Column | Remembering daredevil Raman Lamba

Raman Lamba
Raman Lamba played four Tests and 32 ODIs. Photo: Manorama Archives

Of the 22 recorded deaths that have occurred due to accidents that took place on the cricket field in first-class matches, the one that took place at Dhaka 25 years ago remains the only one that involves an Indian player. While we can consider ourselves fortuitous that there has not yet been any such incident of this nature in India, it is a matter of great sadness that a cricketer who wore the national colours met with this tragic fate on foreign soil. Raman Lamba, the former India international, who left to meet the Maker in this manner, was singularly unlucky as this remains the only death to have occurred to a player while fielding, on account of being struck by the red cherry.

Lamba was a moderately successful cricketer who broke into the national side during the mid 1980s. He was an attacking opening batsman and an excellent fielder, which should have made him an asset in limited overs cricket. But those were the days when the influence of Test match cricket cast a huge shadow over the limited overs version and selectors were loath to look beyond Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and Krishnamachari Srikkanth while filling the slots for opening batsmen in One-Day Internationals (ODIs). To be fair, the restrictions on placement of fielders in ODIs were in a rudimentary stage and the concept of specialist limited overs cricketer was many years away. Hence, despite his forte being in over specific cricket, Lamba tried to mould himself into a batsman suited for both versions of the game.

It was during the tour of Australia to India in1986 that Lamba got his chance for making an entry into international cricket. He had a dream debut in ODIs as he went on to win the man-of-the-series award after scoring 278 runs, which included a century, in the six games against the Aussies. He soon made his foray into  Test cricket, against the touring Sri Lankans, in December, 1986, and played in all the three matches of that series. But dame luck did not smile on him for too long and he found himself out of the Test side by the time the home series against Pakistan began. An indifferent outing against Pakistan in ODIs stood in the way of his making the squad for the World Cup in 1987.

Lamba’s career spluttered after this setback. He played in only one more Test- against the West Indies at Delhi in 1987. He was to play in the first Test during the tour of Pakistan in 1989 but an injury to his finger on the morning of the opening day of the match saw him being replaced by Mohammad Azharuddin, who grabbed this lifeline with both hands. He did not get a look in for the Tests after that and could not do much in the ODIs that followed, with the result that he was banished to the sidelines once the tour got over. Lamba continued to play in domestic cricket, where he scored mountains of runs and was held in high regard by the the up and coming players from Delhi and North zone, who revered him. He also started started playing as a professional, turning up for clubs in Ireland and Bangladesh.

Mohammad Azharuddin
Mohammad Azharuddin offers tips to a youngster. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The injury that cost his life took place on February 20, 1998, in Dhaka where Lamba had gone to play as a professional for Abahani Krira Chakra in the Bangladesh Premier League. In the match against Mohammedan Sporting, he was asked to move from the outfield to forward short leg, when an over by left-arm spin bowler Saifullah Khan was in progress. Lamba refused the offer of a helmet while standing close to the bat stating “it is just three balls and it will not be a problem”. 

However, the next ball was pitched short and the batsman Mehrab Hossain pulled it hard but straight at Lamba, who ducked instinctively. The ball hit Lamba flush on his head with such force that it rebounded and and lobbed behind the wicketkeeper who had to run a few steps to his rear to complete the catch. But, even as the players got together for a round of celebration, it was noticed that Lamba had fallen down on the ground. Though he got up and walked back to the pavilion, he had to be rushed to the hospital. An emergency surgery helped to remove a clot from his brain but could not control the continued haemorrhage and he breathed his last three days later in a government hospital in Dhaka. 

The death of Lamba came as a huge shock as the chances of players fielding close to the wicket getting injured seriously had come down after the introduction of helmets. Looking back, it appears foolhardy that Lamba refused the offer of an helmet when he was asked to move closer to the bat. But Lamba, like all players of his generation, had seen fielders like the great Eknath Solkar and Tony Greig stand in hand shaking distance from batsmen and take incredible catches. This might have been due to the fact that these players had sharper reflexes or the bowlers had such control over length and line of the bowlers that they did not bowl any loose balls. Lamba was distinctly unfortunate in that he died from an injury that could have been avoided had he taken the simple precaution of wearing a helmet.

Did not players like Solkar and others of his generation get hit while they were fielding close to the bat? It should be remembered that helmets became popular only towards the close of the 1970s by which time Solkar had left the international arena. There is a mention in “Sunny Days”, the autobiography of Gavaskar, about Solkar getting hit on the head during the tour of New Zealand in 1975-76 and being taken for a precautionary X-ray. We should realise that those were days before the advent of scans and other methods of imaging that allow the doctors to peek inside the skull. The X-ray did not reveal any fracture of skull but Solkar’s confidence suffered a severe setback after this incident. He played in only two Tests after that and was only a shadow of his old self while fielding close to the bat  in both of them.

One also recalls Mohinder Amarnath getting struck on his head while fielding at forward short leg in the Chennai Test against England in January, 1977. A shot played by Mike Brearley hit Mohinder on his head and ricocheted from there into the hands of the bowler Erapalli Prasanna, who held a comfortable catch. Commentators were surprised to see Mohinder take up his position nonchalantly at the same position when the next batsman arrived at the crease and took guard. With the benefit of hindsight one can state that Mohinder was extremely fortunate to get away without a severe injury. There was also an instance when Gavaskar himself was struck on the face and suffered a fractured cheek bone during the tour of New Zealand in 1976-77. 

The game has come a long way since the 1970s. The advent of helmets has certainly increased the safety aspect among both batsmen and close-in fielders. But it cannot be denied that this sense of protection has created a tendency among players to take their eyes off the ball, which seldom used to happen in the past. Further, very rarely does one see the high quality spin bowing that induces catches close to the wicket in the manner of the famous India spin quartet of the that period. The upgradation of the quality of cricket bats and the power that the present day ones possess make the job of standing close to the batsmen even more difficult. The surfeit of white-ball cricket and the  emphasis on restriction of runs rather than picking up wickets has resulted in focus shifting to covering distances and cutting off runs in the outfield rather than breathing down the necks of batsmen waiting for a bat-pad catch. Hence, one finds very few fielders equipped with the reflexes and temperament to field close to the bat in contemporary cricket.

Lamba unfortunately fell in the gap between the two generations and paid the price on this score. He, like many other players of his time, thought that his reflexes were good enough to protect him and considered wearing helmets to be “sissy”. Hence he was known to avoid donning the helmet, to the extent possible, while fielding. But he had not factored in the development of superior quality bats and the power they could impart to strokes. This led to the unfortunate accident and the fatal injury that robbed his life at a relatively tender age.

Presently, fielders standing close to the bat are well protected against any injury at all levels in which the game is played. This has ensured that the game has become much safer these days though the the old-timers may crib about missing the romance and thrill of watching bat-pad catches being picked up by a fielder standing at forward short leg after a full length dive. The life and death of Lamba has taught us that the proverb “it is better to be safe than  sorry” holds true in cricket as well.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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