Far Away and Long Ago | A cricketer who was a true gentleman

AG Ram Singh was a fine left-arm spin bowler and a solid middle-order batsman, but living in Madras, the First-Class cricketer never caught the eye of the selectors in Bombay to play Test cricket

He remains a forgotten master cricketer from the 1930s and 40s who richly deserved to play Test cricket for India, but by a strange quirk of fate, couldn’t. He was called AG Ram Singh. One met him in 1988 in his small, sports shop in Triplicane, Madras. Having read about him in boyhood in Sport and Pastime, one was curious. Gopal Rao, an old and dear friend, then with The Hindu, the most respected English language Daily in the South, made the meeting possible. AGRS was already at 78, world weary, having faced great disappointments in his life - his two sons AG Kirpal Singh and AG Milkha Singh, despite their obvious promise, were not given enough opportunities by the Indian Test selectors and his own career, regardless of sterling performances in First-Class cricket at home, even against touring English teams, failed to catch the eye of selectors operating out of Bombay. For the record, he was an orthodox left-arm spinner and a solid middle-order batsman.

He was born in Amritsar, Panjab in 1910. He first played cricket at Jalianwala Bagh when he was eight. The next year, on Baisakhi day, 379 peaceful Indian citizens were shot down in cold blood and several hundred others left injured on the orders of the sadistic British General Reginalda Dyer.

AGRS moved to Madras at age 10. He learnt the rudiments of cricket at school and showed enough promise to make a mark in top division League cricket in the southern Indian city. Jack Hobbs, the all-time great of English cricket, on his retirement had come to British India, and on his visit to Madras, played the bowling of the 19-year-old AGRS in a First-Class match representing the Europeans, and was immediately impressed. He told the lad he would be an even better bowler if he learnt to flight the ball.

His attempts to learn the rudiments of flight, at the outset, resulted in a few comic incidents. "The first ball I bowled at the nets went in a high loop over the batsman’s head; the second, third and the fourth were equally staggering,” he recalled. "A concerned team-mate said, ‘Ram Singh, man, if you continue to bowl like this, your career will soon be over'.” But he persisted and his hard work paid off. Within a year, he became a master of his craft. He came to be appreciated for his command of flight, sharp spin, variations in pace and control over direction. He became the premier, left-arm finger spinner in the country, despite the fact that a young left-arm spinner and right-hand batsman from Nawanagar, Gujarat, called Vinoo Mankad, had just played against the visiting English side led by Lord Tennyson in the Unofficial Test series of 1937-38 and headed the averages both in batting and bowling. AG Ram Singh, however, continued to perform splendidly in domestic First-Class cricket. He took eight wickets for 15 runs against the Europeans in the highly competitive Pentangular Tournament. However, staying in the Madras Presidency, far away from the Test selectors, would not do him any good even in the future.

AG Ram Singh came to be appreciated for his command of flight, sharp spin, variations in pace and control over direction. He became the premier, left-arm finger spinner in the country, despite the fact that a young, left-arm spinner and right-hand batsman from Nawanagar, Gujarat, called Vinoo Mankad had just played against the visiting English side in the Unofficial Test series of 1937-38

World War II (1939-45) put an end to Test cricket, though First-Class fixtures continued in India. Denis Compton, a star of the England team, found himself stationed in India as an Army officer. The bowler who impressed him most was AG Ram Singh. Then immediately after the war, the Australian Services Team, virtually a full strength Test outfit, toured India. AG Ram Singh was selected, but as fate would have it, things went wrong. ‘’I was given five overs with the ball and three catches were dropped off my bowling. After that, I was not asked to bowl again in the match.”

He continued to perform exceptionally in domestic cricket. Nawab Iftikhar Ali Pataudi, captain of the Indian Team to tour England in 1946, saw AGRS bat and bowl and was immediately convinced of his quality. He asked the all-rounder to get his passport ready. “You are in the team Ram Singh,” the senior Pataudi declared. A malevolent fate intervened again.

Some mischief-maker sent a telegram to the Test selection committee that G Ram Singh had suddenly developed heart trouble and therefore was not available for selection! When Denis Compton heard in England that his old friend was not in the team touring England, he asked, “How can you have an Indian Team without Ram Singh?” Vinoo Mankad, his arch rival, made the most of his selection in the team, performed very well and effectively blocked AGRS’s path for the all-rounder’s slot.

AGRS swallowed his disappointment and continued to play First-Class cricket till 1950-51. He then became a coach. From his drawer, he pulled out a small photograph of the lads he had coached. Among the group was a smiling Salim Durani, the gifted left-handed all-rounder, holding himself in the pre-delivery pose of a pre-World War I bowler, as if giving the photographer enough time to take the picture, despite the slow shutter speed of a tripod-bound, sheet-film camera.

An incident he fondly recalled was a meeting with Bishan Singh Bedi, playing the second Test match of his career, in 1967. He had bowled indifferently in the first innings against West Indies in the third and final Test in the series. He sought AG Ram Singh’s advice. “I told Bedi to use the width of the crease intelligently to pose greater problems for the batsman. He took 4 top order wickets for 81 runs off 28 overs in the second innings,” recalled AGRS.

It was a rewarding afternoon for Gopal and me, and for the grand old man of Tamil Nadu cricket, one of bittersweet memories.

(Photo source: The Hindu)

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