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Raman Lamba: A tale of determination, brilliance and tragedy

Raman Lamba. Art by Rajasekharan Parameswaran.
Raman Lamba’s death in 1998 shocked the Indian cricket community. Art by Rajasekharan Parameswaran.

February 22, 1998. Two days earlier, during a club match in Dhaka, Raman Lamba had crouched at forward short-leg without a helmet. A full blooded pull shot had struck him on the temple. On this day, he succumbed to his injuries. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the tragic day that saw the death of someone who was always full of zest for life.

Portent of tragedy

It was in the Nehru Cup of 1989 that the writer momentarily felt the uneasy portent of future tragedy.

This tournament had seen some sterling innings from Raman Lamba. It was perhaps his final opportunity in a largely start-stop international career, and he had batted with bursts of rare brilliance. A spellbinding 61 had been hammered against the West Indians. For a while it had seemed that he had mastered extreme pace — the weak chink in his often glistening armour. While wickets fell around him, Lamba stroked the ball imperiously, making the 197-run target look paltry as audacious boundaries flowed from his bat. However, after he snicked Courtney Walsh to Jeffrey Dujon, India underwent a spectacular collapse to lose by 20 runs.

He carried on in top flight, scoring a patient 57 in the win against Australia. When India met Pakistan in a marquee encounter at the Eden Gardens, they faced an intimidating target of 280 — a huge ask during those days. Lamba walked in and struck the ball magically during that mellow afternoon, combining with captain Krishnamachari Srikkanth to produce one of the most scintillating opening stands. He split the field with four fours, and sailed beyond with three sixes — one an audacious pull off Abdul Qadir, against the spin and from outside the off-stump, that ended somewhere amidst the raucously cheering crowd beyond mid-wicket. After they had put on 120, Qadir had Lamba caught for 57 scored from 63 balls. Unfortunately, India lost again.

It was during the semi-final against West Indies that I noted something odd while India tried in vain to defend a measly 165. With Desmond Haynes and Richie Richardson in the midst of their long partnership, and Arshad Ayub floating his off-spinners, I suddenly saw Lamba standing close enough at short-leg to untie the bootlaces the batsman. For a couple of minutes the thought lingered — was he not unusually close? But, soon it was over as West Indies knocked off the remaining runs.

Did Lamba really perch that close during desperate situations? Or was it something my memory fabricated in retrospect after the terrible fate that met him a decade later?

When I spoke to his wife Kim Lamba earlier this year, she did corroborate the images that remain stuck to my mind. “Yes I often thought he crept too close in, but his response to this was that his risks in such incidents were always calculated…he believed he was quicker than a panther, and in my experience he was… so ultimately I trusted his judgement. This was in his personality… to push to the maximum in everything, whether it be on or off the field. Quite frankly, cricket was always a love for Raman, never a fear. He never ever thought that cricket would have taken his life. That was never a consideration. He often joked that cricket was his first marriage and I was his second.”

Corners of a foreign field

In 1990, out of favour in the Indian side once again, Lamba visited Bangladesh with the Hyderabad Blues cricket team. He hit two centuries in the match against Bangladesh Cricket Control Board (BCCB) President’s XI. This kick-started new relationships. In 1993, Lamba was invited to play for the Greater Mymensingh Cricket Club in Navana Premier Cricket League (NPCL).

According to Kim, “He adored playing in Bangladesh and the consensus opinion was that he breathed fresh air into Bangladesh cricket. He felt very appreciated and free to just relax and play without any consideration of cricket politics or restraints. Throughout his career, Raman’s passion for cricket was always very raw, focused and targeted and therefore his execution and delivery was extremely precise – he felt the Bangladeshi players and board members understood his approach and supported him wholeheartedly. When he was batting he was on a sole mission but otherwise he was a very committed team player and he was very helpful in sharing his strategic and technical knowledge with his team players.”

At the same time, runs flowed in domestic cricket whenever he returned to India — including 312 against Himachal Pradesh in 1994-95. In 1996-97, he had another fabulous year, scoring 250 against Punjab and 192 and 101 in the match against Maharashtra. He was over 37, but ended the year with 1034 runs at 73.85. He continued to train harder than ever, adhering to all the tenets of discipline. Lamba used to say that it was his ambition to play for Delhi till he was 50, and the way he had maintained his fitness it looked very much on the cards. He had laid the platform for a long and healthy life. Only he was not destined for it.

Fate had other plans in store for him, cruel, morbid ones.

The tragedy

On February 20, 1998, Lamba was on the field at the Bangabandhu Stadium, Dhaka. By then he was a veteran in Bangladesh, immensely popular. He was playing for Abahani Krira Chakra against Mohammedan Sporting in Dhaka’s Premier League (DPL).

Making a bowling change, captain Khaled Mashud brought on left-arm spinner Saifullah Khan. After three balls, he brought Lamba up to the wicket to field at the short leg. The captain asked him whether he wanted a helmet. Lamba answered that it was just three balls and it should not be a problem. “Risks in such incidents are always calculated,” he had told his wife, Kim. However, on this occasion the calculations went awry.

The fateful delivery was short and the batsman Mehrab Hossain unleashed a full-blooded pull. The ball struck Lamba on the forehead, and had enough force on it to ricochet back past Mashud. The wicketkeeper ran back to hold the catch, and the players ran in to celebrate. It was then that occurred to them that Lamba was lying on the ground.

The Delhi veteran did manage to get up, and he made his way to the dressing room without assistance. But, even as the team doctor asked him to lie down, he said that he was not feeling well. Lamba was rushed to the hospital, but reached there in a coma. There was a blood clot on the left side of his brain and he was suffering from convulsions.The desperate Bangladesh officials even flew in a neurosurgeon from Delhi. But, on arrival, the Indian specialist declared that there was no hope of recovery.

For three days, Lamba was kept alive on mechanical apparatus.

Wife Kim was preparing to go to the airport to pick him up from his flight when she received a frantic call from Bangladesh with the dreadful news. Devastated, she flew in from Delhi with their two small children.

Soon the life support system was turned off with Kim’s approval.

Mashud later remarked, “He died because we did not have good medical facilities then.” Mehrab, the batsman in question, spent sleepless nights after the incident and stopped playing the game for a while.

George Summers of Nottinghamshire had perished after being hit on the head while batting at Lord’s in 1870. Abdul Aziz, the Karachi wicketkeeper, had died after being hit over the heart in1958-59. Ian Folley of Lancashire, had succumbed in 1993. And now, the ebullient Lamba had joined this rare, tragic list of cricketers.

For a long while, the Indian cricket community was seized with disbelief. The man who had always been the embodiment of life had suddenly stopped living himself. It was beyond tragic, it questioned the very meaning of life. There were plenty of tears in the cricket circles as the news spread. The Delhi District Cricket Association (DDCA) decided to name one of the dressing rooms of the new pavilion after Lamba.

“Someone who loved life so much was deprived of it,” remarked a shocked Sunil Gavaskar.

In the Hindu Vijay Lokapally lamented: “He always dressed young, thought young and played young. Alas, he died young.”

(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://twitter.com/senantix

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