Port of Spain when India chased down over 400 runs in the fourth innings. And then he counter-attacked with fearless daring against the near bodyline bowling of Michael Holding and Wayne Daniel at Jamaica, hitting three sixes in his 60 as India called off their innings at 97 in the midst of a bloodbath.
After a disappointing series against England in 1976-77 at home, he went to Australia the following season to earn a name as India’s best bat after Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath. He amassed 445 runs in five Tests, including 90 and 100 on a pacy Perth rectangle against an attack spearheaded by Jeff Thomson. During his Perth knocks, he hooked with gay abandon, and was hit so painfully on the jaw by Thomson and Sam Gannon that he could eat only ice-cream during lunch.
He ended the series with a valiant 86 at Adelaide as India tried to chase down 493 and lost by 47 runs to be defeated 3-2 in the series. True, most of the Australian stars were away in Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, but the Indian performance was heart-warming. Amarnath stood out as the most promising batsman of the new generation.
And then he started getting hit.
Imran Khan struck him in Pakistan, knocking him unconscious with a furious bouncer that had Mushtaq Mohammad rushing up with morbid concern.
After the failure in Pakistan, Amarnath did not do much in the first Test against Alvin Kallicharran’s West Indians at home, and thus lost his place in the side. He fought back with a 140 against the tourists for North Zone and was back in the team for the final Test. With India 1-0 up in the series, the most placid of tracks was prepared at Kanpur. Amarnath scored 101 not out as Viswanath and Anshuman Gaekwad also got hundreds and India amassed 644 for seven. It was his first hundred at home.
It was during the England tour of 1979 that his skull and his reputation were fractured. He failed in the two Test matches he played, got hit on the head on six different occasions and refused to wear a helmet. At Trent Bridge, Richard Hadlee, bowling for Nottinghamshire, waylaid him with a sharp bouncer as he once again shaped to hook and lost the ball in the dark background. It was several months before he could return to the crease.
When Kim Hughes’s Australians visited India in late 1979, Amarnath walked out to bat in Bombay wearing Sola topee to counter the pacemen. It was as if the shadow of Lala Amarnath had emerged yet again, under the same headgear worn a generation back. Amarnath’s obstinacy in refusing to wear the helmet in spite of this alarming succession of head blows was unfathomable, and can perhaps be linked to the censure of his father that followed each injury. In Bombay, he played the hook off Rodney Hogg, missed and fell in a heap on the stumps. This time, it looked curtains for him.
It was discovered that the blow by Hadlee had affected his eye-sight, and for a temporary period he had to wear eye-glasses. But, the dismal results against England and Australia meant that it would be a while before the Indian selectors would consider him again. By the end of the 1979-80 season, Dilip Vengsarkar had settled down at one drop, Sandeep Patil and Yashpal Sharma had made their respective debuts. Amarnath was left in the wilderness. He did not make it to the team for Australia and New Zealand in 1980-81, and missed the Tests against England at home in 1981-82 and during India’s return tour in the summer of 1982.
That same season, Amarnath was playing in the Lancashire League for Crompton after four seasons with Lowerhouse. All the while, he was busy working on a new stance, chest open, two-eyed, crouching, in line with Ken Barrington. Just before going to England he had scored 185 against Karnataka, helping Delhi overcome the mammoth 705 run first innings total set by the southern state. When the next season started he took North Zone to the Duleep Trophy title scoring 207 against East Zone and following it up with 80 and 67 not out against West Zone in the final. By the time he scored 127 in the Irani Trophy, his claims could not be ignored any longer. He was recalled when India toured Pakistan in late 1982.
The magical year
Thus began Amarnath’s dream phase. This was a period of 11 Tests against the scariest of adversaries, when he virtually ruled the world with his bat. Imran Khan terrorised the Indian batsmen, Sarfraz Nawaz joined in the tale of demolition. One by one the Indian batsmen surrendered. They were on the backfoot in the first Test and lost the second, third and fourth. Batting under a helmet for the first time, Amarnath got 109 at Lahore, 78 at Faisalabad, 61 and 64 at Hyderabad, 120 in the fifth Test again at Lahore again and 103 not out at Karachi. Imran proclaimed that he was the best player of fast bowling in contemporary cricket.
When the team travelled to West Indies, this saga of brilliance continued. Against a rampaging attack of Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Joel Garner, Amarnath scored 58 and 117 at Port of Spain, 90 and 81 at Bridgetown, and 54 and 116 at St John’s. India lost the series 2-0, but there was only one man fitting the image of a hero.
