Cricketing rifts - 4: India in the 1940s - Merchant-Hazare and Amarnath-De Mello

Lala Amarnath (above) took on Anthony de Mello, a despot who practically ruled over Indian cricket first as founder Secretary of the BCCI from 1928-29 to 1937-38 and then as Board President from 1946-47 to 1950-51, in one of the nastiest battles between a player and a board official in the history of Indian cricket © Getty Images

The Dhoni-Sehwag rift may have been true or blown out of proportion by the media. However, far from being unique, discords such as this have been commonplace in the history of the game. In this series, Arunabha Sengupta looks at some of the most famous feuds of cricket.

 

When two Vijays could not add up to Victory

 

Throughout the course of history, Indian cricket has produced one batting great after another– stalwarts who have stood up courageously to the weaponry hurled at the country by foreign attacks.

 

In spite of the embarrassment of riches, in the blur of the many great names that have whirled across scoreboards, quite a few all-time Indian XIs will still include the pioneering willow wielders who had put Indian batting on the map of the world.

 

While Vijay Merchant was the first great opening batsman of India, and one of the very, very few openers deserving the intensifying adjective, Vijay Hazare was the vanguard of a long line of middle-order masters.

 

Merchant, classical and correct, was the founder of the Bombay school of batsmanship. Hazare, sedate and solid, was the first sheet anchor of Indian cricket. They were the pillars of the Indian batting from the late 30s to the early 50s – the first of the many golden partnerships of the country. So much so that their names featured together in that famed, express monologue delivered by Amitabh Bachchan in Namak Halaal.

 

Playing during an era when Indians were regularly steamrolled by the established cricketing powers, both these stalwarts ended up with records that can evoke envy of the latter day masters. While both the batsmen finished with outstanding Test averages close to 48, Merchant’s first-class average of 71.64 stands second only to Don Bradman.

 

Yet, both of them were incredibly decent and dignified. Hazare, laconic, reserved and monosyllabic, rarely voiced his opinions – especially about himself – broad blade distinctly more vocal. And when John Arlott had broached a comparison of his phenomenal first-class average with Bradman’s, Merchant had exclaimed, “Please never again mention my name in the same breath as Sir Donald Bradman. It is sacrilege.”

 

The decency probably crept into their batting as well. Arlott had eulogised, no ill-mannered attempt was made by either batsman to take the bowling by the scruff of the neck. Each, politely, indicated the fundamental error of bowling short or wide or at half-volley length, they corrected but did not chastise.

 

There was a lot of mutual admiration between the two. While Hazare’s respect for Merchant was well known, Merchant for his part, felt that the burden of captaincy had prevented Hazare from becoming India’s finest batsman – which was one of the greatest tragedies of cricket.

 

The point where their characteristics and personas merged was in the phenomenal appetite for runs. It was this insatiable hunger of more and more runs and centuries that propelled the two peaceful men answering to the same first name into the domain of surprising competitive rivalry.

 

There are historians – notably Ramachandra Guha – who are reluctant to make too much of this rivalry. According to them, it just happened that the two men in their primes broke each other’s record over and over again, and that lent a sheen of competitiveness to their saga.

 

True, the record breaking was a story so phenomenal that it nearly bordered on the ridiculous. Playing for the Hindus against the Muslims in the Bombay Pentangular, a tournament which may sound nightmarish to the modern secularist, Merchant hit the Indian first-class record score of 243 in 1941-42.
In the very next edition of the championship, Hazare surpassed it scoring 248 for the Rest against the Muslims.
In the finals of the 1943 tournament, Hindus met the Rest and piled up 581, including yet another record-breaking effort of 250 by Merchant. The Rest were bowled out for 133 in the first innings, and crashed to an innings defeat with a total of 387 in the second. But in this modest second innings score, Hazare’s contribution was an amazing 309!

 

Within the span of one week, the two great men had broken each other’s record thrice. This tussle continued in the Ranji Trophy. When they faced off barely a week later, Merchant scored 141 in Bombay’s 487 and Hazare responded with 109 inBaroda’s reply of 297.

 

A couple of weeks down the line, Bombay met Maharashtra and Merchant shattered all the previous records with an innings of 359.

