Millennium Post

Relishing Jimmy's peregrination

In JIMMY – The phoenix of ‘83, Arup Saikia potrays Mohinder Amarnath’s rollercoaster career, on how the pre-eminence of his father affected his thinking, and what he thought about the way his brother, Surinder, was treated by the selectors; Excerpts:

In "Democracy's XI" journalist and media personality, Rajdeep Sardesai, whose father Dilip played stellar roles in West Indies 1970-71 (his aggregate of 642 runs included 2 centuries and a double century) and England 1971 (an accomplished 54 and 40 at the deciding Oval Test in a competitive low-scoring series) during India's 1-0 wins in both countries, says, "The closest we have to a House of Cricket in India are the Amarnaths: the father Lala was the first Indian Test centurion, his sons Mohinder and Surinder played for the country, while a third, Rajender, played first-class cricket."

Jimmy Amarnath had to wait six years between his debut and his second Test while he learnt his trade – unremarkable in that it may have happened to many a youngster thrust into international cricket too early, but at least endurable for one serving his apprenticeship – compared to dad Lala's 12-year wait between his third and fourth Tests. This was caused partly by the Second World War (1939-45) and partly by a controversial banishment from the English tour (1936) which denied the senior Amarnath a chance to display his talents in seam-friendly English conditions in his prime. It hurt him badly not just for the humiliation but also the 'restraint on trade'.

As Lala recalled later: "The most disappointing event was being sent back home before the Test series began on the 1936 tour. You see, that was my prime year, and I know I'd have been a great success…" ("Lala Amarnath – Life & Times" by Rajender Amarnath).

A decade later, on India's tour of England 1946, feisty and tireless at 35, he reeled off 138 overs with nagging accuracy across three successive Test innings at Lords & Old Trafford (57-10-118-5; 51-17-96-5; 30-9-71-3) snaring 13 batsmen off what was described as "a short four-stride run up" delivering "on a trip so that he appeared to bowl off his wrong foot." He kept "an almost impeccable length, moved his in-swingers probably more than any bowler in England, and mixed these with a cut leg-break of some venom."

Fifty years after Lala was sent home, Mushtaq Ali, his colleague at the time, reflected on that tour: "We did not have an able captain. (Maharaja) Vizianagaram, in my opinion, was just a good club cricketer. But then it was a pre-Partition tour and he managed to get the captaincy. That is why the team was divided into many factions. Otherwise, we had an excellent team. Vizzy had certain favourites who just had to make the team. As a result, there were 22 Indian players in England and some did not get a chance to play for weeks.

"In the match against Minor Counties I scored a hundred and Lala was to go one down. When I got out I don't know what happened but Vizzy told Lala to wait. He sent someone else in. Eventually, Amarnath went after the fall of the 5th wicket (as 'night watchman' and came back with 1 not out). He came back to the dressing room, started throwing his gloves, bat and pads and started cursing the captain in Punjabi. A lot of old English cricketers were present so it made matters worse.

"Both sides (Vizzy and Amarnath) were to blame. Amarnath could have been punished later… It was a pity that he had to return home because he was in great form then." The 1936 side included C K Nayadu, Lala Amarnath, Nissar, Amar Singh, Mushtaq Ali and Vijay Merchant yet won only 5 of the 31 matches on that tour.

A Flavour of the 70s & 80s

In "Adkatha – the Story of Indian Advertising", Anand Halve and Anita Sarkar reflected on the 70s as almost Dickensian – "The opening words of 'A Tale of Two Cities' would be equally true of the 1970s in India: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …'.

Somshankar Ray: "The India of 1971 was vastly different from that of 1952. In 1952 when India secured its maiden Test (cricket) victory, public opinion did not go overboard in praise of the triumph and only politely acknowledged it. The nation focused on the up-and-coming industries and public works and not on sports." But in the difficult, often troubled, 1970s, with India falling short of international standards in many fields, "cricket brought beleaguered citizens much-needed optimism".

One reliable barometer to reflect those times was the simple, dark-coloured instrument – the telephone. Just having access to your own fixed landline was a luxury. In the mid-70s about 600 million Indians had just two million telephones between them. It helped to know a Member of Parliament (MP) because he might consider it worthy of granting you one, otherwise you were part of an endless 'waiting list.' Just in case you had a landline and wanted to call someone in another city, a 'trunk call' would have to be 'booked' with the operator and waited on for several hours. If you didn't have the time and patience to wait, you could opt for a "lightning call" – at a premium of course – that might just get you through within an hour.

For Indian cricket, 1971 was the watershed year. Jimmy must have watched Indian News Review like millions of wide-eyed Indian fans as Ajit Wadekar's triumphant side returned to India after a first-ever 1-0 series win in England 1971 to add to a similar result in the West Indies.

In "My Cricketing Years," captain Ajit Wadekar wrote: "Our Air India flight would be specially diverted to Delhi where we would have to stop off for a meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Later we were feted by the DDCA where ashtrays engraved with laudatory messages to us were pinched as souvenirs by us." As the 737 Boeing Garuda touched down (at Santa Cruz Airport in Mumbai) spectators cheered wildly, conches were blown and a police band struck up 'Welcome the conquering heroes' as Wadekar led the team down the gangway. "It is estimated that over 1.5 million people watched the motorcade as it covered the 20-kilometre route to CCI (Brabourne Stadium). There were posters, buntings and arches all the way. We were showered with rose petals and gulal. The most touching scene was when we passed the school for the blind at Worli. I was deeply moved and asked the driver to stop to receive the garlands of these kind enthusiasts. The round of festivities was interrupted by the war with Pakistan. The cricketers did their bit in collecting funds for the national cause."

Even 47 years later, the captain of the beaten English side Ray Illingworth, winner of a 7-Test Ashes series in Australia (1970-71), speaking to a journalist during Virat Kohli's side's tour of England, 2018, felt a twinge of regret: "He was a good captain with the resources that he had and was a difficult player to dislodge. It was quite something to come to England without quality swing bowlers and win a series. Let me tell you we should have won the series 2-0. It didn't happen and then they came back after being quite a few runs short in the first innings at the Oval. It was their spin bowling that did us in."

Wadekar recalled that "pleasantly mild, sunny afternoon" at the Oval (the fourth day of the third and final Test, 23 Aug 1971) when one of his spinners Bhagawat Chandrasekhar, the leggie who bowled faster than Derek 'Deadly' Underwood, took 6 for 38 from 18.1 overs to bowl out England for 101 leaving India 170-odd to win (India took 101 overs to score those runs) and take the series 1-0 after the first two Tests were rain-affected draws: "It was one long procession as England's batsmen were unable to tell Chandrasekhar's topspinner from his leg-break."

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