Amar Singh against Australia
Amar Singh bowling in Blackpool against the Australians. Note the leg-trap. Photo courtesy: Barry Valentine

August 31, 1938. A landmark day in the history of Indian cricket which no one remembers. The champion all-rounder Amar Singh was drafted from Lancashire League cricket to take on the might of the visiting Australians in a First-Class game and brought the visitors down on their knees. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the fantastic feat of fast bowling that is never recounted in the pages of history of Indian cricket.

The phenomenon

Physically built like a whip, Amar Singh s delivery was like the cracking of one, read one description of his methods.

That was not the only crack.

His balls came off the pitch like the crack of doom, recalled the great Wally Hammond.

Amar Singh is seldom recalled nowadays other than in scantily recalled pages read about his exploits alongside Mohammad Nissar. The nascent days of Indian cricket at the highest level were surprisingly accompanied by a spectacle that is rarest in the canvas of the country s history of the game. A terrifying duo opening the bowling attack. The big, bustling Nissar bowled like a charging bull, the archetypal intimidating fast bowler. Amar Singh came off a dozen or so yards and delivered at uncanny pace, swinging the ball both ways.

We do know that Amar Singh enjoyed himself in England. On the epochal tour of 1932, he romped through the summer, capturing 111 wickets at less than 21 apiece. That was not all. He flayed his bat around, scoring 641 runs at 23, with 2 hundreds and 3 fifties. He was the first thrilling all-rounder of India.

But there was more to Amar Singh in England than his exploits for India. In fact, not many know that his dangerous swing bowling brought an almost full-strength Australian side to their knees. We will see how that happened.

It is scarcely known and even less recounted that this trendsetting all-rounder forged a successful career in Lancashire League by joining Colne in 1935. Right up to the last season before the Second World War, Amar Singh played as the professional of Colne, and one season for Burnley, scoring over 3,500 runs and picking up 437 wickets. There were memorable occasions when he squared off against other famed professionals in the League, such as Learie Constantine and Manny Martindale.

There are instances when he was pulled in by English sides for a First-Class match or two. Such as the occasion when he turned out under Arthur Carr for Sir L Parkinson s XI against Leicestershire, batting alongside George Headley and bowling in tandem with Ted MacDonald.

When India returned for another summer in 1936, he was busy in the League, but had the opportunity to turn out in three Tests and four of the First-Class games. His returns were 333 runs at 33 and 26 wickets at 23. Many wondered whether he was the best quick bowler to visit England in the 1930s. That meant being ranked above men like Martindale, Constantine, Ernie McCormick, Bob Crisp and Jack Cowie.

Amar Singh was in his prime in 1937-38. Lord Tennyson brought a near-Test standard team to India for a series of unofficial Tests . His returns were 36 wickets in the 5 Tests he played against the tourists, 10 more in the side match he played against the visitors for Jam Sahib of Jamnagar s XI. Apart from that there were 24 more wickets in Ranji Trophy at just 8.95 apiece. And then there was that hurricane 140 in 100 minutes with 14 fours and 5 sixes against Bombay which whisked Nawanagar into the final. It was scored after his 6 for 22 had skittled Vijay Merchant s side for 45 and paved the way for an innings win.

With 538 runs at 35.86 and 71 wickets at 14.35 that winter, Amar Singh was definitely one of the top all-rounders in contemporary cricket. As the summer of 1938 saw Don Bradman s men square off against Hammond s England side, the Indian enjoyed another fabulous summer for Colne. He scored 718 runs and captured 84 wickets in the 26 afternoon encounters.

The Summer of 1938

And parallelly, the Australian side marched through their English summer, with Bradman blazing through the cricket grounds, leaving behind a trail of unbelievable numbers, blinking bowlers and some extremely fatigued scorers. Indeed, he had scored 2,429 runs at 115.66 in 19 matches when Australia, 1-0 up in the series, took on England in the final Test at The Oval.

What followed is oft-repeated history. On the most placid of batting tracks, Len Hutton batted 847 minutes to score 364. Bradman broke a bone in his foot while bowling, and Hammond declared only after confirming from medical reports that the little man would not bat. The England total read 903 for 7. A Bradman-less Australia had neither the spirit nor the means to make a match of it and lost by an innings and 579 runs.

The series shared, the Australians continued to play their last few matches of the tour as Bradman recuperated. Stan McCabe led them against Sussex at Hove following which the tourists made their way up to Blackpool to play an England XI.

It was a motley collection of county cricketers billed as England XI, reinforced by a handful of Lancashire League cricketers. There were Test cricketers like Bill Edrich, Les Townsend, Denis Smith and Stan Worthington, proven professionals such as Dick Howorth, George Pope and Alfred Croon, and the retired wicketkeeping great George Duckworth. The team was led by MP of Manchester Exchange and former Lancashire captain and currently Peter Eckersley. Leslie Warburton, a League all-rounder, was picked to play. And also drafted in to turn out for this England XI from the Lancashire League fields was the brilliant Indian Amar Singh.

Amar Singh s lethal spell

It was a slow and soft wicket. McCabe won the toss, looked at it dubiously and put the English team in. Edrich and Smith put on 52 with some bright and enterprising batting. But as the great Bill O Reilly and fellow leg-spinner Frank Ward came on, batting was transformed into an uphill struggle. Soon O Reilly captured 3 wickets without a run in four overs and England XI slumped to 86 for 6.

