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He was the Lala of all he surveyed


RAJU BHARATAN

HIS BELLIGERENCE in deed matched his insouciance in word. His word was cricket law in Lahore as in Delhi. Partition took away his best years as `the cricketer's cricketer'. For not even the sendback from the 1936 tour of England - by the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram (Vizzy) - had broken his spirit. He clashed yet again with Authority in the persona of the then all-powerful Cricket Board President Anthony S. de Mello. He was issued with a show- cause notice. The effect was that Lala Amarnath had Berry Sarbadhikary, clandestinely, drafting his acerbic reply! They banned him from selection, in the result, from each one of the 10 (unofficial) Tests against the two Commonwealth teams touring India in 1949-50 and 1950-51. But Lala Amarnath remained unbending in the face of recurring attempts to bridle his exuberance. He knew the Indian team then (turn of the Fifties) was not complete without him. He swore he would be back. He was - as full of ego as ever!

He has been identified as free India's first captain. It could, revealingly, have been added that he was the first Indian captain to take a coin - out to the middle - in an effort to practise the `art of tossing'! Lala Amarnath lost 10 tosses in succession in his first 10 Tests as India's captain. And that in the era of pluperfect wickets! The first five of these 10 tosses were lost in the plundering company of Don Bradman in Australia! That meant the hiding of a lifetime for Indian bowlers, as The Don came up with a scoreline of 185; 13 (on a Sydney `sticky'); 132 and 127 not out; 201; and 57 (retired hurt). While hitting all those ruthless runs, Bradman had expected Lala Amarnath to show his own fibre against Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller in the same five Tests - as one to the striking manner born - following the Indian captain's all-time classic 228 not out vs Victoria at Melbourne. But Test success with the willow oddly eluded Lala Amarnath in Australia. His 1947-48 Test scoreline there - 22 and 5; 25 and 14; 0 and 8; 46 and 0; 12 and 8 - belied the deep impress that Lala Amarnath left on Australia and Bradman alike. The Don identified Lala as a batsman of rare aggression and as an opponent-leader worthy of his steel.

Lala Amarnath was to recall this - his inexplicable failure with the bat in Australia - when I asked him about his son Mohinder Amarnath's reluctance to eliminate the hook from his armoury in the quest to prolong his longevity at the wicket. ``Whether it be Mohinder or Surinder, I would be the last father to curb their style,'' noted Lala. ``If your instinct is to hook, to attack, you must do so. Never must you be in two minds here. My approach at all times - even when I was short of runs during those Test matches in Australia - was to get after the bowling. I would expect my sons to do the same.''

How can those who were witness to it forget the battle India, under Lala Amarnath, offered to Goddard's West Indies, in this country, immediately after our tour of Australia! The odds were stacked against Lala, here, in that John Goddard had succeeded in putting pressure on our Cricket Board into appointing two umpires of his own choice - A. R. Joshi and B. J. Mohoni - after India had honourably drawn the first two Tests (at Delhi and Bombay) vs the West Indies. But it was never like Lala to say die. For all the omnipresence at the wicket of Everton Weekes (128; 194; 162 and 101; 90 run out; 56 and 48), Goddard's West Indies could manage to go one up - in that 1948-49 series against an India indomitably led by Lala Amarnath - only with the fourth Test at Chepauk. It was typical of Lala that he never deterred Dattu Phadkar (45.3-10-159-7) from `bouncing' the Caribbeans in that Madras Test in the teeth of knowing that this was simply to invite retaliation from John Trim and Prior Jones.

As India, mowed down for 144 on the fourth day, lost that fourth Test at Chepauk by an innings and 193 runs, the fifth game of the series (at the Brabourne Stadium) became the decider. And Lala Amarnath (keeping effective wicket in that Bombay match in place of the injured P.Sen!) all but won this final Test for India, all but levelled the series 1-1. It was sheer lack of sportsmanship on the part of the West Indies (ICC Chairman- to-be Clyde Walcott running, fully padded, to the boundary, as wicket- keeper, to retrieve the ball!) that deprived India of a win by 6 runs - as Mohoni and Joshi arbitrarily called off play 5 minutes before `stumps' on that fateful final day! Lala Amarnath's India then had been set 361 runs to win by the fourth afternoon of that fifth and final Brabourne Stadium Test. And Lala Amarnath himself, coming in two-down, had dictated the pace and trend of play with a cameo 39. Indeed Lala had looked all set to win that Bombay Test off his own bat for India, so rich was the vein he struck in his shot selection and shot production. Then came a `bailer' from Dennis Atkinson that would have bowled the best batsman in the world. And Lala Amarnath was as near the world's best that evening as made no difference. As he lost his off-bail to Atkinson, the dismay on Lala's countenance was there for all Brabourne to see.

