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By Partab Ramchand
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Lala Amarnath whose birth centenary falls on September 11 was always news. On and off the field he unwittingly made sure that he was always in the public eye. He made brilliant centuries, bowled accurately and skillfully, fielded in an agile manner that belied his build and led his side as shrewdly as only he could. This was all on the field. Off it he was involved in countless scraps with officialdom, fighting for more freedom and better facilities. He was even sent home from a tour of England for indiscipline - ``an ``uncalled for’’ and ``high handed’’ act as it was termed. He was the most outspoken player of his time – this was seen later in his newspaper columns and radio commentary - and cared ``two hoots’’ for administrators. You liked him because he was ``open’’ and ``candid’’. Or you disliked him because he was ``blunt’’ and ``rude’’. But you could never ignore him. Amarnath wouldn’t have liked that!
It is true that Amarnath might have helped his and the country’s cause better had he been a bit more diplomatic in his statements. He was an impetuous young man given to sudden outbursts and could have been a little more restrained in his comments. But it would be incorrect to say that the fault was entirely that of Amarnath. For the major part of his long career he was player and captain under the most autocratic leaders and administrators. Vizzy’s infamous role as captain has been well documented. Major Brittain-Jones who was manager of the team to England in 1936 was a tactless official. Anthony de Mello for long president of the Indian Cricket Board ruled like the ``big boss’’. It was difficult for a player of Amarnath’s temperament to get along with them and the result was a chequered, start-and-stop career for Amarnath who under normal circumstances should have played many more Tests than the 24 he did.
Happily however history has reprieved Amarnath. He has been absolved on all counts. Regarding his being sent back from England the Beaumont Enquiry Committee considered the step taken by the powers-to-be then in England as ``stern’’. Wisden termed is as a ``drastic action.’’ Don Bradman and Wally Hammond shared this opinion in their books and both in fact had high praise for Amarnath not only as cricket and captain but as a person.
Indian cricket has seen many enduring personalities over the years but could there have been a more colourful character than Amarnath? Veteran sports journalist PN Sundaresan once told me that for cricket lovers of his generation, their great hero was Amarnath. But Amarnath bridged the generation gap many times over and was a hero to a new generation of cricket followers. Such was the personal charisma of the man, his dynamic personality that young cricket fans born after Amarnath’s playing career was over were eager to hear tales of yore told in the inimitable Lala manner.
Amarnath possessed a touch of flair in whatever he did. After all, did not Bradman write in `Farewell to Cricket’ that ``I look back on the season with Amarnath as my opposite number as one of my most pleasant cricket years. Amarnath was such a pleasant ambassador and throughout the tour I found him absolutely charming in every respect.’’
As an attacking batsman, a skillfully accurate bowler, a shrewd captain and one of the leading personalities known for his outspoken views and acerbic wit, Amarnath’s exalted status in the history of Indian cricket is enshrined forever. As a batsman, he was once described as ``a pure romantic, the Byron of Indian cricket.’’ For sheer razzle dazzle of his strokeplay he takes his place among the most entertaining batsmen in Indian cricket. As a medium pace swing bowler he was naggingly accurate best symbolized by the story concerning Harold Gimblett on the tour of England in 1946. For long Amarnath tied down the naturally attacking batsman until in despair Gimblett asked him ``don’t you ever bowl a half volley?’’ And that impish Amarnath humour came through spontaneously - ``Oh yes I bowled one in 1940’’. As a captain Amarnath was pitted against master tactician Bradman on the tour of Australia in 1947-48 but that did not stop him from
emerging with a lot of credit. He was a daring strategist and in fact it was said that his knowledge of Australian pitches was superior to even that of Bradman’s!
Amarnath’s reputation as one of the great entertainers – on and off the field - is secure and unchallenged. He served five terms as chairman of the selection committee and being remarkably perceptive opened the avenues for a host of talented cricketers many of whom went on to notable international careers. His behind the scenes role in India’s miraculous triumph over Australia at Kanpur in December 1959 has been well chronicled. In later years he earned a name as a radio commentator and newspaper columnist his shrewd observations and frank views on players and issues making him immensely popular. The tributes paid to him when he passed away in New Delhi in August 2000 were sincere and handsome. They came from all over the world and were headed by Bradman himself.