Even on today’s
featherbeds a Test match century on debut is a rare thing, and the player is
usually an exceptional one. In days gone by, however, it was an occasion to be
remembered in legend and song. India has had its share of debutant centurions,
but by a curious coincidence the first five of these batsmen were unable to
repeat the feat. Yet they were all talented cricketers.
Lala Amarnath was the first Indian to score a hundred, against the visiting English team at the Bombay Gymkhana Ground in the 1933–34. The English bowling attack was top-class, with the fast bowlers Nichols and Clarke, and the left-arm spinner Hedley Verity, probably the best of his type in the world. This was a time, remember, when batsmen did not use protective gear like helmets, chest and back pads and arm guards.
Test cricket was an amateur sport and the lack of financial incentive did not inspire those who ran the game to protect the bodies of players against the frequently murderous intentions of the fast men. Professional cricketers, particularly in England and India, never made more than a living wage.
The 1932-33 Ashes series in Australia had ended with bad blood between the teams because England used bodyline tactics to terrorise the Australian batting, particularly one Donald George Bradman who had scored 974 runs in the 1930 series played in England. So in the return series, England’s four fast bowlers, Harold Larwood, G O Allen, Bill Voce and Bill Bowes, were instructed by captain Douglas Jardine to bowl at the bodies of the Australians with the express intention of scaring, even hurting them. Only Allen, the aristocratic amateur, disobeyed. The three professionals complied, acutely aware of the economic depression raging in Europe and America.
This little digression aside, one wonders why a cricketer as generously gifted as Amarnath could not score another century in Test cricket. It is generally believed that he performed well below his true potential in his 19-year Test career—from 1933 to 1952—and that it took the incomparable Bradman to appreciate Lala’s true quality.
He considered Lala one of the finest players of the cover drive, and wondered why despite roaring form in first-class matches with scores like 228 (against Victoria), 171 ( Tasmania), 172 not out (Queensland) and 144 ( South Australia, Bradman’s side), Amarnath failed in the Tests in the 1947-48 series. His highest score was a quick 46 in the fourth Test at Adelaide. Amarnath attributed his failure to over-bowling himself.
He acquitted himself creditably as a bowler against the world’s strongest batting lineup, Bradman, Arthur Morris, Lindsay Hassett, Sid Barnes, the mercurial fast-bowling all-rounder, Keith Miller, and the exceptionally talented youngster Neil Harvey.
As India captain, Lala was handicapped by a lack of Test-class bowlers. Apart from himself, the only other was the all-rounder Vinoo Mankad’s, slow left-arm orthodox spin. The fast-medium bowler and middle-order batsman, Dattu Phadkar “improved from match to match”, to quote Bradman. On one occasion Vijay Hazare, India’s most successful batsman—116 and 145 in the fourth Test at Adelaide—bowled well taking 4 for 29 on a rain-soaked pitch in the second Test at Sydney. Amarnath with his slow-medium to medium pace got 4 for 84 in 39 overs in the first Test at Brisbane. He took 4/78 off 21 and 3/52 in 20 at Melbourne in the third.
One thing about
Amarnath was his trouble with authority. He was sent back from England in 1936
by his captain the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram, a mediocre club-level dabbler
in cricket, for justifiably arguing with the umpire in a county match over a
decision that went blatantly in favour of the batsman. His problems in life and
cricket—one impinging upon the other—began from there. He performed with a
sparkle from time to time in Tests and in first-class cricket, abroad and at
home. But the anti-authoritarian streak, while adding a zing to his
personality, put him on a continuous collision course with the cricket
administration in India, a country still mired in feudalism though vociferously
espousing the cause of democracy.
Chandu Borde, a fine all-rounder who represented India in 55 Tests from 1958 to 1970 and, in old age, became chairman of the selection committee at BCCI (Board of Cricket Control in India) said in a telephone conversation that Lala was a very talented cricketer and served the country long and well, both as a player and chairman of the selection committee in latter years.
R G (Bapu) Nadkarni, another all-rounder who played for India from the late 1950s to 1970, and like Borde, was involved in several match-saving acts for India, is full of admiration for Amarnath. In his last international game, for the Bombay Cricket Association President’s XI in 1961 against the visiting Pakistanis, Lala scored scored 37 not out and 6 not out in a drawn match. He was 49.
