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Dreamcricket Salutes Polly Umrigar
by Vijay Jeedigunta
Nov 09, 2006
Before Tendulkar, it was Gavaskar and before that there was a colossus - his name was Pahlan Ratanji "Polly" Umrigar.

Addressed affectionately as Polly Kaka by the later generation of cricketers, especially those who played for Bombay, Polly Umrigar was one of the greatest all-round cricketers and shrewdest cricketing brains that India or for that matter the World has ever produced. Polly Kaka was also one of the finest human beings ever to have graced the game of cricket.

Watching the young, tall (6 ft) and upright Umrigar hit two towering sixes at the Brabourne on a green-top pitch where six Indian batsmen failed to score, the commentator Vizzy called him 'Palmtreewale.' That name morphed slightly in the West Indies when he scored 560 runs during his 1953 trip to the Caribbean - that is when he came to be known as the 'Palm Tree Hitter.'

After a long battle with the lymph cancer, India’s all-time great and the original record-setting batsman succumbed to the disease at 8.32am on Tuesday, 7th November, 2006.

Umrigar had a short stint as a captain, he led India for 8 outings (2W-2L-4D), but he relinquished captaincy during the ill-fated 1959-60 home series against West Indies which saw four captains in a 5-test series. Umrigar was told by the Board Secretary that as per the BCCI President Ratibhai Patel’s wish Jasu Patel will be replacing Vijay Manjrekar after Ghulam Ahmed's resignation, this made Polly furious and he tended his resignation on the eve of the fourth test match.

Though the Board pleaded him to reconsider his decision, Polly stuck to his words and suggested Vinoo Mankad’s name instead. Umrigar never captained India after that although he played significant number of test matches till he retired in 1961/62 at the end of West Indies tour.

Not surprisingly 38 years later, Umrigar also quit the post of Executive Secretary of the cricket board in 1997 after he found out that none of his ideas were welcome and his experience and knowledge were underutilized

Umrigar followed the game passionately - in an interview back in 2004, when no one heard of the name of MS Dhoni, he suggested that he is an exciting prospect for wicket keeping position, this was at a time when Dravid was keeping wickets.

In the same interview he also expressed his anguish about players keeping their positions in the team on the basis of their past glory: “Some of the cricketers have started taking their place in the side for granted. I have also played Test cricket and know the affection people shower on you, but I don't agree to the demi-god status awarded to cricketers here. The problem is when players start taking this seriously. We are only sportsmen, and there are players like Tendulkar, who are indispensable but not bigger than the game.

Someone like Virender Sehwag can get away playing all the poor shots because he's taking that status for granted. Also he knows there aren't people to push him out of that. Sehwag has received a lot of flak for his performances recently."

Two years later, those words are still as true and relevant as they were when he uttered them!

Always eager to help cricketers in whatever way he could, he provided great batting tips and suggestions on the game to younger cricketers. Gavaskar himself learnt a lot of lessons in the game from him. "I have learnt so much from him that I can't pinpoint one particular thing." Gavaskar remembered that Umrigar never once spoke about his feats and trumpeted his achievements. "The only time he spoke about his cricket was when discussing strategies on how to get people out. Even that was a great learning experience.”

Tributes poured in from cricketing and non-cricketing fraternities. Chandu Borde, Ajit Wadekar, Bishen Sigh Bedi, GR Viswanath , Dilip Vengsarakar, Ravi Shastri and Sachin Tendulkar, all remembered Umrigar's valuable advice at a recent BCCI function honoring all former captains. Umrigar could not attend the function as he was undergoing treatment for lymph cancer.

Umrigar was born on March 28th, 1926 in Sholapur, Maharashtra where he spent his earlier childhood. During his teens his father was transferred to Bombay and that brought Umirgar to Bombay and he made that city as his home for the rest of his life. He made his first class debut for Parsees Vs Hindus in the 1944/45 semifinal of the Bombay Pentangular tournament when he was just 18yrs and made his Ranji Trophy debut couple of seasons later for Bombay against Sind at Karachi in 1946/47. A season later he made his test debut in the 1947/48 series against visiting West Indians under Lala Amarnath’s captaincy in the 2nd test at Bombay.

For more than 14 years he provided the backbone for the brittle Indian middle order and often checked the frequent batting collapses against the fast bowling of the likes of Wes Hall, Roy Gilchrist, Freddie Trueman, Alec Bedser, Ray Lindwall and Alan Davidson.

