Exactly 101 years ago, the man of who scored the first Test century for India was born. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of Lala Amarnath, arguably the most colourful cricketer India has ever produced.
India had played Pakistan for the last time in 1961, and had toured them last in 1955. A string of hard-fought battles meant that cricket could not be resumed until 1978. It was a grand occasion as Bishan Bedi’s team landed in Pakistan, escorted by a huge cohort of journalists. There was a coach and a Toyota waiting for them at the airport. The manager, Fatehsinhrao Gaekwad was the erstwhile King of Baroda, Member of Parliament, ex-chairman of BCCI, honourary life-member of the MCC, renowned radio commentator and having other claims to fame, was the biggest “celebrity” of the touring party, assumed that the Toyota was for him. When he made an advance, the chauffeur, however, asked him to take the coach instead: the Toyota, as he mentioned, was for “Lala Saheb”.
The story probably summarises Lala: at an age when Indian cricket had just seen through their adolescence and was approaching adulthood under the supervision of Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath and its spin quartet, their first centurion still remained a significant name; even in the country that had been at war with India for the better part of two decades.
Amarnath was actually the middle name of Nanik Bharadwaj. Born in a rather modest family in Kapurthala and brought up in Lahore, Amarnath had stints at hockey and long-distance running, but rose to quick fame with his 109 against Douglas Jardine’s touring MCC side. Amarnath, playing as a wicket-keeper and an opening batsman, scored a breezy hundred as “Nobby” Clark and Stan Nichols, ably supported by the legendary Hedley Verity, ran through the Southern Punjab line-up. The innings brought him instant fame, and he got picked for MCC’s match against Patiala as well. His 53 in that fixture was good enough to win a cap for him at the first Test of the series at Bombay Gymkhana.
India batted first: Amarnath scored steadily and top-scored with 38 as the minnows of world cricket folded for 219. England responded with exactly double that score, and when Clark removed both openers in quick succession, an innings defeat loomed at 21 for two. It was then that CK Nayudu, the Indian captain, joined Amarnath. Nayudu told Amarnath to keep his head down. Rather uncharacteristically, Amarnath decided to listen to his captain.
Nayudu himself got into an uncharacteristic shell and played possibly the most cautious innings of his career. As the skipper’s confidence and temperament rubbed on to the debutant, the latter settled down, and once he got his eye in, the shots kept coming. He outscored his otherwise charismatic and aggressive captain, and went past fifty. In the fading lights of Sunday, December 17, 1933, Amarnath pushed for a single to score the first Test century by an Indian.
The ground erupted: there were celebrations and hugs all around, and amidst everything, the band present at the ground played “God save the King”, somewhat ironically. Even Nayudu got emotional and rushed to congratulate Amarnath without grounding his bat at the crease – it took Jardine some effort to restraint his wicket-keeper Harry Elliott to take advantage and run the Indian captain out. Amarnath was 102 not out at stumps, and women at the enclosure threw their jewellery at Amarnath as he walked out of the ground.
Amarnath became an instant hero. His 118 made him rise to a level of stardom Indian cricketers had never reached before. Though he didn’t do much of note with the bat in the subsequent Tests at Calcutta and Madras (he took four wickets at Madras, though), he remained a star.
In 1935, Jack Ryder’s Australians were visiting India for a series of unofficial Tests. After scoring 33 and 41 in the first “Test” at Bombay, Amarnath played possibly his best innings of the tour at Calcutta. On a sticky wicket Charlie McCartney and Ron Oxenham bowled out India for 48, but Mohammad Nissar hit back to bowl out the tourists for 99. In the second innings Thomas Leather hit him on the jaw, and Amarnath had to retire hurt. He came back, though, and batted with an injury, top-scoring with 39 in a low-scoring match. Many eye-witnesses claim this as one of his best performances with the bat.
Things got murky, though, before the Indian team took their ship to England in 1936. Vijayananda Gajapathi Raju, popularly known as the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram or Vizzy, managed to pull a few strings and be declared the captain of the side, ahead of deserving candidates like The Nawab of Pataudi (senior), Nayudu and the Yuvraj of Patiala. Vizzy scored 33 runs from six innings in the series, showed a ridiculously poor aptitude at leading the side and made himself extremely unpopular.
Amarnath began the tour well, with an unbeaten 114 against Northamptonshire, and soon followed it with a spell of six for 29 to demolish Middlesex. His standout performance came against Essex, though: he stood firm, scoring 130 out of a team score of 184 and later four for 54 as Essex took a lead of 167. He then scored 107 as the Indians crumbled for 227 (no other Indian scored a fifty in the match); and even as Essex chased down a paltry 61, Amarnath bowled unchanged and took two for 27.
