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March 8, 2000


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Sachin goes the Umrigar way

Raju Bharatan

Could there be a more churlish suggestion than that Mohammed Azharuddin cast away his wicket the moment he knew he had arrived, afresh, on the murky Indian cricket scene (on the last morning of the Bangalore Test vs Cronje’s South Africa) with that wristy-and-willowy 170-ball 102 – a gem of a hundred studded with 13 fours and 2 sixes? Of the ‘parting shot’ that hinted at no urge on his part to stay and see whether South Africa could be set an embarrassing final-day, final-session target of 75-100, Azhar noted: "It was not a bad shot."

The answer to that is that it was anything but a good shot. Since Azhar hooked Sangita, he has hardly played the shot. And Azhar here knew that Gary Kirsten -- with his throat open -- was stationed on the square-leg boundary-line precisely for that hook-line-and-sinker shot to be played. So Azhar walked into the trap laid by the Boks with his eyes open and his mind closed. Maybe something inside Azhar snapped -- once he got to his personal goal of returning to the Indian Test team with a hundred. The goal of rescuing the Indian team was still there. The goal of rescuing Sachin Tendulkar’s team… If Azhar was not focused enough on the idea of such a ‘team-management’ rescue mission, who shall blame him for ‘doing a Jaisimha’?

Remember how that late Hyderabad stalwart was viewed to be not overkeen to stay put, once he reached 101 on the final day (24 January 1968) of the Third Test at Brisbane. Borde, batting at No 7 on that occasion, hit such a strokeful 63 (to overshadow even ultimate centurion M L Jaisimha in that final-day final innings of the Brisbane Test) that, when Chandu, after a 119-run stand, fell at 310 as the 6th man out, Pataudi’s India needed but 85 runs for a sensational against-all-odds win. But, once Borde departed, Jaisimha just concentrated on reaching his own hundred – there was no visible attempt to shield E A S Prasanna (4) and Bishen Singh Bedi (0) at the other end, after Bapu Nadkarni (2) was lbw to John Gleeson. As No 11 Umesh Kulkarni (1) remained not out, Jaisimha (101) was caught by John Gleeson off Bob Cowper – like Azhar, as soon as he reached a century. Jaisimha’s personal hundred, an epic knock as it was in the wake of his first-innings 74 (after having virtually landed, from the plane, on Brisbane’s ’Gabba ground), did not dispel the impression that this Hyderbad stylist, well set like Azhar, could have orchestrated a better attempt to go for those 85 runs to victory, once Chandu Borde fell for 63 -- with India’s total reading 310 at that point. (India lost that Brisbane Test by just 39 runs to surrender the series 0-3.)

Azhar at Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium was even better placed to sustain India’s rearguard action than Jaisimha at the ’Gabba (32 years ago), remembering that he got to his 2000 AD hundred after trouncing Nicky Boje for 18 runs in an over (three fours and a six). The motivation for Azhar to aim for a big hundred (150 at least) should have been stronger than in Jaisimha’s case, seeing how Anil Kumble (finally 28) had, like in his first innings' 36 not out, taken resolute root at the other end. India was just 81 short of making South Africa bat again when Azhar (102) so disappointingly hooked Pollock into the waiting paws of Gary Kirsten, making us 240 for 6. It was a tame end indeed to a great comeback. I noted above that "India (then) was just 81 short of making South Africa bat again" because, the way Azhar was going, he could have made a million! Azhar’s unthinking hook that Monday morning saw Sachin’s India hurtle to defeat by an innings and 71 runs and be clean-swept 2-0.

Ha, Sachin! Really speaking, neither Sachin (20), nor Sourav Ganguly (13), nor Rahul Dravid (18) here had any moral right to upbraid Azhar, looking to how each one of them had gifted away his wicket in the innings in which India folded up for 250, once our centurion-hero left at 240. Azhar’s mishook at least came after he had made Indian batting look respectable for the first time in the series. Sachin (20) had departed (as India’s captain) in sackcloth minus ashes, as he chased an ultra-wide one from Allan Donald to be clinchingly caught by Herschelle Gibbs at point. Sachin thus set the scene for India to lose its fifth Test in a row under him on his "mentally-not-prepared" return as captain. Is there a parallel in our cricket to the no-win, get-lost circumstances in which Sachin went out as captain? There is – there is a parallel to every case involving ‘loss of face’ in Indian cricket! Indeed, the man who quit the Indian captaincy in almost the exact setting Sachin did is none other than the ‘vintager’ decorated, only the other day, with the C K Nayudu Award -- Polly Umrigar. If Sachin threw in the Turkish towel because he did not get the team he wanted, so did Polly Umrigar, over 40 years before him. How?

It happened during the stormy 1958-'59 series at home against Gerry Alexander’s West Indies -- a touring team spearheaded by the fastest pair of bowlers I have witnessed operating, together, in my life -- Roy Gilchrist and Wesley Hall. That 1958-'59 series was the one in which India flaunted four captains in five Tests! The Gilchrist-Hall duo certainly created chaos and misorder in our cricketing ranks. So over to 1958-'59!

