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The Palm Tree Hitter


It is often said that first impressions are lasting impressions, and for me that was always the case with India’s Polly Umrigar. As a very young cricket follower I have a vivid memory of a friend of my father’s telling me about Umrigar, and how he was the worst Test match batsman he had ever seen. He explained to me that he had been at Old Trafford in 1952 when India were bowled out for 58 and 82, and that Umrigar was a soft beggar, and worse than t’ number eleven.

In truth of course Umrigar’s record is by no means a poor one, and I could see that by glancing through Wisden, but the 1953 edition confirmed that in the four Tests of the previous summer he had scored just 43 runs in his seven innings, and many books mention his backing away from the pace of Fred Trueman, so I have to confess I never really looked any further and simply assumed that Umrigar was what would later be termed a ‘flat track bully’.

Born in 1926 Umrigar was a post war cricketer, but would have been brought up to look on Vijay Merchant and then Vijay Hazare as his role models. Those two fine Indian batsmen were orthodox in the extreme, and whilst both were quite capable of scoring runs at a decent lick, both were risk averse. In that respect Umrigar was very different. He was a huge figure, tall and strong, and took every reasonable opportunity to use his feet and deposit the bowler over the boundary ropes. Known affectionately by some as the Palm Tree Hitter, hitting the ball out of the ground was one of Umrigar’s great pleasures.

Umrigar made his First Class debut in 1944 as an 18 year old, although initial progress was slow. He did however score an unbeaten century for Indian Universities in a two day match against West Indies at the start of their 1948/49 tour and with that got his chance in the second Test. At this stage of his career, as he would be again later, Umrigar was considered an all-rounder and he was selected to bat at eight. He failed to take a wicket in a huge West Indies first innings, and although he contributed a useful 30 to a stand of 79 with Dattu  Phadkar in India’s reply the home side couldn’t save the follow on, and Umrigar didn’t get to the wicket in India’s much better second innings showing. West Indies’ bowlers were essentially medium pacers and spinners, with just Prior Jones to inject some pace.

He was perhaps unfortunate not to get another chance in the rest of the series but in 1949/50 Umrigar did well against a strong Commonwealth XI captained by Frank Worrell, and even better against a similar side that toured the following season. One of the Commonwealth bowlers was mystery spinner Sonny Ramadhin who had caused so much strife for England’s batsmen in 1950. Ramadhin held no terrors for Umrigar however, and the little Trinidadian would have been sick of the sight of his broad bat by the end of the series.

In 1951/52 England toured India. The party was a long way from representative of the full strength of England but there were nonetheless five Test matches scheduled. Umrigar would have been expecting success after his dominance of what appeared to be stronger opposition the previous season, but in fact he went backwards very quickly. In the first four Tests Umrigar struggled to get going and was dropped for the fifth, only earning a reprieve when Hemu Adhikari had to withdraw on the eve of the match with an injury. The match proved to be India’s first win in Tests, and an unbeaten 130 during which Umrigar and the lower order added 241 set up the innings victory that followed.

And then it was off to England, and that chastening experience for India and Umrigar. Three of the four Tests saw heavy defeats, and in the fourth rain saved the day. At one point at Headingley India were 0-4, and at the Oval 6-5.

On the tour as a whole Umrigar was a success. Outside the Tests he scored more than 1,600 runs at an average approaching 60, but he had a torrid time in the four Tests. Perhaps not surprisingly the series is not a well chronicled one. There was no book published in England, and the reports in The Cricketer tended not to focus too much on matters of detail, so the main source of information is from Raju Bharatan whose account of the tour, Rivals in the Sun, was published in India.

In the first innings of the first Test Umrigar scored 8 before becoming the first of Trueman’s 307 Test victims. Bharatan wrote; Detecting a gap in the covers, Umrigar tried to find the spot off a ball that he should have left severely alone. He attemped the shot on the rise, miscalculated the lift of the ball and the resultant snick was devoured by Evans. In the second innings he scored 9 before he drove Jenkins back to the bowler. Roly Jenkins was a leg spinner who played nine times for England.

In the second Test Umrigar’s contribution to India’s first innings was 5. Bharatan’s description of his dismissal was; Umrigar came in and left almost immediately to one of Trueman’s yorkers. Trueman bowls a very good yorker that is highly misleading in its drop. Umrigar tried to crack one of these, misjudged, and a rattle behind informed him of his fate.  In the second innings he was out for nought, described by Bharatan as being; again a dupe of sheer pace.

And on to Old Trafford, the game my father’s friend had talked of. Bharatan was critical of Umrigar’s first innings dismissal, observing that he far from relished Trueman’s pace and tried to play him past point by backing away to square leg. Trueman had thus only to bowl a straight one and Umrigar practically let the ball hit the stumps.

