Raman Lamba. Art by Rajasekharan Parameswaran
Raman Lamba. Art by Rajasekharan Parameswaran.

Raman Lamba, born January 2, 1960, was a prolific batsman at the domestic level who also enjoyed some memorable moments for India in the 1980s. He was still in his prime, playing the game with unbridled enthusiasm, when he met his tragic end at the age of 38 while fielding close to the wicket. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at his life and career.

The great season

October 2, 1986.

At seven in the morning Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi walked into Rajghat to pay his respects to Mahatma Gandhi on his birth anniversary. And immediately a bullet whistled through the air, missing him by a whisker. After he was whisked away to the bhajan programme, a frantic search was carried out looking for the assailant. However, the security men failed to find the man. When the Prime Minister came out again, two more shots were fired, both missing him by a few inches.

The youth who had hid himself behind bushes and fired the shots was soon captured and sentenced to life imprisonment. The Prime Minister was unhurt. But, the sensational attempt on his life shook the nation to its very core.

Soon after this event, a popular magazine published a cartoon in which a senior police officer was shown berating a subordinate. The conversation went:

Senior officer: “You say you heard the shot. Why didn’t you investigate?”
Subordinate: “I thought it was just Raman Lamba hitting a six.”

Indeed, during those days of late 1986, Raman Lamba had captured the imagination of the country with his extraordinary strokeplay.

On that very day of the attempted assassination, India had played Australia in the fourth ODI of the series. And on the Feroz Shah Kotla wicket that he knew so very well, Lamba had blazed away, taking India to a convincing win. Faced with a moderate target of 239, India had lost Sunil Gavaskar at 7, Krishnamachari Srikkanth at 24 and had been fast slipping towards a crisis. And then Lamba’s willow had roared back. As Dilip Vengsarkar had batted with his customary calm at the other end, Lamba had turned the match on its head by hitting 74 in 68 balls with 8 boundaries and a six.

Throughout that winter, Lamba stirred the spectators to throes of edge-of-the-seat excitement by the way he went about his business. From the moment he had made his debut in the first ODI at Jaipur, the thick long hair had carried a vestige of glamour; the pursuits, pickups and returns from the outfield had been electric; the energy had been infectious. And then he had come out to bat in his first innings without the hint of an edgy, hesitant nerve in his entire make up.

The crowd had watched with eyes wide and mouths agape as he had skipped down the tracks to bowlers of considerable pace, not deterred even if the length was shortened. A light-hearted dance down the wicket followed by a short ball from the redoubtable Craig McDermott had ended in a six carved over point. The debut innings, without any shadow of circumspection, had amounted to 64 in 53 balls with 8 fours and that extraordinary six.

In the second game, he had skipped out early once again, and his cross batted heave had resulted in a snick to the ’keeper for just one run. Tongues had wagged about the ill-advised methods of rash aggression that could not be expected to fire too often. Lamba had responded with the match turning 74 at Delhi.

In the final match of the series, Gavaskar sat out. Lamba nestled comfortably into the slot of the opener and notched up his maiden ODI hundred — a well-paced 102 studded with 8 fours and a couple of sixes. With 278 runs at 55.60, Lamba headed the batting averages for India and was named the Man of the Series. By then he had become an instant hero, a flamboyant characteristically recognisable under the unique mop of hair, essaying audacious strokes against quality bowlers that left people breathless.

The call-up

It had been a remarkable turnaround for the man whose inclusion in the Indian squad for the summer’s tour of England had been questioned in many quarters. As it happens in India ever so often, there were hints at regional lobbies and quotas.

Lamba, after all, was not exactly a promising youngster. He had made his First-Class debut way back in 1978-79, playing for the Indian Under-22 against the touring West Indians. He had opened the innings with Saad Bin Jung against an attack of Malcolm Marshall, Sylvester Clarke and Vanburn Holder. The two young men had put on 97 before Marshall had got him caught behind for 38.

A more formal introduction to the top level had been in the Irani Trophy tie of 1980-81 when he had batted with confidence against a strong Rest of India attack of Kapil Dev, Roger Binny, Karsan Ghavri, Dilip Doshi and Shivlal Yadav. Coming in at No. 3, Lamba had scored an impressive 57.

Since then he had been played First-Class cricket for six full seasons leading up to 1986, and for much of the time had not really allowed the returns to speak for his obvious potential. In the Delhi circles, his fast bat-swing and lightning-quick footwork were known to all the keen followers of the game. He was known to dominate the bowlers, to demoralise them. But, the first five full seasons had seen just four hundreds from his bat — quite ordinary given the run feasts witnessed in domestic cricket. Besides, all his big innings — three knocks over 150 — had come against the weaker attacks of Jammu & Kashmir and Services.