Monetary security was a big thing for the financially harried cricketer. Was there, in retrospect, enough economic incentive to compensate for the dying down of the applause once the playing days were over, as there is now. Or was it something less tangible and more abstract, like the fruits of infrequent winning not tasting sweet enough? Professionals in the pre-Packer days made just enough money to lead a middle-class existence.
In 1946, he’d made a great impression as a bowler in a wet, cold English summer. As a batsman he could not do much, though he did make an authoritative fifty in a Test match when the chips were down. He finished with 13 wickets in the series—won 2-0 by England—including two five-wicket hauls. His last Test series was against Pakistan in 1952 in India. Lala led his team to a decisive 2-1 victory in a five-match series. Characteristically, he scored 61 (not out) in a losing match in Lucknow when Fazal Mahmood struck form and took 12 wickets and clinched it for Pakistan. He was 41 when the selectors stopped considering him for the national team.
Coming back to the core question from the maze of his career narrative, why didn’t Lala score another century in Test cricket? What prevented him? Pressure? Or hubris? “It’s a million-dollar question,’’ to quote Chandu Borde.
To take the story forward for a moment, five Indians in the “professional” era have scored hundreds on Test debut. Three flourished, while one is still struggling in the longer version, and one is long retired.
Mohammad Azharuddin made 110 on his first appearance against England at Delhi in the 1984-85 series and had 21 more centuries to his credit. Pravin Amre, described by Dennis Lillee as the best player of fast bowling, made 105 against South Africa in 1992. He never scored another. Sourav Ganguly, a stylish left-hander and highly successful captain, scored 131 at Lords on debut in 1996 and scored another 15 after that. The run-hungry Virender Sehwag made 105 at Bloemfontein against South Africa in 2001 and has blitzed every Test attack since then, scoring two triple centuries, a total of 22 till now. Suresh Raina played his first Test at Galle, scoring 120. He has not done anything since.
Only Azharuddin came in when Indian cricket had begun to pay a professional fee to the Test cricketers; the last three earned handsomely while still in their twenties. What allowed these three to do what six amateurs preceding them could not: Go on making centuries? Was it the confidence that comes with the promise of very large sums of money in the offing for success? What incentive did the amateur have to score another century after his debut-making one? The possibility of a job—G. R. Visvanath worked all his adult life for State Bank of India—in the public or private sector?
was a big thing for the financially harried cricketer. Was there, in
retrospect, enough economic incentive to compensate for the dying down of the
applause once the playing days were over, as there is now. Or was it something
less tangible and more abstract, like the fruits of infrequent winning not
tasting sweet enough?
Professional cricketers in the pre-Packer days made just enough money to lead a middle-class existence. Young people today see cricketers barely out of their teens making millions, driving luxury cars as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and find it hard to believe that Test cricketers in the past, including Lala Amarnath, were amateurs and dependent on other sources of income like government or private sector jobs.
Lala stayed in Patiala, under the watchful eye of his patron the Maharaja, till 1957. Then he came to Delhi, en famille, ostensibly as an employee of the Railways. His real job was to play cricket and he captained the Railways team effectively in Ranji Trophy for a number of years. He died in 2000 when not quite 90. Two of his sons played Test Cricket.
Surinder, like his father, also scored 118 on debut, against New Zealand. But he could not perform consistently despite obvious talent, and was unable to retain his place for long. His other son Mohinder Amarnath distinguished himself over 69 Test matches and was considered the finest player of fast bowling in the world by the great Pakistani fast bowler and captain, Imran Khan.
Like Lala, four other Indian Test batsmen scored a century on debut and faded away. So why and how did the careers of such talented cricketers come to an end so soon? Bapu Nadkarni puts his finger on one factor. In a telephone conversation, he says that in his time most of the selectors had never played cricket. They were there because of Class sorority. He says cricketers who had performed consistently over a long time in Ranji Trophy were never selected.
Those who did would declare “Hamara lottery nikal gaya. (We have won a lottery)’’.
Playing for India in the 1950s and 60s was as chancy as winning a lottery. Then, of course, there were different zonal cricketing lobbies, with one lobby having the upper hand in national selection.
There is the strange case of Roshan Harshadlal Shodhan better known as Deepak Shodhan. In cricketing circles he was known by his nickname, “Deepak’’. An attacking left-hand bat from Gujarat, he was picked to play Pakistan in 1952, after a fluent 89 not out for West Zone against the visitors. Batting at number 8, Shodhan scored 110, hitting two boundaries to reach his century and, on the way, putting on 40 for the last wicket with the off-spinner Ghulam Ahmed.
