November 18, 2006

Polly Umrigar – the Harvard of Indian cricket

By H Natarajan

“How is the wicket, Polly Kaka?” I once asked the great man about a wicket he was preparing for a Test. And he replied in his rich, deep voice: “Wickets are like women. Banneno baroso nathi. (Both are unpredictable).” Switching between English and Gujarati in conversation was Polly Umrigar’s delightful trademark.

That answer also reflected another facet of the man: He gave me a reply, yet he gave away nothing. He was typically courteous but equally typically guarded in voicing his opinion in public.
In the passing away of Umrigar last week, Indian cricket has lost a great cricketer and a greater human being. That showpiece building in Mumbai’s upmarket Worli, which houses some of the most celebrated jewels in Indian sports, has lost yet another great personality. First it was the modest to a fault Wilson Jones (two-time World Billiards champion), then Ramakant Desai, later GS Ramchand and Eknath Solkar and now Umrigar.

The role of the Parsis in the evolution of cricket in India is significant. This endangered community has produced several worthy cricketers who went on to don national colour, but there was none who stood as tall – figuratively and literally – as Pahlan Ratanji Umrigar. Till Sunil Gavaskar arrived and bulldozed his way to leave records in a pile of debris, Umrigar was Indian’s cricket’s colossus. He had played more Tests, amassed more runs, plundered more centuries than any other Indian in Tests.

Umrigar’s international career had long ended before I even knew cricket was all about. But I did get a fleeting glimpse of him as a player in the Kanga League, which he played when he was way past 60. Such was his abiding passion for the game that he was a fixture at the Wankhede Stadium for every Ranji Trophy game that Mumbai played – however insignificant or uninteresting it may seem to the masses.

I guess, with the honourable exception of Venkatraghavan, no Indian cricketer has given the game back so much and so selflessly as Umrigar. He served India as a player, as a captain, as chairman of the selection committee, as manager to several Indian teams on overseas tours, as a coach and as the executive secretary of the Indian cricket Board. He also served Mumbai in various avataars – first in the construction of the Wankhede Stadium and then as its curator, as a Honorary Joint Secretary member of the Mumbai Cricket Association …the list is long. Anybody who has seen him as an administrator will vouch for the fact that few people would work as tirelessly and as long every day as he did.

I have had many, many opportunities interacting with Umrigar. One of the last was at his residence a few years back. He was not in the best of health, but he still looked handsome, sporting that omnipresent smile. Umrigar was the Harvard of cricket. The quality wisdom he imparted was much sought after. But if one went up to him as a mediaperson to ferret out a scoop from him, then you would draw a blank from him. He was the epitome of uprightness. And though he had plenty to be aggrieved about, he remained consistently dignified and did not use - leave alone misuse - the media.

When Charlie Griffith truncated Nari Contractor’s career on that fateful day in March 1962 in Barbados, the reins of the leadership fell on a callow Tiger Pataudi – just 21 years and 77 days with three-Test experience. That Indian team had several senior players, but Umrigar was the most deserving of them – a man who had already led India and who was by far the most accomplished and respected of the players. Only a genuinely good soul could have reacted the way Umrigar did. Like a true patriot and a man who placed the interests of the team above everything else, he extended Pataudi full support – as a strategist and as a player – something that Tiger has always openly acknowledged.

Umrigar was extremely principled. He did not believe in compromising with them. When he was captain, he once wanted Manohar Hardikar in the Indian side. The selectors, however, disagreed with him and instead wanted to play Jasu Patel. Umrigar was not going to accept something that he was not in agreement. He chose to step down than compromise with his thinking.

One of the great acts of heroism in the annals of Indian Test cricket is Vinoo Mankad’s all-round feat at Lord’s in 1952. Mankad scored 72 and 184 and in between those two knocks he bowled 73 overs in the England first innings to take five for 196. That Test is known as famously known as Mankad’s Test. But what is not so well known is that Umrigar also came up with an all-rounder performance that was almost strikingly similar to Mankad’s feat. In the fourth Test at Port of Spain, on India’s tour of the 1961-62 tour of the West Indies, Umrigar bowled 56-24-107-5 in the West Indies first innings and then top-scored in both innings. He came to India’s rescue after India were 30 for the loss of five wickets by adding 94 for the sixth wicket with Pataudi. Umrigar scored 56. And after India followed-on 247 runs behind and were tottering at 278 for eight, Umrigar added 93 for the ninth wicket with Bapu Nadkarni and 51 for the last wicket with Budhi Kunderan. Umrigar remained unbeaten on 172 not out, but like Mankad, his herocis could not save India from defeat.

Like Gundappa Viswanath in later years, Umrigar was the architect of many of India’s victories with innings of substance. It was his innings of 130 at No 7 in the order and against the likes of Brian Statham, that helped India score her first-ever Test victory. That memorable win was by an innings and 8 runs at Madras in 1952 helped India draw the five-Test series. When India beat Pakistan by 10 wickets at the Brabourne Stadium in 1952 - India’s only third win in all Test cricket - Umrigar had scored 102. India’s famous victory over Richie Benaud’s Australia at Kanpur in 1959 is made memorable for Jasu Patel’s nine wickets in the first innings. But Umrigar proved an able ally for Patel in the second innings with figures of 25-11-27-4.

If there were any murmurs about his batting, it was his failings against Fred Trueman. But it would be foolish to say that he was weak against pace when he had scored copious runs against paceman in different countries. He scored he scored 560 runs in the five-match 1952-52 series in West Indies and hit three hundreds in the 1960-61 series against Fazal Mahmood. And when he scored that 172 not out at Port of Spain, the Windies pace attack was spearheaded by Wes Hall. Indeed, Umrigar also scored a hundred against Trueman at Manchester in 1959.

Umrigar scored 49 hundreds and 80 half-centuries from 242 first class class games. That consistency is further highlighted by the fact that he averaged over 52 per innings. That he was an all-round of merit is borne by the 325 wickets he hauled in his first-class career. It’s a pity that he belonged to the lost generation for he was just the kind of player any team in the world would have loved to have for overs-limit matches. With his destructive batting, ability to bowl fast or spin and with amazing control and not to forget his abilities as a fielder and captain, he would ranked alongside the best that one-day cricket.

The BCCI, has an under-15 cricket tournament named after him, was quick to institute a “Most Promising Cricketer of the Year” Award worth Rs 5 lakhs from this season. Umrigar, who has done so much for his home association, has a gate named after him at the Wankhede Stadium. He was also honoured with the CK Nayudu Lifetime Achieved Award. He was decorated with the Padma Shri, but he certainly deserved higher national honours.

When one goes past that gate of the Wankhede Stadium that is named after Umrigar, the heart fills with pride thinking about a man who has done so much for the country and cricket. Yet, incredibly, it was at this very gate that the great man himself was stopped before a One-Day International in 2002! Umrigar, who had a valid pass, was treated like any other cricket fan by the cops. Umrigar was not the kind of man to tell the cop: “Do you know whom you are stopping?” Journalists who were trooping in for the game identified Umrigar and avoided further embarrassment to him and Indian cricket. But it’s a pity how even legends are forgotten in our country.

I am sure such mistakes won’t happen in heaven. The Gods themselves would have come out to welcome the humble soul. RIP, Polly Kaka.