Category Archives: Forgotten Heroes
In 1930 as Jack Hobbs retired, England were looking for a good, solid opening bat to replace the master and join another great opener Herbert Sutcliffe. Hobbs and Sutcliffe had opened for England for only 5 years but in that period, they had managed to rack up more than twice the runs of any other partnership in Test cricket. It was another Yorkshireman, Percy Holmes, who replaced Hobbs in the opening slot. In 1932, Holmes and Sutcliffe added a world record 555 for the first wicket for Yorkshire vs. Essex. They were truly the best two opening batsmen in the world. Ten days later, they faced a young Indian bowling attack in the country’s inaugural Test. They were expected to massacre the young Indians. What happened instead laid the foundations to a legendary new ball partnership.
On the first morning, 21-year old speedster Mohammad Nissar sent England into disarray by knocking over the stumps of both Sutcliffe and Holmes. Soon, his new ball partner, Amar Singh (also 21) bowled the great Wally Hammond. Within a few hours, England were staring down the barrel of a huge embarrassment at 166/6 and it was two new bowlers who had inflicted that damage. Today, when we talk about Indian legends, names like Tendulkar, Gavskar, Kumble and Kapil pop up regularly. Some more informed and well-read folks dig up names like Mankad, Hazare, Prasanna, Lala Amarnath and Umrigar. But nobody remembers the original Indian heroes, India’s first – and possibly greatest – new ball pairing, Amar Singh and Mohammad Nissar.
Nissar was an out and out fast bowler, deadly quick and accurate. Those who played against him swore that he was the quickest they faced. Many international cricketers and commentators remarked that he was almost as quick – if not quicker – as the great Englishman Harold Larwood. He remains the only true express pace bowler produced by India till date. Nissar combined his speed with pinpoint accuracy to achieve great success in both England and India. However, as many pointed out, he was a gentleman fast bowler. He did not like to intimidate the batsmen. His job was taking wickets and boy, was he good at that job (he averaged 17 in first class cricket and 20 in all games for India). Former India captain Vizzy likened him to Australian great Ray Lindwall in that both were gentlemen cricketers, letting the ball do the talking instead of resorting to sledging or bowling unnecessary bouncers.
Amar Singh, on the other hand, was not as quick but equally potent with the ball. His fast-medium pace was well suited for off-cutters and leg-cutters that he used with deadly precision. The greatest batsmen of his time – Len Hutton and Wally Hammond – showered praises upon him, calling him the best in the world. In fact, in the mid-1950s, Singh was picked in an All-Time World XI by former England batsman Bill Edrich. He was the only Indian in the team that contained names like Bradman, Barnes, Laker, Hutton and Hammond. Edrich had played against Amar Singh in 1938, while touring India with Lord Tennyson’s XI. Singh was also a more than useful middle order batsman. He scored the first half century for India in Tests and played a handful of useful innings in his 7 Tests. He scored 5 centuries in first-class cricket and several more in the Lancashire League.
Ladha Amar Singh was born in a cricketing family in Rajkot on December 4, 1910. His elder brother L Ramji* (b 1900) was a devastating fast bowler of some reputation. Nissar was born four months earlier in Hoshiarpur to a tribal Pashtun chief. After the partition, Shaikh Mohammed Nissar would go on to become the chief of the tribe himself. Nissar was the first to play first class cricket in 1929. He played mostly for Muslims in the Lahore Tournament. Amar Singh came to the fore when he toured Ceylon with Vizzy’s XI in 1930-31. The first match they played together was Mahrajkumar of Vizianagram XI vs Ghanshyamji of Limbdi XII in 1932. However, they were on the opposing teams. They first time they played alongside each other was a month later for the Maharaja of Patiala XI. Nissar took 7 wickets in the game while Amar Singh managed just one but a great partnership was about to begin. The duo was selected for the Indian team that was to tour England later that summer and play India’s first Test match.
