Lala Amarnath is the most legendary of figures in Indian cricket. But for most of his long and incident-filled life he has refused to be interviewed. Our man, Subroto Sirkar, found his way into the sacred presence ...

Lala Amarnath © Getty Images
Precisely at the hour Lala Amarnath should have been home for his teatime appointment with me, he was in the casualty ward of New Delhi's Lohia hospital. A visit to an old friend in the city centre (some seven miles from the Amarnaths' South Delhi apartment) earlier in the day had ended with the octogenarian former India skipper having a fall in the street, banging the back of his head on the pavement railing, and all but knocking himself out.

At the hospital, daughters and sons-in-law in a tizzy, first-aid was given, precautionary x-rays taken, and a neurosurgeon summoned. Fortunately, the verdict was: no apparent damage, so take a couple of painkillers and go home to bed.

But when Lala Amarnath realised I was right there, he was intent on keeping his date with Wisden Cricket Monthly. Our conversation began in a car en route to his daughter Kamala's flat nearby. There, for over an hour and a half, he just talked cricket - 'the longest interview I've ever given, he admitted.

Of course, I'd met him before. As a schoolboy in half-pants I'd seen him, over 50 then, play a festival match at Calcutta's Eden Gardens; sat with him, always an astute observer, in the Press-box at a few Tests in subsequent years. But despite being available and a ready talker, he had long been loath to being interviewed about himself. My initial doubts, though, were offset by a good augury.

Pearson Surita, guest commentator on BBC Radio on three Indian tours of England, had been a left-arm spinner for Calcutta University and University Occasionals who played against the Lala in the late 1930s. As a student he had maintained an autograph-book, which contained the signatures of the full MCC side (led by D. R. Jardine) and almost all the Indians who played in Calcutta's first Test match, in January 1934. When Surita, now 81 and confined to a wheelchair, heard I was to meet Amarnath, he generously gave me his prized possession. And Amarnath, touched by nostalgia, remembered Surita warmly and, with a flourish, added his current specimen below his 1934 signature in the book.

The Lala is a bit wobbly now (he'd fractured a leg in an autorickshaw accident two months earlier), but his memory was deadly accurate, as his medium-pace inswingers were on the 1946 England tour. Knowing he was shaky, I felt a half-volley on the leg stump might help Amarnath into his stride: but instinctively he stepped back and cut that one past point.

What was the finest innings of his career, I'd asked, suggesting he might choose between his Test-debut hundred against England at Bombay in 1933-34, his 109 against the same side at Amritsar a month earlier, and his 228 not out at Melbourne in 1947-48.

'Well, those were good knocks; he mused, 'yes, the wicket at Amritsar had pace, but there'd been grass on the pitch at the Bombay Gymkhana. But, let me tell you, the finest innings I ever played was on a sticky wicket at Chepauk (Madras) on our way to Ceylon in 1945.' Luckily, I was carrying the ACS Indian guide in my satchel, so could immediately locate the match: March '45, the island-bound team versus the Madras Governor's XI.

'It was on the last day of the match. We'd lost four wickets for seven runs when I joined Vijay Merchant out in the middle, and I batted so well I got my hundred before lunch. Offspinner Ghulam Ahmed had taken all four wickets, and the other bowlers were Rangachari, Ram Singh, Gopalan and Palia - but that day I was just in superb form.' This was the knock of which noted writer K. N. Prabhu recorded: 'I count myself fortunate to have seen the innings of all innings.'

Another innings the Lala remembered with pride was his unbeaten 104 in the Moin-ud-Dowlah tournament at Hyderabad in Sept 1934, when his team (the Retrievers) needed 178 to win. Spearheading the Freelooters' attack in that final was West Indian Learie Constantine. 'His bowling that day was the fastest I've ever faced, Amarnath stressed, 'and that was on coir matting, not jute ... but Constantine was a gentleman bowler: he wouldn't bowl more than two bouncers an over.'

