By Gaurang - June 4, '03
June 10 2003
Which Indian fast bowler has the best strike rate in Test matches? Kapil Dev? Javagal Srinath? Zaheer Khan? The answer is Mohammad Nissar, with a strike rate of a wicket every 48 balls, compared to the 60-odd balls per wicket of the others. This strike rate places him in the company of some of the greatest pure strike bowlers in the history of the game: men such as Frank Tyson, Malcolm Marshall and Waqar Younis.
In fact Mohammad Nissar and his partner Ladha Amar Singh formed one of the most formidable pair of fast bowlers in the world at the dawn of Indian Test cricket. It is one of the tragedies of Indian cricket that both were lost to the game rather early. Amar Singh died young, at the tender age of 29 from a bout of severe pneumonia, and Nissar too did not keep in the best of health and was not picked for any Tests after 1936. Upon Partition, Nissar moved to Lahore in Pakistan where he died prematurely, just barely past 50. Unfortunate circumstances thus prevented Nissar and Amar Singh from passing on their legacy to Indian cricket, much to its detriment. If the pace bowling standards they achieved had been maintained, India never would have suffered the fast-bowling drought it did from the late 1930s to the late 1970s. This forty year dry spell had the nation thirsting for a genuine fast bowler, until Kapil Dev finally slaked that thirst when he arrived on the scene with the sound and fury of the first thunderstorm of a new monsoon, while tiny Ramakant Desai provided some brief showers of relief, albeit insufficient to quench the thirst, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Mohammad Nissar, from Hoshiarpur in the Punjab, was a large man, around six feet tall, and powerfully built, who could be devastatingly quick. In fact, according to C.K. Nayudu who played against them both, Nissar was, early in his spells, faster than Englishman Harold Larwood. Off a runup of about twenty-two yards, the length of a cricket pitch, he gathered himself for the final uncoiling of his massive frame in what was one of the great sights in cricket according to contemporary Rusi Modi. Besides the basic requisites of speed, line, length and swerve, Nissar possessed a deadly yorker. This fact is underlined when one realizes that more than half of his 25 victims in a mere six Test matches were either bowled or leg before wicket.
In India's first-ever Test, played at Lords against England in 1932, Nissar dismissed within the first few overs both Herbert Sutcliffe and Percy Holmes, who just ten days earlier had put together a world record partnership of 555 runs for the first wicket for Yorkshire. When Frank Woolley was then run out the English score read a shocking 19 for 3 and Lords was abuzz. Soon, Amar Singh got into the act and bowled Wally Hammond for 35. England were now well and truly reeling, and were eventually bowled out for 259 with Nissar bagging 5 for 93. That England managed to win the match was a result of the dogged batting of their captain, the ruthless Douglas Jardine, who scored 79 and 85 not out, and the frailty of the Indian batting line up which except for C.K. Nayudu, and Amar Singh in the first innings, looked all at sea against professional seam bowling in helpful conditions. If India had been able to use the services of Duleepsinghji, who was soon to be picked by England to represent them against Australia, or Iftikar Ali Pataudi, who also was to soon represent England against Australia, the story could have been different and India would probably not have to wait for another 40 years to record its first Test win in England.
At the end of the match Jardine wistfully remarked that he would love to have a bowler like Amar Singh to take with him to Australia to battle Bradman, but did not mention Nissar. Maybe Jardine, who was India-born and had played some cricket in India, knew that unlike Larwood, Nissar was not a man who could be coerced into bowling an intimidatory line. Nissar's captain in the Presidency matches Wazir Ali, leading The Muslims, found this out to his chagrin when in the 1939 Pentangular match against The Hindus, he instructed Nissar to intimidate Vinoo Mankad, who had an injured thigh, with bouncers. But the gallant Nissar refused to do so. An occasional bouncer is every fast bowler's birth right, but to persistently bowl bouncer after bouncer simply to intimidate the batsmen is not within the spirit of the game. And Nissar played the game in its best traditions and spirit. Besides, Nissar had no need to resort to intimidatory tactics as he was talented enough to dismiss top class batsmen without such means.
