Cricket lovers of a certain vintage had their vocabularies stretched by words seldom used in casual conversation. ‘Petrel’ was one such, applied to Lala Amarnath, described as the ‘stormy petrel’ of Indian cricket. I looked it up when I first read that. A petrel was “a bird with a curved beak that spends most of its life flying over the sea.”
I was old enough to know that India’s first Test century maker didn’t have a curved beak, nor did he spend most of his life flying over the sea. But a stormy petrel was, I read, a person who portends trouble, and that Mr Amarnath certainly was, as a man who spoke his mind and wasn’t enamoured of authority. In 1936, he was sent back from a tour of England — unfairly, by all accounts — for arguing with his incompetent captain. Just over a decade later Amarnath became Independent India’s first captain.
As a reporter just starting out, I met Lala a few times, but seldom went beyond a careful greeting. I can remember a withering look he gave a senior journalist at a Test match in Chepauk when the latter offered him an ice cream stick. It would have been incongruous to see Lala Amarnath watching cricket ice cream in hand.
The Lala — like Don Bradman, his first name was often preceded by the definite article — was hugely popular in Pakistan when India played there. There was much hugging, bowing and scraping when he walked into a room. He took it all as merely his due.
The second word I learnt from cricket as a child was ‘barnacle’. It was used for the England all-rounder Trevor Bailey, the player’s sticky batting evoking the creature which attached itself to the hull of ships.
In an era of white ball cricket and mis-hit sixes, it might be difficult to appreciate, or even imagine a batsman of Bailey’s defensive skills. He was a fine analyst of the game, and probably the best player never to have led England, although his mind was at the service of skippers Len Hutton and Peter May. Bailey played 61 Tests, after beginning his First-Class career opening both batting and bowling for Essex.
“His forward defence, head over the ball, the blade immaculately straight became, like Churchill’s victory sign, a symbol of defiance. From this one stroke could be told the character of the man. It was resolute and impenitent,” wrote John Woodcock.
December will see the birth centenary of Trevor Bailey, Test all-rounder, a Test Match Special summariser and author of fine books on cricket, including a biography of Garry Sobers.
He had a reputation as a great talent-spotter, and was the first to see in a very young Richard Hadlee the bowler he became. In Chennai when he was broadcasting a Test series, he shared this nugget with me: “If Tiger Pataudi had not lost an eye, he would have been a batter in the Bradman class.”
Two unusual words, two unusual cricketers.
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