During the destructive spell against Middlesex he had an argument with Vizzy regarding field placements. On that occasion, Amarnath had shown open discontentment against his captain by throwing the ball on the ground in disgust. Manager Brittain-Jones had tried to put a false allegation of womanising against Amarnath, but nothing materialised out of it. Despite picking up a back pain, Amarnath was made to play most matches and was asked to bowl long spells, but the all-rounder never complained and went on bowling.
With 591 runs and 31 wickets from 11 matches, Amarnath was one of the leading performers of the season, all set for the 1,000 runs-100 wickets double. Then, in the match against Minor Counties, Vijay Merchant and Mushtaq Ali put on a partnership of 215 runs for the second wicket; Amarnath waited for the fall of a wicket to walk in. It was then that Vizzy decided to push Amarnath down the order, promoting Amar Singh, CS Nayudu and Wazir Ali above him. Amarnath was finally sent in with a few minutes left for stumps; he came back fuming, unbeaten on fire, and sent out the choicest of Punjabi verbal volleys in the pavilion.
SM Hadi, Vizzy’s pet, the treasurer of the team and an adversary of Amarnath (Hadi also played two matches later in the tour, scoring 5, 0 and 1), raised the issue to Vizzy and the manager Jack Brittain-Jones. After this incident the management finally had an opportunity to take serious action against the man they clearly thought a potential threat to their domination: Amarnath was asked to leave for India immediately after the match.
CK Nayudu, Wazir Ali, Nissar and Cotah Ramaswami pleaded to keep Amarnath back in the squad; Amarnath was made to write a formal letter of apology; but Vizzy and Brittain-Jones were firm, and Amarnath had to leave the British shores without playing a single Test on the tour.
The incident caused a huge uproar back in India. Amarnath got a tragic hero’s welcome, and had to be detained in Bombay’s Taj Mahal Hotel to avoid an angry mob. He was paid a hefty hardship allowance, and Vizzy was sacked immediately on his return from England.
The Second World War set in, and it took ten years for Amarnath to play another Test. His all-round performances in the tour matches meant that he was an automatic selection, even after over 12 years since his last Test. Alec Bedser trapped Amarnath for duck in the first innings at Lord’s and took seven for 49 to skittle out India for 200 on debut, but Amarnath struck back: he removed Len Hutton, Denis Compton (first ball), Cyril Washbrook and Walter Hammond to leave England reeling at 70 for four. Joe Hardstaff junior batted brilliantly with the tail, and Amarnath’s five for 118 was not sufficient. Trailing by 228, India were on the verge of an innings defeat at 190 for seven, but Amarnath, batting at eight, scored a fifty to save India from the ignominy.
He wasn’t a grand success with the bat in the other two Tests, but he bowled beautifully at Old Trafford: he took five for 96 (including Denis Compton, Wally Hammond and Joe Hardstaff junior) and three for 71 (Len Hutton, Hardstaff junior and Paul Gibb) out of the 15 English wickets to fall. He was outstanding with the ball in virtually all the tour matches. In the match against Somerset he bowled a series of maiden overs to Harold Gimblett, one of the biggest hitters of the game.
As Amarnath gave nothing away, a frustrated Gimblett asked Amarnath “Don’t you ever bowl a half-volley?”
Amarnath replied, rather nonchalantly: “Oh yes, I bowled one in 1940!”
India’s first Australian tour followed next year, and in the absence of Merchant, Amarnath was asked to lead India. It was a disastrous tour in general – an utter mismatch between the minnows and a team that would be called The Invincibles later that year. Despite taking seven wickets in the third Test at Melbourne, it was a rather disappointing series for Amarnath – his highest score being 46 and India losing the series 0-4 (though Amarnath was a bit unfortunate in that the Indians were caught on wet wickets on multiple occasions). He shone in the tour matches, though – scoring 144 and 94 not out against South Australia; 228 not out against Victoria; 172 not out against Queensland; 171 against Tasmania; and 135, once again against Tasmania. Against Australian XI at Sydney, with Don Bradman on 99, standing on the verge of his 100th First-class century, Amarnath brought on Gogumal Kishanchand – who had not bowled on the tour before that match – possibly with the intention of putting some doubt in the mind of the great man. It didn’t work, though.