Selected for the tour
of the West Indies in 1953, Shodhan scored 45 and 11 in the first Test, missed
the next three due to injury, and came back in the last to score 15 not out,
batting at number 10 in the second innings to save the match. He never played
for India again.
It is said that the aggressive, selfish, Indian cricketing legend Vinoo Mankad had an eye on the captaincy. He asked the novice Shodhan whose side he was on. Was he with Hazare, the mild-mannered current captain or with him, Mankad? Shodhan replied he was with the Indian team. Perhaps that was why he never played again.
Shodhan played first-class cricket for Gujarat, and later Baroda, until 1962. He even toured East Africa in middle-age; a group photograph reveals a portly, smiling gentleman. He was lucky to have business interests, which, presumably, did not leave him much time to grieve over a promising career in Test cricket nipped in the bud.
intellectuals and politicians call India a country with an immense potential
despite immense poverty. There is a continuous waste of resources, and cricket
suffers all the time. The people who ran (and run) the game were monied folk
who considered cricketers their playthings. The late Pankaj Roy, a gutsy
opening batsman from the 1950s who played for India, said in an interview to a
Bengali sports magazine, “In our playing days the relationship between player
and board (BCCI) was servant and master.’’
When, occasionally, a cricketer made it to the board like the great Vijay Merchant or his senior L P Jai, they too seemed to be impervious to the needs of the cricketers representing India. Maybe Merchant and Jai were caught in a time warp and thought that the Maharajas still ran the game.
A G Kripal Singh was the talented, unfortunate son of an even more unfortunate and talented father. A G (Amritsar Govind) Ram Singh, a master left-arm orthodox spinner and batsman with a sound technique and even temper, never played for India. By his own admission, he was a victim of cricketing politics of his time. He was, in his prime, as great an all-rounder as his younger contemporary Vinoo Mankad.
After a scintillating beginning in Ranji Trophy, Kripal Singh scored 100 not out against the touring New Zealand side in 1955. He went to England in 1959, scored 178 against Lancashire in a county match. He made 41 with a broken finger in the second Test, battling the formidable pace duo of Fred Trueman and Brian Statham. Earlier, at home, he had scored a courageous 53 in the 4th Test at Madras against Wesley Hall and Roy Gilchrist of the West Indies, reckoned by many the fastest and most frightening pair of fast bowlers ever, even more than the Australian pair of Dennis Lillie and Jeff Thomson in the 1970s.
Kripal Singh was brought back for three Tests against England in India in 1961-62 series and then twice in the 1964-65 again versus England also, played in India like the one preceeding it. Kripal Singh, played mainly as an off-spinner in both series, did not do particularly well, though he did bowl economically and on occasion incisively.
His team mate, the excellent leg-spinner V V Kumar, also wronged by the selectors, and a long-time associate in the Madras, now Tamil Nadu, Ranji Trophy team remembers him thus in his old age: “We had a good chemistry even before college. He was very energetic and competitive. We played in 40 Ranji Trophy matches together. He was a clever captain. About his batting... he was one of the rare batsmen who specialised in on-side play. As an off-spinner, he didn’t spin the ball much. But he was a wily bowler and an adept partnership-breaker. As a man, he was social, free-mixing and highly articulate.”
It was his “articulateness” that proved to be his undoing with the selection committee. He always spoke his mind and did not suck up to board officials. Both Kripal Singh and Subhash Gupte, the brilliant leg-spinner, were dropped on disciplinary grounds because they had invited two young women to drinks at the bar of the Great Eastern Hotel, where the Indian team was staying. Gupte and Kripal Singh were asked to apologise for “outrageous” conduct. They refused, saying they had done nothing wrong in inviting the ladies. Moreover, as mature adults they knew how to conduct themselves. This was seen as mutiny by the feudal officials; neither Gupte nor Kripal Singh played for India again.
In the days before Australian billionaire Kerry Packer appeared on the scene
and started throwing largesse at the major but impecunious talents in the game,
during the World Series Cricket run by him from 1977 to 79—in defiance of the
Australian Cricket Board which did not award his television network, Channel
Nine, the rights to televise the series against England at home—Test cricketers
were poorly paid and had little protective gear. They had to face hostile and
even intimidating fast bowling, often on lively pitches.
