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The 'LALA' of Indian Cricket

New Delhi, Sun, 06 Jan 2008 Kamlesh Thapliyal

India recorded their first Test victory against Pakistan under the captaincy of Lala Amarnath who also scored India 's first Test century. This historic Test was held at Feroz Shah Kotla ground, Delhi on October 16, 1952. India trounced Pakistan by an innings and 70 runs in that Test. Legendary cricketer A.H. Kardar led Pakistan . India won the five matches Test series 2-1.

Lala Amarnath, a unique cricket personality of the sub-continent, was well-known for his on the field and outside tussles with players, officials, controversial statements and dictatorial attitude.

Whenever cricket lovers, officials and cricketers of yesteryears discuss cricket of their era Lala's deeds, on and off the field, were of the main topics. Nanik Amarnath Bhardwaj was born in a middle class Brahmin family in Kapurthala but remained, or rather became famous, with his pseudonym ‘LALA' throughout his life. Cricket lovers of Patiala , where he started playing the game, gave the prefix to him. He was named ‘LALA' since he had ‘potbelly' which was synonymous with the local ‘Banias' called ‘Lalas'.

Lala's cricketing fame and the tag of ‘Bad Boy' of Indian Cricket went hand in hand. He became the first Indian to score a ‘ton' in his debut Test against Douglas Jardine's M.C.C. team in 1933-34 Test series in Bombay . Two years later on his first tour to England , under the captainship of Maharaj Kumar of Vijaynagaram (Famous as ‘Vizzy') he didn't get along well with the team management. He was packed off to India on disciplinary grounds midway through the tour by the captain and manager of the team (An English man).

Lala Amarnath led India in 15 Tests and was the first Indian to captain the national team in ten Test matches in a row. He had the distinction of playing and leading five states in the Ranji Trophy, the National cricket championship.

Many people in the cricketing fraternity might not have liked Lala personally but even his bitter rivals acknowledged his knowledge of cricket. Pakistan 's cricket officials and players knew that his knowledge was vast. But stories were in circulation that whatever suggestions he gave them, they were suspicious, The Pak officials sometimes did the opposite of what ‘Lala' suggested and it later boomeranged on them.

This writer came to know him very closely when he joined Railways as we lived close in the vicinity of Karnail Singh Railways Stadium. His dictatorial attitude, and some of the cricketing tactics used by him had earned him bad name or negative results but he didn't bother about them.

The Railways played their inaugural Ranji Trophy match in 1958 under his captaincy against Services, led by another cricket's astute brain, former Indian captain Hemu Adhikari. Lala prepared the wicket suiting to his style of bowling for the match. The Services were put into bat and were soon in trouble. They lost quick early wickets but Adhikari, sent his tailenders and held back his regular batsmen. The Services after lunch batted on an improved wicket and scored more than 200 runs before being all out.

The Railways then got their own dose of medicine and were bundled out for their lowest total of 33 runs, till today. The wrecker-in-chief of Railways' innings was former Indian fast bowler Surinder Nath. Thus Hemu Adhikari outwitted Lala in his own game and the Railways were humiliated in their Ranji debut match under the leadership of a person known as the shrewdest captain in the country.

An example of Lala's dictatorial behaviour can be cited when he led Rest of India against Ranji champion Bombay in the inaugural ‘Irani Cup' match in March in 1960. In this match not only Lala but even umpires of the overlooked the laws of cricket. Lala got injured during the match. He sent Delhi 's Prem Bhatia, who was nominated 12th man of the Rest of India team, to bat in his place.

According to cricket rules a 12th man can only field. Bombay skipper Poly Umrigar, after Bhatia reached at the wicket, took him back to the pavilion and asked Lala “skipper you want him to bat”. Lala simply said, “YES” and Umrigar, fully aware that Lala happened to be the chairman of the national selection committee, brought Bhatia back to the crease and allowed him to bat.

Lala had a knack of selling ‘dummies' to the correspondents. He told a well-known cricket reporter of a national daily that a Railway athlete was a fast bowling prospect for the Indian team that was to tour England in 1959. This reporter was an ardent “Bhakt” of Lala for decades till they parted company in late seventies.

This reporter used to mention this athlete, R.S. Chowhan, a well-known thrower, in his dispatches about Lala's new finds. The athlete got a rude shock when about “Fifty” probables for the tour were announced but his name was not among them.

The athlete, who was being compared with famous fast bowler Mohammed Nissar, had to say goodbye even to his athletics career, as he suffered injury while working hard during bowling practice.

This writer always had frank and fearless discussion with Lala Amarnath. Once I told him that we are very grateful to Pakistan cricket for getting rid of our Indian Test cricket captains. He asked how and was convinced only when I gave him the statistics. He was the first victim. He won us the first ever Test series 2-1 against Pakistan as captain but in the 1952 tour of England , Vijay Hazare replaced Lala as captain.

Similarly Vinoo Mankad who led in the 1954-55 tour to Pakistan , Bishan Singh Bedi in 1978-79, Gundappa Vishwanath in 1979-80 and K. Srikkanth in 1989-90 had to abdicate as captains after Pak tours.

Lala had to wait for national honours for 39 years after his retirement from Test cricket in 1952 although many cricketers, during this period, got national honour for lesser achievements. Lala Amarnath, who from 1933 to 1952 played 24 Tests and led the country in 15 Test matches, finally got ‘Padam Bhushan' in 1991.

He scored 878 runs with an average of 24.38 that had one ton and four half-centuries. He also bagged 45 wickets. His best being 5 for 96 runs. Lala played 5 Test matches against Pakistan and his best score was unbeaten 61.

Lala Amarnath had a unique distinction of being the father of two sons who represented the country in cricket. Surinder and Mohinder played for the country while his youngest son Rajinder played in Ranji Trophy.

Mohinder popularly known as ‘Jimmy' played a stellar role in India winning the World Cup in 1983. Mohinder's sterling performances were in the semi-final against England and in the final against West Indies at the historic Lords. He was the man of the match in that historic win.

In his old age Lala was not keeping good health. Once when he was discharged from the hospital, he pestered the sports scribes to let him read the ‘obit' these correspondents had prepared when he was hospitalised.

Lala Amarnath born on 11th September 1911 breathed his last on 5th August 2002 at the age of 88 years and 11 months. Lala had the unique distinction of representing and leading five states in Ranji Trophy - Punjab, Gujarat, Patiala , Uttar Pradesh and Railways.

Lala Amarnath scored India 's first Test century and went on to become Indian captain, selector, manager, coach and broadcaster. He is truly the Lala of Indian cricket as no other cricketer from the current crop also could ever come close to match his calibre.

* The writer is a well-known Sports Journalist. He is a treasure trove for sports anecdotes

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