It is the second innings effort at Bridgetown that has down the years become part of folklore. It was Marshall who struck him this time, the sequence of events by now predictable. The ball was a scorching bouncer, Amarnath shaped for the hook and missed. Some teeth were knocked out. Blood trickled down onto his shirt. He retired hurt, and as he recovered, he supposedly washed the stains of blood from his shirt. And then he returned to play many more of the fearless hook shots. Such was the appeal of the spectacular counter attack that even a chronicler of Gideon Haigh’s stature, writing for The Age, was moved to pen the legend of his hooking the first ball from Holding for six after resumption. As ever so often happens with romantic cricketing tales, the scoreboard, the ass according to Neville Cardus, is a spoilsport. In the second innings, Amarnath did not hit a six either before or after his injury. But the valour is not reduced by this factual accuracy. It remains a sterling effort.
Amarnath’s phenomenal scoring earned the ultimate praise when Viv Richards remarked: “I have not seen anyone play the Windies pace quartet with the mastery Amarnath demonstrated.” Michael Holding analysed his success as: “What separated Jimmy from the others was his great ability to withstand pain … A fast bowler knows when a batsman is in pain. But Jimmy would stand up and continue.”
Amarnath, the all-rounder, emerged the hero of India’s finest hour in cricket – the 1983 World Cup triumph. With his resolute batting at number three and his almost self-effacing bowling, he played pivotal roles in both the semi-final and final. His unplayable delivery to Mike Gatting was as important as his 46 when India chased a modest England total. In the final he took 80 balls to score his 26, but was a calming influence at the wicket which allowed Krishnamachari Srikkanth to go for his shots. And then with his amiable medium pace, delivered almost as an afterthought after half-stopping on the way, he picked up three of the last four wickets for just 12 runs. Kapil Dev raised the cup and Mohinder Amarnath was on the top of the cricket world.
And then the world collapsed, bringing him down to earth in a cruel fall from seventh heaven. Amarnath managed 11 runs in the two innings against the visiting Pakistan, and then Marshall and the others blasted him out for a sordid sequence of 0, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0. A few mere months after his greatest triumph, Amarnath lost his place in the side yet again. Even as he was being named one of the five Wisden cricketers of 1984, the editor was lamenting his loss of form on return to India. According to Gideon Haigh, “having scaled Olympian heights, he shrank to the level of the most inept park bumbler.”
Amarnath’s career can be grouped into these three phases:
Seldom is a stalwart career so weighted in favour of one solitary season. The courage and class are unquestionable, but when the checks and balances of greatness are evaluated, Amarnath does fall quite some distance short of consistency. It was a very short peak during which Amarnath brushed shoulders with the greats. The rest of his career does not measure up to the highest standards.
As mentioned earlier, he did get back in the team, pulling off the Sinatra act yet again. It was in late 1984 that India toured Pakistan. And Mohinder Amarnath stood rock solid against probing bowling and dreadful umpiring to score 101 not out in just over 400 minutes to save India from defeat at Lahore. This knock also saw him perform the feat of scoring three hundreds on the same ground in three consecutive years. He had scored centuries at the Gaddafi Stadium in late 1982 and early 1983 during the previous tour. In the following match at Faisalabad, he was out to another hit wicket dismissal while hooking. But this time it was because he slipped on his rubber soles and fell on the pitch, his feet striking the stumps.
This tour also saw him leading India for the only time in his career, in a One-Day International in Sialkot. Amaranth did not get to bat in the game because Vengsarkar with 94 and Patil with 59 occupied the crease for most of the 40 overs. With the news of the assassination of Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi filtering into the neighbouring country, the match was called off after the Indian innings.
Amarnath enjoyed an excellent series against England at home. And touring Sri Lanka in 1986, he scored 116 at Kandy that very nearly won India the match. The innings took 395 minutes, but it was largely due to the ridiculous over rate of the Lankans who took nearly eight hours to bowl 84 overs.
The good form continued in Australia, although he was criticised for scoring just three runs in 40 minutes at Melbourne when India needed quick runs to beat the weather and win the Test match. And finally, in late 1986, he scored his first hundred in a winning cause — 131 against Sri Lanka at Nagpur. It was also to be his final century in Test cricket.
After 89 on a Madras featherbed against Pakistan in 1986-87, Amarnath lost his Test form. Through eight more Tests played against his favourite opponents Pakistan and West Indies he could not manage another half century. For Pakistan, Wasim Akram made him hurry and look extremely uncomfortable. His final series against West Indies saw him struggle pitifully against pace, yielding scores of one, eight, 43, three and one. The 64 minute struggle for eight measly runs at Bombay was a sad display of the waning powers of someone hailed as the best player of pace bowling not too long ago. Pat Patterson and Courtney Walsh kept coming at him and Amarnath laboured to middle the ball, spending a nightmarish hour at the crease.