In a first-class career that spanned from 1944-45 to 1962-63, Umrigar played 243 matches for an aggregate 16,155 runs at 52.28 with highest score being an unbeaten 252 against Cambridge University in 1959. That score stood as highest by an Indian player outside India for more than 30 years till Navjot Singh Sidhu made 286 against Jamaica during India’s tour of West Indies in 1988/89.

Umrigar led Bombay to five consecutive Ranji Trophy Championships from 1958/59 to 1962/63 seasons but it was in test cricket that he established many a record which stood for many years till his own protégé Sunil Gavaskar surpassed him.

Among Polly Umrigar's records -

First Indian player to have played in 50 tests for India.

First Indian to have aggregated 3000 runs in a test career.

First Indian to have registered more than 10 test centuries.

First Indian to have scored a double hundred, 223 against New Zealand at Hyderabad in the 1st test of the 1954/55 series.

First Indian to have registered a test match win on his debut as captain. He led India to an innings and 27 run victory against the Kiwis in the 2nd test at Bombay in 1955/56 in his maiden test as captain.

First captain to have lead India for a test series triumph against a non-sub-continent team.

First Indian to have scored centuries in three consecutive innings which he achieved during the 1960/61 and 1961/62 seasons 117 against Pakistan in 4th test at Madras, 112 in 5th test at Delhi and 147* against England in the 2nd test at Kanpur in 1961/62. India registered their first test series victory against England that season by winning the 4th test at Calcutta by 187 runs and 5th test at Madras by 128 runs.

In 1952/53 series against West Indies Polly Umrigar aggregated 560 runs in the series with the help two hundreds 130 at Port of Spain in the 1st test and 117 at Kingston in the 5th test which equaled the then most number of runs in a test series by Indian, held by Rusi Modi.

Umrigar still remains one of only two Indian cricketers to have achieved the feat of scoring a century and taking 5 wickets in an innings in the same test. Vinoo Mankad being the other all-rounder. In the penultimate test of his career, at Port of Spain in the 1962/63 series, Umrigar made 56 & 172* and returned with figures of 56-24-107-5 & 16-8-17-0.

First Indian batsman to reach a century with a six, a feat that was later emulated by Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag. Umrigar's massive sixes earned him his nick name of "Palm Tree Hitter."

Polly made a significant contribution in India’s first test win against Australia, in the 2nd test at Kanpur in 1959/60. Though he did not contribute much with the bat, Umrigar took 4/27 of 25 overs with 11 maidens and together with Jasu Patel wrecked Australia in their 2nd innings for 105.

Umrigar's most memorable innings was his first test century, a superb 130* at Madras against the visiting MCC side in the 5th test of the 1951/52 series - it helped India achieve their first test match victory by an innings and 8 runs.

Umrigar’s 2nd hundred 102 against Pakistan at Bombay in 1952/53 too helped India win a test match against Pakistan and gave Indians a 2-1 lead which ultimately proved out to be the margin for their first ever test series win.

All through his career Polly Umrigar gathered his runs at brisk pace, he did not slow down even in the penultimate test of his career before he announced his retirement from test cricket, as his 172* came out of a total of 230 runs that were scored while he was at the crease and at a frenetic rate of those days, in just 248 minutes.

Polly Kaka did not lose momentum as he neared retirement. On the contrary, Umrigar saved his best for his last test series, in which he made 445 runs @ 49.44 and took 9 wickets @ 27.66 and held 4 catches.

He was a great leader but at the same time did not have any inhibitions about playing under much junior players. He played under ten different captains. He offered the same kind of help and played with same kind of enthusiasm and motivation right from his first test under Lala Amarnath to his final test under Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi.

Umrigar continued his association with the game after retirement. He served as chairman of the selection committee, national team manager and executive secretary of the Indian cricket board. He managed two very successful Indian touring teams though they did not result in a series win for India. One in 1975/76 during which India registered that famous victory at Port of Spain when they successfully chased 400+ runs for a victory and another against Australia when they lost the series by 3-2 margin in a very closely fought test series against Bob Simpson’s team.

Legend has it that, when he was still 13, Polly went to see a game and one of the captains asked him to join the team as they were short of a player. He fielded in the deep fine leg in that match and chased the balls most of the time not letting them reach the boundary. After the match, the captain said "Polly you have a good cricket future. You are a very promising boy."

Polly Umrigar never forgot those words and kept the faith that captain had in him during his subsequent lifelong journey through the corridors of the game. The Palm Trees in heaven must be scared stiff now that the Palm Tree Hitter is taking his position at heaven's crease.

Side note: We had decided a long time ago that when Dreamcricket launches its range of bats, one of them would be called the "Palm Tree Hitter." Our resolve only just got stronger.

By Vijay Jeedigunta with contributions from Venu Palaparthi
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