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When Lala became a hero

Tuesday, December 16, 2021
SK Sham

It was 75 years ago, almost to the day, that the first-ever Test match was played in this country, coincidentally against England. The occasion was made memorable in more ways than one, not the least of which was a century on debut by 18-year old Lala Amarnath.


The first official Indian team's visit to England in 1932 and the only Test played at Lord's led the MCC to believe that India were worthy of permanent Test status. It decided to send a strong England team, led by Douglas Jardine, to India, immediately after its tour of Australia. Little had it occurred to anyone then that the visit Down Under would hit one of the biggest controversies in world cricket. Jardine's bodyline tactics, which had primarily targeted the run-machine called Sir Don Bradman, nearly took the dimension of a war between the traditional rivals.

In the aftermath, it raised doubts over Jardine's future and the England team's impending visit to India. But just as they have done now, the English cricket administration had seen to it that Jardine remained in harness and that the team made that historic tour.

This was the background against which India started preparing for the first-ever official Test series at home. The British rulers, who occupied important posts, were pleasantly surprised that the BCCI and the Bombay Cricket Association, in particular, had gone through their responsibilities so efficiently that every aspect of the tour was already taken care of.

Then came what was initially considered a great setback to all the best-made plans. By August 1933, the composition of the MCC team was known through an announcement from Lord's. The absence from the squad of such stalwarts as Hammond, Sutcliffe, Leyland, Paynter, Wyatt, Larwood, Voce and Allen was a big let-down. All these players were a part of the "Ashes" winning team and no reason was attributed as to why they were unavailable.

The great disappointment could not be concealed that so many big names of the time, especially Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, the effective tools in the infamous bodyline tactics, were not coming. Who says people do not love villains.

Although there were no protests as such, a mysterious telegram, that eventually turned out to be a hoax, did lead to another big controversy. Lord's received a telegram saying: "The selection of such a team is a disgusting insult to India. Recommend the tour be cancelled unless more stars are called."

It was clarified by the BCCI that no such telegrams was sent by them and that it was just a mischievous act of a group of disgruntled cricket fans. Actually, the MCC team turned out to be stronger than imagined as it contained a lot of young and promising players. Verity, Bakewell, Walters, Barnett, Nichols, Langridge Mariott and EW Clarke more than justified their selection. The added rumour that Jardine would not captain England again, after the Indian tour, made the visit even more attractive.

It wasn't just a coincidence that the first official Test on Indian soil was played at the Bombay Gymkhana, which was the country's premier sporting institution. The temporary stands that were put up all round were indeed a marvel. Nothing like it had been seen before, what with double-decker stands on three sides and the additional one at the Bombay Gymkhana club side. More than 40,000 crazy fans packed these stands on all four days of the match, which is remembered for Lala Amarnath's superb batting that earned him the distinction of scoring the first Test century for India.

India got off to fairly good start, after winning the toss, with Wazir Ali and Navle putting on 44 runs against the tight bowling of Nichols and Clark. But once they were out, wickets tumbled at regular intervals. Skipper CK Nayudu himself was out to a sudden burst of aggression. Amarnath top-scored with 38. as India managed only 219 on what was a good batting wicket.

Many did not consider this a great setback, as India's strength was reputed to be their pace bowling, in the reliable hands of Mohammed Nissar, Amar Singh and his brother Ramji. But while Nissar clicked, causing a lot of problems to the England batsmen with his express deliveries, the other two were abject failures, so also was India's fielding. Several catches were dropped and easy runs given away. Valentine's patient knock of 136, and a brilliant 60 by Jardine himself, gave England a total, twice the size of India's. Nissar finished with 5 for 90.

Considering that he had taken 5 for 93 in the only Test India played at Lord's in 1932, Nissar remained a force to reckon with as a leading fast bowler in the world, a fact that was confirmed in 1936.