Both Amar Singh and Nissar had a dream tour of the British Isles in the summer of 1932. Nissar led the bowling averages with 71 wickets at 18.09, while Amar Singh took the most wickets- 111 at 20.78. Singh also scored 641 runs at decent average of 22.89. In the only Test played at Lord’s, Nissar became the first Indian bowler (and to this date, only fast bowler) to take 5 wickets on Test debut. He returned match figures of 6 for 135 while Singh’s analysis was 4 for 159. Batting at number 9, Amar Singh scored India’s first Test half century. By the time the tour ended, the British press was calling them the best new ball pairing in the world, even better than Larwood and Voce, who were to destroy Bradman’s Australia in a few months’ time.
When England visited in 1933-34, Nissar and Amar Singh again wreaked havoc on a very strong English batting line-up. The duo shared 13 wickets in the first two Tests. When Nissar missed the final Test, Amar Singh took it upon him to demolish the English side, taking 7/86 in the first innings. This remained the best bowling analysis by an Indian fast bowler for close to five decades. The next year, an Australian side visited India. However, as the full strength Australian side was touring South Africa at that time, the four India-Australia matches were not deemed official Test matches. The Australian team was led by veteran Jack Ryder and contained legendary players like Charlie Macartney. This series was Nissar’s swansong as he destroyed the Australian batsmen with unprecedented consistency, scalping 32 wickets in the 4 matches at a phenomenal average of 12.46. He took at least 6 wickets in every game, with four 5-wicket hauls and two 4-wicket hauls in 8 innings. Amar Singh only played 2 games but was equally impressive with 10 wickets at 19.80 and 96 runs at 24.00.
The following summer, India toured England for the last time before the war. They played 3 Tests and 25 other first-class games. Nissar shone again with 66 wickets at 25.13 in all games. Amar Singh was already playing in the Lancashire League and was released for only a very few games. He averaged 33 with the bat and 23 with the ball in the 7 games that he played. He took a brilliant 6-wicket haul in the Lord’s Test and ended up with 10 wickets in the series, apart from 143 runs at 28.60. Nissar was marginally more successful with 12 wickets at 28.58 including a 5-wicket haul in the final Test. Tragically, India did not play any official Test after this for over 10 years and this was the last official Tests for these two greats. This also meant that Nissar became the first player to take 5-wicket hauls in both his first and last Tests.
The Indian players did get another opportunity of playing top level cricket before the war when Lord Tennyson led an England team to India in the winter of 1937-38. Since this was not an official MCC tour, the 5 India-England international matches were not categorized as Tests. Despite that, Lord Tennyson’s team was quite strong with players like Bill Edrich, Joe Hardstaff, Jim Parks, James Langridge, Alf Gover and Norman Yardley. This time, it was Amar Singh’s chance to shine as he snared 36 wickets in the 5-match series at an average of just 16.66. This included three 5-wicket hauls and a splendid 11 for 96 in the 4th game at Madras. Nissar played in only 3 of the 5 games and took 12 wickets but was completely overshadowed by Singh this time around.
Official Tests- 7, Runs- 292, Bat. Avg- 22.46, Wickets- 28, Bowl. Avg- 30.64, 5W- 2
Unofficial Tests- 7, Runs- 162, Bat. Avg- 13.50, Wickets- 46, Bowl. Avg- 17.32, 5W- 4
Official Tests- 6, Runs- 55, Bat. Avg- 06.87, Wickets- 25, Bowl. Avg- 28.28, 5W- 3
Unofficial Tests- 7, Runs- 37, Bat. Avg- 03.36, Wickets- 43, Bowl. Avg- 16.49, 5W- 5
Amar Singh and Nissar played for India in 16 different international matches (7 Tests and 9 unofficial Tests). They played together 11 times, always sharing the new ball whenever they played.