However, those who had followed the 1985-86 innings closely knew that Lamba had every reason to deserve a place in the touring party. This was perhaps the season that saw him come of age. Starting with 80 against Punjab, he scored 110 against Haryana, and reached the climax with 231 and 62 in the Ranji Trophy quarter-finals against Maharashtra and ended with a crucial 110 in difficult conditions in the second innings of the semi-final against Rajasthan. He was the second highest run-getter in the domestic season after Kirti Azad.

The Test series in England saw Lamba involved in an unusual incident. In the second Test at Headingley there were 12 fielders were on the field for one full over bowled by Ravi Shastri. Lamba had taken the field as a substitute for Srikkanth. He had continued to be on the ground, unaware that Srikkanth had made his way back without informing him or the umpires. It took the entire over before the umpires became aware of the situation and asked Lamba to return to the pavilion.

However, the tour did not really see Lamba setting the English grounds on fire with his bat. The batting order was packed with established heavyweights in Gavaskar, Srikkanth, Mohinder Amarnath, Vengsarkar and Mohammad Azharuddin. Lamba travelled as an emergency back-up opener, played only against the county sides and hit form late in the tour. Just before the final Test he hit 69 against Somerset and then, in the penultimate match, scored 116 and 56 against Yorkshire. The match against Yorkshire also saw him in the unusual role of an opening bowler in the second innings and he also managed to get a wicket.

Yet, there were other highlights away from the series. Lamba stayed back to play in Ireland — marking the start of a successful association with Ulster. It was also in Ireland in late July that he met Kim Michelle Crothers. About a year later, when Lamba returned for another season, they got engaged. In September 1990, they were married.

The rest of the great year

Quite expectedly the great form shown against Australians the 1986 series did not continue too long. The next engagement was the Champions Trophy in Sharjah and Lamba managed scores of 0, 0 and 6. When he returned to India to play against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, his form remained erratic with only one half-century managed in 11 matches.

However, he was making runs in the longer format. A fighting hundred in the Duleep Trophy semi-final was followed by 113 against the Sri Lankans for the Board President’s XI and then 115 for Delhi against the Services. With Mohinder Amarnath unavailable for the first Test against Sri Lanka, the flurry of centuries saw Lamba make his Test debut at Kanpur.

The Green Park wicket was one of the flattest ever witnessed in a Test, and Lamba was unfortunate to be run out for 24 after sharing a 50-run second wicket stand with Gavaskar.

Amarnath returned for the next Test at Nagpur, but Lamba was retained as Azhar missed out with an injury. Thus far known as a swashbuckling strokeplayer, Lamba now displayed his dour side which had helped him amass mountains of runs in domestic cricket. Caught on a difficult wicket and plagued by regular rain delays, Lamba batted four-and-a-quarter hours for 54. It laid the platform for sparkling centuries by Vengsarkar and Amarnath on the following day.

In the third Test match, he put his head down once again and scored a gritty 24 on a minefield of a wicket at Cuttack before falling to a shooter from Ravi Ratnayeke.

However, when more serious battle ensued against Pakistan, both Amarnath and Azhar came back to form the splendid middle order. Hence, Lamba was omitted from the side. Even when Gavaskar decided to opt out of the second Test at Calcutta, it was Arun Lal who stepped in.

Lamba did make up in other matches. When the Pakistanis played Delhi in March, Lamba scored a peerless 131 against Salim Jaffar, Manzoor Elahi, Abdul Qadir and Iqbal Qasim. He ended this eventful season with 121 against Karnataka in the Ranji Trophy semi-final as Delhi piled up 711 for 3.

Great season poor Test

The poor run of scores in the ODIs after the Australian series resulted in Lamba being ignored for the 1987 Reliance World Cup. However, he started the 1987-88 season in a sensational spurt of run-making in the Duleep Trophy.

He amassed 197 against East Zone and followed it up with 114 against South Zone in the semi-final. North Zone met West Zone in the final at Bhilai, and captain the West skipper Anshuman Gaekwad hit 216 to help his side post a formidable 444. In response, Lamba batted exactly 12 hours to score 320 before being the seventh wicket to fall with the score on 617. The match was decided by then. North Zone scored 868, almost twice the score of their opponents.

Incredibly, Lamba was so disappointed after his dismissal in this innings that he smashed a glass pane of the dressing room window. According to his ardent fan Aakash Chopra, the Delhi star was gutted to have missed the opportunity to score a quadruple-century. Apparently, he thought that a four hundred would have made a huge difference to his career.

