New Delhi: No discussion on the first set of Indian cricket greats can be complete without mentioning Lala Amarnath, who played 24 Tests for the country between 1933 and 1952.
Amarnath never replicated his debut performance, and his records may not always reflect his exalted stature in Indian cricket, particularly when contemporaries like the two Vijays — Merchant and Hazare — were far more prolific run-machines. However, Amarnath’s utility as a bowler, his leadership skills and the ability to occasionally don the wicket-keeping gloves cement his place among India’ early greats.
He played 24 Tests, scoring 878 runs at an average of 24.38, with that debut century and four half-centuries. He, however, made up for this with his handy medium-pace bowling that earned him 45 wickets at 32.91.
Nanik Amarnath Bharadwaj was born on 11 September 1911, and only later acquired the Punjabi honorific Lala. Hailing from Kapurthala, he was sent to live with his grandfather in Lahore when his mother passed away.
British journalist Peter Oborne notes that in Lahore, Amarnath was noticed by Tawakkal Majid, a member of the city’s prominent Rana family. The family, which ran one of the biggest cricket clubs in Lahore, took Amarnath under its patronage, and he began playing for the club.
For a player of Amarnath’s calibre, however, club cricket was just a stepping stone. Soon, he was noticed by Frank Tarrant, an Australian who worked as a cricket coach for the Maharaja of Patiala. He recommended Amarnath to his employer, and thereafter, he started playing for the Maharaja’s team.
Of his playing days there, Amarnath recalled in an interview: “The Maharaja of Patiala (Bhupinder Singh) used to bring out many English professionals, and I regularly watched them in the nets. At home, I would practise my strokes before a mirror. I learnt very early how the best batsmen always used their feet.”
In 1933, Amarnath made a dream international Test debut against England at the Bombay Gymkhana Ground. While India lost that match, he impressed everyone by being the top-scorer in both of India’s innings. It is said that impressed with Amarnath’s performance, a millionaire presented him with 800 pounds sterling, while another gave him a car.
A journey back home
In 1936, Amarnath endured one of the lowest moments of his career when he was sent back home from India’s tour of England on disciplinary grounds. It has been argued that his departure was orchestrated by the team’s captain, the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram, who was universally known as Vizzy.
Vizzy was allegedly an incompetent captain whose relationship with Amarnath completely broke down during one of the tour matches. Vizzy apparently asked an injured Amarnath to pad up during a match, thereby not allowing him to rest, and then sent a succession of other batsmen before him. Amarnath was finally sent just a few minutes before the close of play.
It is said that when Amarnath returned to the dressing room, he muttered in Punjabi: “I know what is transpiring.” Soon, Amarnath was told by the team manager Major Jack Brittain-Jones that he was being sent home.
A committee that was later set-up to investigate the incident, however, exonerated Amarnath of all the charges laid by the captain and the manager.
An inexplicable Australian tour
On India’s 1947-48 tour to Australia, Amarnath hit a purple patch during the first-class matches, indicating that he would be the pillar of India’s batting during Tests. In those tour matches, he scored 1,162 runs at 58.1 that included innings of 144, 171 and an unbeaten 228. This double ton came when Amarnath went in to bat with the team struggling at 3 wickets down for no runs. So impressed was Don Bradman, Australia’s captain at the time, that he remarked: “Those who saw his innings (228 not out) against Victoria rate it among the best ever seen on the Melbourne Cricket Ground.”
For some reason, however, Amarnath’s purple patch didn’t translate to the official Tests, and he managed just 140 runs in five Tests with the highest score of 46. Amarnath called it a result of bowling too much. “Looking back, I think the reason could have been I bowled too much in the Tests — at times I was over-bowling myself,” he said in an interview.
Amarnath was quite a versatile personality, not just on the field but off it as well. After retirement, he successfully served in multiple roles. He was the manager of the first Indian team which toured Pakistan in 1954-55, which India drew 0-0.
In 1955, he also became the chairman of India’s selection committee. He is credited for selecting off-spinner Jasu Patel against Australia at Kanpur in 1959-60. Though it was a very unusual choice, Amarnath’s decision paid off and Patel guided India to a famous victory by bagging 14 wickets in that match.
Two of his sons, Mohinder and Surinder, also played cricket for India, while a third, Rajinder, was a first-class cricketer.
Popular regardless of borders
Such was his popularity during his playing days that it transcended national boundaries as well as the acrimony of Partition. Amarnath, who spent his pre-Partition days in Lahore, was popular in Pakistan as well.
In an interview, for instance, he once remarked: “If I ever fought an election in Pakistan, I’d win!… I’m really proud of the great regard and respect the people there have for me.”
People across the border echoed this belief as well. After Amarnath’s death in August 2000, former Pakistani great Hanif Mohammed remarked: “I and my elder brothers, Wazir and Raees always tried to follow him. Lala was one of the driving forces behind my initial days in the sport.”
Another Pakistani great, Zaheer Abbas, had this to say about Amarnath: “Pakistan and India should continue to play against each other and remember him by naming the trophy ‘Lala Amarnath Trophy’.”