Surinder Amarnath travels down memory lane to reflect on opportunities seized and missed, his father’s high standards, and keeping the family tradition going
From Punjab to Delhi to Baroda and finally Gujarat, it has been an eventful journey for Surinder Amarnath, a constant effort to meet the high expectations that came from a legacy he inherited as the eldest son of the legendary Lala Amarnath. He made a fabulous start to his career but threats from within the system allowed him to flourish at the international stage for a little less than only three years.
Century in his first Test innings was the crowning glory after a Ranji Trophy debut worth 86 in a team total of 187 at No 6 for Northern Punjab against Jammu and Kashmir at Srinagar in 1964. He was 15 when he shone amidst a galaxy of stars in Poona in the Defence Fund match in December, 1963.
“It was a thrilling experience,” Surinder remembers that match when he turned out for the Maharashtra Chief Minister’s XI in a three-day fixture against the Maharashtra Governor’s XI, led by his father. The stalwarts who participated in that match were Vijay Hazare, Vinoo Mankad, Vijay Manjrekar, Bapu Nadkarni, Nari Contractor, Ramakant Desai, Chandu Borde, Dilip Sardesai, Hanumant Singh and Ajit Wadekar. He made an impactful 41.
The burden of being Lalaji’s son weighed heavily on Surinder and brother Mohinder. “People made comparisons which were unfair. Who could have been a Lalaji? He was unique. Of course, we did consciously focus on doing well to make him happy but there was never any pressure of scoring or fear of failure. But dad’s standards were exacting.”
So exacting that even as he received a Man of the match award from his father (for a 118 against Sri Lanka at Ahmedabad in 1974 in an unofficial Test), Lalaji whispered, “Kya jaldi thi (what was the hurry?).” Surinder had thrown his wicket away and his father was not amused. Lalaji was hard to please.
Steely resolve marked his career. From converting to a left-hander on father’s advice to staying away from home to pursue cricket, he grew up in tough environs. “It was an unending battle to keep proving myself, to the world, and to myself,” he reflects. The unbeaten 235 in an Irani Cup match at the Ferozeshah Kotla in 1980 was a highpoint; it was also the most heartbreaking experience for him.
Surinder whipped an attack that comprised Kapil Dev, Karsan Ghavri, Roger Binny, Shivlal Yadav and Dilip Doshi. It was a flawless show. Lalaji remarked “excellent” and the son was over the moon. “I always looked forward to a good word from dad. He was happy. I remember the knock vividly. Not one ball hit my pads because I never missed the line of the ball. I middled almost every ball.”
Ironically the five bowlers he dominated in that double century innings went on the tour to Australia. Surinder was not picked and the selection was soundly criticised by the cricket fraternity and the media. “It will remain a mystery why I was not picked. There was too much politics no doubt because I was not dropped for want of performance. I was in very good form and deserved to be picked on merit. Sadly I was not.”
India’s earlier tour to Australia, in 1977-78, left Surinder with some bitter memories. He started the tour well with a top score of 63 in the tour opener against South Australia at Adelaide but had to sit out the first two Tests. “I missed a hook and was hit on the face (by Garry Cowmeadow) on a wet pitch. I was fine, had batted in the nets, but was sent back. I was not allowed a stopover in Singapore because the officials thought I might play some cricket there and embarrass them. I was subsequently picked for the Pakistan tour.” It was to be his swansong.
Surinder played 10 Tests, only two at home, with 124 against New Zealand at Auckland on debut, emulating his father’s 118 against England at Bombay in 1933. Interestingly, both knocks came at No 3 position. Surinder’s aggregate of 550 was below expectations. His first-class record was 8175 runs in 145 matches with 16 centuries and 47 fifties. Poor umpiring dogged the Indians on that tour to Pakistan but Surinder has a moment to cherish.
In the last Test at Karachi, Surinder broke his bat. He had no replacement and wore a worried look when Zaheer Abbas, who made scores of 42, 235 not out, 34 not out, 176 and 96, spotted him. On finding out Surinder’s predicament Zaheer offered him a St. Peters make bat. “He told me to keep the bat when I went to return.” It was a splendid gesture in an otherwise acrimonious series as India and Pakistan were playing each other after 17 years.
Sporting a red handkerchief was an Amarnath trademark. “I don’t really know why but we kept one.” Surinder achieved far less than his illustrious father (24 Tests) and Mohinder (69 Tests) but he has played every competitive tournament in India. He stopped playing in 1986 after having represented Northern Punjab, Delhi, Baroda and Gujarat. “I was not enjoying cricket really.”
Surinder, 64, lives in Ahmedabad with a Gas Agency to look after and a prayer to see 20-year-old son Digvijay keep the family’s tradition going. Digvijay, also a left-hander, made his first-class debut for Badurelia Sports Club in Sri Lanka last year. “I see myself in him,” says a proud Surinder. Time will tell how good the father’s assessment is!
(Part 5 of a 12-part series on forgotten heroes of Indian cricket)