No Indian cricketer has ever been as controversial, as unpredictable, as outspoken, as reckless yet as exhilarating as Lala Amarnath. He remained for decades the ‘stormy petrel’ of Indian cricket, seemingly forever at loggerheads with the authorities. His cricket always had a touch of genius and around his game hung a halo of romantic brilliant which made him such a crowd pleaser. His colourful personality, his self-esteem and confident bordering on the cocksure, his jaunty, carefree air and his total unpredictability made him a compelling personality. Always fit and athletic, he was a true showman; ‘a born exhibitor’ was how Berry Sarbadhikari described him.
Lala Amarnath was born on September 11, 1911, at Lahore. His upbringing was rather modest and he began his career as a wicket keeper. It was not till he received the patronage of the Patiala household that he emerged from the shadows. He made his Ranji Trophy debut in 1934-35 for S. Punjab against U.P. but before this he had already become a household name. Against Jardine’s M.C.C., at Amritsar, Amarnath played a superb knock of 109 and ‘was the first Indian batsman to master Verity who was never quite the same threat again” (E. Docker in History of Indian Cricket). He was promptly included in India’s squad for the first Test match to be played on Indian soil, at Hindu Gymkhana, Bombay (now Mumbai).
This Test marked the beginning of Amarnath’s passionate Test career. He top scored with 38 in India’s total of 219 in the first knock and in the second innings, with uninhibited and brilliant stroke play, inspired by the quiet and comforting presence of C.K.Nayudu at the other and became the first centurion for India and that too on his debut. His 100 came in only 117 minute and he fell to a full blooded hook when on 118. No one really cared whether India won or lost – only Amarnath counted.
Recorded E. Docker in the ‘History of Indian Cricket’: “Women, it is said, were tearing off their ear rings and other jewellery and throwing it at him. The Gaekwad of Baroda was rumoured to have presented him with 1,000 rupees; the Maharaja of Kolhapur, with 500; a man in the street, with his last six annas. A jaunty young man with a wide grin and a very engaging personality had come to take his place beside C.K.Nayudu in the pantheon of Bombay’s cricket heroes.”
This single knock earned him praise of the highest order, with C.K.Nayudu, E. H. D. Sewell and all the journalists seeming to compete with one another in singing his praises. Perhaps the young man couldn’t take it or maybe he fell on a lean patch, for after this his next two Tests fetched him a total of 47 runs and he ended the series with 203 runs at an average of 40.60. Besides, C.K.Nayudu had detected in him the potential to be a fine bowler and used him in this sphere in the Tests for the first time. Although not a great success, Amarnath proved Nayudu right by harassing the batsman with his wrong foot deliveries and steady line and length.
The whole cricket world, it seemed, was aware of Lala Amarnath. He was clearly first class material as an all-rounder and it was no wonder that the legendary C. G. McCartney of Australia, the veteran of the 1935 Jack Ryder’s Australian team, singled out Amarnath as an artist and a great cricketer.
It was with this background that Amarnath set out for England as a youthful but highly talked of member of the Vizzy led Indian team. He started the tour with a bang and hit 3 centuries (2 against Essex, 1 in each innings). He had scored 613 runs and taken 32 wickets and was proving to be by far the best Indian all-rounder when he was shockingly sent back to India on charges of ‘insubordination’ and ‘insolent and improper’ behaviour towards the captain and the manager (also mentioned in Vizzy’s chapter).
There are different versions of the role played by Vizzy vis-à-vis Brittain Jones, the manager. Some believe that Vizzy was the chief culprit in not accepting the apology whereas other historians believe the major fault was that of the Major. It is contended by the holders of the latter theory that Major Brittain Jones was the real power and Vizzy did not want to oppose him. Brittain Jones, it is contended, exercised his authority, as a member of the Viceroy’s staff, against the Indian, who, in his opinion, were people belonging to a subject country. He wanted to rule the team without compassion or thought.
In fact, he is believed to have attempted to magnify the Amarnth episode for political gains in order to prove to the world that even a few Indian cricketers couldn’t live as a team, let alone a whole nation. This has to be seen in the light of the Government of India Act, 1935, governing India. Even if Major Jones really had this in mind and used Amarnath as a tool for his politicking, with Vizzy as a not so innocent bystander, it still does not absolve Vizzy of the blame.