 

This obviously caught the imagination of the public and the media, but both these cricketers carried themselves with too much poise and dignity to confess to rivalry. As mentioned, many historians still maintain that the sequence of high scores was incidental and the conflict was a myth created around it.

 

However, there are a few who thought differently. Brian Statham, the legendary English fast bowler, certainly felt there was a perpetual battle between the two that did not always work well for India.

 

In his autobiography Flying Balls, Statham wrote disparagingly about his first full tour, a visit to India with the English team of 1951-52. He found the conditions appalling, the food, accommodation and wickets unsuitable for good cricket. And he also mentioned that Merchant and Hazare carried their legendary clash of tall scores into the Test matches.

 

Indeed, in the first Test at Feroz Shah Kotla, the tactics of these two men raised several eyebrows. England had been bowled out for 203 by the end of the first day. When India batted, Merchant and Hazare came together with the score reading 64 for two. By the end of the second day, they had crawled to 186 for two, adding 39 in the last hour and a half. Merchant, in the process, had completed his century. The pair batted on well into the second session of the third day, adding 211 runs in five hours and ten minutes. Statham says that often the batsmen ran only one when two, or even three, were for the taking. Even when well settled, they did not seem keen on hammering a tired English attack on a docile wicket, although fast scoring was definitely the requirement of the moment.

 

When Merchant was finally bowled by Statham, he had batted seven and a half hours for 154, a new Test record for India, passing Hazare’s 145 scored in Adelaide, 1947-48.

 

Hazare, the captain, could have declared around tea, with a huge lead, to have a go at the exhausted Englishmen. However, he decided to bat on and declared only at the end of the last session, thus enabling the visitors to enjoy the rest day before starting their second innings. By then, with his eight hour, 35-minute vigil he had regained his record with 164 not out.

 

When a dogged England held out for a draw, the tactics did come under a lot of criticism. Although both the Vijays later denied any on-field rivalry leading to slow scoring and delay in declaration, quite a few, like Statham, were convinced otherwise.

 

The Amarnath-De Mello stand-off and bribery charges

 

While rifts between cricketers do have the redeeming feature of some of the action on the ground becoming livelier due to the intense rivalry, the worst kind of cricketing feuds are probably the ones where the cricketer takes on the administrator – without a 22-yard strip to settle differences.

 

The Lala Amarnath–Anthony de Mello face-off was of the second kind, gruesome and ugly with relentless mud slung at each other. However, even in all the squalor, it does merit a mention. As far as controversies in Indian cricket go, it is probably the second most sensational on the all-time list after match fixing.

 

Lala Amarnath was in many ways too hot to handle, chockfull of talent, not able to achieve full potential in the international arena, but gifted with an unenviable Midas touch for controversies.

 

After being sent back from England in 1936 by captain Maharajah of Vizianagram and manager Major Brittain-Jones, he had been distinctly lucky to have made his way back into the side – especially in that era of Indian cricket dominated by power-hungry autocracy. One of the main architects of his re-establishment had been Anthony de Mello, himself a despot who practically ruled over Indian cricket as founder Secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) from 1928-29 to 1937-38 and as Board President from 1946-47 to 1950-51.

 

While de Mello went on to claim that bringing Amarnath back into the side had involved sacrificing many great friendships, Amarnath also retorted that his own devotion to the Board had caused him many sacrifices and sufferings, both financially and in terms of friendship.

 

It is sad that such mutual relinquishments ended in nothing but bitterness. Amarnath was forever outspoken and independent, and once in a while, dubious in some of his dealings. Even if he was as above board as he claimed to be, there were many who viewed a lot of his activities with misgivings.
On the other hand, de Mello was an overbearing authoritarian not amused by anything less than complete subservience.

 

The relationship between the Board President and the caretaker captain of the Indian team came to a head when in an Extraordinary General Meeting of the Board on April 10, 1949 the former charged Amarnath with serious breach of discipline, suspending him from playing any representative cricket for India or for any province in India.

 

De Mello, in an interview to the Associated Press of India four days later, declared that, “The Board was unanimous in its decision to take disciplinary action against Amarnath and did not consider it necessary to hear him anymore or any longer, as it had before it plenty of evidence about the veracity of which the members had no doubt.”