Early Indian batsmen, including the debut century makers, had to contend with the likes of Hall, Gilchrist, Charlie Griffith, Andy Roberts, Mike Holding (West Indies), Trueman, Statham, Alan Moss, John Snow (England), Alan Davidson, Graeme Mckenzie, Jeff Thompson, Alan Pascoe, Rodney Hogg (Australia) on difficult wickets. That some of them got important runs against such opposition is worth celebrating; more so because the officials in their infinite wisdom decided that slow, dull pitches were/are best suited to the Indian batting genius!
Under such conditions, Test matches could last the full five days and bring in full houses even on a working day! This was particularly true in the pre-television days, when tickets were cheaper and therefore affordable. Test cricketers were paid a pittance and their real earnings came from other places, such as State Bank of India, or Associated Cement Companies in Bombay, which employed up to six Test cricketers from the West zone. Vijay Manjrekar, a technically correct batsman of high ability, was with Air India until his early death at 48.
Kripal Singh told Bishen Singh Bedi, the great left-arm spinner, that after India won a Test against New Zealand in three days, the BCCI asked the players to return `150 from the princely `350 that they had received as match allowance! Despite such humiliation, cricketers often gave their all just for the honour of playing for the country.
Abbas Ali Baig, a student at Oxford University, was commandeered in the cold, wet summer of 1959 to join the injury-hit, down-on-its-luck Indian team in England, led by Dattaji Rao Gaikwad, a prince from Baroda. Baig, just over 20, an aristocrat himself, from Hyderabad, was not awed at this early baptism. Trueman, a cultural racist, who thought most Indian batsmen in the pre-helmet days were made of pure blue funk and more of it, was deeply impressed with Baig’s batting. In a county match Baig scored 134 for Oxford against Yorkshire, Trueman’s county. He wrote in his autobiography, ‘’Abby Baig played fast bowling very well.’’
Baig scored 112 on debut against what was considered the strongest bowling attack in the world. He faced Trueman and his equally lethal colleague, the mild-mannered Brian Statham, with tremendous confidence, so much so that he inspired P. R. Umrigar, many years his senior, to score a courageous 118. It was the same Umrigar who had been taunted by Trueman as being frightened of pace when the Indians toured England in 1952. Veterans watching Baig were reminded of the glorious, stylish amateurs of pre-First World War vintage. The young man had restored the beauty of unfettered stroke play that belonged to a more expansive age.
Soon after, Baig was playing against the touring Australians led by Richie Benaud. They had just drubbed Peter May’s “invincible” Englishmen 4-0 in Australia. Baig made 9 and 14 at Delhi, in a match India lost by an innings. From childhood memory, this writer recalls a late-cut of unsurpassable beauty by Baig in the first innings off fast bowler Gordon Rourke, through a transfixed slip cordon.
In the second Test at Kanpur which India won through intelligent gamesmanship—the first turf was prepared to suit the talents of Jasu Patel, a slow-medium off-spinner recalled from the Lancashire League at the behest of Lala Amarnath—Baig did better; he made 36. He came into his own in the third at Bombay, scoring 50 and 58 against a top class attack comprising the great Alan Davidson, Ray Lindwall, past his prime but remembering enough of his quick-bowling craft to still be dangerous, Richie Benaud, and Lindsay Kline, an often dangerous spinner. A young woman rushed out from the pavilion to kiss the returning Baig, both for his elegance at the crease and away from it.
He then returned to Oxford for his studies and took no further part against Benaud’s Australians. He returned to play Pakistan some months later in the 1960-61 series. He played three Tests and in the third went for 19 after suggesting a welcome return to form. In the second innings he scored just 1. The same Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram who did his damndest to derail Lala’s career, was in the commentary box. He went on and on about how Baig had thrown away his wicket needlessly innings.
Baig lost his place and returned six years later to play against the West Indies. In the first Test at Bombay, he scored a duck in the first innings but came back with flair in the second, scoring freely off Hall and Griffith and Gary Sobers, captain, and arguably the finest cricketer ever. Sobers suddenly brought on his cousin David Holford, the leg-spinning all-rounder and Baig, said to be vulnerable against spin was gone for 42. He went to Calcutta for the second Test, scoring 4 and 6. That was his last Test appearance.
Chandu Borde says of him: “A lot was expected of him. The way he started revealed tremendous potential. He had a lot of knowledge about the game. His century at Manchester was exquisite.’’
