Lala Amarnath

The commoner's colossus

KN Prabhu
A Lahore urchin, Lala Amarnath grew to walk with princes, but never lost sight of his roots

I am aware Lala Amarnath was not popular among his contemporaries, and the lesser men who followed chose to remember him as the "stormy petrel" of Indian cricket. But before he achieved this notoriety he won hearts as the "Kapurthala Kid".

This was in the early thirties. It was Amarnath who sparked my interest in cricket with his century against MCC for southern Punjab, followed by another rousing hundred against Douglas Jardine's side in India's first home Test, in Bombay in 1933. It was on his first tour of England, in 1936, that he earned the dubious distinction of being regarded as a maverick. But all our sympathies were with him. How could one ignore his 613 runs and his 32 wickets at 20.78 runs apiece when you compare them to the dismal record of his adversaries in the team, especially the captain, the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram, whose only role seemed to be to fan dissent?

The Beaumont Committee report generally absolved Amarnath of much of the blame for acts which had wrecked that tour - to the consolation of many of his followers in Madras, where he was soon to play some of his finest innings.

I followed everything that was written about Amarnath in this period, from EHD Sewell's assessment of him as a better prospect than even Duleepsinhji, to Jardine's confession that he had found it difficult to set a field to restrict him. So it was with some regret that I saw him fail as a batsman in the 1938 "Test" in Madras against Lord Tennyson's team.

While Amarnath went on to collect runs in the Bombay Pentangular and elsewhere, I had to wait till the end of the Second World War to witness him at his best. As I watched him take the Australian Services spinners apart in the 1945 "Test" in Madras, I realised why Lord Willingdon, in his striped pants and frock coat, had gone to the boundary's edge at the Kotla earlier in that tour to stretch a gloved hand to greet Amarnath after he had played an innings of rare style and beauty. Old-timers at Chepauk to this day remember how Amarnath thumped one of the spinners into the pavilion and the ball rolled down the steps taking each step one at a time.

The other memorable century I watched him score was against South Zone. Six all-India wickets were down for some 60 runs on a difficult wicket on which Ghulam Ahmed made the ball turn and rise steeply. After a diffident start Amarnath set about the bowling. He played every stroke in the book. It was perhaps the best innings to have been played at Chepauk, set to rank with Mahadevan Sathasivam's double-century for the Sri Lankans against a Tamil Nadu side, and the 90-some runs made by Gundappa Viswanath against West Indies in 1975.

Amarnath was at his best playing the cover drive, which he did with no follow-through. There was a masculine touch about his batting, his power-packed wrists and massive forearms providing the motive force for the pull, hook and square cut.

One expected Amarnath to be among the tall scorers in England in 1946 but the runs never came. He seemed upset by the injury he sustained mistiming a hook off Reg Perks in the opening match. But he was to prove that he was just as good a bowler as ever. There were times when he looked as if he could have overthrown England on his own. But he lacked someone like Ghulam Ahmed to support him. RC Robertson-Glasgow wrote in the Observer that his memory of the Tests would be of "Amarnath, with his odd, hopping run, baffling the best of England with his subtleties of swerve."

There was often more drama than cricket when Amarnath was involved. His second stint as captain was a crown of thorns. All his Australian performances were forgotten, including his magnificent scores in the state matches and Don Bradman's personal tribute to him. His records against West Indies too were ignored in the vituperative campaign launched against him by some national newspapers. One seasoned writer invariably chose to refer to him as the "swashbuckling substitute captain of India". I had to report for the Times, which was in the forefront of the campaign against him, but he always treated me with courtesy and kindness.

It was after his retirement that I came to know the man and the player better. He loved the game and devoted most of his time to encouraging the young and deserving. Before the 1961 Pakistanis left India, Amarnath had discovered a match-winner in legspinner Vaman Kumar, a bowler who came close to winning India the final Test in Delhi, but whom the authorities failed to encourage. And there was no denying Lala's ability to spot weakness in players; in 1959, famously, he saw the Australians fumble against offspin and chose Jasu Patel for the Kanpur Test.

Amarnath's commitment to the game would have been apparent to the casual visitor to his residence on Panchquin Road. Here he laid a pitch and held nets for the Railways players he was employed to coach. He also took his sons Surinder and Mohinder under his wing and groomed them into Test players. He helped encourage ML Jaisimha, Farokh Engineer and other young talent on a Colts tour of Pakistan.

He was a generous, hospitable host and great raconteur. I shall never forget the frosty, cold evening in the fifties we spent with him at his training camp in Chail in the Simla Hills. He spoke entertainingly about his tour with Pataudi senior's team, when he and Mushtaq Ali had taken the mickey out of his captain. As I glanced through the photos of the past that lay on the table, I thought of the urchin from the Lahore streets who had grown to walk with princes - for among his friends and well-wishers were such worthy men as C Rajagopalachari, then Governor General, and Sir Robert Menzies, premier of Australia - and had not lost the common touch. Truly, Amarnath was Indian cricket's great commoner.

This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2004