Expectedly, the feelings in India about this episode were high. The Indians felt hurt, at the ‘sacking’ of this great Punjab all-rounder and A. S. DE Mellow narrates in his book, Portrait of Indian Sport, that demonstrations were feared and that he, as the Boards’ Secretary, had to ‘kidnap’ Amarnath with the help of the Pilot’s launch before the ship docked and keep the cricketer under cover at as hotel. However, Lala Amarnath himself denies this story.
Keeping in view the feelings of the Indians, attempts were made to have Amarnath sent back to England it is rumoured that the intervention of Lady Willington, on behalf of Major Brittain Jones, nullified the attempts. It will remain as one of the greatest tragedies of Indian cricket that at a time when India needed a cricketer of Amarnath’s calibre and form, he was sent back in disgrace.
Initially, the Board President (Nawab of Bhopal) had endorsed the action of the manager and the captain but apparently under threat of public indignation the Board formed the Beaumont Committee, headed by the then Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, Sir John Beaumont. The Committee included Dr. P. Subbaroyan, the then President of the Madras Cricket Association, and Sir Sikander Hyat Khan, a former Board President. The Committee found the action against Lala to be too severe and stern and thus cleared him.
The rehabilitation of Amarnath was complete when he was re-included in the Indian team under Merchant’s captaincy for the ‘Tests’ against Lord Tennyson’s team in 1937-38. He was in great form and hit three centuries (his knock of 123 at Calcutta being a real gem).
All these years he was playing Ranji Trophy and the Quandrangular (later Pentangulars) and was making good runs and taking enough wickets. In 1939, he ended the Bombay tourney with an average of 40.88, having made 695 runs in 10 matches.
The war years intervened with his international cricket and this was a vital period lost for him. But he showed that he had lost none of his magic when he averaged 61.80 in batting and took 15 wickets at 12.73 against Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), as vice-captain to Merchant’s Indians. Against the far more powerful Australian Services XI, he averaged 47.33 and his 113 at Madras was a magnificent knock, still talked about in that city by those who were fortunate enough to have seen it.
He was 35 when he toured England under the Nawab of Pataudi in 1946. In the forst post-war Test match, Amarnath who had learnt a lot from Lancashire League cricket, got rid of the cream of the England batting- Hutton, Washbrook, Compton and Hammond. Wrote Terence Prittee of the Guardian: “In Test match, Amarnath is transformed. He develops shrewish venom, a niggling, nagging character- he is bitterly hostile, volted with energy and desperately keen to get on with the game.”
With his deceptively short run up, his double hop and his wrong foot deliveries, Amarnath mainly bowled in-swingers. He was always steady in line and length, compelling the batsman to play all the time. Although he failed with the bat (69 runs at 13.80), he topped the bowling averages with 13 wickets at 25.33 apiece. Berry Sarbadhikari, reporting on the tour wrote: “Never before had I seen so much intelligent accuracy in mixing up the late in-swingers with a slight turn from the leg as the Lala produced- I consider him also one of the greatest sticky wicket bowlers anywhere in the world.” His performance had helped Pataudi in seeing India put up their best show of 11 matches won, 4 lost and 14 drawn in first class cricket.
With Merchant having dropped out from India’s tour to Australia, Amarnath was named the captain of a rather weak and inexperienced Indian team to challenge the Australians in their country. The Australians under Don Bradman were a truly great side and India never had a chance and lost the series 0-4. Despite having a weak team, Amarnath remained his bold, aggressive self and impressed one and all. About his captaincy, there were words of praise from all except Duleepsinhji who was covering the tour for Reuter and who had not got along well on the tour with Amarnath.
Jack Fingleton wrote: “My feelings are to this chap (Amarnath) for his great hearted leadership. There are things he does which in our Australian conception of the game we do not agree with, but that, when all is said and done, is purely only our opinion, and, the fact remains that nobody could do more than what Amarnath has done at critical periods here and many would do much less. He has endeared himself to the Australian public.”
More or less similar opinions were expressed by R.S.Whittington who added that the Lala “handled his team like a sheep dog guarding its flock, lost sleep and more avoirdupois in its service.”