All Sport, when practised by a truly gifted person, can and does attain the level of art with a capital “A”. Lala Amarnath, Abbas Ali Baig, and Hanumant Singh, in their moments of glory, were the equals of those greats who strode the worlds of literature, music, the plastic arts and the performing arts. So what if they did it only once. J D Salinger’s masterpiece was The Catcher in the Rye (1951); Nine Stories (1953) came closest in quality, and in metaphorical terms, could be compared with Hanumant Singh’s 94 against Australia at Madras in 1965. Joseph Heller, an American like Salinger, also wrote one enduring book, Catch – 22. When asked if he had written anything as good since, he replied testily, “Has anyone?” It would be difficult for a cricketer to respond with such caustic wit because his art, despite the advent of television, is ephemeral, much like that of the clown.
Hanumant Singh, a princeling from Banswara in Rajasthan, made his Test debut in Delhi against Mike Smith’s touring Englishmen in 1964-65. He made 105, announcing his arrival in international cricket with real style. Those days, there was a superstition that those who made a century on debut would never repeat the feat, that is, until G. R. Visvanath came along and laid that bogey to rest. After him, came Mohammad Azharuddin, who scored consecutive centuries in his first three Tests. But that was much later, not in the mid-Sixties.
Hanumant Singh perhaps was conscious of the pressure and therefore tried to hit a six to get his second hundred against Bobby Simpson’s Australians in the first Test at Madras. He failed, being caught by Norman O’Neill just inside the boundary line. Indian cricket lore has it that from then on his amazing batting talent had been shackled; a fact not strictly true because he had two scores in the seventies and a fifty after that in Test cricket.
In the 3rd Test at Bombay, against New Zealand in the 1964-65 series, he made 75 not out; and 82 in the fourth at Delhi. Against the West Indies in in 1966-67, he scored a single 50, in the final match at Madras. He went to England in Pataudi’s team in 1967. His 73 in the second innings of the first Test at Leeds was considered a beauty. Connoisseurs found it more satisfying than either Ajit Wadekar’s gallant 91 or Pataudi’s fighting 148. He failed in the next two Tests and never played for India again. Death came suddenly in Mumbai in 2006 after an attack of dengue.
Borde and Nadkarni speak of him with great affection and respect. Borde, who had been praying when contacted on a Sunday morning in Pune, was available for comment on the second attempt. He said in his gentle, straightforward manner, “He was technically very sound and quite an artistic player, eager to get more and more runs for his team. He knew a lot about the technicalities of the game.’’
Nadkarni was in the bath the same Sunday morning. Half-an-hour later, he spoke with genuine emotion. “Hanumant Singh was one of the saddest examples of apathy on part of the Indian selectors. He was a lovely cricketer. He had the stamp of a real champion.” Those who saw Hanumant Singh in his prime, would readily agree, more so because they are, even in their late seventies, a part of Indian cricket, ever appreciative of new talent that is blossoming with such regularity.
All the cricketers mentioned in this article were amateurs. Lala Amarnath, in his forties, found employment with the Railways, Shodhan was a businessman, Kripal Singh worked a long time with Parry’s in Madras, Abbas Ali Baig was with Fenners till he branched out on his own, Hanumant Singh was a senior executive with State Bank of India. Cricket in their time was played for the pleasure it brought, and of course to win, but seldom at the expense of pleasure. Many today feel that the game was not played seriously enough. There was for example a rest day in a five-day Test match, adding an extra day to the proceedings.
gladiatorial after the money started flooding in. Since the players, mostly in
their early or middle-twenties, are paid very large sums of money, especially
in the shorter versions of the game—50-Over and now 20-Over— it’s considered
all right to squeeze the last drop of blood out of them. How could you waste an
extra day on rest in a triviality like a five-day Test? The fielding today, is
of course, far more agile, the players train really hard but still remain
injury-prone. In the old days players lasted much longer because they did not
play cricket throughout the year. There are as many great cricketers these days
as they were in the past. But do they give the sheer unalloyed pleasure that
players from another age gave? Jacques Kallis is worthy of boundless admiration
for his consistent performances with bat and ball but is he worthy of love? He is,
metaphorically speaking, the prime example of a “super efficient executive in a
giant industrial conglomerate”. Cricket today is played with machine-like
efficiency. It has neither soul nor poetry.
The Indian centurions discussed belonged to a more leisurely age and had the time and the inclination to play with grace and lyricism to celebrate a passing moment.