Polly Umrigar here led India with commitment in the First Test at the Brabourne Stadium in Bombay. True, for such a naturally attacking batsman, Polly batted in a servilely submissive mould. Yet Umrigar’s 55 and 36 in that lung-opener Bombay Test – alongside Pankaj Roy’s 90 and G S Ramchand’s 67 not out in the second innings – certainly helped us draw that series ‘pace’-setter in which Gilchrist and Hall presented a most fearsome sight.

For the next two Tests at Green Park, Kanpur, and Eden Gardens, Calcutta, Ghulam Ahmed (having missed the Bombay Test through a discreetly feigned injury) returned as the man originally appointed India’s captain for the five-match series. Both those Tests, under Ghulam Ahmed, were lost and how! At Green Park, Ghulam Ahmed’s India lost by 203 runs, at Eden Gardens by a whopping innings and 336 runs, as Gilchrist and Hall cleared the decks for Gary Sobers (198 at Kanpur and 106 not out at Calcutta)) and Rohan Kanhai (256 at Calcutta) to get murderously after our bowling. Such, in fact, was the public indignation at the way our batsmen were then mowed down by the Windies quicks that, at the end of the Eden Gardens Test, Ghulam Ahmed peremptorily announced his retirement from the game of cricket altogether – following scathing criticism of India’s showing under his rootless command, after Subhash Gupte (34.3-11-102-9) had all but run through the massive might of the West Indies (all out 222, following being 88 for 6 at one stage) on the first day of play at Kanpur.

Captain Ghulam Ahmed’s abject ‘retired-hurt’ surrender brought back Polly Umrigar as two-down India’s skipper for the Fourth Test at the Corporation Stadium, Madras. Some Test of character and temperament this one was destined to be! The drama we select scribes witnessed the evening before that Fourth Test, in a ground-floor room of the posh Connemara Hotel in Madras, had all the ingredients of a Greek tragedy. When announcing Polly Umrigar as India’s captain again for that series-determining Madras Test, Lala Amarnath (how could you keep this man out of it!), as Chairman of Selectors, had decreed that the player-void created by Ghulam Ahmed’s suddenly opting out of the team would be filled either by Kripal Singh or Jasu Patel, depending upon the skipper’s preference.

Lucklessly, there were to be two more dropouts on the eve of that ill-fated Madras Test -- set to be lost by no fewer than 295 runs. C D Gopinath, injured four days before that Madras Test while confronting Windies pace while turning out for South Zone at Bangalore, reported unfit. And India’s best batsman Vijay Manjrekar – helmetlessly equipped against Windies pace following his ultra-sound, ultra-brave 58 not out on the last day of the Third (Eden Gardens) Test -- now put the lid on it by sending an eleventh-hour telegram to the effect that, in a Ranji Trophy encounter, he had been hit over the heel and so would not be able to play. (Incidentally, Manjrekar had come to look upon Umrigar as a ‘heel’ after Polly (before being out for 34) ran out Vijay (31) in an effort to escape to the end from which Umrigar would get the opportunity to collar the ‘donkey-drops’ of Joe Solomon rather than square up to the ferocious velocity of Wes Hall -- in the second innings of the Second Test at Kanpur!)

Vijay Manjrekar’s 58 not out in the Third (Calcutta) Test had, by that stage of the series, registered as a cameo against the brute speed of Gilchrist and Hall. For Manjrekar had stood up on classical toes to hook this awesome pace duo, time and again, so that Vijay’s opting out of the Madras Test now sent alarm-bells jangling around Umrigar’s ears. Manjrekar (throwing a fit in the Kanpur dressing-room) had, by then, stopped talking to Umrigar. But Umrigar still wanted Manjrekar’s bat to do the talking in the needle Madras Test! Now Manjrekar’s crying off, a day before that Fourth Test, turned Umrigar into a near nervous wreck. For Kripal Singh had already occupied the slot vacated by Ghulam Ahmed, next Chandu Borde (as the 12th man and a fresher unafraid of pace) had taken the spot opened up by C D Gopinath.

That still left Umrigar, as skipper, with the problem of finding a replacement for Vijay Manjrekar and he asked for Manohar Hardikar (who had intrepidly carried on, in the Kanpur Test, in the face of a blow on the head dealt by Wes Hall) to be flown overnight to Madras. Manohar, earlier, had been hailed, by the inimitable Vizzy (monopolising the commentary on AIR) as "Hardikar The Hard" -- following his 13 and 11 at Kanpur, coming on top of his 0 and 32 not out in the Bombay Test. No great scores maybe, still the man had certainly held firm against the thunderbolts of Gilchrist and Hall. But the hard fact was that Hardikar could not obtain a seat on the last available flight from Bombay to Madras. Umrigar thus had no go but to settle for A K Sen Gupta, who had hit 35 and 100 not out for Services vs the West Indies (in the opening match of the tour at Khadakvasla). Sen Gupta, at least, had been among the original standbys for that Madras Test.

