Genius, rebel, artist, entertainer; Lala Amarnath was a unique personality. Born on this day a hundred years ago, he remains Indian cricket's most colourful character. He played and quit on his terms and left a legacy that belongs to the top rung.
A master at reading the pitch, Lalaji was consulted widely by various captains in domestic cricket and rated high by skippers of international teams too.
A cursory look at the playing surface in the 1959 Kanpur Test convinced Lalaji that it was an ideal platform for off-spinner Jassu Patel, who was included against the captain's approval. Australia had won the first Test.
Lalaji was proved right. Patel reaped 14 wickets, including nine for 69 in the first innings, to plot a famous victory. Patel's initial spell was fruitless and wayward but he changed ends, of course on Lalaji's instructions, and sent Australia crashing.
Authority and guile
Lalaji, the first Indian to hit a Test century, could bat and bowl, with authority and guile, and dictate the course of the game even from outside the field.
Rajender, his youngest son, remembers, “He was the manager and Pakistan was on a winning course in the Test (at Karachi in 1955). Lalaji challenged Fazal Mahmood that he would ensure a draw.
“Fazal was not convinced. The Indians, on Lalaji's advice, allowed skipper Abdul Hafeez Kardar to flourish until he reached his 70s and then the runs dried.
“Kardar concentrated on a personal milestone and by the time he was stumped for 93 he had consumed valuable time. It helped India. Fazal saluted Lalaji at the end of the match.”
Mohinder, his second son, recalls the Bombay Test during Pakistan's visit to India in 1952-53 to illustrate the shrewd side of Lalaji. “When Kardar asked him what would he do if he won the toss, Lalaji spoke the truth — I would field — knowing fully well that the Pakistan captain would do the opposite because of his distrustful nature.
“Kardar opted to bat and Lalaji ran through the top half. Similarly, he spoke of using a light roller when a Pakistan player asked him. Expectedly, Pakistan used a heavy roller, the pitch crumbled and India won in style.”
Mohinder played 69 Tests but Lalaji always maintained he ought to have figured in more than a hundred.
Lalaji's eldest son, the left-handed Surinder, grew up listening to stories from Lalaji and about Lalaji. “His reading of the game was awesome. In a Test against England at Bangalore (in 1977), I was struggling against Tony Greig. His height and trajectory made it difficult to read him.
“When we returned for lunch, Lalaji said just four words — wait for the ball. I took boundaries off the first two balls from Greig on resumption and got a fifty.”
On another occasion, Surinder was given a small but defining counsel by Lalaji.
“I had scored five zeroes in a row in the Jalandhar league during school cricket. Lalaji was told about it and came to watch from Delhi. I scored a sixth zero. He saw the pitch and offered to take me out for dinner.
“I prepared myself for a feast and then a royal lashing. All he said was not to play a single ball on the backfoot in the next match. I was a backfoot batsman but listened to him. And scored a century in the next game.”
Lalaji was a ‘doting father and a cricket mentor' to his three sons. Rajender was the special one because Lalaji saw a lot of himself in his youngest son. Mohinder was gutsy as he was. Surinder was stylish as Lalaji was.
“We learnt cricketing mannerisms from him, the importance of punctuality, respect for the game. He was very strict and would spare none but was quick to laud too. We would never look into his eyes. Head bowed, we just followed his advice blindly. And never came to regret,” said Surinder.
Mohinder accompanied Lalaji to matches, clinging on to his father's hand as a kid and later offering support to an ageing legend. “I loved his stories and was in awe of him. The respect he got and the affection he was showed everywhere was to be believed.
“He did more for Indian cricket than Indian cricket did for him. He gave opportunities to countless youngsters and shaped their careers.”
Prem Bhatia, former Delhi and North Zone captain, has special memories of Lalaji. “He played me in a match where I was the designated 12th man.”
This was in the inaugural Irani Cup match in 1960. Lalaji was leading Rest of India against Bombay but he only bowled. Bhatia made 22 and 50 in a rare instance of a substitute getting to bat in a first-class match. It was Lalaji's decision and none objected. Such was his authority!
Lalaji was known for his temper as much for his discipline. He was sent back, ironically on disciplinary grounds, from the 1936 tour to England but Don Bradman viewed Lalaji thus: “I found Amarnath charming in every respect. He was such a splendid ambassador that it makes it all the more difficult to understand his recent suspension by the Indian Board. He certainly believed in speaking his mind.”
The Don flummoxed
Even the Don was once flummoxed by Lalaji's cricketing acumen during the 1948 series. At 99, Bradman suddenly found himself facing G. Kishenchand. “It was a shrewd move,” wrote Bradman in ‘Farewell To Cricket'. Bradman did reach his century — his 100th first-class century — but only after a brief struggle.
Surinder, Mohinder and Rajender revere Lalaji as a “caring father and a brilliant student of the game. We would be punished and also adored. He was our coach and idol. We were fortunate to have a father and a mentor like him. He was very strict outwardly but soft within. He was a great human being.”
Would he have been relevant to today's cricket? “Easily. He was far ahead of times and I am sure he would have guided our team's fortunes in England sitting at home,” said Mohinder.
Indian cricket indeed misses Lalaji, who passed away on August 5, 2000. He would have completed a distinguished century this day.