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Indian cricket controversies Part 2 - Amarnath- De Mello affair
by Boria Majumdar
May 21, 2007
If asked to rank the controversies that have plagued Indian cricket over the years, the Amarnath- De Mello affair would certainly rank number 2, a notch below match fixing. It was as sensational as it could get, the Board President preparing a list of twenty-three charges of indiscipline and misdemeanour against the nation’s stand in captain- Amarnath was the stand in captain Australia in 1948 and against the West Indies in 1948-49. Of the twenty-three charges, the one that Amarnath, a selector along with P E Palia and M Dutta Roy, had accepted a bribe of 5000 rupees from officials and cricket enthusiasts in Calcutta to include P Sen of Bengal for the fourth and fifth Tests against the West Indies, made the controversy no less sensational than a paperback thriller.

It started when in an Extra-Ordinary General Meeting of the Board on April 10, 1949 the Board President, A S De Mello, alleged Amarnath of serious breach of discipline suspending him from playing any representative cricket for India or for any province in India. In support of the decision, De Mello, in an interview to the Associated Press of India on April 14, 1949 declared that, “The Board, at its meeting on April 10, was unanimous in its decision to take disciplinary action against Amarnath and it did not consider it necessary to hear him any more or any longer, as it had before it plenty of evidence about the veracity of which the members had no doubt.” He also asserted that the “affair had caused him much disappointment” because he had “at the sacrifice of many great friendships brought Amarnath back into Indian cricket after the disciplinary action against him during the 1936 tour of England.”

In retaliation, Amarnath went on the offensive and affirmed that he found it strange because the Board had arrived at its decision without giving him an opportunity to defend himself. He added that he was “Not going to take it lying down” and that he had “sacrificed and suffered much- not only financially but in friendship as well- out of devotion and loyalty to the Board and its President.” Finally, he asserted that in the interests of Indian cricket the Board should make public the charges made against him. Amarnath found strong support from the Bengal lobby, mainly in Pankaj Gupta who declared that Amarnath’s suspension had been single handedly pushed through by De Mello and he had in fact spoken against the motion, which, incidentally was not even in the agenda for the meeting on April 10, 1949. He strongly criticised the manner in which the matter had been brought up at the meeting and rushed through.

Upset at being challenged from within the Board, De Mello declared in the Times of India of May 10, 1949 that it was time to show Amarnath that even if most of the Board’s officials did not bark “the Board of Control for Cricket in India did have a dog that could bark and bite when indiscipline in Indian cricket was concerned.” Earlier at a press conference held in the Governor’s Pavilion of the Cricket Club of India on May 4, 1949 De Mello had issued a statement to the media in which the charges against Amarnath were explained in exceptional detail. He had also mentioned on the occasion that the list of twenty-three charges had been forwarded to Amarnath, the Vice Presidents, Secretary and Treasurer of the Board. These charges, as reported in the Times of India of May 6, 1949 alleged negligence by Amarnath in his duties as captain, reflected in his failure to organize net practice in good time before the first three tests, through his comparatively late arrival in Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta, the venue for the Tests, a demand by him for additional payment as captain, out of pocket expenses in entertaining friends in his Delhi hotel, his last minute decision not to captain the states eleven against the West Indies side, failure to notify the Board President of his injury at Poona, which was subsequently a handicap to him and India in the second Test, his rude and arrogant behaviour towards Mr. A S De Mello, indisciplined utterances against the Board and its President at receptions and to the press, insulting disregard of the Board by not replying to two letters sent to him and finally his illegal acceptance of a purse of 5000 rupees on the promise to include P Sen in the in the final two tests against the West Indies.

In response to these charges, Amarnath, on June 5, 1949 addressed a press conference at Calcutta where he distributed to the members present a 39 page, 27000 word statement in an attempt to prove that De Mello was out to settle personal scores against him. In his ‘mini book’ he replied to each of the 23 charges and emphasized that he knew that the Board, which really meant Mr De Mello, would not rescind or revoke the decision, nor make amends for the grave injustice done to him or to the interest of sport in general.

