In the passing of Polly Umrigar, cricket has lost an iconic hero, inarguably one of the best cricketing brains of his time and an excellent all-rounder. Umrigar was a pillar of India’s middle order in the Fifties and Sixties and notched up a string of records during his 15-year Test career, playing 59 Tests and scoring 3,631 runs at an average of 42.22. This included a highest score of 223 (against New Zealand in 1955) and a dozen centuries (including a double ton). By the time he retired from international cricket in 1962, he was only one of two Indians (Vinoo Mankad being the other) to score a century and take five wickets in an innings — a feat he achieved against the West Indies at Port of Spain in 1962.
Besides his exploits with the bat, Umrigar was also a superb bowler, if with an unusual action. The way he thrived on dual responsibilities should be a good lesson for some of India’s current ‘stars’ who make such a big deal of playing the all-rounder’s role. Statistics, however, probably tell only part of the story of players like Umrigar who represented cricket’s glory days when batsmen played innings after marvellous innings with little protective armour. Today’s batsman-friendly game with its helmets, arm pads, thigh pads and new-age cricket gear let even a tailender send the ball to the ropes by a mere caress of the bat.
Players like Umrigar played on uncovered pitches, where they were also exposed to the vagaries of nature. Playing on moisture-laden wickets, for instance, must have required the best of technique and temperament — a task made more difficult in the absence of laws to restrict bouncers. To have played 59 Tests and scored all those runs in such an era is truly remarkable.