Nissar took five wickets in an innings three times in the six Tests he played. He also gave a devastating demonstration of his prowess when an Australian team under Jack Ryder visited India in 1935-36 for a series of "unofficial" Test matches. In just four "Test"matches against the Australians he scalped 35 wickets at the measly average of 13 runs each. Bradman in his foreword to Rusi Modi's book on Indian cricketers writes: "Two other great Indians never to visit Australia were Nissar and Amar Singh, but my Test Selector colleague and Test Captain Jack Ryder played against them in India. Many nights I sat with him into the small hours being enthralled listening to his stories of their skill."
The other member of the great duo, Amar Singh, was from Rajkot in Gujarat. He too was tall, over six feet two inches and broad shouldered, though wiry. He was not really fast, but rather fast-medium, and used his height to great advantage to extract bounce and movement. Off a run up of little more than a dozen yards, Amar Singh generated so much energy from a clean and efficient action that Wally Hammond, one of England's greatest batsmen, said of him: "He came off the pitch like the crack of doom." And indeed, English conditions were ideally suited to Amar Singh. In 1932 on India's first official tour to England, he took 111 first class wickets at 20 runs each to Nissar's 71 at 18 runs each. Hammond was so impressed by Amar Singh's guile, he stated unequivocally in 1932 that Amar Singh was the best user of the new ball in the game. This was just before the Bodyline series, and England had bowlers such as Harold Larwood, Bill Voce, Bill Bowes, and Gubby Allen available to operate with the new ball.
With the new ball Amar Singh could make it swing both ways, and when the shine was off, his devastating breakback often penetrated the defense of well set batsmen, castling them comprehensively. One of the keys to Amar Singh's bowling was that he always attacked the stumps, unlike some modern bowlers of similar pace who are content to bowl a metronomic line wide outside the off stump, waiting for the batsman to make mistakes or lose patience. Indeed it was very rare to see him vary his attacking field much, which generally consisted of two or three slips, a gully, a cover point, and third man on the off side. On the leg side he usually had a short fine leg, a forward short leg, a silly mid-on and a long leg. He maintained this field against all batsmen, from the C.K. Nayudus to rank tailenders.
In seven Test matches Amar Singh took 28 wickets at 30 runs each, and his best figures were 7 for 86 from 44.4 marathon overs bowled in the absence of Nissar in Madras in 1933-34, against an England team led by Jardine, fresh from its triumph over Australia in the Bodyline series. Amar Singh also captured 10 wickets at 19 runs each against Jack Ryder's Australians in two unofficial "Tests" in 1935-36, while missing the other two due to illness. In 1937-38 he bagged 36 wickets at 16 runs each in 5 unofficial "Tests" against Lord Tennyson's visiting M.C.C. side. In 1938, while playing for a Lancashire league side, Amar Singh was picked to represent an England XI against the visiting Australians at Blackpool. He captured six Australian wickets including Stanley McCabe (the hero of the Bodyline series), Lindsey Hassett (one of Bradman's invincibles and a future Australian captain) as well as Bill Brown, another future Australian captain. It was a pity that Bradman sat this match out, though odds are that he too would have fallen to Amar Singh's guile and accuracy.
Amar Singh's batting however had very little guile. He was a devastating low order hitter who often contributed to the team with his bat. He scored the first Test half century for India when he smashed the English attack for 51 in India's first Test at Lords. He flayed an unbeaten 131 against Lancashire coming in at number 10 that same summer. He was also the first player in the history of the Ranji Trophy to score 1000 runs and take 100 wickets.
An area where Amar Singh's contributions to his team is often overlooked was his superb slip fielding. According to Rusi Modi, he was easily in the Simpson or Hammond class in this specialist position and helped his bowling partner, Nissar, on several occasions by taking catches of the highest caliber in the slip cordon. Unfortunately for India he was the exception, and Nissar and Amar Singh both suffered umpteen spilled catches in the slips, which if held would have added much gloss to their already impressive records.
Yet neither Nissar nor Amar Singh indulged in the kind of gestures and facial expressions of disgust common today. Instead they simply got on with the job, and kept relentlessly pursuing batsmen, hunting together as one of the most devastating pairs of fast bowlers to ever play the game, who because of the lack of opportunity in terms of number of Tests played and unfortunate health problems, never had the chance to make a mark in the record books worthy of their rich talents. However all those who played with and against them, and all those who watched them in action, have no doubt about their place in cricket's history.
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