 

At a press conference held in the Governor’s Pavilion of the Cricket Club of India on May 4, De Mello issued a statement to the media explaining 23 charges against Amarnath in exceptional detail.

 

These charges, as reported in the Times of India on May 6, alleged – among others – negligence by Amarnath in his duties as captain, reflected in his failure to organise net practice in good time before the first three Tests, through his comparatively late arrival in Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta, the venue for the Tests; a demand by him for additional payment as captain; out of pocket expenses in entertaining friends in his Delhi hotel; his last minute decision not to captain the states eleven against the West Indies side; failure to notify the Board President of his injury at Poona, which was subsequently a handicap to him and India in the second Test; his rude and arrogant behaviour towards De Mello, undisciplined utterances against the Board and its President at receptions and to the press and insulting disregard of the Board by not replying to two letters sent to him. However, the final and the most sensational charge was about his illegal acceptance of a purse of Rs 5,000 in return for promise to include Probir Sen in the in the final two Tests against the West Indies.

 

In retaliation, Amarnath went on the offensive claiming that it was strange for the Board to arrive at its decision without giving him an opportunity to defend himself, adding that he was “Not going to take it lying down”.

 

Amarnath found strong support in the Bengal lobby, mainly in administrator Pankaj Gupta, who declared that the suspension had been single-handedly pushed through by De Mello.

 

Upset at being challenged from within the Board, De Mello put it beyond doubt that it was a snarling match of epic proportions. He declared in the Times of India of May 10 that it was time to show Amarnath that “even if most of the Board’s officials did not bark, the Board of Control for Cricket in India did have a dog that could bark and bite when indiscipline in Indian cricket was concerned.”

 

In response to the charges, Amarnath, on June 5, addressed a press conference in Calcutta distributing a 39 page, 27,000 word statement in an attempt to prove that De Mello was out to settle personal scores against him. In this booklet of sorts, he replied to each of the 23 charges, denying most of them in unequivocal terms.

 

He specifically denied the allegation that he had accepted an illegal purse in Calcutta and stated that he had received Rs 5,000 from as part of the Amarnath Testimonial Fund, a scheme kicked- off by De Mello himself in 1947 when, Amarnath had cancelled his professional Lancashire League contracts and the prospect of a contract with Sussex in the interest of Indian cricket. He labelled De Mello’s aspersion that he had taken money to include Sen as a figment of the Board President’s imagination and explained that to get a player into the team, he would have needed the consent of the two other selectors, Phiroze Palia and M Dutta Roy. He questioned why De Mello had not drawn up charge sheets against Dutta Roy and Palia?

 

Angry words were thus not only being exchanged, but also being compiled in official booklets.

Following the publication of Amarnath’s over-verbose retort, press and public opinions were deeply divided, while many fringe characters jumped at this opportunity to make a grab for the controls of BCCI.

 

In the fateful Board meeting on July 31, a compromise was reached.

 

Although this negotiated solution was made public only after Amarnath had tendered a qualified apology to the Board and its President, it was considered to be a defeat for the BCCI. It came to light later on that BCCI had  been legally advised that its decision against Amarnath was ultra vires as neither had proper notice been given and nor had Amarnath been allowed to defend himself.

 

The compromise, however, did little to smooth the ruffled feathers of the combatants. In April 1950, just before leaving to play for Lancashire, Amarnath asserted, “De Mello has done me a lot of harm. But my reputation has been fully vindicated by no less a celebrity than Bradman in his memoirs. He had tried to drive me out of cricket, but without success. One day soon, I feel sure, he will come crawling to me, begging me to help him once again.”

 

A year later De Mello was unceremoniously ousted from BCCI. The Bengal lobby, led by Pankaj Gupta and supported by Amarnath accomplished this coup and the Board President had to give up the position where he had perched undisturbed for nearly 25 years.

 

 

(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)

 

Cricketing Rifts-1: The Bradman-centric & religion-fuelled Australian feuds

 

Cricketing Rifts – 2: Vizzy, Lala Amarnath and CK Nayudu

 

Cricketing Rifts – 3: The intense animosity between Don Bradman and Wally Hammond