But on that wintry day at the Bombay Gymkhana in 1933, a new hero had emerged in Lala Amarnath. He walked to the crease at the fall of the first wicket at 9, in the second innings. Soon a crisis of an impending innings defeat was facing India. CK joined Amarnath and whispered something in his ear. What the mammoth crowd saw next was an array of brilliant strokes all round the wicket. The skipper, himself an aggressive player, looked absolutely stoic in comparison.

Lala had played Nichols and Clark and the spin of Verity and Langridge at Amritsar earlier, and had taken them apart while hitting a brilliant century. He was doing the same again, and had reached 83 in only 78 minutes. At that stage, the captain spoke once again to the rampaging batsman and Amarnath quietened down. Nayudu took over the role of the aggressor. Looking more circumspect now, Amarnath completed his century in 111 minutes. India had reached 169 for 2.

There were riotous scenes when play ended. Hundreds of fans invaded the field and carried the hero on their shoulders. The police force present had a tough time controlling the eager, and wildly jubilant fans. When sanity was finally restored, there was another rush just outside the dressing room, where Amarnath was seated in a big cane chair.

Several ladies took off their finest jewelry and showered on him. Someone from the club procured a big hat. The Maharajas of Baroda and Kolhapur presented Rs. 1000 in cash instantly (Big money those days). Moved by the occasion, the Englishmen too made cash presentations. The Aid-de-Camp of the Governor was seen taking off his wrist-watch and handing it over as a token of his appreciation.

The Times of India reported the wild scenes in great detail the next day. Also how a crazy young fan, so moved by the feat, had taken out his purse and put it into the hat. The contents were the last six annas he had with him. Wherever his dwelling place was, he was hapy to walk back home that evening. How many hundreds must have done the same.

The crowd on the last day of the Test swelled to 45,000. But both Amarnath and CK were out in quick succession. India were bowled out for 258, having lost their last seven wickets for just 50 runs. Amarnath was caught inches inside the rope at deep fine leg, off a full-blooded hook.

India lost by nine wickets but were certainly not humiliated. Jardine was greatly impressed, as much by Amarnath's batting, as by the great passion for the game in this part of the world. In his farewell speech, he said "Cricket has a great future in India. If it does not thrive here, there is no place it will." How prophetic!

Ruthless but ever so sporting

What sort of a man was Douglas Jardine ? Down Under, he was a villain and painted in the darkest possible hues because of the infamous bodyline strategy that eventually aided him to hand out a 4-0 series drubbing to Australia. And at the time of the raging controversy, he had few friends back home in England as well. But not many in the end differed on the opinion that he was England's greatest captain. Mike Brearley, who shares that honour with Jardine, agrees no less.
Jardine, nicknamed "Iron Duke," vehemently defended his tactics. In his book "In Quest of the Ashes – The classic account of the Bodyline Series of 1932-33," he repeatedly asserted that he had not done anything unlawful. "There were two Australian umpires on the field, a whole lot of highly agitated administration in Australia arraigned against him and there was the Establishment in England that did not quite approve of my strategy. They could have intervened and stopped me, if I was acting in breach of the laws of the game," is how he justified his action.

Lurking behind the tough exterior of a ruthless leader was a man who believed in the highest sporting traditions when it came to applying it. In the first Test at the Bombay Gymkhana, India were battling hard in the second innings.

A young hero Lala Amarnath, playing a dream innings, was nearing his century and C.K. Nayudu, at the other end, was giving him excellent support. The two scrambled a single to enable Amarnath to complete a historic century. As soon as C.K. had touched the crease at the keeper's end, he ran back to shake hands and pat the back of his young colleague.

CK was unaware of the fact that the ball was still in play and it was returned to wicket-keeper Elliott, who, in turn, was about to remove the bails. Jardine, standing at mid-off, raised his right hand and shook his head, as if to say "Don't."

Bombay-born Jardine, who immensely loved the city of his birth and twice visited it incognito thereafter, died of cancer in Switzerland in 1958.