In the second innings even Bharatan sketched over the details of India’s 82 all out, which was at least better than the 58 they got in the first innings. All I know of Umrigar’s dismissal is the bare bones of the detail on the scorecard c Watkins b Bedser 3 – Watkins would, given the state of the game, almost certainly have been in the leg trap.

For once The Cricketer did not hold back its correspondent, former England player SC ‘Billy’ Griffith writing; From India’s point of view this was a disastrous match, not because they were beaten by a better side, but because of the utter feebleness of their reply to Trueman’s pace and lift. When one sees such batting as that of Umrigar, a capable performer on plumb wickets, it is difficult to draw the veil completely. I have never seen anything like it in Test cricket.

The point should be made that the weather at Old Trafford was not good, and although batting conditions seemed relatively benign when England batted the Indians had no one with anything like the pace of Trueman, who was able to coax plenty of lift and movement out of the pitch.

There was another low score for the tourists at the Oval, dismissed for 98 in the only innings the weather allowed them. Dismissed first ball Bharatan wrote of Umrigar’s innings that he had an almighty swipe at Bedser, not unnaturally missed and was yorked.

It was just a couple of months after his chastening experience in England that India started their next series. It was a home series against neighbours Pakistan and was the new boys’ first Tests. On home wickets and without a bowler of high speed in the opposition ranks Umrigar found the going rather easier, and he scored a century and a fifty and averaged 43. The bigger Test came shortly afterwards when India travelled to the Caribbean for a full tour.

In terms of runs scored Umrigar had the best series of his career against West Indies. He scored 560 runs at 62.22 as India lost one Test and drew the other four. As in 1948/49 West Indies fielded just one fast bowler, Frank King, and Umrigar seems not to have been unduly troubled by him. It is probably worth noting at this point that, after England, Umrigar had modified his technique. He began with a low crouching stance at the wicket but became much more upright. It reduced the range of powerful off side shots that he could play, but tightened his defence and increased his ability to play the ball to leg. One suspects the extra split second he had by standing taller would also have allayed any fears of the ball jumping towards his head if there were any uneven bounce.

It must also have helped Umrigar, and speaks volumes for his resolve, that he returned to England in the summers of 1953 and 1954 to play for Church in the Lancashire League.  He enjoyed some success with the bat, particularly in the first year and also, by necessity, took up his bowling once again and captured his share of wickets at an average of around 12. The result was that in the future, whilst never becoming a true all-rounder, there were several occasions when Umrigar produced important spells of bowling. Mention should also be made of Umrigar’s fielding. In an era when India generally had a few men who had to be hidden where possible Umrigar was, despite his size, an agile fieldsman and his huge hands rarely spilled a chance.

In the return series in Pakistan in 1954/55 all five Tests were drawn, and Umrigar averaged 54. He also played one important hand with the ball. In the first Test he showed how accurate he could be, returning figures of 15-8-17-0 in the Pakistan second innings. At that point he still didn’t have a single Test wicket to his name, but that all changed in the second Test when he put in a marathon stint, 58-25-74-6.

The following season New Zealand visited India for the first time, and Umrigar’s average rose to 70. Again however there was no real test of his abilities against the highest pace. After that India’s next Test action was against the Australians who, on their way home after being ‘Lakered’ in England in 1956, played a Test in Pakistan and three in India. Remarkably Pakistan won their match, the Australians struggling on the mat. They beat India comfortably enough however. Umrigar averaged just a tick under 30 with just a single half century. Ray Lindwall was not quite the bowler he had been and Keith Miller had retired so there is little to be read into that one.

In 1958/59 West Indies visited India. Umrigar was playing on Indian wickets, but this series is Exhibit ‘A’ in favour of the proposition that despite his travails in England in 1952 he was not a poor player of fast bowling. This was a West Indies side that had recovered from the loss of Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes and the unavailability of the remaining ‘W’, Frank Worrell. More to the point this side saw the introduction to Test cricket of one of the great fast bowlers, Wesley Hall. Opening the attack with Hall was the dangerous Roy Gilchrist. If ever there was a fast bowler to be scared of it was the volatile Gilchrist, a man with absolutely no compunction about hitting a batsman.

The series was ultimately a disappointment for India who lost 3-0 with two Tests drawn. On a personal level Umrigar was top of the Indian averages. There was no really big innings but 337 runs at 42.12 was a good effort for a man embroiled in a series of controversies about the captaincy.

Umrigar had led India in the disappointing series against Australia and, in the final Test, had been the first captain ever in a Test in India to win the toss and ask the opposition to bat. Defeat by 94 runs was the outcome, but Umrigar was unlucky. He made the right decision and saw, as he planned, off spinner Ghulam Ahmed make early inroads. Sadly for Umrigar Ghulam then had to leave the field with an injury and then, after India set off reasonably well in front of a gettable target, they collapsed in the face of Australia’s off spinner Ian Johnson who had the good fortune to find a patch on a length where water had leaked through the covers.