Remember, Lala Amarnath had led India to this position in the face of a concerted campaign against his leadership in the highly influential Times Of India.Any such sustained attack always prompted Lala to counterattack. And therein lay this charismatic character's greatness as the quintessential all-rounder. We always talk of Vinoo Mankad as India's finest all-rounder before Kapil Dev. I am not so sure. Lala Amarnath was every bit as `well-rounded' a cricketer as was Vinoo Mankad. Lala had gone all out to prove this on the 1936 tour of England itself - when he was so shockingly sent packing by Vizzy. Given his swashbuckling knocks of 114 not out vs Northamptonshire, then 130 and 107 vs Essex, Lala Amarnath, by the June 19 eve-of-first Test stage of that 1936 visit to England, had buttressing bowling figures of 267.3-71-668-32 (wickets at 20.87 runs each) to add to his 613 runs from 20 innings (at 32.26). This was when the axe fell. Vijay Merchant, who finished that 1936 tour with 1745 runs from 40 innings to head the averages at 51.32, told me that Lala had looked like outstripping one and all, in England then, when he was halted in his thoroughbred stride.

That the same Vizzy was later to support Lala Amarnath against Vijay Merchant is cricket, Indian cricket! In fact, it was Vijay Merchant who had been (during the August 15, 1947, Cricket Board meeting) appointed independent India's first captain for our maiden tour of Australia (1947- 48) - after having lost out to the Nawab of Pataudi (Sr) for the 1946 trip to England. But a persistent groin strain forced Merchant, most unwillingly, to opt out - and that was Lala Amarnath's great opportunity to prove his undoubted calibre, as leader and performer, against Bradman's Australia. The silken rivalry between Merchant and Amarnath, of course, is by now part of our cricket lore. Merchant led India only in Tests against the Commonwealth, so that, each time Vijay passed him, Lala (earthy as they come as a grassroots' person) could not resist jibing: ``There goes India's `unofficial' captain!'' Merchant was more polished in his reflections and responses. Of Lala, he would pronounce: ``Potentially India's greatest batsman of all time. But Lala never did really live up to the boundless promise he showed when he became the first batsman to hit a hundred for India with that super 118 against Nichols and Clark in the December 1933 Bombay (Gymkhana) Test vs Douglas Jardine's England.''

Merchant had every single detail at his finger-tips as a run- gatherer. As a run-getter, Lala cared for figures so much and no more. The figure had to be that of an attractive young lady to hold Lala's attention. Women found Lala irresistible in his prime - as one who lived for the day, never for the morrow. Merchant, by contrast, shied away from marrying until late in his cricketing life - for fear that it would affect his concentration as a batsman! The two, Vijay and Lala, presenting the picture of contrast, never did see eye to eye. Yet Merchant put all differences aside when Lala fell seriously ill the first time. On a business trip to Delhi, India's master opener called on Lala at his home and then carried a detailed report, on Amarnath's ``speedily improving condition'', in his popular `Cricket With Vijay Merchant' AIR programme. Similarly, Lala was scrupulously fair to Merchant, once Vijay was gone. `Tell me, Lalaji, ``I said (as we were seated together at Vijay's Brabourne Stadium),'' I know Merchant could not read wrist spin at all. How then did Vijay go on to get all those runs for Bombay and India? ``To which Lala's spot retort was: ``What to talk of spin, Vijay, believe it or not, could not read swing either!'' (This Merchant himself was to admit in a signed article.) ``And that is what made Vijay Merchant a world-class opening batsman! Sirf yahaan ka daada naheen thha, Vijay (He was king not only here),'' concluded Lala, pointing to the vastness of the Brabourne Stadium.

Lala was at the CCI, then, to collect, most deservedly, the C. K. Nayudu Award. Just two lakhs of rupees to Lala Amarnath when, as a cricketer, he was one in a million! No man in India could `read' a wicket with Lala's certainty of eye and mind. And no cricketer in India was ever a better leader of men, in my experience, than Lala Amarnath. Lala had this great quality of lifting the morale of a moderate team by sheer mental strength and personal valour. Our cricket mentors, sadly, had no real use for Lala Amarnath after the 1947-48 tour of India by the West Indies. They brought in Vijay Hazare as captain to keep both Vijay Merchant and Lala Amarnath out. Yet, the moment (Abdul Hafeez Kardar's) Pakistan made its first tour of India (1952-53), they wanted Lala back - for his Lahore expertise! And it was Lala Amarnath's ultra-clever bowling (21-10-40-4) that sealed the rubber, 2-1, for India with the third Test at the Brabourne Stadium. After that came Lala's unhappiest hour, when he was asked to manage, in Pakistan, the Indian team captained by Vinoo Mankad (in 1954-55) and ensure that we did not lose a single Test.

This business of playing for a draw from the first ball of the match was something that went against the Lala grain. Amarnath always played to win - in sport as in life. He had unwavering faith in his abilities as a cricketer, as a manager and as a selector. Mohinder Amarnath had a point when he noted (in Star News On Sunday) that Lala's ``wisdom as a cricketer'' could have been better harnessed by those running and ruining our cricket. Of Vijay Merchant it could be said that he was sound without being brilliant. Of Mushtaq Ali it could be observed that he was brilliant without being sound. Of Lala Amarnath alone could it be contended that he was at once brilliant and sound. No Indian bar G. R. Visvanath has come near Lala Amarnath in this respect. In Lala Amarnath's passing, therefore, Indian cricket has lost its most colourful, most piquant personality ever. His zest for life, death alone could quench.

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