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'Pure romantic, Byron of Indian cricket'

By S. Thyagarajan

CHENNAI, AUG. 5. A cricketing legend is no more. Lala has gone to meet his Maker. Few cricketers in the post-war era and only a handful in history will be spoken off nostalgically for elevating the art of a batting into the plane of aesthetic delight as Lala Amarnath did. Colourful, controversial and commanding, Lala was an icon in his heyday and will forever remain in the pantheon of Indian cricket - a pillar in the edifice and giving it an iridescent image.

When in full bloom, Lala Amarnath epitomised what Neville Cardus said about Indian cricket. The noted commentator wrote, ``Indian cricket, of course, has always been impulsive, and of more reliable to the aesthetic sense than to the baser competitive instincts. There should perhaps be some different way evolved to estimating values in Indian cricket. The prosaic statistical evidence of the score-board cannot tell us anything relevant about Indian cricket, which is charged by a lissome, natural energy, radiating here and there like a lightning that strikes as soon as it has flickered.''

Lala played with a lordly disdain, consciously contemptuous of the game's idiom and grammar. But his genius purveyed the quintessence of its classicism. His century on debut, the first one for the country in official Tests, against England at the Bombay Gymkhana in 1933 is identified as one of the best innings played in the annals of Indian cricket. There was a lyrical excellence to his batting, which evoked a comparison, by a commentator, to the immortal poet, Lord Byron: ``pure romantic, the Byron of Indian cricket''

Any endeavour at evaluating the genius of Lala against the background of figures - that inevitable measuring rod - is likely to be a unreal picture of the character and quality of his cricket. In an era when matches were fewer, and what with the World War II interrupting the careers of stalwarts, including that of the great Don Bradman and Len Hutton, Lala countered the challenges with pugnacity, an inborn trait which separated him from the rest.

Crowds flocked to see Lala in action, and he never disappointed them. He played for Southern Punjab and Railways in Ranji Trophy and for the Hindus in the famous Pentangular tournaments. His 241 against The Rest in 1938 is considered as one of the finest in the Pentangular. The career best was 262 for India-in-England team against The Rest in 1946 at Calcutta. In this match, he shared a partnership of 410 with Rusi Modi.

For the statistically minded, Lala's figures of 255 innings, 25 not outs, 9848 runs with an average of 42.41 in batting, and 4339.4 overs, 1360 maidens, 9045 runs with 421 wickets at 21.48 apiece, are sufficient for posterity to judge the player's contribution to the game.

Orthodoxy was anathema to Lala. Basically, he was a non- conformist. He bowled on the wrong foot, landing the right leg first, purveying a bewildering sequence of inswingers that baffled no less a batsman than Wally Hammond. Twice he returned remarkable analysis in Ranji Trophy with his four wickets for zero runs for Railways against Patiala in 1958 remaining unconquered. He was among the few who crossed 2000 runs and over 100 wickets in the national competition.

An iconoclast, imperious and an indomitable warrior throughout, Lala was more than articulate. He called a spade and spade and restraint was never a virtue with him. He courted controversies as though he relished revelling in them. A lesser mortal would have perished in the welter of the controversies that confronted him.

The brushes he had with the captain, Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram in the tour of England in 1936 and the consequent Beaumont Commission Inquiry that exonerated him and the running battle he had with the then boss of the Board, Antony de Mello, are too well documented for a detailed narration.

So forceful was Lala's personality that the cricketing establishment could not keep the reins of captaincy away from him. Lala matched wits with the incomparable Don in the tour of Australia in 1947, with his Punjabi speaking colleague, Abdul Hafeez Kardar of Pakistan and John Goddard of West Indies, all when India began its Test series against these countries.

Jack Fingleton, reporting the 1947 series for The Hindu, made this observation when the Don and Lala inspected a rain affected wicket. ``Then ensued a long discussion in the middle in which Amarnath did most of the talking while Bradman listened with a hand to chin.''

His performances in the first class games in Australia, 144 and 94 not out against South Australia, 228 not out against Victoria, and 172 against Queensland raised visions of India matching the Aussies under the Don. But Lala was anything but successful in the Tests.

But Fingleton rated him, along with Hazare, as the only two matching Australian Test standards. On the 228 not out against Victoria, Vic Richardson, wrote in The Hindu, `` one cannot praise Amarnath's batting too highly. Innings after innings, he is saving his side, and no player in the world is better now than this brilliant batsman. How long can the strain be borne ? His physique is grand, and each day, he trains with his team for half an hour's physical jerks before breakfast. No captain has done as much to bring a team to the top as this man.''

A shrewd tactician and a remarkable reader of the pitch, Lala had an uncanny knack for spotting talent. As a selector from 1952 to 1960, during which he was chairman twice, he never hesitated to experiment with youngsters. He formed a colt's team to serve the National pool, which included stars like Jaisimha, Abbas Ali Baig and V.V. Kumar.

As a father, Lala was confident that his sons would win far more laurels than him. In fact, he had great hopes on Surinder, who, after a great start faded while the second, Mohinder went on establish himself as an outstanding all rounder.

Lala might have lacked the mode and method of Vijay Merchant, the consistency of Vijay Hazare, the appetite for runs like Rusi Modi, or even the cavalier approach of Mushtaq Ali, but along with CK, he etched the ethos for Indian cricket. This country may see a Gavaskar, a Kapil Dev or a Tendulkar born again. Whether there can be an another Amarnath to grace the game remains in the realm of guess.

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