A doughty cricketer who stood by his team, Polly Umrigar's exploits are inerasably etched in the hearts of many
A memorable innings was his fiery century against Pakistan in 1961 at the Corporation Stadium when he lifted the ball at will to astronomic heights (an ability that he displayed while touring the Caribbeans also, earning him the sobriquet Palmtreewala).
THE death of any cricketer diminishes me. In the past few years, we have lost several who had woven magic around me in my most impressionable years. Syed Mushtaq Ali (whom I had the privilege to meet in Indore a few years ago), Subhash Gupte and Vijay Samuel Hazare are icons who left us in quick succession in recent times. Now it is time to bid adieu to Polly `Kaka', another sensation of my school days. One of my idols and of the knowledgeable Chepauk crowd was Dattu Phadkar, the handsome swashbuckling all-rounder from Bombay. Another was Vijay Hazare, the doughty warrior from Baroda, of the same class as Don and who lent new meaning to the elegant and productive cover drive. In the same class was Polly Umrigar, the prolific all-rounder whose undoubted quality of courage took a beating while negotiating the speed of Freddie Trueman in that eminently forgettable 1952 series against England. To this day, no one can figure out how - with all his physical endowment - Polly flinched, and hence is described as an enigma of Indian cricket. This was painful to many of us who worshipped Polly but did not bring down his image of a doughty cricketer who stood by his team like a rock.
Cricket at Chepauk
In those days, when ebullient youngsters like me had to be content with watching cricket at Chepauk from a distant eastern enclosure, where we were packed like sardines, these three musketeers from the West Zone were demigods. They could do nothing wrong. They may have elbowed out some really deserving cricketers from Madras and also formed part of what was known as a "Bombay clique". This did not, however, matter to those of us who were dying to watch some good cricket. I lived close to Hotel Oceanic in Santhome where cricket teams were put up in the late 1950s. I used to hover around the place, as did many other boys in the locality on the evenings of a Test match, hoping for a glimpse of our heroes. The lone Gurkha (no uniformed G4 or SDB security those days) who manned the hotel gate was a formidable character. He was, however, no match to my ingenuity. I did manage to gatecrash many a time to rub shoulders with my idols. On one such occasion, I buttonholed Polly and sought to "interview" him for the handwritten cricket magazine of which I was "Editor". Believe it or not, his response to my audacity was gentle, something of a windfall for me.
Picture of dignity
His physical frame was awesome. His Parsi complexion was stunning. He was a picture of dignity that was far from contrived. I remember asking him all kinds of dumb questions. He was embarrassingly patient. Never did he say anything that was pompous or condescending. In sum, his was an unmatched visage of humility and charm that I treasured for a long long time. It's a pity I didn't get a chance to see Polly again. This was sad. Somehow the reserve in me prevented me from asking for a meeting whenever I went to Mumbai. Knowing the man as I did, I could have easily got another opportunity to quiz him, this time on his post-playing days. I regret my sloth. I may not see him again. But I can derive solace, recalling memories of his exploits at Chepauk. These included his delightful unbeaten century in February 1952 against the visiting MCC team (as England teams on tour abroad used to be called in those days) led by Nigel Howard. (Play was suspended on the second day to mourn the death of King George VI.) This was his maiden Test hundred and, incidentally, India's first official Test victory was registered on this occasion. Another memorable innings was his fiery century against Pakistan in 1961 at the Corporation Stadium (now the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which was a temporary Test venue until the game returned to Chepauk in 1967) when he lifted the ball at will to astronomic heights (an ability that he displayed while touring the Caribbeans also, rightly earning him the sobriquet Palmtreewala). His aggression was to be matched only by the fire that was to break out in a part of the stands on one of the afternoons when Chandu Borde sent the Pakistanis on a leather-hunt. This seemed to be in sweet revenge for the humiliation inflicted on us five years earlier at Chepauk by the Pakistani bowlers in the rain-affected and abandoned Test.Polly gave so much to cricket even after he called it a day, that it will be grossly unfair not to perpetuate his memory in some form. Whether the BCCI does it or not - there is no reason why it will not - Polly's exploits are inerasably etched in the hearts of many. I am actually waiting for the day when I can tell Akhil and Nikhil how fortunate their grandfather was and why they should study Polly's career if they want to make waves in a game that is streets ahead of others for its infinite variety and the lessons it can teach us to order our lives.