His sentences in English were short and sounded dismissive even if he didn’t mean them to be. They sounded authoritative too — and this, he meant them to be. I once sat behind him at a Ranji Trophy final. I was in college then, and couldn’t muster up the courage to go up and meet him. For this was Lala Amarnath, entitled to the definite article before his first name like the Don, Bradman himself.
There is a lovely story of the Indian team arriving in Pakistan on the 1977-78 tour. As the manager, assuming the limousine waiting was for him walked towards it majestically, the chauffeur told him, “Sorry sir, this car’s for Lala saheb.” Lala was part of the media.
I don’t know if that story’s true. I don’t know if any of the stories told about Lala Amarnath are true in fact; but they are true in essence. He wasn’t the most popular among peers or officials, but he was one of the most colourful men to have played for India. His language, in his native Punjabi was purple, and he occasionally let slip some of it when he was broadcasting. He was also an amazing cricketer — India’s first century maker, first captain of Independent India, a medium-pacer with 463 First Class wickets and a wicketkeeper who once held five catches while substituting for the injured first-choice. I finally met him, and spent some time with him, in Pakistan.
Every generation complains that cricket no longer throws up colourful players, that the straight bat has become more than a technical requirement, it is a symbol for the disappearance of laughter and fun from the game. Who have been India’s most colourful cricketers?
Bishan Bedi, always his own man, the crooked administrator’s nightmare, and one who wore his greatness lightly comes to mind at once, and not just because of the patkas he wore on the field. He brought laughter everywhere he went. As player, he refused to bowl a negative line in England in ’74, or sign blank receipts to please officials. He laughs heartily, sobs unabashedly, and is generous to a fault. Trevor Bailey said he had a “special brand of mystical obstinacy much favoured by religious leaders.”
What might have been a weakness in others was Bedi’s strength.
Then there was Salim Durrani, often called a wayward genius. He had everything in his playing days: talent, looks, and a huge fan following — this last thanks to his obliging the calls for six with greater frequency than others. Bollywood came calling soon enough, as did the consequences of a fairly lavish lifestyle.
He once held India’s record for the fastest 50 in Tests. For long he was famous for being born in Afghanistan; now he is famous for not being born in Afghanistan but near the Khyber Pass on the other side.
Known best for two double centuries in a row and his explanation for schoolmate Sachin Tendulkar’s early success (“He took the elevator, I took the stairs”), Vinod Kambli partied his way into the hearts of those who did not believe that sportsmen must be bound by rules outside the arena too. A longer career might have seen him as a study in the non-Tendulkarite tradition, but perhaps there’s a lesson here. Careers in movies and politics didn’t quite pan out.
Farokh Engineer, as wicketkeeper and bon vivant in a team of bon vivants in the 1960s and 70s, had the talent and the record to match. His name usually followed the adjective ‘flamboyant’ and when he modelled for Brylcreem, the hair care product, he became more than a batsman who nearly made a century before lunch. There was a suggestion that he had enough inside his head to match what was outside, but he never got to lead India. His main competitor was Budhi Kunderan, who struck the ball with equal ferocity and could turn an innings with similar ease. His 192 against England was, for long, the highest score by a wicketkeeper before a new generation began to deal in double centuries.
A man of intelligence and wit
The top three in the batting might include Abbas Ali Baig, a man of intelligence and wit who once had a lady run on to the field to kiss him when he made a Test half-century. It is an incident immortalised in Salman Rushdie’s The Moors’ Last Sigh. Santhakumaran Sreeshanth who manifestly enjoyed himself on the field, on one occasion telling off the South African Andre Nel, provided entertainment beyond the call of duty.
And what of the current players? As a conductor of large audiences in stadiums, Virat Kohli stands alone. I can’t imagine Lala Amarnath doing what he does. Kohli has the Lala’s vocabulary though, and is constantly reminding us that cricket is a game of both head and heart.