DateLine: 8th November 2006
Polly Umrigar who passed away in Mumbai on Tuesday after a long battle with cancer was, to put it in a nutshell, one of India’s all time great cricketers. He had a modest start to his international career but by the time he had retired all the major Indian batting records were in his name. In fact his tally of runs and centuries stood for more than 16 years and were broken only by a certain Sunil Manohar Gavaskar. There was never any doubt as to his stature as the country’s premier batsman in the fifties and being a noble torchbearer to the great stars who preceded him. In fact Umrigar succeeded Vijay Hazare as the leading Indian batsman, a prolific run-getter who was a feared opponent.
It was not just the runs that attracted attention when Umrigar was at the crease. It was the manner of his play. Umrigar altered the face of Indian batsmanship. For long it has nestled under the Merchant-Hazare school of building an innings based on technical excellence. Umrigar had all this and something more. The manner in which he jumped out to the slow bowlers and lifted the ball to the untenanted parts of the field was something that endeared him to the crowds. In the course of his 110 in the Madras `Test’ against the second Commonwealth team in 1950-51 for example Umrigar went from 90 to 102 with two successive sixes off Frank Worrell. In time Umrigar earned the sobriquet `palm tree hitter.’ Indeed many of his sixes landed near the tress that surrounded most of the grounds in India at the time. Umrigar was perhaps the first batsman to uncover the Ramadhin mystery. The confident – even rough - manner in which he dealt with him in the same series was an object lesson for other batsmen. The West Indian’s spin held no puzzle for Umrigar who darted out and lifted him with disdain.
But his accent on attack did not mean that Umrigar was going to neglect the basic principles. His batting was based on sound technical aspects but his uncommon gifts, his broad shoulders and arms, his sturdy build and his considerable height saw him get to the ball early and then treat it harshly. Umrigar was essentially a powerful driver. His cuts were neat dabs and his glances were little turns of the bat and the wrist. Initially he had a bit of a crouching stance but changed it in 1953 to a more upright one. Consequently he lost some of his offside strokes. But then he developed a sounder defence and the change in no way affected his stronger on side shots. Indeed there was no better player of the ball in this area for sheer power and productivity. Umrigar never hesitated in coming yards out to the tossed up delivery and he was at his best against spin bowling even if it was of the highest class.
This is not to say that Umrigar could not play fast bowling. Too much has been made of his failures in England in 1952 – which admittedly were shocking – and too little has been written about his success there seven years later, the gradual progress he made in combating fast bowling and his excellent record against the West Indian speedsters. After his nightmarish experiences against Freddie Trueman in 1952 he faced Frank King the leading Caribbean fast bowler of the time with ease in the West Indies in 1953 and throughout the fifties and early sixties was the one Indian who had a splendid record against the West Indian pacemen. He did reasonably well against Lindwall in the 1956 series against Australia. That is why there is no truth in the theory that Umrigar could not play fast bowling. In two successive rubbers he was India’s highest run getter against Hall and Gilchrist, Stayers and Waston. After all he did hit Hall for four boundaries in one over in the Port of Spain Test in 1962. And he did fight back to take a century off the same Trueman at Old Trafford in 1959. No, whichever way one looks at it there is certainly no basis in the charge.
The first Indian to get a Test double century. The first Indian to cross the 3000-run mark in Tests. One of only two Indians (Vinoo Mankad being the other) to score a century and take five wickets in an innings in a Test. The highest score in first class cricket by an Indian abroad - a record that stood for 30 years. All these achievements sat lightly on Umrigar’s broad frame. As SK Gurunathan put it when he retired from Test cricket in 1962: ``In the brief history of Test cricket in India there is no one who has taken upon himself so much as Polly Umrigar. He has been the spine of India’s batting, her spearhead in bowling, her most outstanding fieldsman and one of her shrewdest captains. It will take a long time before his feats are surpassed.’’ But perhaps the finest tribute came from Dicky Rutnagur who said that ``even when he did not get runs Umrigar’s presence in the side was always a source of confidence and inspiration to the younger players.’’ That just about sums up Umrigar’s contribution to Indian cricket as a great batsman, a great leader and a great team man.
Could someone like Umrigar ever give up the game altogether after his playing career was finally over? He managed Indian teams to New Zealand and West Indies in 1976 and to Australia in 1977-78, bringing all his enthusiasm and expertise into another field. In 1978 he took over as chairman of the selection committee a post he held for five successive terms before becoming executive secretary of the Indian Cricket Board. He was closely associated with the construction of the Wankhede stadium and tended the pitch and outfield with loving care. To a later generation he was `Polly Kaka’ a revered figure and very much involved with the National Cricket Academy and sundry cricketing matters. Long did Indian cricket benefit from his pearls of wisdom!
(Article: Copyright © 2006 CricketArchive)