By N Ananthanarayanan

Polly Umrigar was the first Indian to score a double century in Test cricket and when he retired in 1962-63, he held the Indian record for the most Tests, most runs and most centuries

In a definitive book on Indian batters, the biggest chapters are likely to be on Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli. But a tome on Indian batting heroes must start with the country’s great post-Independence stalwart Polly Umrigar .

A tall and well-built batter and bowler—his first lessons were on getting the ball to swing while he shone as a Test off-spinner— Umrigar accumulated pretty much every Indian batting record in a Test career (1948-1962) that began in India’s early days as a free nation, extending for 14 years.

Born in Sholapur, he made his first-class debut for Parsis in the Bombay Pentangular tournament, going on to play with distinction for Mumbai — he also played for Gujarat — and captain in eight Tests from 1955 to 1958.

It was an era of great players and not so great teams, and Umrigar and all-rounder Vinoo Mankad are acknowledged as those who shone the brightest in that period. India’s first tour after Independence was to Australia, and Mankad scored two centuries as opener.

But it was Umrigar who held all the batting records till Gavaskar arrived in Test cricket in 1971. He is also the first Indian batter to score a Test double century, 223 as skipper against New Zealand in Hyderabad in 1955. He played 59 Tests, scoring 3,631 runs with 12 centuries at an average of 42.22 -- all numbers that stood till late 1970s when Gavaskar marched ahead.

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Umrigar also held on to the sobriquet “palm-tree hitter” given to him on the 1952-53 West Indies tour for his ability to smoke huge sixes.

Pahlan Ratanji “Polly” Umrigar’s introduction to cricket came when he was barely in his teens after being included in a team of seniors that was a player short. While the game itself was uneventful, a coach who was watching started to train him. His father’s transfer to Mumbai meant some wait for his cricket to be noticed in the big city, but once it was at St Xavier’s College it was a steady climb.

Umrigar has, over the years, spoken about his Sholapur coach teaching him the basics of swing bowling, and drawing a circle on the matting pitch to help trainees hit the ideal length and make each delivery count.

He first came into focus in 1948, when he hit a century for All India University against the touring West Indies. Years later, Umrigar in an interview to Cricinfo, would recall George Headley, the man hailed as “Black Bradman”, coming into the dressing room and praise his innings

A close-up view of Umrigar.

He was immediately drafted into the India side, and made his debut in the second Test against West Indies on home turf, at the Brabourne Stadium. Umrigar struck 130 not out at No 7 versus England in Madras in 1952, playing a big role in India’s historic first Test win.

Although Umrigar drew praise after the 1951-52 home series — he was an excellent driver of the ball and also hooked and pulled — he struggled when India toured. England fast bowlers Fred Trueman and Alec Bedser dismissed him in six of his seven innings in that series as he scored just 43 runs in four Tests, averaging 6.14.

He bounced back by scoring a century against Pakistan on India’s return from England. Still, there were doubts over Umrigar when India toured the West Indies in 1953. But he hit a century and a fifty in the first Test at Port of Spain, finishing as the highest run-getter for India across five Tests (560 runs at 62.22).

Umrigar was also only one of two Indian players to score a century and take five wickets in a Test innings, achieving the feat against West Indies at Port of Spain in 1962. Vinoo Mankad was the other to achieve this “double”. R Ashwin (three times) and Ravindra Jadeja have achieved the feat in the current India side.

Considered a sharp captain, his role at the helm of the Indian team though had its twists and turns. Removed as skipper after the first Test in the 1958-59 home series against West Indies, Umrigar was brought back for the fourth Test in Chennai after Ghulam Ahmed, who had led in the second and third games, announced his retirement after two successive losses. But Umrigar quit the post on the eve of the Test after his request to include batter Manohar Hardikar was turned down by then BCCI president Ratibhai Patel, who included off-spinner Jassu Patel in the 11.

Umrigar never led India again, but scored four hundreds in six innings in 1960 and 1961. And his astute reading of the game continued to help the team. In the 1961 Test against Pakistan in Delhi, he asked Bapu Nadkarni, a spinner renowned for his economical spell, to switch to attack mode, which almost led to an Indian victory.

In the 1961 Test against England at the Eden Gardens, skipper Nari Contractor was injured and Umrigar took charge. He asked fast bowler Ramakant Desai to bowl short to Ken Barrington, and had him caught while hooking. The support Umrigar, as a senior player, gave young vice-captain Tiger Pataudi after Contractor’s near-fatal injury on the 1962 Caribbean tour was recalled by Pataudi in the 1990 TV serial Anmol Ratan’s episode on him.

“Those were strange circumstances. Nari Contractor was the captain of India at that time and we were going to tour the West Indies. As far as my understanding goes, the selectors thought a youngster should be made vice-captain. He will be in the team and can take over as captain after Contractor. But we were playing Barbados and Contractor got injured facing Charlie Griffith and that’s how I became the captain. So, at the age of 21, I got captaincy. I didn’t have experience. I didn’t even know some of the players. Polly Umrigar helped me a lot at that time, he gave me a lot of advice. There were some senior players who perhaps were not happy at me becoming captain, thinking ‘where has he come running from and all of a sudden become captain’. But after that I kept on getting captaincy for eight years and my only aim was the success of Indian cricket.” Pataudi had said.

Umrigar scored 16,155 first-class runs with 49 hundreds and 80 fifties, his highest score being 252 not out. His best figures in Tests, 6-74, came against Pakistan at Bahawalpur on the 1955 tour.

He led Bombay to three Ranji Trophy titles in four years. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1962, and the Indian cricket board’s CK Nayudu Trophy for lifetime achievement in 1998-99.

After retirement, he played various roles. Umrigar was India team manager in the late 1970s and selection committee chairman from 1978 to 1982. He oversaw the construction of the Wankhede Stadium, and was also its curator. A stand in the famous venue is named after him. BCCI has also named the award for excellence in a calendar year after Umrigar while the U-15 national tournament is played for the Polly Umrigar Trophy.

He died in 2006 at the age of 80 after battling cancer.

1947 - 1970