Polly Umrigar dies at 80 November 7, 2006

Bookmarking eras

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Polly Umrigar: a supporter of leaders rather than a leader himself © Mid-Day

Pahlan 'Polly' Umrigar played more Tests and scored more runs than any other Indian till Sunil Gavaskar erased all such batting records a couple of decades later. Umrigar, who scored the first Indian double century, 223 at Hyderabad against New Zealand, held the record for the highest score by an Indian abroad, 252 not out against Oxford University. He bowled fast offbreaks from his six-foot frame, and claimed four second-innings wickets including those of Neil Harvey and Norman O'Neill when India beat Australia for the first time, at Kanpur in 1959-60.

Umrigar exuded cleanliness; he wore the clean, uncomplicated look of a man who had nothing to hide. His batting too was clean and uncomplicated; he left the subtlety to those suppler of wrist and quicker of eye. With Umrigar what he saw was what you got.

Umrigar was important both as a player who just missed having a significant era of Indian cricket named after him, as well as a link which connected two generations of Indian batsmen. His second Test was Vijay Merchant's last, and his final one was played under the emerging star Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. He brought to his batting the Bombay seriousness of the Merchant-Hazare school as well as the lightness of the Pataudi generation.

His unbeaten 172 in his penultimate Test at Port-of-Spain came in four hours and was made out of the last 230 runs. This followed an innings of 56 after India were 30 for 5 in the first innings; he also had five wickets in an innings. Only Vinoo Mankad before him had done something similar, but that feat is better remembered probably because there were better cricket writers in England than in the West Indies.

Umrigar started his career helping his skipper Hazare add 90, and in this Test he helped the younger Pataudi add 94. It summed up the value of Umrigar - as a supporter of leaders rather than a leader himself, as a bookmark of eras rather than their creator. Pataudi has written about how, when he was unexpectedly made captain in the West Indies at the age of 21, he "turned for help to Polly Umrigar, and this veteran proved an invaluable counselor and friend."

In between, Umrigar led India in eight Tests himself, but in the 1950s Indian cricket was at a low ebb with more captains, more drawn games and greater chances of fans deserting the game in droves than in any other decade. Umrigar had to play the dual role of holding it all together as well as taking batsmanship forward. It began well for him with an unbeaten century in India's first-ever Test win against England, but when India toured that country, Fred Trueman haunted him so badly he finished with an average of 6.14 in seven innings. Seven years later, he returned to score a century against Trueman and company at Old Trafford, but the damage had been done, and he could never live down the image of the batsman who backed away to fast bowling.

This, despite the fact that he topped the averages against the West Indies thrice, making two centuries in the 1953 series where he got to a century in Port-of-Spain with a six. Pakistani bowlers too felt the power of Umrigar's blade consistently, especially in the 1960-61 series where he made three centuries. In all he finished with 12 centuries from 59 Tests and 3631 runs at an average of 42.22. In first class cricket his 16,155 runs came at an average of 52.28; he claimed 325 wickets besides.

After his playing days, Umrigar served as the chairman of the selection committee, executive secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and as a curator at the Wankhede Stadium. He also managed Indian teams to New Zealand, Australia and the West Indies.

Suresh Menon is a cricket writer based in Bangalore