Lala Amarnath - the life and times of a legend
The early days:
Lala Amarnath was born on September 11, 1911, at Kapurthala, Punjab, in a Brahmin family. The pandit who drew the baby’s horoscope prophesied that the new born would travel the world and rub shoulders with Maharajas and influential people.
As a child Amarnath’s prized possession was a cricket bat, which was made by a local carpenter and gifted to him by his mother. Amarnath went to school in Lahore. In the later years he developed a keen interest in the game of cricket and played club cricket at Lahore.
His never-say-die attitude was always at the fore. His consistent performances made him a popular name in Lahore. He was first noticed by Frank Tarrant, an Australian coach employed with Patiala. Tarrant recommended Amarnath’s name to the Indian board.
The first centurion (1933):
December 15, 1933 was a historic day in the history of Indian cricket. India played its first Test match at home. The venue was the Bombay Gymkhana Ground. India played the professional English unit led by Douglas Jardine. Bombay Chronicle reported the presence of 50,000 people in the stands and vantage points from which a glimpse of this historic match could be obtained.
India batted first and were bowled out for 219, and England scored 438 in their first innings. In the second innings India lost both their openers with only 21 runs on the board. In walked Amarnath – the dashing Patiala youngster who had the reputation of being an aggressive batsman. He started attacking. With each passing minute Amarnath grew in confidence. Short deliveries were cut ferociously and hooked towards square-leg.
Jardine was defensive with his field settings; there was no slip and the fielders were placed deep. When Amarnath took a single to reach his 100th run, the ground was invaded. The play was held up for more than five minutes. India had got her first centurion. Amarnath was unbeaten on 102 at the end of the day.
The entire nation was singing wholesome praises for India’s first centurion. His room at the Taj Mahal hotel was full of gifts and congratulatory messages. The Maharaja of Porbander and Dhangadra presented him with a memento. The pandit’s prophecy had come true.
India lost the Test match the next day, but Amarnath’s 118-run knock was the talking point. Amarnath even got a marriage proposal from the young daughter of a famous Bombay jeweller.
Amarnath sent home from England (1936):
The Maharaja of Vizianagaram, popularly called ‘Vizzy’, captained the Indian side to England in 1936. Vizzy had not even played any first-class cricket. He had no knowledge of the game and often did whatever he wanted. On quite a few occasions his poor captaincy cost India an opportunity to win against county sides.
Amarnath was a star for India with both bat and ball. Vizzy had differences of opinion with Amarnath on some issues. Amarnath had taken a lot of workload by bowling a lot of overs against the county sides and was injured. He requested manager Britton Jones and Vizzy to give him some rest, which was refused. Vizzy hatched a conspiracy against Amarnath. He asked Amarnath to pad up and sent some lesser known players ahead of him to bat. When Amarnath’s injury aggravated Vizzy sent him in. This irked Amarnath and he banged his bat against the floor of the dressing room.
This forced manager Jones to send Amarnath back to India on disciplinary grounds.
The name Lala:
Amarnath sought permission from Maharaja of Patiala to go to Lahore to see his ailing grandparents. The Maharaja granted the request without any delay. During the cricket season, Lahore used to host many tournaments. In one such tournament a local lad by the name of Amar Nath had scored a century and a local newspaper carried that report. The Maharaja’s sycophants used this opportunity to malign Amarnath’s reputation and this angered him.
On his return, the Maharaja summoned Amarnath and started shouting at him. But Amarnath had saved the Maharaja’s reputation on many occasions with his blistering knocks and astute bowling. Amarnath said that he was extremely loyal towards his kingdom and was innocent, ultimately convincing the Maharaja.
Amarnath decided to prefix Lala to his name, since his father was a businessman and everybody called him ‘Lalaji’.
Amarnath represented the Hindus in the Pentangular tournament. In 1938, Amarnath scored 241 at the Brabourne Stadium, the highest score in the tournament’s history.
In 1940, the Congress appealed to scrap the Pentangular, which they believed sent out a wrong message since the teams were divided on the basis of communities. Amarnath agreed with that viewpoint and stopped playing the Pentangular tournament.
On December 8, 1938, Amarnath married Kailash Kumari. The couple stayed in Lahore for a few months travelled, together on tours and then upon returning, settled in Patiala.
Amarnath picked up 84 wickets in the 1938-39 season of the League. His high point came when he dismissed George Headley (the Black Bradman) twice in two games, lbw on both occasions.
1946 England tour: Comeback in the national team:
Amarnath played a Test match after a gap of 12 years. His career suffered because of the Second World War.
Amarnath shone as a bowler in the 1946 England tour. In the first Test match at Lord’s, Amarnath bowled a marathon spell with figures of 37-18-118-5. But England won the Test match by 10 wickets.
