S. Venkataraghavan Polly: The "Palm Tree Hitter"

When cricket was followed like a religion on the exotic Caribbean islands, the West Indian fans were not known to praise players of the visiting teams. But when they did, and took some foreign cricketer to their hearts, their love knew no bounds. Polly Umrigar was one of those lucky few So pleased were the West Indies fans by his batting and hitting on India’s 1952-53 tour that they nicknamed him the “Palm Tree Hitter”. It was his maiden tour of the Caribbean and he fully deserved every accolade, every compliment and every toast he had been showered with. Having already made his Test debut (against the West Indies at Mumbai in 1948-49, scoring 30 in his only innings, batting at number 8) and experienced the vicissitudes of a sporting life in his brief international career, Umrigar came of age as a world-class batsman.Starting with 130 and 69 in the first Test, at Port of Spain in Trinidad, he scored 560 runs at 62.22 in the five-match series against fast bowlers like Frank King and spinners such as Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine.Besides his positive approach and courage to take up the challenge,what was more important was his ability to handle both the speedsters and the spinners with aplomb.Endowed with great height and good physique,Umrigar was essentially an aggressive batsman.He had all the shots in his repertoire. Bowlers feared his ferocious hooks and lusty pulls. The right-hand middle-order batsman’s technique andtemperament were such that except Fred Trueman,no other bowler troubled him for too long.But this was not all. He was also a more than useful gentle medium-pacer who could swing the ball away and cut back in. And he could bowl offbreaks,too. After Jasu Patel’s (9 for 69 and 5 for55) it was Umrigar’s off-spin that bit the mighty,all-conquering Aussies at Kanpur in December1959 and helped India win by 119 runs – one of our greatest Test triumphs.

Umrigar bowled 25 overs, 11 maidens, gave away only 27 runs and dismissed four key batsmen –Neil Harvey (25), Norman O’Neill (5), Ken“Slasher” Mackay (0) and Barry Jarman (0) – as Australians were sent packing for 105 in their second innings chasing a target of 225 runs.Umrigar’s mixed bag of pace and spin earned him 35 wickets in the heavyweight division of cricket;his best performance was 6 for 74 in an innings.Parsis have played a pivotal role in the growth of cricket in India since 1886, when they organised the first overseas tours. Umrigar, too, was a Parsi, born (on March 28, 1926) in Sholapur, Maharashtra, where his father ran a clothing company.He started playing cricket from his early teens and those who saw him bat and bowl were astonished by his natural gifts.His game truly blossomed when he joined St.Xavier’s College, Mumbai, to pursue his B.Sc.Umrigar represented the Mumbai University team.“Coming to Mumbai helped me in many ways. I was able to watch great players at close quarters.In a way, it was my only form of coaching. I later watched Len Hutton bat on damp English pitches and learned from him, too,” he once told this writer.Umrigar made his first-class debut for Mumbai in 1944-45. He represented Indian universities against the touring West Indies in 1948-49, scoring 115 not out, a performance that paved the way for his Test debut. Three years later, on his first jaunt of England in 1952, he scored heavily in first-class matches, but was not even a shadow of his brilliant self in the Tests, scoring only 43runs in 7 innings.The deadly duo of Trueman and Alec Bedser never allowed him to settle down; four times he fell to Trueman, and twice to Bedser. But Umrigar regained his confidence the moment the Indian team left the English shores, essaying innings of 102 at Mumbai and 62 at Chennai in the home series against Pakistan in 1952-53.When India toured Pakistan in 1954-55, he scored 271 runs at 54.20, including 108 in a total of 245 in the fourth Test at Peshawar, heading the batting aggregate. He also bowled successfully in the second Test. Though, he could not do much with the bat against New Zealand in 1955-56,after scoring 223 in the first Test at Hyderabad,India registered two victories by an innings under his captaincy.

Following a moderate home series against West Indies in 1958-59, Umrigar started India’s disastrous tour of England in 1959 in a blaze of glory, scoring more than 800 runs, including two double centuries. But again he failed miserably in the Tests, except in the fourth at Old Trafford, where he scored a face-saving 118 against his old nemesis Trueman. India lost the series 5-0.But bad luck did not leave Umrigar in the 1959 By Haresh Pandya Polly Umrigar, the“Palm Tree Hitter” home series against Richie Benaud’s Australian side either. In five innings before a back injury put him out of the remaining two Tests, his scores were 0, 32, 6, 14 and 0. Yet as an off-spinner, he made an impact. He finished with four for 49 in the first Test at Delhi and devastated the Aussies in the second at Kanpur, as mentioned earlier.Umrigar dominated the 1960-61 series against Pakistan, scoring 115 at Kanpur, 117 at Chennai and 112 at Delhi. After scoring 254 runs at 50.80,including 147 not out, in four Tests against England at home in 1961-62, he embarked on his last, but personally memorable, tour of the West Indies. With 435 runs at 48.33, he was one of the few players who salvaged some pride for India in an otherwise disastrous series, which we lost by 5-0. A stunning, almost heroic, performance in the fourth Test in Trinidad despite not being fully fit again confirmed the fact that if Umrigar had concentrated a bit more on his bowling, he would have become a topnotch allrounder, just like Vinoo Mankad. He had figures of 56-24-107-5 in the West Indies first innings total of 444 for 9. He then top-scored with 56 in India’s first innings total of 197. When India followed on, Umrigar hit an unbeaten 172 in 248 minutes in India’s total of 422 before he ran out of partners.An astute, imaginative captain,he led India against New Zealand, West Indies and Australia, winning two and losing two. He resigned the captaincy at Chennai (formerly Madras) in 1958-59, following a misunderstanding with the selectors. But for the petty politics of Indian cricket, he would have led in many more Tests.He led Mumbai to five successive Ranji Trophy title victories beginning in 1958-59.By the time he left international cricket in 1962, he held three major records: he had played more Tests (59), and scored more runs (3,631 at 42.22 from 94 innings) and more centuries (12, though not one against Australia) than any other Indian player. His highest score, 223 against New Zealand at Hyderabad, was India’s first ever double century in Test cricket.In a first-class career from 1944 to 1968, he scored 16,154 runs at an average of 52.27, including 40 centuries and nine double hundreds;252 not out against Cambridge University in 1959 was his highest. He also claimed 325 wickets at 25.68,the best being seven for 32, and took 216 catches.An unassuming, jovial man and cricketer, Umrigar continued to serve the game in retirement. He was a muchloved manager of the Indian team on the overseas tours in the 1970s. He chaired the selection committee and was the chief curator at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. He fully deserved the Padma Shri bestowed on him in 1962. He passed into ages on November 7, 2006.

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