The defeat by Australia however meant that Umrigar was replaced as captain for the West Indies series by Ghulam. In the event however Ghulam couldn’t play in the first Test so Umrigar stood in, and had a good game, shrewd captaincy ensuring that India comfortably drew the game. With Ghulam available again for the second Test he returned but India then suffered two heavy defeats and Ghulam fell on his sword, retiring after the third Test. The selectors turned back to Umrigar, but then there was a problem over team selection with, after being promised otherwise, Umrigar not getting the side he wanted. He stood down with the result that Vinoo Mankad was hurriedly promoted before, after another heavy defeat, Adhikari was brought in to lead the side in the final Test.

Following that meeting with Hall and Gilchrist the next international cricket for India was a return to England and another meeting with Trueman, now aged 28 and in his prime. The England side proved to be far too strong for the Indians who lost the Test series 5-0 and so end up with an even worse record than seven years previously. For Umrigar there were again runs aplenty outside the Tests and he helped himself to double centuries from both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. In the first three Tests he did nothing spectacular but 110 runs in six innings was rather better than on his previous visit. Then, returning to Old Trafford for the fourth Test he laid to rest the hoodoo of 1952 by scoring a fine century in the second innings and dealing with everything that Trueman and Harold Rhodes, a genuinely quick young bowler from Derbyshire, tested him with. It was unfortunate that a finger injury suffered in the field just before the final Test kept Umrigar out of that one, and indeed of the rest of the tour.

Australia visited India in 1959/60 for three matches and India drew the series 1-1. Umrigar contributed little with the bat, having his worst series since 1952, but he made a contribution with the ball to India’s victory in the second Test. The match is remembered mainly for the 14-124 haul by the off spinner with the questionable action, Jasu Patel, but Umrigar’s second innings performance of 25-11-27-4 was an important supporting role.

Between November 1960 and February 1961 Pakistan visited India and played five Tests. As in the previous series all five were drawn, but Umrigar was back in form with the bat. There were centuries for him in the second, fourth and fifth Tests and he did his share of bowling as well.

In October of 1961 England embarked on an ambitious five month trip to the sub-continent. Trueman, Colin Cowdrey and Brian Statham all chose to make themselves unavailable but the side was still rather more representative than the class of 51/52. This time the Indians made history by winning their first series against England by taking the last two Tests after drawing the first three. Umrigar was selected for all five Tests, although injury forced him to stand down on the eve of the first. He played in all the remaining four and although his contributions to the two victories were not substantial his unbeaten 147 when he returned for the second Test was an important innings.

After their success against England India would no doubt have visited the Caribbean with some optimism, but sadly they were to suffer another 5-0 reverse, although in some ways that ceased to matter given that skipper Nari Contractor owed his life to the skill of a neuro surgeon. Struck on the head by a bouncer from Charlie Griffith in the match against Barbados there were real concerns about his survival for several days. Griffiths did not play in the Tests but with men like Chester Watson, Charlie Stayers and Lester King to back Hall up there was no shortage of pace for the Indians to handle. Some of them didn’t show a great deal of fight, but Umrigar did, scoring 445 runs at 49.44 to head the Indian averages by a long way. He bowled 150 overs as well. In the fourth Test he was solely responsible for the Test going into a fifth day. He scored 56 and 172* and, if there were any remaining who doubted his ability against pace at one point he struck Hall for four boundaries in an over. If that weren’t enough of a contribution with the ball Umrigar had figures of 56-24-107-5 and 16-8-17-0.

In the final Test of the series Umrigar was, unsurprisingly in view of his workload in the previous Test, compromised by a back strain which meant he didn’t bowl and that he batted down the order in both innings. Despite that he got 32 from number nine in the first innings and, promoted to seven, top scored with 60 in the second. By the time he got back to India Umrigar was 36. He had played in 59 Tests and had comfortably the highest aggregate of all Indian batsmen with only Vijay Manjrekar within 1,000 runs of him, and then only just. Until Sunil Gavaskar came along he held almost all the major Indian batting records with only the record for highest average eluding him (held by Vijay Hazare*).

At the end of the Caribbean trip Umrigar had no thoughts of immediate retirement, but he consulted a specialist about his back and received the news that he was unlikely to be able to last five days again. Umrigar loved the game far too much to give it up completely, but he read the writing on the wall and retired from Test cricket. He played one more season in India, signing off with more than 1,000 runs at 62.64, but it was 1967 before he played his final First Class match.

Although his playing days were over Umrigar spent time in the 1970s managing Indian tours overseas. After that he became a selector, and then Executive Secretary of the Indian Board besides being involved in coaching. Polly Umrigar died at the age of 80 in 2006. He was a fine batsman with a decent record and it is both unfortunate and inaccurate when, to this day, some do not look beyond that 1952 tour and describe him as a poor player of pace bowling.

* and Vijay Merchant, albeit in a short career of only ten Tests

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