Amarnath led India in the home series against a seriously strong West Indies that followed: India lost 0-1, and Amarnath scored two fifties and took three wickets in the series, and kept wickets for the injured Probir Sen at the age of 37. The series defeat does not tell the complete story of the spirit Amarnath had managed to instill in the team, though: in the first three Tests India were outplayed in the first innings but batted with valour to save the Tests; they lost the fourth Test; and in the fifth Test at Bombay, India looked down and out at nine for 2 chasing 361. Amarnath launched an onslaught, and then Rusi Modi and Vijay Hazare put up a 139-run partnership. Dattu Phadkar brought India on the brink of their first Test victory. But with six runs required and one ball to go in the penultimate over, not only did umpire Bapu Joshi mysteriously call “over”, but he also removed the bails, calling a halt to the match, leaving the Indians dumbstruck.
It was at this time that Amarnath had his second fall-out with the management: he protested vehemently against the stepmotherly treatment that the board dished out to the national side, time and again. He had a row with the board secretary Anthony de Mello, and was suspended from the national and all provincial sides, thereby resorted to play in the Lancashire League. Anthony de Mello cited a list of 23 reasons, which included lack of responsibilities as a captain; inability to arrange net sessions; turning up late; not notifying the board about his injury; haughty attitude towards team management; and lack of response to correspondence. However, the most serious allegation was about accepting a bribe of Rs 5,000 to include ace wicket-keeper Probir Sen in the Test side for the last two Tests.
Amarnath responded to each and every clause on the list of allegations. He specifically mentioned that the money was a part of the Amarnath Testimonial Fund, which was de Mello’s own idea to “compensate” Amarnath when he turned down Lancashire League offers and a contract to play for Sussex to offer services for the Indian national team.
Amarnath’s ban had earlier given rise to a public fury, just like his exile by Vizzy 13 years back. As Amarnath wrote back, the response created a sensation in the country. Pankaj Gupta, with the support of a very powerful set of representatives from Bengal, came to Amarnath’s support. There were allegations against de Mello himself, mostly involving the ban on Amarnath without a proper trial or a chance to defend himself. The powerful de Mello was evicted from the Board; with de Mello’s downfall, Amarnath found himself back in the Test side, playing under Vijay Hazare and being a member of the side that won the first Test for India at Madras in 1951-52.
The very next season, when Pakistan came to India to play their first Test series, Amarnath was reinstated as captain – somewhat ironically – by a committee of selectors led by Vizzy himself. Though he led India to their first series win (2-1), Amarnath’s only significant contribution in the series being 61 not out against a rampant Fazal Mahmood at Lucknow in the Test India lost.
After he hung up his boots Amarnath became a manager of Indian teams overseas. He carried his no-nonsense attitude, and during the 1954 tour of Pakistan Amarnath sensed a potential umpiring conspiracy, and was instrumental in having Idris Begh removed from the umpiring panel, to be replaced by the only available qualified umpire, Masood Salauddin, who was also a national selector – perhaps a unique case.
Amarnath also went on to become the chairman of selectors for India. After the disastrous home series of West Indies in 1958-59, Australia toured India and trounced India by an innings and 127 runs at Delhi. Amarnath applied his veto power to select the unfancied Jasu Patel for the second Test at Kanpur. Patel took 14 wickets, and India bounced back to win the Test by 119 runs.
He also coached his three sons, Surinder, Mohinder and Rajinder, his pivotal role in building the sense of discipline in them in the case of a failure forming the backbone of many an anecdote in the Indian domestic cricket circuit (including an occasion where he apparently went straight to the dressing-room and slapped one of his sons in public for getting out to a poor stroke in a Ranji Trophy match). Of his sons, Surinder scored a hundred on debut, just like his father, making them the only father-son combination to achieve this; Mohinder, acknowledged by many as one of the finest Indian batsmen against fast bowling, played 69 Tests, scoring 11 hundreds and playing a pivotal role in India’s 1983 World Cup triumph; Rajinder represented Haryana in Ranji Trophy as a capable all-rounder.
Lala Amarnath was more than a capable cricketer, captain, selector, manager and parent: he was the first commoner to look at the cricket administration in its eye and challenge it. He often suffered as a result, but his uncompromising relentlessness made him stand out as one of the characters that make the game so colourful and glorious.
(A hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobiac by his own admission, Abhishek Mukherjee is a statistical analyst based in Kolkata, India. He typically looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – not necessarily as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the game with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a rather steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers the sport has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks and googlies in street cricket)