Lala Amarnath at 22, was elevated to folk hero status after his exhilarating century against England in the first Test played in India on the Bombay Gymkhana ground on Sunday, December 17, 1933. A class above the Nawab of Pataudi and the equal of Duleep Sinhji at the beginning of his first-class career, enthused the winter. He is already a better stroke-player than George Headley and shall soon be classifying him with Don Bradman. But he has not yet got the Australian wizard’s certainty of keeping the ball on the ground.
The ties with such an illustrious quartet were, in the light of future events, exaggerated; but the accompanying diagram authenticates the round-the- wicket mastery of the innings, Amarnath only Test century in a career extending over 30 years. The South Punjabi stylist scorned the pace of Stan Nichols and Nobby Clark and the spinning subtleties of Hedley Verity and Jim Langridge, to crown an occasion of great rejoicing in Indian cricket history.
The gala day brought England captain Douglas Jardine, fresh from his triumphs in Australia, back to his birthplace described by Kipling as the ‘Queen of Cities. An eager, expectant crowd thronged the Esplanade Maidan and an estimated 50,000 spectators besieged the turnstiles. There was a steady stream towards the entrances of the private tents and it was certain that the attendance was going to strain the accommodation,’ reported one newspaper. Thousands were locked out of the ground and others clambered on to neighboring roof-tops for a grandstand view.
Inside the ground’, ran another report, ‘the level green turf made a beautiful picture; the square was roped off and guarded by policemen; and over the Gymkhana pavilion flew the Union Jack with the red and yellow touring flag of the Marylebone Cricket Club and the light blue banner of All-India on either side of it.
The setting demanded heroic cricket and Lala Amarnath supplied it at a critical juncture in the game. India, facing a deficit of 219, had already lost two second innings wickets for 21 runs when Amarnath came to the crease to rally his team with fearless and inspired batting. One eye- witness said: ‘He attacked the bowling at once and four after four came from his bat, at one time six in succession, and he showed a marked partiality for Verity.’ The Yorkshire left-hander had his most punishing experience of the tour, ‘the crowd roaring with delight and amazement as ball after ball was sent cracking to the boundary.’
Lala Amarnath innings which made him an Indian folk hero, 118 against England in India’s first official home Test. The chart, produced by a spectator, shows the range of his stroke play – 10 of his 21 boundaries came on the off side, 11 on the one side. Those strokes marked ‘0’ indicate possible boundaries cut off by good fielding.
Amarnath’’s partner was his resolute captain Naydu, playing a supporting defensive role as the young Punjabi launched his attack. ‘At one end the batting was governed by thought and experience; at the other it was marked by the dash and exuberance of youth commented one observer. Amarnath reached his 50 in less than an hour and there were 14 boundaries in his first 70 runs scored out of 98 by the tea interval.
Caution ruled briefly as Amarnath neared his hundred, but presently he scampered a single to reach the target. ‘Pandemonium broke loose, reported the Times of India. ‘The cheers were loud and sustained. Hats went up in the air and two spectators ran out with garlands. The English players joined in the applause and Jardine walked from mid-on and shook him heartily by the hand in congratulation.
Lala Amarnath century, which included 18 fours, was scored in three minutes short of two hours. It was the second century of the day, following Bryan Valentine’s own maiden Test 100, a fiercely aggressive 136, in the morning, as England reached a total of 438. At the close of play a delirious crowd gathered in a great mass in front of the Hindu Gymkhana marquee.
They refused to leave until Amarnath had been presented to them. Major Naydu escorted his young colleague to the tent where he was congratulated by the Maharajahs of Baroda and Kolhapur and presented with a gold cup on behalf of the Bombay club. The headlines of the day reflected on an innings of flawless achievement which, it seemed certain, would enable India to share the honors of the inaugural test.
England dashed their hopes with superlative catching in what was almost an act of cruelty. The turning point was the loss of three wickets for the addition of one run against the new ball in the space of 13 minutes on the last morning. The third-wicket partnership between Amarnath and Naydu (67) had realized 186 when Valentine accepted a slip chance off Nichols to dismiss the Indian captain. One run later Amarnath’s glorious innings was over.
His leg-glance, just marginally late and fatally fine, travelled inches from the ground to Nichols who fell sprawling to grimly hold on to a marvelous catch. Jardine’s straight forward gully catch off the ubiquitous Nichols to dismiss Jai sealed the issue. Indian’s last seven wickets fell for 51 runs, Nichols taking five for 55 in 23.5 over’s. England needed only 40 runs to win by nine wickets Douglas Jardine’s unerring captaincy, England’s superb fielding and India’s inexperience were the factors contributing to the downfall of the aspiring host nation.
India’s day will come, was the consoling prophecy of the Daily Telegraph as it called attention to the audacious batsman ship of the brilliant young pathfinder Lala Amarnath whose own sons Mohinder Amarnath and Surinder Amarnath in the years ahead were to add luster to the family name. Lala Amarnath himself overcame the humiliation of being sent home from England for disciplinary reasons in 1936; he was later acquitted of the charges to marshal the credentials of India as a cricketing force.
He toured England in 1946 and achieved the honor of captaining his country against Australia, West Indies and Pakistan. His all-round talents brought him 10,323 runs and 457 wickets with his taxing in swingers. He never quite recaptured the heady excitement of his memorable Test debut in Bombay. But he blazed a trail to beckon his gifted successors.