Well over half of Lala Amarnath's 30-plus first-class hundreds were either made abroad or against sides visiting India. In Australia in 1947-48, he was in tremendous form in the State matches, with five centuries, but made only 140 runs in the Tests. 'Looking back, I think the reason could have been I bowled too much inthe Tests - at times I was over-bowling myself.'

That, indeed, remains one of the enigmatic aspects of the Lala's career. But his whole life is so colourful it is difficult to sift fact from folklore: you don't know which stories to believe. Apropos of his name: it is actually Amarnath Bharadwaj, Amar meaning 'immortal' and Nath, in this case, being a suffix not to be used independently. He might have become Amar Nath in the manner Kapildev Nikhanj has emerged as Kapil Dev, or Madanlal Sharma became Madan Lal, surnames being secondary in the Punjab. 'Lala' is a Punjabi address of respect, something like the English squire. But, early in his international career, his name was styled Lala Amarnath, and thus he has remained.

'What does it matter?' he countered when asked to confirm his date of birth (he is 83 on Sept 11). 'After my first tour of England, somewhere they had my birth year as-1906! Now think, the quicker I can reach my centenary, the sooner I can be felicitated; Amarnath chuckled.

'Actually, I was born at Kapurthala (a town 240 miles north of Delhi), and attended the Randhir High School there. At first I played hockey, but I didn't like getting hit on the knuckles, and was also a good long-distance runner. My first cricket was with the SSS club in Kapurthala. But after my mother died I was sent to stay with my grandfather in Lahore, and it was he who sent me to Aligarh, where I played for the university team.

'The Maharaja of Patiala (Bhupindra Singh) used to bring out many English professionals, and I regularly watched them in the nets. At home, I would practise my strokes before a mirror. I learnt very early how the best batsmen always used their feet'

Lara Amarnath bowling during the 1946 tour of England © Getty Images
He was a wicketkeeper-batsman in those early days, though in his first big match, for Hindus in the Lahore tournament in January 1930, he wasn't behind the stumps. 'Prof. Vishwanath, from the Government College, was the wicketkeeper; the Lala recalled,'... he had a lot of pull.' In Dec 1932 the Ceylon team was in the Punjab. 'I was the 13th man and reserve keeper in the All-India side at Lahore, Amarnath grimaced, 'but was made 12th man when our local team played the visitors. I considered that such an affront to my prestige that I didn't even see the match, and took it up as a challenge that I should be in the national side.

'When you ask me to name the proudest moment of my career, I'd say it was when, in my very first Test innings, I was top-scorer with 38. I was a youngster then, you see, and I just felt so happy that I was playing for India and had made the highest score. I batted even better in getting my century in the second innings, but the emotion didn't compare with what I'd felt on the first day. When I reached my hundred, C. K. Nayudu congratulated me and said, "That's the first time I've been outscored!" Do I remember the bat I used? Yes, it was a Gunn & Moore Non-Jar.'

And dismissing Denis Compton first ball in the Lord's Test in 1946, would that be his most memorable victim? 'No, I took so many wickets which gave me great satisfaction. As for Compton that day, I knew I was going to get him cheaply. He was off-colour: you look up his scores in Wisden and you'll see he was hardly getting a run at that time.'

Like Mike Procter a generation later, Amarnath had an unusual bowling action. 'With a short, four-stride run-up, he delivered on a trip so that he appeared to bowl off his wrong foot; was John Arlott's succinct description. The Lala felt his best bowling effort was in 1936, when he took six Middlesex wickets for 29 at Lord's. 'One batsman had hit three fours in an over and as I retrieved the ball from the short on-side boundary skipper Vizzy said, "You know who that is? Patsy Hendren!" Well, I soon got Hendren with a legcutter, caught behind by Hindlekar, who was certainly the best Indian 'keeper of my time. After Hendren, I bagged five more wickets.

And who was the best batsman he ever bowled to? Was it Everton Weekes, who in 1948-49 hit four centuries and a 90 in successive innings off India's bowling?