Well, even though he did not get to the four hundred, the deluge of runs could not have come at a better moment. Smarting under the semi-final exit in the Reliance Cup, India, under the new captain Vengsarkar, geared up to take on the might of the West Indies. Plagued by injury and personal problems, both Amarnath and Azhar withdrew from the first Test at Feroz Shah Kotla. As a result Sanjay Manjrekar made his debut and Lamba was drafted in to play in the pivotal number three spot.

Alas. The conditions in Kotla made the ball swing around. And the shortcomings of Lamba’s game were ruthlessly exposed by the formidable West Indian attack. In the first innings he survived eight balls, scoring a solitary run, before losing his stumps to Winston Davis. In the second, his bat was still on its way to completing the back lift when the first ball he faced from Patrick Patterson crashed into the stumps. In that corker of a match, he did play an important role as an excellent fielder close to the wicket. However, both Amarnath and Azhar returned for the second Test at Bombay and Lamba had done precious little to be considered.

He continued to score runs in other games, getting a century against the West Indians for North Zone, and amassing 242 against Bombay in the Ranji Trophy quarter finals. But, he did not do quite enough to come back into the national side that season. Nevertheless; it was his most productive First-Class season ever, with 1,097 runs from 11 matches at 84.38.

The return

It was two years later that he returned to wearing the national colours. A couple of quick-fire hundreds for North Zone in the Deodhar Trophy saw him recalled to play in the Champion’s Trophy in Sharjah. He was retained for the Nehru Cup held in late 1989.During this tournament, he had formed a rewarding partnership with Srikkanth at the top of the order.

This tournament saw some sterling innings from Lamba, including a spellbinding 61 against the West Indians. During this innings, it did seem for a while that he had mastered extreme pace. While wickets fell around him, Lamba stroked the ball imperiously, making the 197-run target look puny as 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 for those days. Lamba walked in and struck the ball magically during that mellow afternoon, combining with Srikkanth to produce one of the most scintillating opening stands. He split the field with 4 fours and 3 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. Srikkanth followed 12 runs later, tragically losing his balance while turning for a sharp second run. The rest of the batting withered away without resistance.

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 at short-leg standing close enough to untie the bootlaces the batsman. For a couple of minutes the thought lingered that he was 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 a few days before writing this piece, 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.”

End of international career

After the Nehru Cup, Lamba was again considered a regular member of the Indian team. With Dilip Vengsarkar opting out of the next tour, and Mohinder Amarnath having played his last for India, he was a senior member of the young side that visited Pakistan. This is when the supremely fit Lamba became victim to a freak injury.

He started the tour with a well-compiled 62 against the Board of Control for Cricket in Pakistan (BCCP) Patron’s XI and was considered a certainty for the first Test. However, a finger injury on the morning of the Test saw Mohammad Azhar replace him at the last moment. Azhar got a couple of thirties and followed it up with a hundred in the second Test. That essentially ended Lamba’s chances of playing Test cricket again.

He did play in two ODIs during the tour, but largely without success. He was not considered for India again.

Lamba’s 4 Tests got him 102 runs at 20.40. In ODIs, he was more successful, with 32 games bringing him 783 runs at 27 with a hundred and 6 fifties.

However, he was not done with the game. He never would be.

The game goes on

For several subsequent seasons Lamba remained a prolific scorer in First Class cricket. In the summer he continued to play in Ireland.

In 1990, he was involved in a nasty brawl with Rashid Patel during a Duleep Trophy encounter at Jamshedpur. Wicketless for overs as Lamba posted a big century and North Zone piled up a huge total, Patel was not amused by the taunts of the batsman. He reacted by pulling out a stump and attacking Lamba with it — forcing him to defend himself with his bat. This incident earned Patel a ban for 13 months. Lamba was also handed out a 10-month suspension.

Immediately after the Patel incident, 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 and in 1993, Lamba was invited to play for the Greater Mymensingh Cricket Club in Navana Premier Cricket League.

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.”

Raman Lamba who had always been the embodiment of life had suddenly stopped living himself. It was beyond tragic, it questioned the very meaning of life.

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 1,034 runs at 73.85. He continued to train harder than ever. 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.

But 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 turning out for Abahani Krira Chakra against Mohammedan Sporting in Dhaka’s Premier League. Making a bowling change, captain Khaled Mashud brought on left-arm spinner Saifullah Khan and, after three balls, asked Lamba to field at the short leg. The captain asked him whether he wanted a helmet, but Lamba said 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. After his wife had flown in from Delhi with their two small children, the life support system was turned off with her 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 in 1958-59. 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. DDCA decided to name one of the dressing rooms of the new pavilion after Lamba.

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)