Suresh Parekh recalls a pair of Indian pace-bowling brothers, with talent and charisma to burn, whose enormous potential was tragically never to be fulfilled at the highest level...
Tall and heavily built with broad, powerful shoulders, Amar Singh, who played in India's first ever Test at Lord's in 1932, and the one who could have become the undisputed champion of fast bowling in the history of Indian cricket, died prematurely at the age of 29. His elder brother, Ramji, another firebrand of a fast bowler, played only one Test for India due to politics and the egos of Indian royal personalities.
Amar Singh was in a class of his own. His distinctive all-round abilities were the stuff of folklore. Ramji, on the other hand, could hardly bat but, as a genuine fast bowler, he was a terror; they were the sort of cricketers who could walk into any side of their time. The two fast bowlers had close relationships with royalty, yet both of them suffered a lot at the hands of those who ran Indian cricket.
Amar Singh's performances in domestic cricket were so sublime that his selection and inclusion for India's debut Test at Lord's in 1932 was inevitable. But those were the days of the Maharajas and Ramji had fallen foul of one of them. The wrath of the King fell on the brothers. Amar Singh's name was included only at the eleventh hour thanks to a noble job of negotiation by Kumar Duleepsinhji. And what a selection it turned out to be. From a short run-up, he generated lightning speed with swing and accuracy which, in partnership with Mahomed Nissar, bewildered the hardened English professional cricketers. He took the wickets of the legendary Walter Hammond, Herbert Sutcliffe and Leslie Ames, and in Hammond's view, 'came off the wicket like the crack of the doom'.
Amar Singh made 51 in the second innings, India's highest score, and added 74 with Lall Singh for the eighth wicket in just 40 minutes against Bill Voce, Bill Bowes, Freddie Brown, Hammond and Walter Robins. The entire tour was memorable as he finished with 111 wickets at an average of 20.78.
Amar Singh went on to play only seven Tests for India, taking 28 wickets at 30.64 with a strike-rate of a wicket every 63 balls. His best series was against England when Douglas Jardine's side came to India in 1933/34. At Madras, he took 7 for 86 in 44.4 overs in the first innings and finished the three-Test series with 14 wickets. He also hit an explosive 48 at Madras having been promoted to number four, which helped him to become established as a true all-rounder.
This was the same series in which elder brother Ramji made his debut at the Gymkhana Ground in Bombay. In that match, India paraded three genuine fast bowlers in Nissar, Amar Singh and Ramji - a sight rarely seen since.
Whilst Amar Singh achieved greater fame than the brother 10 years his senior, those who saw the brothers bowl rated Ramji the quicker, a more hostile and accomplished fast bowler. Amar Singh had the fast bowler's aggression but was capable of remaining cool and composed; Ramji was highly temperamental and believed that batsmen were there to be dismissed or to be bloodied. He used to tell members of his family that he believed Amar Singh to be a soft bowler who allowed batsmen to score runs off his bowling, but that he would never allow that.
Ramji invited the wrath of the Maharajas with his outspoken views and awesome fast bowling which they just could not play. One of Ramji's early victims was the Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, the power broker in Indian cricket in those days. Bhupinder Singh wanted his bowlers to bowl as he instructed, so that he could score a few runs easily. While other bowlers obliged with lollipops, Ramji continued to bowl along his normal lines. This infuriated the Maharaja and the umpires. Fielders started dropping catches while umpires turned down lbw appeals and kept on calling no-balls whenever stumps were uprooted. Ramji was so fed up that he brought out his most potent weapon and bowled a vicious bouncer, the likes of which the Maharaja had never faced.
Ramji was asked to leave the kingdom, but not for the first time. Once, the Maharaja of Porbandar had invited a club team from England to play a few friendly matches. Ramji and Amar Singh too were invited to play for the home team. The Maharaja had specifically instructed Ramji not to injure anyone as the English were their guests. On an easy-paced wicket the visitors made more than 150 without loss before lunch. But the jamsaheb of Nawanagar (now jamnagar), who had been invited to watch the match, instructed Ramji to bowl a few short-pitched deliveries, if only to create fear in their minds.
