August 6, 2000

The many `avatars' of Lala Amarnath

A dynamic and energetic personality like Lala Amarnath could never have been happy at just playing the game. Sure, he was one of the greatest cricketers the country has produced, capable of doing everything by combining style and substance - batting, bowling, fielding, captaining and even keeping wickets. But could a multifaceted character like him be totally away from the game once his playing career was over?

Not on your life. And it was but fitting that Amarnath continued to don many roles till a few years before his death. He had adorned the international scene for almost 20 years and his first class career stretched for over three decades. But for another 30 years or so after he played his last Test in 1952, Indian cricket was fortunate in having a very active Amarnath gracing the scene in many `avatars.'

The first such role came just two years after his international career was over. In 1954-55 he was appointed manager of the first Indian team to tour Pakistan. From all accounts, he proved to be an excellent manager. In the first place, he had personal knowledge of the country since he had frequently played there in pre-independence days. This included unofficial Test matches at Lahore. Secondly he had played alongside Pakistan cricketers like Amir Elahi and Abdul Hafeez Kardar who had represented India. He was affable and diplomatic and if the tour was a success, a lot of the credit went to Amarnath.

At about the same time, Amarnath was a selector and in 1955 he became chairman of the selection committee. He had definite ideas of the future belonging to the youth and took no time in giving youngsters their big break. In the five Test series against New Zealand in 1955-56, Amarnath gave Test caps to as many as eight new players - Kripal Singh, VN Swamy, Nari Contractor, RG Nadkarni, SR Patil, Vijay Mehra, CT Patankar and GR Sundaram. Again in the 1958-59 series against West Indies, Amarnath tried out eight more new caps - CG Borde, Ghulam Guard, MS Hardikar, Ramnath Kenny, R Surendranath, VB Ranjane, AK Sen Gupta and RB Desai. For the tour of England in 1959, VM Muddiah, ML Jaisimha and Arvind Apte were the new players and the last two were capped during the series. He continued this youth policy against Australia in 1959-60 and among those to earn India caps were Muddiah, BK Kunderan, Salim Durrani, MM Sood and AG Milkha Singh.

Not unexpectedly, his five year tenure as chairman was marked by many eventful happenings. The seamier side came about when India went down to three successive defeats to the West Indies in 1958-59 and some of the selections were criticised. Amarnath defended himself very well pointing out that merit was the only criteria for picking the players and he challenged his detractors to prove there were other reasons. It was a typical Amarnath retort. Of course the masterstroke of his stint was the playing of Jasu Patel against Australia at Kanpur in 1959-60. Knowing the Green Park wicket like the back of his hand, Amarnath picked Patel who had last played against Australia at Bombay more than three years before. To say that his selection even in the 14 was unexpected is an understatement. And while general opinion was that Kripal Singh would be in the final eleven, Amarnath decided on Patel - and the rest, as the cliche goes, is history. The 35-year-old Gujarat off spinner bowled India to a famous victory by taking 14 wickets and Amarnath's tactical genius was freely acknowledged.

His heart still with the young, Amarnath by 1960 became a coach cum promoter of the game and that year took a team of Indian Starlets to Pakistan. Amongst those to benefit from the experience were Vijay Mehra, Kunderan, Milkha Singh, Sood, VV Kumar, Abbas Ali Baig and Jaisimha. By now he had also became a well known coach in New Delhi and this was one more role he donned to serve Indian cricket.

To a later generation, who were too young to see him play, Amarnath was a familiar face and voice in his role of an expert commentator. For newspapers, over the radio and on TV, Amarnath regaled readers and audiences with his shrewd analysis and perceptive observations on the game and the players. He still had an uncanny knowledge of how a pitch would behave and I remember one occasion vividly. This was during the first Test of the 1969-70 series against New Zealand at Bombay. New Zealand, needing 188 runs for victory, were 12 for one at close on the fourth day. The following day was the rest day. While almost every writer and analyst went on to predict a New Zealand victory, Amarnath was the only one to write that India would win and even mentioned the margin. Well, India did win and by a margin not very far from what Amarnath had predicted. That symbolised both his vast experience and cricketing acumen. Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, he regaled a new generation in his last cricketing `avatar' of an expert commentator.

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