In the second Test match Amarnath took five wickets in a marathon 51 over spell and three wickets off his 30 overs in the second innings. India saved the Test match.
The third Test match was washed out.
1947-48 tour of Australia: Captaining the team:
Amarnath led India to Australia. The team locked horns with Australia’s invincible team. In the second Test at Sydney, the Indian team had an excellent chance to press for a victory, but the rain played spoilsport. India lost the five match series 4-0.
The Indian team lacked the skill to win matches. The Illustrated Weekly of India went on to say that Amarnath had superior understanding of the Australian wickets that Australian captain, Don Bradman. He had highest respect for Amarnath.
War of words with Anthony De Mello:
Anthony De Mello was the President of the BCCI. He levelled serious allegations against Amarnath regarding his discipline, demand for money and nepotism. Amarnath addressed a press conference and replied to de Mello’s allegations.
He also collected all the evidence to prove himself innocent. When Amarnath was found not to be guilty, he sued de Mello for defamation and demanded one lakh rupees.
Pakistan’s tour of India (1952): First series win
India won the first Test at Delhi but lost the second at Lucknow. The third Test at the Brabourne Stadium was a decider. Amarnath played mind games with rival skipper Abdul Hafeez Kardar. He asked Kardar what he would do if he won the toss. Kardar refused to answer and asked what Lala would do.
Lala told Kardar he would field and was being honest. Lala knew the Pakistan skipper would do just the opposite. Pakistan won the toss and they batted. That was what Lala wanted. India won the Test match by 10 wickets.
It was their first series win.
Manager and Administrator:
Amarnath was the manager of Indian team when they visited Pakistan in 1954-55. There were several incidences where the Indian team was not treated well. When the team reached their hotel in Karachi, there were not enough rooms. Four players shared a room. The next day, the hotel authorities asked the team to vacate the hotel.
When the team reached Hyderabad (Sind), there was a Test match in a couple of hours. The teams reached their hotel for a quick shower but there was no warm water. There were no towels as well. Amarnath arranged the towels himself. He managed the team to the best of his ability.
Amarnath was appointed as the chairman of the selection committee. Time and again he pepped up the players and increased their confidence level. In 1959, Amarnath included Jasu Patel in the team seeing the Kanpur track, just two days before the game against Australia. Patel was negotiated safely by the Australians. Amarnath asked captain G.S.Ramchand to switch Patel’s end.
That was a masterstroke. Patel took nine first innings wickets and five in the second innings. Amarnath’s cricketing wisdom worked wonders.
Chandu Borde’s confidence was at its lowest ebb. He was getting out cheaply against West Indies in the home series in 1958-59. Amarnath just told him do not worry you will be in the team for the England tour. Borde scored 109 and 96 against West Indies at Delhi. Yet, Amarnath did not take any credit for Borde’s success.
Sons-Mohinder and Surinder:
Lala was a trainer to both Mohinder and Surinder. He was extremely proud when Surinder scored a century on debut against New Zealand. When Surinder got out on 124, he was disappointed as well.
Lala was proud of Mohinder’s hook shot. He always encouraged him to play that shot. When Mohinder was playing against Nottinghamshire he was struck on the head by a Richard Hadlee delivery. Lala was worried about his son and came to know he was alright. Lala phoned Mohinder and told him exactly what mistake he had made.
It was incredible to see Lala sitting thousands of miles away, surprisingly knowing what mistake Mohinder would have made.
Role in Media:
Lala began to write his opinions in the Indian Express. The column was named ‘Expert comments by Lala Amarnath’. People liked Lalaji’s opinions. He was subsequently roped in as a television pundit, when television became a popular medium of entertainment. The line,“Lalaji aapka kya khayal hai?”(Lalaji what do you think) became an instant hit.
In 1978 and 1982, Amarnath was a guest commentator on PTV. He loved going to Pakistan and had quite a good number of stories to tell people since he grew up in Lahore. Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq took special interest in Lalaji’s expert comments. He admired Amarnath.
An Imran Khan delivery hit his son Mohinder on the head. Mohinder collapsed, and his father was on air. Lala stood motionless and said that Mohinder judged the line wrong and hence got hit. Deep inside, a caring father was worried, but he did not show that while commenting. Later he visited Mohinder and asked him to play a hook shot.
The final years:
In 1991, Amarnath received the Padma Bhushan. The Punjab Cricket Association has named the main gate of Mohali the ‘Lala Amarnath Gate’.
On 5th August, 2000 Lala Amarnath passed away in his sleep. The man’s aura is still very much alive in Indian cricketing circles.
Lala Amarnath Award:
In 2011, the BCCI decided to institute an award in Amarnath’s name for the best all-rounder in the Ranji Trophy and the best all-rounder in limited overs domestic competition to commemorate the great man’s centenary.
1) The Making of a Legend: Lala Amarnath-Life & Times by Rajender Amarnath