End of an era

Polly had no peer in contemporary cricket when it came to tackling the spinners with lordly disdain, writes S. Thyagarajan.

When life ebbed out of Polly Umrigar, a colossus who was fighting a lymphatic cancer, on November 7 in Mumbai, that sad moment signalled the end of an epoch and deprived the game of cricket the expertise and experience of a charismatic personality.

A stalwart in every sense of the term, Pahlan Ratanji Umrigar represented a generation that blossomed in the post-Independence era, turning fresh corners and carving new dimensions.

Polly Umrigar... a colossus of his time.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

True, there were several who enhanced the lustre, grace and elegance of Indian cricket, but Polly's contribution was phenomenal, and deserves a panegyric portrayal for posterity.

The noted commentator, Vizzy, described Polly as a ``palm-treewala" for the huge sixes that popped out from the willow of this strapping cricketer, who had awesome power in his wrists. He was devastating when on song; once he clobbered Frank Worrell for sixes off successive balls to move from 90 to 102 at Chepauk, Madras, against the second Commonwealth team. His innings included two more sixes, one each off George Tribe and Bruce Dooland.

It is imprudent to showcase Umrigar as an example of classicism, or one who exuded that aura of romanticism like Lala Amarnath, Mushtaq Ali or C. K. Nayudu; nor would it be right to club him with the perfectionists of his era, the two Vijays — Hazare and Manjrekar.

Umrigar was different. Not for him the complex compulsions of footwork, technique, back-lift, and all the blah, blah that the coaching manuals prescribe. He never believed in shackling himself with orthodox methods.

Yes, he was a wee-bit clumsy inside the crease, shuffling his right foot behind more than leaning forward. But the effect at the point of contact with the ball was always great, even awesome on occasions as the best spinners in the business, be it the West Indian duo of Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine or the world famous Englishman, Jim Laker, realised. At one stage Polly had no peer in contemporary cricket when it came to tackling the spinners with lordly disdain. He showed no inhibitions in pulling a ball wide of the off-stump to mid-wicket, and he did that with commendable authority and timing.

There were some who constantly derided Polly's approach to pace. So much was spoken and written about the way he withdrew from the line of

Fred Trueman during the tour of England in 1952. In seven Test innings, Umrigar gathered just 43 runs; but he totalled 1688 runs for the season, notching double centuries against Oxford, Lancashire and Kent.

However, Trueman was his destroyer. He dismissed Polly four times, rattling the timber on three of those occasions. In 1959, Trueman was no terror and Umrigar scored 119 at Manchester.

Writing in the 1953-Playfield Annual, Peter West observed: "As a batsman he was a Jekyll and Hyde — a real tiger on firm wickets against ordinary bowling, a lamb for slaughter when faced by real pace on a helpful surface... No one showed greater dislike for pace."

As time rolled on Umrigar emerged the sheet anchor; played a prominent part along with Vinoo Mankad in piloting India to its first ever Test victory in 1952 against England at Chepauk. He was also the first Indian to score a double century — 223 against New Zealand in Hyderabad in 1956 while leading the team.

In all, he was at the helm for eight Tests, winning two and losing two. However, differences with the selection committee forced him to resign as captain on the eve of the Test against the West Indies in Madras in 1959.

Umrigar's magnum opus came towards the end of his career. It was at the Queen's Park Oval in 1962 against the West Indies by led Frank Worrell. To silence the critics, who doubted his competence to tackle genuine pace, Umrigar scored 56 and 172 not out, and claimed five wickets for 107 runs.

Truly, it was a remarkable effort against a battery of pace and spin purveyed by Wesley Hall, Charlie Stayers, Garry Sobers and Lance Gibbs. The only comparable feat was that of Vinoo Mankad in 1952 at Lord's.

A witness to Umrigar's epochal performance was the veteran essayist K. N. Prabhu, who described the all-round performance as "fit enough for verses and ballads."

Sobers hailed Umrigar as a "beautiful player, the best Indian batsman of that era."

"You have wonderful cricket in you. Keep it up," commented another West Indian great, George Headley, after Polly played an impressive innings for the Combined Varsities against the West Indies in 1948. Interestingly, Umrigar's Test career began and ended against the West Indies in 1962.

On the domestic scene, Umrigar was commanding and consistent. He compiled runs with an insatiable appetite. This is best exemplified by the 16155 runs that he amassed in first class cricket. He epitomised perhaps the best of the Parsi ethos.

Born in Solapur, Maharashtra, on March 28, 1926, Umrigar was coached by Bahadur Kapadia, the wicketkeeper of the 1932 Indian team to England. He made his first class debut at the age of 18 for Parsees in the Bombay Pentangular in 1944 and he graduated to the Ranji Trophy in 1946. From then on for almost a decade and half Polly was synonymous with Indian cricket.

The mid-1950s witnessed the peak of Umrigar's brilliance. In the 1957-58 season, he scored 245 — his highest in Ranji Trophy — against Saurashtra, 213 against Gujarat, and 112 against Maharashtra. Nothing illustrates the dominance of Umrigar more than the tally of 4102 runs he scored at an average of 70.71 in Ranji Trophy.

Umrigar quit the scene when people asked "why?", and not "why not?" Unlike the rest, even after discarding the flannels and the willow, he maintained a close contact with the game. He was a BCCI selector between 1978 and 82, and managed the national teams on three tours to New Zealand, West Indies and Australia between 1975-78. He took charge as the first paid secretary of the Board and later became a curator of the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, the construction of which he supervised every day.

The avalanche of tributes from every nook and corner for this `gentle giant' show the kind of respect and reverence Umrigar had earned from the cricketing fraternity.

FACTFILE Name: Pahlan Ratanji Umrigar Major teams: India, Gujarat, Mumbai, Parsees Batting style: Right-hand bat Bowling style: Right-arm off-break Batting Tests

Matches: 59; Innings: 94; Runs: 3631; Highest score: 223; Ave: 42.22. Centuries: 12. Half-centuries: 14.

First-class

Matches: 243; Innings: 350; Runs: 16155. Highest score: 252 n.o.; Ave: 52.28; Centuries: 49; Half-centuries: 80.

Bowling Tests

Matches: 59; Balls: 4725 Runs: 1473; Wkts: 35; BBI: 6-74; BBM: 6-74; Ave: 42.08; S/R: 135.00; 4: 3; 5:2; 10:0.

First-class

Matches: 243; Balls: 25297; Runs: 8348; Wkts: 325; BBI: 7-32; Ave: 25.68. S/R: 77.83; 5:14; 10:2.