'No, Don Bradman - even in 1947-48, he was still the greatest. If you beat him, he was out. A lot of people say he played crossbatted, but I'll say he was the best puller of the ball I've seen. In the innings he got his 100th century, he was shaky to start with, but eventually he was just the master.' Incidentally, the one time the Lala dismissed The Don marked the only occasion in his career Bradman was out hit-wicket.

His favourite ground? Amarnath didn't pick Lahore's Lawrence Gardens (as the Bagh-i-Jinnah was called in his days) but the racecourse ground in Hyderabad (that is, the Gymkhana ground in the twin-city of Secunderabad) where, apart from his hundred against Constantine, he hit centuries against Ryder's Australian team in 1935-36 and Lord Tennyson's English side in 1937-38.

'Before the war the Lancashire League was much better than any other league; the best professionals went there. I replaced Constantine at Nelson, on a recommendation made by Joe Hardstaff sr, who had been umpiring in the match against Essex in 1936 when I hit a hundred in each innings. After the war, league cricket changed, because you could play in Scotland, for instance, and earn just as much - and some players preferred to do so.'

As for the modern game, the Lala feels 'over-professionalism has spoiled the whole charm of the game. In our time it used to be a gentleman's game'. He agreed that an ex-player as manager could guide the team in cricket matters, but 'the best manager I've ever come across anywhere was Pankaj Gupta'. Amarnath had a difficult relationship with Indian Board president Anthony de Mello, but he was forthright enough to admit de Mello had been easily the finest Indian cricket administrator he'd known, though he felt current Board secretary Jagmohan Dalmiya had a lot of potential.

'If I ever fought an election in Pakistan, I'd win!' the Lala commented on his popularity across the border. 'I'm really proud of the great regard and respect the people there have for me.' He had been manager of the first Indian side to tour Pakistan, early in 1955, and he considered it an achievement that he was able to bring back the team undefeated.

After a heart attack some eight years back, Amarnath's left big toe had to be amputated a few years ago - when cricket fan Ranjiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister, was a surprise visitor one day when the Lala was alone in his hospital room. The Lala and his goodnatured wife have lived in Delhi since moving from Patiala in 1957, and are now in a second-floor apartment not too far from Qutb Minar. Daughters Kamala and Dolly are also in New Delhi, as is youngest son Rajinder, who was a Ranji player. Older sons Surinder (118 on first appearance for India, against Sri Lanka; then 124 on Test debut, against New Zealand) and Mohinder (11 centuries in 69 Tests; Man of the Match in 1983 World Cup final) are in Ahmedabad and Bombay respectively.

We'd talked about a lot of things, without ever actually discussing the sensitive 1936 tour. But it had to come up, when I asked the Lala to name the most disappointing occasion in his career.

'The most disappointing event was being sent back home before the Test series began on the 1936 tour. You see, that was my prime year, and I know I'd have been a great success, both in batting and in bowling. I must also say that, during my Test career, we had the best team in 1936, but the worst captain. Why was I sent back? I can tell you this much, it wasn't for disciplinary reasons: but it had to do with politics. That's all I shall say now. My autobiography should be coming out in six months, and it'll have the full story...'

After starting with some cooling sorbet, we'd gone through two rounds of tea, by which time Rajinder had come to drop his father home. They were going in a convenient direction for me, so the inter view ended - as it had begun - in a car, driving through Delhi. There was time for one last question: was The Don also the best captain he encountered? 'The best captain I came across was D. R. Jardine. Test cricket is a tough battleground, and I must tell you I appreciated his Bodyline strategy.'

So, at the very last, a controversial comment from the man reputed to 'relish' controversy. Many people had warned me he was a crusty old man. I didn't find him so: I returned to Calcutta as much enriched by his warmth as by the partaking of his cricket knowledge.

Footnote: Lala Amarnath died on August 5, 2000 aged 90.