In response to the charge that accused him of demanding additional bonus for himself, he declared that he had asked for 150 rupees for each Test player for eight days stay at Test centres and this he thought was a perfectly legitimate request. He strongly denied the allegation that he had accepted an illegal purse in Calcutta and stated that he had received 5000 rupees from Mr. A N Ghose, Honorary Secretary of the CAB, as part of the Amarnath Testimonial Fund, a scheme mooted by De Mello in 1947 when, in the interest of Indian cricket, Amarnath had cancelled his professional Lancashire League contracts and the prospect of a contract with Sussex. In his own words, “The Board, on Mr. De Mello’s initiative, had decided to try and help me by reimbursing me partially (for the losses sustained).” He labelled De Mello’s aspersion that he had taken money to include P Sen as a figment of the Board President’s imagination and emphasized that he alone could not get Sen into the side and would have needed the consent of the other selectors, Palia and M Dutta Roy. Accordingly, he questioned why De Mello had not drawn up a charge sheet against Dutta Roy and Palia?

In response to the accusation that he did not lead the states eleven against the West Indies, he replied that his decision was not a last minute one and he had informed the Secretary of the Board eight days before the match. Further, the decision on his participation did not rest with him but with his employer, the Maharaja of Patiala. About his alleged unwillingness to reply to the Board’s letters dated January 8 and February 21 he emphasized that he had responded to both on January 14 and April 7 respectively. He ascribed the delay in replying “to his various preoccupations after the considerable time he had had to devote to cricket for three months and to his foot operation at Kanpur.”

Following the publication of his 27,000 words retort, public opinion was deeply divided over who to support, and there was conjecture that De Mello’s enemies within the Board would use the opportunity to oust him from the position of Board President. Expressing this sentiment the Sunday Standard of July 3, 1949 reported that “there is no question that Bengal and Madras thinks alike on the Amarnath affair” and is determined to expel De Mello from the ranks of the Board. Finally, it went on to declare, “There is every indication that the suspension of Amarnath is going to be made the medium of a very big gamble for the control of Indian cricket.”

In the fateful Board meeting on July 31, 1949 a compromise was reached, which, in hindsight can be best described as a temporary truce. It was arrived at after Amarnath had tendered a qualified apology to the Board and its President. However, it was certainly a defeat for the Board for it later transpired that the Board had been legally advised that its decision against Amarnath was ultra vires as no proper notice had been given and also as no opportunity had been allowed to Amarnath to be heard. Legal advice and Amarnath’s apology led the Board to delete the minutes of the April 10 meeting on the subject, as also any matter arising there from or in relation thereto.

That the animosity between the two had hardly ceased after the compromise of July 31 was evident from Amarnath’s statement prior to his departure for England in April 1950. In an interview to the Times of India before leaving to play for Lancashire, he asserted, “De Mello has done me a lot of harm. But my reputation has been fully vindicated by no less a celebrity than Bradman in his memoirs. He had tried to drive me out of cricket, but without success. One day soon, I feel sure, he will come crawling to me, begging me to help him once again.”

That fateful day did arrive a year later, when, to quote the Times of India, “De Mello was unceremoniously bundled out of the Board of Control for Cricket in India.” The Bengal lobby, led by Pankaj Gupta and supported of Amarnath accomplished this coup to unseat De Mello who had dominated Indian cricket for the best part of 25 years. Commenting on De Mello’s defeat, the Times of India asserted, “Unfortunately the proceedings of the meeting seem to indicate that the occasion was used as an opportunity for the settling of old scores and that personal animosity played a big part.” As a rude reminder to De Mello that he was no longer in power, Amarnath soon notified the Board that he was fit to play for India again, a statement that received widespread media coverage.

However, the battle had not been finally won for Amarnath. De Mello did plot a comeback the next year, an attempt that marks the final phase of this dirty power play. To this final saga we turn in the next column.

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