India’s performance and Amarnath’s captaincy must be seen in the light of the fact that India were minus Merchant, Modi, Mushtaq and Fazal and that Australian in 1948 crushed England and returned home without a single defeat on the England tour.
Amarnath, on this tour, was simply superb with his batting in the first-class matches. In fact, only he and Hazare ended the tour with more than 1000 runs. With superb footwork, exquisite square cuts and drives he captured the hearts of the Australians. His brilliant knock of 228 not-out against Victor was hailed as “one of the greatest ever played” by Victor Richardson and Jack Fingleton labelled it as “one of the most entertaining innings seen in the century on the famous Melbourne ground.”
Unfortunately, Amarnath lost his batting form in the Tests but he bowled and led magnificently. Wrote Jack Fingleton about the tour in general and about Amarnath in particular: “Amarnath was by far the most reliable Tests bowler. It was indeed remarkable that against the brilliant array of Australian batsman, Bradman, Morris, Barnes, Hassett, Miller, Brown, Tallon, Lindwall and the rest Amarnath should have bowled 125 Test overs at a cost of only 366 runs, securing most wickets at an average of 28.1 apiece. No one in Australia had quite seen a bowler like Amarnath before. He skipped in his last yard to the crease and bowled off the wrong foot. He was a disconcerting bowler. Every now and then he did the unexpected with the ball, moving it a little either way and he had always constantly to be watched. He was an object lesson, always in his length. Amarnath was truly magnificent in the early part of the tour (as a batsman). He not only made runs in copious and consistent numbers but he made them with the grace of an artist. He was a delight to watch. He made an instant appeal to the discerning Australian spectators but just when he needed his form most, in the Tests, it faded from him. This was sad, indeed. No one tried harder or was more conscientious in his practice than the captain.
The tour was singularly free incidents and a credit to Amarnath, as skipper. The Indians in popularity have never been superseded in Australia. They played brightly always and conducted themselves perfectly. They were good crowd pleasers and attracted splendid gates.”
Even Duleepsinhji, not a very welcome visitors to the Indian dressing room in Australia, conceded that “the Australians say that with their bright batting the Indians brought a great draught of fresh air into their cricket which was tending to become a dour, solid, relentless game.” Amarnath certainly deserves credit for creating this impression amongst the Australians.
Despite India’s loss by 0-4 to Australia, Amarnath emerged from the series with distinction and honour and was made India’s captain against the West Indians in 1948. Again, Amarnath’s dynamic and aggressive leadership earned dividents and India pushed West Indies hard. Had it not been for the gross time wasting tactics of the West Indians and the blunder of the umpires in calling off play earlier than the scheduled close at Bombay, India might have evened the series 1-1. Although he was not very successful in getting wickets (3 for 263), he bowled with his customary steadiness on the easy paced wickets and served as a useful stock bowler. His batting was consistent, if not spectacular, (although his 39 in the 2nd innings at Bombay was a great, swashbuckling knock which set the tone for the Indians chase of runs, a knock which Vijay Hazare rated very highly) and he scored 294 runs at an average of 36.75, with 62 at Delhi in the first Test being his highest.
India had lost the series 0-1 but were not disgraced and certainty Amarnath as a player as well as a captain had done splendidly. Hazare described his captaincy as “brilliant”, at times belligerent, original and unpredictable.
But trouble for Amarnath was round bend. Hazare had also remarked rightly about Amarnath’s “tendency to harp on extraneous matters (which) often led him into trouble (and) affected his cricket. Amarnath carried his impetuous nature into cricket.”
In April, 1949, after the West Indies tour, Amarnath had made typically impetuous and forthright comments about Indian cricket and had put the blame for the ills of Indian cricket squarely on the Cricket Control Board of India. Anthony de Mello, the Board President, couldn’t swallow this and labblled Amarnath for “no less than 23 alleged acts of indiscipline” and although officially the Lala was cleared of blames, after having submitted a so-called apology, he, by having fallen out with de Mellow, was not considered as India’s captain against the Commonwealth team and Merchant was reinstated as India’s skipper. When Merchant gave up the captaincy midway through the tour, Hazare took on and led India against England in 1951-52. Amarnath played in only 3 Tests, totalling only 67 runs at 16.75 and 3 wickets for 207 runs and it appeared that his playing days were over. He was overlooked for India’s tour to England in 1952 and Hazare continued to captain India. But Hazare was not successful as India’s captain in England.
