Polly Umrigar was India’s six symbol of his generation

Known as the “Palm Tree Hitter” in the West Indies, Polly Umrigar enlivened boring matches by lifting sixes and spirits.

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Polly Umrigar, a titan of Indian cricket in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, remained a schoolboy at heart despite holding many records in Indian cricket. The burly six-footer with a prominent nose and a determined chin gave his all as an adventurous batter, accurate off-spinner, slip fielder, captain, coach, chairman of the selection committee and executive secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

He died on 7 November 2006 but happy memories remain with me and his fans 17 years on. Full of life, he enlivened boring matches by lifting sixes and our spirit. More recent Test cricketers respectfully addressed him as Polly Kaka and he never hesitated to play park cricket with schoolboys, even in his late 60s. Despite his many-splendoured successes and being acknowledged as one of India’s all-time greats, he remained at heart a cricket-mad schoolboy.

In the 1950s, when Indian cricketers were called “dull dogs”, Umrigar infused life into the game with towering sixes. In the West Indies, he was nicknamed “Palm Tree Hitter” because he was a six symbol of his generation.

Until Sunil Gavaskar came on the scene, Pahlan Ratanji “Polly” Umrigar held almost all Indian Test records; most number of Tests played, most runs scored, most centuries, the first Indian to hit a Test double century and the first to score more than 3,000 Test runs. He scored 3,631 runs at 42.22 in 59 Tests, hitting 12 centuries (highest score 223), took 35 wickets and 33 catches. He captained India in eight Tests, winning two of them and drawing four.

He was only the second Indian cricketer after Vinoo Mankad to score a century and capture five wickets in an innings in the same Test. This was against the West Indies at Port of Spain in 1962. Yet statistics do not tell the whole story. Umrigar was big in every way, in build and heart.

Although Fred Trueman, the aggressive English fast bowler, scared young Umrigar with his barrage of bouncers in England in 1952, he went back to the nets and eliminated fear from his vocabulary.

I had the pleasure of watching him score 102 spectacular runs and adding 183 magnificent runs with Vijay Hazare (146 not out) against Pakistan in the November 1952 Bombay (now Mumbai) Test at Brabourne Stadium. This led to India winning the Test by an inning. Later Umrigar faced the chin music of the West Indies’ menacing pace trio of Wes Hall, Roy Gilchrist and Charlie Griffith with courage and deft footwork, driving them on the up with grace.

Umrigar kept his best for his last overseas tour. At age 36 and suffering from back pain, he top-scored for India in both innings against the terrifying pace of Hall and the spin of Lance Gibbs in the Port-of-Spain Test of April 1962. He scored 56 out of India’s 197 in the first innings and an unbeaten, heroic 172 in the second. He captured 5 wickets for 107 runs off 56 overs in the first innings; his victims included master batsmen Conrad Hunte and Rohan Kanhai.

“Polly was always solid – solid man and cricketer,” remembered the Nawab of Pataudi Jr. “He was very helpful when I became captain by default in the West Indies in 1962.”  Pataudi had become India’s youngest captain at 21 on that tour after skipper Nari Contractor was hit on the head and almost killed by Griffith’s chucking bouncer.

Unfortunately, one-day and Twenty20 cricket came too late for Umrigar as he retired in 1962. He would have been a striking success with his huge sixes, nagging off-spin bowling and acrobatic fielding.

One of his regrets was not playing a Test in Australia as there were no tours by India to Australia from 1948 to 1962, during his Test span. Yet his sharp off breaks (4 wickets for 27 runs) against Richie Benaud’s team in the 1959 Kanpur Test contributed to India’s first victory over the mighty Australians.

Umrigar was the manager of the Indian team when the elegant teenager Dilip Vengsarkar made his Test debut in Auckland on the 1976 tour of New Zealand. Umrigar was held in such high esteem that Dilip’s guardians who had come to see him off at the airport told Umrigar, “Polly Kaka, as long as you are in charge, we have nothing to worry about”.

Umrigar later toured Australia in 1977-78 as the manager of the Indian team led by the colourful and turbaned Bishan Bedi. They provided dramatic moments as the series was tied two-all before Australia won the final Test in Adelaide despite India amassing 445 runs in the fourth innings. It was engrossing cricket in direct competition with Kerry Packer’s breakaway star-studded World Series Cricket.

The tour marked the start of our friendship. As I watched the Indian cricketers do net practice at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), Bedi threw the ball at me saying, “Bowl Kersi, bowl”. Stunned, I bowled to Surinder Amarnath and Ashok Mankad at the nets and was in seventh heaven, feeling 10 feet tall. But Umrigar brought me down to earth. Then aged 51, he came with a bat in hand to the nets. Much to his boyish delight, he smashed my slow off-spinners all over the park, sixes galore! But one of my innocuous deliveries managed to beat him and he presented the ball to me.

He was in the news again when India beat Australia in the Mumbai Test of November 2004 on a spinner-friendly pitch. He had supervised the preparation of the pitch, which was marred by unseasonal rains. When Australian captain Ricky Ponting complained about the state of the pitch, Umrigar hit back by saying that Ponting had erred in using a heavy roller on a moist last-day wicket. Despite oozing friendliness, Umrigar could counterattack, even at 78.

When I visited Mumbai in 1979, he invited my wife Villy and me to his home for dinner. We were cordially welcomed by him, his wife Dinoo and his daughter Shireen.

The Polly Umrigar Award for International Cricketer of the Year is one of the BCCI Awards awarded to a young Indian cricketer for outstanding performance in international cricket. The award was instituted at the end of the 2006-07 season, with Sachin Tendulkar being the first recipient. It includes a trophy, citation, and cash prize of 1.5 million Indian rupees or around 26,823 Australian dollars. Virat Kohli has won the award five times, four times in a row from 2014-15 to 2017-18.

Polly Umrigar ’s death in 2006 at age 80 after battling lymph cancer was a personal loss to me. The cricket ball he presented to me at the SCG nets in 1977 remains on my trophy table, admired by visiting friends.

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Kersi Meher-Homji
Kersi Meher-Homji
Kersi is a virologist by profession and a cricket writer and cricket statistician by hobby. He is an author of 17 cricket books and over 17,000 cricket and scientific articles.

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