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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Cricket: Polly Umrigar, the Palm Tree Hitter

Polly Umrigar is a Parsi cricket player from Mumbai.   His full name was Pahlan Ratanji Umrigar, but he was fondly referred to as ‘Polly’. Before the grant of Independence the Parsi community played a significant role in Indian cricket. Polly was a product from that era and initially played for the Parsis in the Pentangular. He started his career in 1944 at the age of 18 and played his last cricket game in 1968, spanning an era in Indian cricket.

Polly in England

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When Polly appeared on the scene the duo of Vijay Hazare and Vijay Merchant were well entrenched in Indian cricket, yet he did make a significant impact.  Umrigar however had a weakness against pace and this came to the fore on the 1952 tour of England. Umrigar totaled 43 runs in 7 innings. Worse he had a phobia against Fred Truman and took guard well outside the leg stump. This is hard to understand as Polly was a powerfully built man who towered over 6 ft.   But it is to his credit that he scored heavily in the county matches with 3 double hundreds against Oxford, Kent and Lancashire. No Indian player after that has been able to hit so many double hundreds in England.
He followed up by hitting two more double hundreds on the 1959 tour with a highest score of 252 not out. The 5 double hundreds that Umrigar hit in county cricket is an Indian record and no Indian batsman including Tendulkar or Gavaskar has been able to emulate this feat. On the 1959 tour Polly made amends for his earlier failures with 118 at the Oval against Truman and Statham. His 252 not out remains the highest score by an Indian in England. A fact that is often overlooked is that despite his failures in the Test Matches, Polly was almost in the run to complete 1000 runs in May during the 1959 tour. Outside the English tours Umrigar was a more than successful batsman.
He is also the first Indian to hit a double century in Test cricket when he hit 223 against New Zealand in 1956 at Hyderabad. Umrigar’s biggest success was against the West Indies. In two tours to the Caribbean islands he endeared himself to the crowds there, with his penchant for hitting sixes and earned the nickname as ‘Palm Tree hitter.’ He reached his hundred in the Trinidad test match with a six of Sonny Ramadhin during the 1953 tour.

Polly  in the West Indies

Polly scored heavily against the West Indies in 2 tours and hit 3 centuries. In the 1953 tour he was able to shake of his stigma as bunny against pace men by hitting 560 runs in the series. He followed up by hitting over 400 runs on the 1962 tour with a magnificent 172 not out in the fourth test. Polly’s success in the West Indies is food for thought and one wonders why he failed in England. Perhaps it was a crisis of confidence. On the 1958-59 West Indies tour of India, Polly faced the superfast Gilchrist and Wes Hall with aplomb and averaged over 44 with 3 fifties.

Polly Against Other Nations

Polly was also a success against Pakistan, against whom he hit 5 centuries. On the 1954-55 tour of Pakistan Polly was the lone centurion from the Indian side with an innings of 108 in the third test. On the 1960-61 tour of India by Pakistan Polly batted regally and hit 3 centuries. He had scores of 115 at Kanpur, 117 at Madras and 117 at Delhi.
Overall Polly played 59 tests for India and averaged 42.22, which is about the same average as Mohinder Amarnath and GR Vishwanath. Thus one can gauge the standard of Polly Umrigar. In all Polly hit 12 test centuries. Polly also scored heavily in the Ranjit trophy where he hit 15 centuries. It is to his credit that he never missed a home outing for Bombay at any  timehe was in India. Polly was also a more than useful off break bowler who helped Jasu Patel rout Australia at Kanpur with a spell of 4/27.
Polly had moderate success against Australia and in 6 outings against the Aussies he could get only 1 fifty. In all Polly hit 3667 runs in test cricket and this remained a record till Sunil Gavaskar over took him in the seventies. He 12 centuries remained a record for over 15 years till Sunil Gavaskar overtook him in the seventies.

Contribution

What is Polly’s contribution to Indian cricket? In one word one can say ‘immense’. He played at a time when the game had little money in it and was not as professional as today. He was the main stay of Indian batting for over a decade and deserves credit for it. Along with Vijay Manjereker he formed the vanguard of Indian batting. Polly also led India in 8 test matches, but it was not a happy experience and finally he resigned his captaincy during the 1958-59 tour of the West Indies at the onset of the 4th test at Madras. 
Despite his failings as a captain, Polly did yeoman service to Indian cricket.The cricket board has also remembered Umrigar by naming the under 15 school cricket championship after his name. Polly died in 2006, leaving an enduring image of a genial and more than competent batsman.