Wisden had remembered: ‘With all due respect to Hazare, a though gentleman and a great cricketer, he was far from the ideal captain. His shy, retiring disposition did not lend itself to forceful authority. During play he made few mistakes, but lacked the inspiration which can revitalise a struggling team. Off the field he did not relish the responsibility that goes with captaincy.”
India needed someone with more dash, verve and leadership qualities for their first ever series against Pakistan. Meanwhile, de Mello’s days in the Board had ended and Vizzy had returned to power in the Board’s hierarchy. Amarnath narrowly defeated Hazare for the post of captaincy and promptly produced results as Pakistan were crushed by an innings in the first Test. Minus some of their stalwarts and despite a fine back to the wall unbeaten 61 by Amarnath, Pakistan won the Lucknow Test by an innings. The tigres in Amarnath had been aroused. With ‘attack at all costs’ as his policy, backing uo his own great spell of 4-40 and centuries by Hazare and Umigar, Indian won the Bombay Test by an innings and thereby the series, Madras and Culcutta Tests having ended as draws. Amarnath, however, had once again fallen foul of the authorities and he came to know at Madras itself that Hazare had been re-elected captain for India’s tour to the West Indies in 1953. He, therefore, wanted to drop out in favour of Hazare at Calcutta. An understandably bitter Amarnath blamed it all on Vizzy and was not chosen even as a member of Hazare’s squad to the West Indies. The flashing meteor that had illuminated the Indian cricket horizon for decades, faded, rather unceremoniously and unsung, into oblivion.
Lala Amarnath was a complete alrounder, an intelligent bowler of immaculate length, variety and hostility; a batsman who tursted his eyes and natural ability and whose footwork was breathtaking; an agile fielder in any position; a wicket keeper of no mean standard (as he proved at Calcutta in 1948-49), and above all, a bold, intuitive, inspiring and attacking captain, a born skipper..
N. S. Ramaswami, in a particularly moving piece, wrote thus: “Amarnath was a fullblooded cricketer. He would taste it to all the experiences of the game; he would explore it to its depth, not afraid to follow wherever it may lead. At the wicket he was less a batsman than a storm. He would pounce upon the bowler and scatter him to all parts of the ground. He was as much as a problem to the batsman as he was to the bowler. A pure romantic, the Byron of Indian Cricket.”
As is so often the case with such cricketers, he never bothered about figures and it is small wonder that Tests statistics do not do him justice. His greatest success came in the form of captaincy and he remains, to this day, one of the best captains India has ever produced. He had everything in him to be a good captain – ability, knowledge, flair, confidence, and a strange almost rustic and inbred spontaneous sense. His experience and his understanding of the behaviour (he is reputed to be the best till today) and his will to succeed and attack remains unmatched. Only ‘Tiger’ Pataudi has, at times, shown instincts matching the Lala.
He continued playing Ranji Trophy cricket for the Railways till well past his half century, retaining his fitness and zest all through. He also served as Chariman of the Selection Committee for a number of years and was India’s manager for the 1955 Pakistan tour.
His forthright comments and his knowledgeable opinions made him a well sought cricket writer and later on a Radio and TV broadcaster. As a senior colleague in the commentator’s box, he is great company, helpful but retaining his controversial nature because of his fondness of predicting the results of the game- a highly unconventional thing to do.
At first, one is interested by the fact that the Lala is not as popular as he should have been but as one gets to know him better it becomes easy to understand; for he is a man who has an strange ability of calling a spade a shovel, with an inborn hatred for diplomacy and a directness and forthrightness that is most disquieting. He is aware that these ‘qualities’ of his have caused damage not only to him but also to the careers of his illustrious sons (Surinder and Mohinder), particularly the latter (shelved after a fine debut in 1969). Yet, one often gets the feeling that he likes being controversial – sometimes deliberately so. Like his batting, even today, he remains a character who lives by the sword and would like to perish by it.
Perhaps Vijay Hazare summed him up right when he said of him’: “A great cricketer and a genius. With all this he still remained a mystery, possibly on of the unsolved mysteries of cricket.”