His Test career spanned 19 years, his first-class career a further 16. His three sons became first-class cricketers, two played Tests and one of them was the chief architect of the country’s 1983 World Cup triumph. And given that he also served as captain, selector, coach, manager and broadcaster, Lala Amarnath deserves to be called the ‘Big Daddy’ of Indian cricket. But the feat he achieved as a 21-year-old on a wintry Sunday in 1933 — December 17 to be precise — was what made him a superstar overnight.
Eleven months after the Indian team’s tour of England, the two countries met again, this time in India. The first official visit of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) team evoked great enthusiasm throughout the country. Their tour started with a match against Sind at Karachi. And the visitors went onto play matches in Amritsar, Patiala, Delhi, Ajmer, Rajkot, Bombay (three), Calcutta (two), Madras (two), Benares, Nagpur and Secunderabad.
And given that it was the epicentre of cricket in the country, Bombay had the honour of hosting the first-ever Test match on Indian soil. The Gymkhana Ground in Fort, a stone’s throw from the iconic ‘Victoria Terminus’, hosted its first — and, till date, only — Test. Calcutta and Madras hosted the next two before the MCC team travelled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) for two first-class games.
Back to the first Test and CK Nayudu chose to bat in front of 50,000 thrilled spectators packed into a venue that could ‘officially’ house only 15,000 people! India made 219 with no batsman managing more than Amarnath’s 38. Headley Verity, arguably the greatest left-arm spin bowler ever, picked up three wickets, as did James Langridge — who also practised the same art as Verity — and Morris Nichols. In reply, England made 438, thanks in particular to debutant Bryan Valentine’s 136 and skipper Douglas Jardine’s 60.
The story begins now. Trailing by 219 runs, India started their second innings, on the third afternoon, on a poor note. They were two down for 21 and, once again, it was left to Nayudu and Amarnath to steady the ship. While Nayudu, troubled by a bruise on the left hand, batted with gumption and was content on rotating the strike, Amarnath played like a man possessed. At one end, it was Nayudu and his experience, at the other it was Amarnath’s brilliance.
The crowd didn’t care about the fact that England still held the upper hand. They egged Amarnath on and the young Punjabi delighted them with leg glides, cuts and drives that often left the fielders still. Amarnath hit as many as 21 fours at the colonial venue.
When he reached his hundred at the stroke of stumps, the spectators exploded into wild cheering and thousands invaded the ground to congratulate him. Play had to be called off a good 20 minutes ahead of the scheduled close. Several maharajas and princes were in attendance and they showered him with expensive gifts. News of his performance thrilled the country.
Amarnath earned the double distinction of being the first Indian to score a Test century and first among his countrymen to get a hundred on Test debut. Never before and never since have two debutants scored a hundred in the same Test. What’s more, both got to their hundreds on the same day!
“I hit six fours in two overs and my fifty included 11 fours, two twos and two singles. When I completed the century, my captain, CK Nayudu congratulated me saying, ‘I’m considered the fastest scorer’,” Amarnath had said at a function in 1993.
India ended the day on 159/2 with Amarnath on 102 and Nayudu on 44. The partnership, which yielded 186 runs (the highest of the match), continued in the morning of the fourth day when Nayudu was caught by Valentine off Morris Nichols for 67. After that, the Indian innings collapsed and the remaining seven wickets produced only 51 runs, 30 of which were scored by Vijay Merchant. Nichols claimed the last four wickets to end up with 5/55. England, needing only 40 for victory, knocked off the runs in just 7.2 overs for the loss of Arthur Mitchell.
In fact, it was a drawn game against Southern Punjab which made people sit up and take notice of Amarnath. The youngster, who after Nobby Clark and Morris Nichols had got rid of the first three batsmen cheaply (12/3), joined hands with the Yuvraj of Patiala (66) to put on 134 for the fourth wicket. He hit the ball tremendously hard and giving only one chance during his 109-run knock before being caught off Clark. That knock, at the Alexandra Ground (now called the Gandhi Sports Complex Ground) in Amritsar, propelled Amarnath into the Test side.
For the record, the second Test (Eden Gardens) ended in a draw. England won the third at Chepauk by 202 runs.