The moment the new ball was taken, Ramji was a different bowler. One of his deliveries rose unexpectedly from a length to hit the batsman on the chest and he fell to the ground. He was taken back on a stretcher and was hospitalised in Porbandar before being shifted to Bombay for better treatment. After regaining some health he was sent to England where he died a few days later.
The incident upset the Maharaja of Porbandar. He ordered Ramji to leave and threatened that if he was seen again in future, he would be shot at. This incident took place in the 1926/27 season and Ramji never returned to Porbandar except on one occasion in 1945 when Viceroy Hencock donated the Hencock Cup in Rajkot. Ramji, along with Amar Singh's nine-year-old son, Vijay Nakum, went to Porbandar to extend the invitation of inaugurating the cup. When the message was sent to the Maharaja, the reply came promptly: 'Go away, I just don't want to see you.' When a second message was sent that Amar Singh's son had also come, the Maharaja called young Vijay only. Ramji instucted Vijay how to talk to the Maharaja and to give the invitation.
The Maharaja was happy to see Amar Singh's son and, while accepting the invitation, asked if Vijay would bowl a few deliveries at him. But His Highness remained adamant that he would not see Ramji. When he came to Rajkot again, the Maharaja paid absolutely no attention to Ramji and called Vijay to bowl at him as had been promised.
Against Arthur Gilligan's team in 1925/26, Ramji had bowled frighteningly fast. At Ajmer, he bowled so fast and menacingly on a matting wicket that Gilligan had to request that Ramji be taken off so as to prevent further injury to his late-order batsmen.
Ramji's only Test came against England at Bombay but he did not enjoy much success. He was used in short spells, conceding 64 runs in 23 overs in the first innings without taking a wicket, and was not required to bowl in the second innings. He had bowled well and impressed all who saw him but wickets eluded him. His seemingly unimpressive performance was a temporary setback, however, and he was soon terrorising batsmen again. But the much awaited Test recall never came.
The Jamsaheb of Nawanagar had a very special relationship with the brothers and gave them jobs with the condition that they need not worry about attending all the time. The Jamsaheb also offered them a large house called Cricketers' Cottage free of charge, an offer which the brothers could not accept, and the Jamsaheb was persuaded to accept a token amount of money. A further link with royalty was the deadly duo's friendship with the Khansaheb of Manavadar, who gave a car to Amar Singh.
The brothers had attended the same Alfred High School as a certain Mahatma Gandhi, and neither brother began as a fast bowler. Amar Singh was a batsman and Ramji was a wicket-keeper. But the school's coach, Velji Master, saw in Amar Singh a massive physique and insisted he become a quick bowler. Ramji, while playing in a match between teams put together by the Jamsaheb of Nawanagar and the Khansaheb of Manavadar, was highly impressed by the exploits of Ghulam Nabi, a Punjabi paceman, and decided to take up the art. The rest is history.
Amar Singh went on to take Lancashire league cricket by storm, whilst Ramji enjoyed one of his finest hours for the Hindus in a Bombay quadrangular tournament, taking 13 for 133 against the Europeans.
It was a tragedy that both met with unexpected and premature deaths. Amar Singh, while attending a wedding at the home of the Khansaheb of Manavadar, had been for a long swim when he suddenly fell ill and caught a fever. The jamsaheb of Nawanagar came to see Amar Singh when he was lying on a bed at the Cricketers' Cottage and he learned that the fever had given rise to typhoid. Amar Singh died on May 21, 1940 at the age of only 29. From that day, Ramji never set foot in the Cricketers' Cottage. After a few years he sold it for less than 50,000 rupees.
When his own playing days were over, Ramji contracted gangrene in his right leg. He also had diabetes and yet he used to drink 40 to 45 cups of tea a day. He was told by a doctor that his leg needed to be amputated, but he refused and said that he would prefer to die rather than to live with one leg. Family members tried their level best to change his mind but it was not to be. The disease spread to both his kidneys and he died on December 20, 1948.
Vijay Nakum, the son of Amar Singh, recently visited India's former opening batsman Mushtaq Ali, who was a team-mate of his father. Mushtaq told Vijay: 'I do see hundreds of cricketers today who are equal to some of the great stalwarts of yesteryear, but I don't see a second Amar Singh in any of them.'
Indeed, India may never produce another like Amar Singh, nor a bowler as quick and deadly as Ramji.