Amar Singh came in at this score and essayed a magnificent on-drive into the stands. However, he fell immediately after that, skying one off Ward. A patient Worthington was battling with plenty of panache, picking bad balls to hit. But when the veteran Duckworth walked in at No. 11, he chanced his arm and was caught in the covers. The England XI were all out for 132 in 145 minutes.

In walked the Australian openers, Jack Badcock and Bill Brown. And Amar Singh ran in with the new ball, partnered by Pope.

Duckworth crouched behind the stumps, standing up to Amar Singh s pace. The Indian kept the ball up, swinging it late. Badcock and Brown went about their business with the typical professionalism of the Aussie cricketers.

And then it happened. The score read 26 when the late in-swing of Amar Singh sneaked past the defence of Brown and struck the pad. The pace off the pitch had surprised the batsman. Up went Duckworth, with his characteristic ear-splitting appeal that the England crowds had missed ever since his retirement. The finger went up. The bowler from Nawanagar had struck.

Off the first ball of the next over Pope bowled Badcock and it was 26 for 2.

The bowlers had sniffed blood. Amar Singh placed two men in the leg-trap and ran in again, swinging the ball awkwardly. Lindsay Hassett succumbed to the ploy, for a duck. 26 for 3.

Sid Barnes and Ben Barnett attempted to steady the ship. The former succeeded in countering the swing with some success. But after a few uncertain moments, Barnett prodded at an incoming ball from Amar Singh and played it onto his stumps. 39 for 4. The scratch XI was doing quite well in returning the blows.

McCabe, coming down the order to combat the run of ordinary form that had plagued him ever since the splendid 232 in the Trent Bridge Test, survived a few troubled moments. It did not help the Australians that Amar Singh swung it both ways with equal ease. At the other end Pope was plodding on.

And then again there was the ball hastening off the pitch, the bat pushing forward too late and dull thud of the ball hitting the pads. There was the deafening appeal by Duckworth. And there was the jovial elated gesture from Amar Singh as McCabe walked back for 11. 65 for 5. Amar Singh had 4.

Mervyn Waite counterattacked with some lusty hits as Barnes, his usual dogged self, continued to stick it out. It was Pope who finally got through the defences of Barnes, making it 99 for 6. In between Warburton had bowled, giving the Derbyshire bowler a breather. But Amar Singh had carried on from the other end.

And soon the ball dipped and swung in late and hastened through once again. Waite s willow missed it. There was the scream from Duckworth and the finger went up. 101 for 7. Amar Singh had 5. Only Barnes had played him with any sort of confidence. Even he had been beaten a couple of times by the disconcerting away swing.

O Reilly snicked and edged, and middle a couple. Useful runs were added. Ted White was a decent all-rounder and held his end up. And once again Amar Singh swung it late, past the bat of the legendary leg-spinner. The woodwork was disturbed. It was 124 for 8. Australia still trailed by 8.

White and Ward now chose to lash out. There were a few sweetly timed strokes, some lucky ones. But they did result in quick runs. The lead was secured with a curious Ward stroke which passed for a pull. Amar Singh continued to beat the bat, but the luck had by now deserted him. A vital partnership was eked out.

After 25 unchanged overs resulting in 6 for 84, Amar Singh was rested. Edrich bowled a couple, Worthington two more. It was the other Lancashire League professional, Warburton, who got the remaining wickets. White and Ward were both bowled going for big hits. Australians were all out for 174. They led by 42.

Amar Singh returned with fantastic figures of 25-2-84-6.

Before the day ended, Edrich had been dismissed by O Reilly. The 6,000 people who had turned up for the day were thus treated to 21 wickets for 339 runs.

What followed?

The following morning, Frank Woolley was given a fantastic ovation at Dover as he walked in for his final First-Class match. The crowd sang Auld Lang Syne while the mayor presented him a silver coffee service.

At Blackpool rain delayed the start for an hour on the following day. And off the first ball Howorth was out to a running catch by Hassett off O Reilly, 3 runs short of his double for the season.

The rest of the innings was a hard struggle, with O Reilly and Ward spinning webs around the batsmen. Amar Singh entered the fray at 67 for 6 and immediately skied Ward to long off. Brown took a fine running catch. England XI went in to lunch at 75 for 7.

After that 2 wickets were lost in Ward s first over after the break. It was just an entertaining and sometimes comic 15 by veteran Duckworth that livened the proceedings for a while. But O Reilly bowled him to end the innings with his 9th wicket in the match, 99th of the tour. Ward had 10 for the match already. With the England XI total amounting to 99, there were just a few for the Australians to get. And less than 1,500 people remained as Badcock and Brown scored those runs.

The Australians went on to their next match in Scarborough, the traditional tour concluding encounter against HD Leveson Gower s XI. And Amar Singh returned to the Lancashire League fields, playing one more match for Colne before heading home.

That was one of the very few times that an Indian pace bowler ran through an Australian line up. Sadly, the reports missed even the most diligent followers of the game in India.

Brief Scores:

England XI 132 (Stan Worthington 45; Bill O Reilly 4 for 30, Frank Ward 6 for 44) and 99 (Bill O Reilly 5 for 44, Frank Ward 4 for 20) lost to Australia 174 (Amar Singh 6 for 84) and 58 for no loss by 10 wickets.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)