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A maharajah, a firebrand allrounder, a furore. The controversy that overshadowed India's 1936 tour of England
July 28, 2007
Much of the blame for that rests with the egotistical and untalented captain, the Maharajah of Vizianagram, universally known as Vizzy, whose appointment was entirely down to his social manoeuvring and deep pockets. He was to prove a disastrous choice, culminating in one of the most shameful incidents in Indian cricketing history when Lala Amarnath was sent home before the first Test on disciplinary grounds.
Cracks started appearing in the squad from the off, largely because of Vizzy's desperately poor captaincy on the field - it was so bad that even the reserved British press commented on it - and his underhand divide-and-rule strategy off it.
Tensions had been mounting in the side, and by mid-June there were distinct factions who barely talked to each other. By the time the Indians played Minor Counties at Lord's, the level of unrest and distrust was at breaking point.
Amarnath had been carrying a back injury for a few games but had not been allowed to rest. At Lord's he was asked to pad up and then forced by Vizzy to sit as a succession of other batsmen were sent in ahead of him. He eventually got his turn minutes before the close, and clearly angry, when he returned to the changing room he made clear his anger, throwing his kit into his bag and muttering, in Punjabi, "I know what is transpiring." Many of the squad, including Vizzy and Major Jack Brittain-Jones, the manager, did not speak Punjabi, but versions of the story spread. Amarnath was sent for and handed a letter signed by several team-mates demanding action. Jones told him he was being sent home.
Several senior players spoke to Vizzy and demanded that the action be reversed, but they were unsuccessful. The following evening Jones tersely informed Amarnath, who had concluded his innings at Lord's that morning, that he had to be out of hotel room by the following afternoon and that he had been booked on a boat to return to India. "I was sure my cricketing career was over," Amarnath recalled. "Everything seemed like a bad dream."
If Amarnath expected a hostile reception on his return home, he was to be surprised. The Indian public were angry at the way the incident had been handled. Amarnath was, after all, the leading allrounder and at the time of his expulsion had made 613 runs at 32.26, including three hundreds, and taken 32 wickets at 20.87. Pressure grew for him to be sent back to England.
Jones' decision had also galvanised those among the tour party who opposed Vizzy's dictatorial leadership and senior players, led by CK Nayudu, demanded a change of captain and a say in the team selection. Vizzy refused to stand down but made concessions in other areas.
Amarnath, on board the Kaiser-i-Hind, was unaware of moves at home by the Nawab of Bhopal, the board president, to have him intercepted en route and sent back to England. Bhopal's stance was that if Amarnath apologised, he should rejoin the party. Vizzy and Jones refused to entertain the idea.
The English establishment closed ranks - Vizzy was, after all, as establishment as you could get, underlined by the fact that later during the tour, on July 15, he was knighted at Buckingham Palace. (His absence allowed Nayudu to lead the side, which he did successfully, taking seven wickets as the Indians beat Lancashire.)
The opening Test at Lord's was little short of a disaster for India who were twice bowled out cheaply to lose by nine wickets. Vizzy was at his Machiavellian worst. It is said he offered Mushtaq Ali a gold watch to run out Vijay Merchant, while later Baqa Jilani reportedly won his only Test cap at The Oval because he insulted Nayudu at the breakfast table.
On July 9 the Kaiser-i-Hind docked in Bombay and thousands turned out to greet Amarnath, but board officials ushered him away before he could speak. Within 48 hours Associated Press announced that Amarnath was on his way back to England and would play in the second Test. The response among the public was joy, and even the Indian squad, including some who had signed the original letter of complaint, was said to be happy. Amarnath still had to face the Nawab of Bhopal, but that was expected to be a formality.
An investigation, the Beaumont Committee, was established by the Nawab of Bhopal and it ruled that while indiscipline would not be tolerated, "the method of punishment was incorrect". But it added that no decision had been made regarding Amarnath's reinstatement, although by then 12 of India's 17 provincial associations backed the move - even if, as expected, it would result in the resignation of the captain and manager - and it was, in effect, a done deal. Vizzy, meanwhile, was using his political contacts, most notably Lord Willingdon, the former viceroy of India, to sway the establishment in his favour. What's more, Brittain-Jones had been on Willingdon's staff in India.
Amarnath was ready to return - his packed trunk had already been sent on to be shipped back to England - when the Nawab of Bhopal received a bombshell in the form of a cable from Whitehall ordering him not to send Amarnath back. The threats to his position as ruler of Bhopal were quite clear. He had no choice but to back down. Willingdon's tireless behind-the-scenes networking had reaped dividends.
Amarnath was sent a cable which left him "devastated". So late had the reversal come that his baggage had already left on the mail boat. The Nawab of Bhopal later called to explain the reasoning behind the decision, but Amarnath decided not to hold back. Even though he had been banned from speaking out, he met with the press and told all, including admitting that he had signed a letter of apology as demanded by Jones. "I was asked to admit my guilt before any enquiry was made," he said.
The full enquiry only came at the end of the tour when all members of the squad were questioned on arrival home. Vizzy returned to India alone, accompanied by the Indian hockey team which had just won an Olympic gold at Berlin.
In January 1937 the Beaumont Committee handed its report to the Indian board, which deliberated on it in secret. However so much interest had been generated that it was decided by ten votes to seven to make it public. Vizzy was savaged, his on-field captaincy described as "disastrous". The report continued: "He did not understand field placings or bowling changes and never maintained any regular batting order."
Team selection was also slammed. "The good players remained idle for weeks together." Phiroze Palia, who played in the first Test, was not given another first-class outing for two months. Dattaram Hindlekar, the first-choice wicketkeeper-opener, also played at Lord's but was replaced by Dilawar Hussain who had not been picked in the original squad.
Amarnath was found not guilty of the charges laid by the captain and manager and was completely exonerated. Furthermore, steps were immediately taken to ensure that never again would such power be vested in so few officials on tour. For Vizzy, the role he had purchased using money and influence had turned into a personal nightmare. He never played serious cricket again and withdrew from the game for almost two decades.
He returned in the 1950s as a politician, administrator and broadcaster. He was a far from universally popular commentator, with accusations of pomposity and dullness to the fore. The story is told of how he was once discussing tiger shooting (and he claimed to have bagged more than 300), lecturing on how it was done. "Really," said Rohan Kanhai, one of those present, "I thought you just left a transistor radio on when you were commentating and bored them to death."
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Lala Amarnath Life and Times: The Making of a Legend by Rajinder Amarnath (SportsBooks Ltd., 2007)
Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo.Feeds: Martin Williamson
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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