Believe it or not, only one of the four selectors was present in Madras at the time. But the choice of a replacement was not rationally left to that lone selector, C Ramaswami, in consultation with skipper Umrigar. It came to be dictated by Cricket Board Secretary A N Ghose. This venerable gentleman pointed out that there was a communication from the Cricket Board President, Ratibhai Patel, decreeing that (spinner) Jasu Patel was to be played, in place of (striker) Vijay Manjrekar, in that Madras Test! Whereupon Polly Umrigar lost what little self-control he had left and let it be plainly understood (to those Pooh-Bahs of the Cricket Board) that, with Kripal Singh already in the eleven as an off-spinner in place of Ghulam Ahmed, he wanted a batsman, not a bowler, to fill the vacancy created by Vijay Manjrekar’s dropping out. If he did not have his way, Umrigar let it be known in no uncertain terms, he was resigning the Indian captaincy then and there!

There was no way the Cricket Board -- a British-style set-up all-powerful those days and viewing cricketers as artisans engaged to perform a task – was going to let "a mere player" veto its President’s choice. But Umrigar, by that juncture, was viewed to become hysterical in his insistence on Jasu Patel’s not playing. There was a civic reception to the Indian team, late in the evening, before that Madras Test. Umrigar somehow managed to deliver the speech he was supposed to make on that occasion. Having done so, Polly Umrigar (like Atal Behari Vajpayee not too long ago) announced his decision to submit his resignation to the (Board) President. He added, however, that his services, as a player, continued to be available to the President and his Cricket Board for that Madras Test and for other games!

Our Cricket Board never ever forgave Umrigar on this count. It, in his later life, engaged Polly Umrigar as its executive secretary and, throughout, made him acutely aware that he was on its payroll! The 20-21 January 1959 Madras face-off (Polly Umrigar vs The Cricket Board) also tells us why the C K Nayudu Award was so late in coming to the man. Pahlan Ratanji Umrigar, by end-January 1959, was persona non grata vis-à-vis the Cricket Board and was never directly to be appointed captain of India again – merely taking over from Nari Contactor in the 1961-'62 series vs Ted Dexter’s England at home, when that left-handed opener was off the field.

To get back to that ground-floor room at Madras’ Connemara Hotel, Umrigar was none too coherent as he outlined his compulsions for resigning. Yet the act of divesting himself of the Indian captaincy (like in the case of Sachin Tendulkar) was noted to act as its own sedative in the case of Polly Umrigar. One would like to think that the drama in the Connemara Hotel was thus over at last. By no means. To that ground-floor room of the hotel now rushed all the officials of the Cricket Board present in Madras, urging Umrigar to stay his resigning hand! If only Umrigar remained captain, they now said, he was welcome to have Sen Gupta (or any other player he cared to name) in place of Jasu Patel! But Umrigar had had enough. Polly, by then, had a closed mind in the matter. The events of the ‘day-and-night’, observed an official of the Cricket Board, "excited Umrigar to a state of nervous collapse". Umrigar said there was no way he could withdraw his resignation – since "I don’t consider myself in a fit state of mind, any longer, to do justice to my duties as captain".

As a mere player in the result, do you think the West Indies empathised with Umrigar in his sorry plight, as he came in to bat when that Madras Test finally got under way? "The very first ball that Wes Hall sent down to me," Umrigar told me, "was the fastest bouncer I faced in my life – how fast you could judge from the fact that, after pitching some three yards in front of me, it sailed over wicket-keeper Alexander and hit the Corporation Stadium sightscreen first bounce!"

Umrigar left soon after – c Alexander b Hall 4.

On Umrigar’s suggestion, Vinoo Mankad had been appointed captain for that Madras Test -- only for the mantle to pass to a military man not in series-playing reckoning till then -- Lt-Col Hemu Adhikari for the fifth and final Test at Ferozeshah Kotla, Delhi. Meanwhile, Vinoo Mankad had an ‘ethnic’ Gujarati rivalry going with Jasu Patel. Vinoo Mankad would agree to take over from Polly Umrigar, as the Madras Test captain, only on condition that Sen Gupta got to be included and Jasu Patel stood excluded! The Cricket Board came to resent Polly Umrigar’s attitude all the more as, right through, it had accorded him the status of nothing more than ‘the senior pro’ – like Alec Bedser in relation to Len Hutton in the England team of the mid- 1950s. If our Cricket Board loved Umrigar less after that Madras imbroglio, it hated the guts of Mankad even more -- as Vinoo's being amongst the earliest cricketers to turn professional, in India, and confront the Establishment. Now Umrigar had created a situation in which the Cricket Board had no alternative but to let the man it loathed, Vinoo Mankad, be captain of India for that Madras Test. It was gone five in the morning (just five hours to go for the Madras Test to start!) by the time the Board President’s reluctant okay came for Vinoo Mankad to lead India.

All because of the intransigence of one Polly Umrigar!

‘Before Tendulkar, who?’

Polly Umrigar, to be sure.

Which puts Sachin Tendulkar in logical line for the C K Nayudu Award some day!

Raju Bharatan

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