Yet, he did have a memorable moment that winter when he scored exactly 100 at Faridabad to notch his first hundred in his 64th ODI. It was an answer to the selectors who had not included him in the One Day side for the Reliance World Cup of 1987, opting for a more youthful middle order.
A bunch of jokers
It was in November 1988 that trouble erupted. The selectors — chaired by Raj Singh Dungarpur — announced that they were resting him for the home series against New Zealand. The furious batsman called a few members of the media, assembled them in the room of Srikkanth in the team hotel, and gave vent to his feelings in a vicious one hour interview by calling the selectors a “bunch or jokers”. He went on to say that Ravi Shastri was a living example of favouritism by the board, just like Gavaskar had been earlier. When the comments were made public, the selectors were obviously not amused. Amarnath did not play Test cricket again.
In the gamut of rumours that made rounds following his outburst, it was also heard that he would be leading a rebel side to South Africa. However, Amarnath rubbished the story and the tour, even if one was planned, never took place.
It is perhaps a bit unfair to say that his career hastened to an end because of his comments. As stated earlier, he had not been in the best of form for the past two series. While he was walking back after being dismissed in the 1988 Madras Test against West Indies, a small section of the crowd had even cheered loudly, anticipating that it would be the last time one saw him in a Test match.
In the end, Amarnath played just three more First-Class matches. He did appear in two One-Day tournaments — a three-nation affair in Sharjah and the Nehru Cup in 1989. In the last tournament, he did not really get too many runs, but managed to add ‘obstructing the field’ to his many methods of getting out. Along with numerous hit wicket dismissals, he had added ‘handling the ball’ in the Benson and Hedges three nation tournament in 1985-86. He remains the only international cricketer to have been dismissed both handling the ball and obstructing the field.
Amarnath ended his career with 4378 runs in 69 Tests at 42.50. Incredibly, he scored 3008 abroad at 51.86 with nine hundreds while managing just 1370 at 30.44 with two centuries at home. For someone largely considered as one of the best against West Indian pace, he strangely averaged just 38.42 against them, scoring 1076 in 17 matches. However, in the Caribbean, his collection of 877 runs at 54.81 in nine Tests remains one of the very best. With 14 hundreds, Allan Lamb is the only batsman to have scored more centuries without ever crossing 150. His medium pace, used less and less with time, got him 32 wickets at 55.68 apiece.
In ODIs, Amarnath scored 1924 runs at 30.53 with a strike rate of a rather unremarkable 57.70. He also claimed 46 wickets at 42.84.
After retiring, Amarnath coached the Bangladesh side in the mid-1990s but lost his job after the country failed to qualify for the 1996 World Cup. He held several other coaching jobs, including Rajasthan and Bengal in the Indian domestic competitions as well as a more exotic one with the Moroccan cricket team. He was one of the four candidates shortlisted for taking up the role of the Indian coach in 2005, but lost out to Greg Chappell. For a while, he has also aired his views from the commentary box.
In 2011, Amarnath became a selector of the Indian team, quite a journey for someone who had called the same group of men a “bunch of jokers”. However, he was removed in controversial circumstances the following year. He later went on record saying that he had been in favour of replacing MS Dhoni at the helm with Virender Sehwag.
After the defeat to England in the Kolkata Test, an angry Amarnath spewed his vitriol saying: “He [Dhoni] has been captaining the team for the last one year because India won the World Cup. We are talking about One-Day cricket here and not Test cricket.” The underlying argument was that Dhoni has not done enough to justify his place in the Test side. However, like his own outburst against the selectors 22 years earlier, this was a rather thoughtless and ill-tempered flare-up with little weight of facts to back him up. It is fair to say that the other selectors have been vindicated in persisting with Dhoni.
Even now, Amarnath emits an unmistakable whiff of victimisation — but when put under the microscope of facts and figures, it does produce a slightly different picture.
Coming back to the cricketer, Amarnath remains an unforgettable character of the 70 and 80s. With the red handkerchief always visible in his hip pocket, the compulsive urge to counter the quickest bouncers with daring hook shots, flirting with every possible mode of dismissal, smiling through adversity while unquestionable steel gleamed within, he will be forever remembered for the magical year when he lorded over the greatest fast bowlers of his time.
If cricket had bravery awards, Mohinder Amarnath would have been the unanimous choice, for his tantalising demonstrations of raw courage against dangerous pace.
(H Natarajan, formerly All India Deputy Sports Editor of the Indian Express and Senior Editor with Cricinfo/Wisden, is the Executive Editor of CricketCountry.com. A prolific writer, he has written for many of the biggest newspapers, magazines and websites all over the world. A great believer in the power of social media, he can be followed on Facebook at facebook.com/H.Natarajan
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)