Various types of misfortunes can play havoc with the careers of cricketers at the international level. Some have their careers cut down due to injuries while some others find it difficult to adjust to the pressures of playing on the big stage. But the real unfortunate ones are those who suffer on account of the vicissitudes of the selectors. When the history of Indian cricket is studied, the name Surinder Amarnath will figure prominently in list of players whose careers were destroyed due to the ham-handed approach of Indian selectors.
The eldest of the three sons of the legendary Lala Amarnath, Surinder started making waves with his exploits with the bat right form his days in school. The great Lala was instrumental in converting Surinder, a natural right-hander, into a left-hand batsman as he felt that southpaws possessed a natural advantage while wielding the willow. Such was the prodigious talent he was blessed with that Surinder could take this change in his stride and run up huge scores in schools cricket. This soon earned him a call to the first-class cricket and he made his debut for Northern Punjab in Ranji Trophy during the 1964-65 season, when he was only 15 years old.
Surinder made waves outside the country in 1967, when as a member of Indian schoolboy’s team touring England, he struck two sixes off the last two balls to help his side clinch a near impossible win against MCC Schools side at Lord’s. There are differing versions about the exact target when the last two balls remained to be bowled, but there is near consensus that India needed to score nine runs or more. Surinder, who was batting brilliantly, confidently deposited the first ball over the ropes to keep India still in contention for a win. By this time, light had started fading but this also did not bother Surinder who stepped down the track and flicked an attempted yorker over square leg for one more six.
But for some strange reason, Surinder did not find favour with the national selectors till 1975, despite scoring heavily in domestic cricket. He was given an opportunity during the unofficial “Test” series against the touring Sri Lankans and he grabbed it with both hands to strike a century. He followed this up with a half-century in the next “Test” and won the nod of the selectors for the twin tours of New Zealand and West Indies that followed.
Surinder followed in the footsteps of his father Lala Amarnath by scoring a century on his very first appearance in Test cricket, which took place against New Zealand at Auckland in January, 1976. This made them the first father-son duo to hit centuries on their Test debut. But even more importantly, his audacious strokeplay against the New Zealand attack led by Richard Collinge thrilled the followers of the game in India and made them wonder why the selectors had waited till then to call him for duties in the national squad. His partnership of 204 runs for the second wicket with Sunil Gavaskar laid the foundation for an Indian win in this Test match. It also appeared that India had finally found a worthy successor to Ajit Wadekar at the crucial No. 3 position in the batting order.
However, Surinder went through a bad patch after this bright start. He did not score many runs in the remaining games in New Zealand and was dropped after a string of low scores in the first two Tests in the West Indies. Incidentally, his place at one drop in the batting order was taken by none other than his younger brother Mohinder, who cemented his place with a run of tall scores in the remaining Tests in that series. This made the task of leaving out Surinder easy for the selectors when they met to choose the national squad at the start of the home season of 1976-77, which conisisted of three Tests against New Zealand and five against England.
India lost the first three Tests of the series against England by huge margins, prompting the selectors to drop the non-performers for the fourth Test. Among those who were called up to the national side in the face of this disaster was Surinder, while Mohinder was dropped for his poor show with the willow. Surinder immediately showed his class with a masterly knock of 63 at Bangalore, which helped India to seize the initiative and record their first win in the series. He followed it up with yet another half-century in the last Test in Mumbai.
Surinder was a certainty when the selectors sat down to choose the side to tour Australia in the winter of 1977-78. But misfortune plagued him yet again when he was struck on his face by a ball during a warm-up match prior to the first Test. This ruled him out for the first two Tests and the tour management promptly decided to send him back to India. Surinder was deeply hurt by this development since he believed he was fit enough to play when this decision was taken. Mohinder once again grabbed his place in the batting order and came good with some fine knocks.
India’s tour of Pakistan in 1978 finds mention in cricket history for two main reasons - this was the first time that the two sides were playing against each other since 1961 and the series marked the beginning of the end for the famed spin quartet, who had held centrestage during the preceding decade. Surinder played in all the three Tests, but could not convert any of the good starts into a big score. Thus, at the end of the series, he had only one half-century to show, with the result that he was dropped from the side that took on Alvin Kallicharan-led West Indies side when the next series commenced soon after in Mumbai. Surprisingly, he was the only player who faced the axe at the end of the series where India went down 0-2.
Surinder did not let this setback disappoint him as he plunged into domestic cricket with renewed vigour, eager to make one more comeback. In the Irani Trophy match played prior to the selection of the team to tour Australia and New Zealand in 1980, Surinder played an impeccable innings of 235 against an attack comprising Kapil Dev, Karsan Ghavri, Shivlal Yadav and Dilip Doshi. But even such a tall score against a bowling line-up which was the best in the country did not win him favour with the selectors. He also scored heavily during the 1981-82 domestic season and many expected him to find a place in the squad to tour England in 1982, but he again failed to win the nod of the selection committee. The fact that he was already into his early thirties might have worked against him but he was denied another opportunity at the the international level, that he so richly deserved. And to rub salt into his wounds, the squad for England had in its ranks such worthies as Suru Nayak and Ghulam Parker, about whose cricketing merits little was heard of or spoken about either before or after this tour.
In the twilight of his career, Surinder moved to Gujarat and retired at the end of 1984-85 season, after playing first-class cricket for nearly 22 years. He settled down in Ahmedabad after that but kept in touch with active cricket, taking up coaching assignments in Morocco and working as a consultant to the Goa Cricket Association. He applied for the post of selector of junior national team in May, 2021, but the Board of Control for Cricket in India did not consider it favourably. His son Digvijay Amarnath, also a left-handed batsman, played first-class cricket in Sri Lanka for a couple of years during the middle of the last decade but could not move further up the ladder.
Statistics reveal that Surinder played in 10 Tests, scoring a total of 540 runs, with one century and three fifties to his credit. But it does not state the fact that out of those 10 matches, only two were played at home while the remaining eight took place on foreign soil, in difficult conditions against top teams of those times. Selectors did not show with him the level of patience that they had demonstrated while handling the early failures of Dilip Vengsarkar, nor did they consider the string of tall scores that he made in first-class matches subsequently. He was given his Test cap five years too late and even after that was never given a reasonable opportunity to bloom at the international level. He also featured in three ODIs.
Did the fact that he was the eldest son of Lala Amarnath work against Surinder? It is true that Lala had developed many detractors in the cricket administration on account of his tendency to rub people the wrong way but it would be too improper to say that this was held against Surinder. A more probable reason could be his audacious strokeplay, which occasionally tended to be flashy, and often led to his dismissals when fully set. This would not have gone down well with Gavaskar who believed in the dictum of defensive batting and placing a premium on one’s wicket by eschewing all risks, especially those brought about by aggressive pursuit of runs.
In the final analysis, Surinder will be remembered by the followers of the game in India as one of the talented cricketers who promised much during their early days but delivered little at the international level.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)