They shared the new ball in 6 of the 7 Tests India played before the war. Nissar led the wickets column here with 25 wickets at 28.28, while Amar Singh took 20 wickets at 35.85. In the unofficial Tests, they played together 5 times. In these 5 games, Amar Singh took 30 wickets at 19.46, while Nissar took 28 wickets at 17.78. In the 5th match against Lord Tennyson’s XI, they took all 10 wickets that fell, with both of them taking five apiece.
Amar Singh was ranked as high as 9 in the world rankings for bowlers even though he only played 7 Tests. Nissar’s highest ranking was 12. The next man to achieve a rank this high for India would be Vinoo Mankad, a decade and a half later.
THE ABRUPT END
After the 1937-38 tour, both players returned to playing first-class and club cricket. Amar Singh was playing in the Lancashire League when he was picked in an England XI to face the Australians as a warm up to the 1938 Ashes. He returned figures of 6/84 dismissing the likes of Bill Brown, Hassett and McCabe.
In 1939, the Second World War broke out and international cricket came to a halt. Teams could no longer travel safely and embark on tours. The Indian team hadn’t played any cricket since Lord Tennyson’s tour ended in February 1939 and in fact, their last Test was the Oval Test against England in August 1936. Both Singh and Nissar were only 29 and still in the prime of their physical forms. Many would have hoped that once the war ended and cricket resumed, these two would resume their legendary new ball partnership as well. However, all these hopes met an abrupt end in 1940 when Amar Singh died of typhoid. Some stories claim that the typhoid was a result of swimming/bathing in cold water after playing six sets of tennis. At age 29, one of India’s original cricketing superstars was lost.
Nissar continued playing first-class cricket in the Ranji Trophy for Southern Punjab and later United Provinces; and in the Bombay Pentangular for Muslims. After the partition, he moved to Pakistan where he worked as an administrator and a selector although he did play a couple of first class games when he was in his 40s. It is quite tragic that in his last game, this legendary fast bowler remained wicketless.
In 2006, Indian and Pakistan cricket boards started an annual match between the respective first class champions from the country (Ranji winners vs. Quaid-e-Azam trophy winners). This tournament was named Nissar Trophy.
“Two 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.” – Sir Don Bradman (legendary Australian batsman) Bradman is surely the greatest batsman in cricket history. This statement was a part of his foreword to Rusi Modi’s book on Indian cricketers.
“There is no better bowler in the world today than Amar Singh.” – Sir Len Hutton (legendary England batsman) Hutton made this statement in 1970 implying that Singh was better than the leading fast bowlers in the world then, like Peter Pollock, John Snow, Graham McKenzie, Mike Procter or Garry Sobers. Hutton faced Amar Singh while playing for Yorkshire in 1936.
“He is as dangerous an opening bowler as I have ever seen, coming off the pitch like the crack of doom.” – Sir Wally Hammond (legendary England batsman) Hammond described Singh’s fabled in-cutters which were became quite potent due to his accuracy. Hammond scored a double century against Singh and Nissar in India’s last Test before the war, in 1936.
“He is the best bowler in the world today, after Bill O’Reilly.” – Joe Hardstaff Jr. (England batsman) Hardstaff rated Singh higher than the likes of Bill Voce, Learie Constanine, Gubby Allen and Bill Bowes. He made this statement while touring India with Lord Tennyson’s XI in 1937-38. Singh took 36 wickets in the 5 ‘Tests’, dismissing Hardstaff 7 times in 9 innings.
“”On his form on that tour (1932) and again in 1936, Amar Singh would have been a strong candidate for a World XI. I believe he is probably as good as Barnes.” – Pelham Warner (England captain and manager) Warner managed the England team in the early 1930s. A comparison with Barnes is arguably the highest compliment for any bowler. He took 189 wickets in 27 Tests for England and is widely considered to be the greatest bowler ever.
“I would love to have a bowler like Amar Singh to take with me to Australia to battle Bradman.” – Douglas Jardine (England captain) Jardine made this remark after India’s inaugural Test in 1932. Later that year, he captained England to an Ashes victory in Australia, using an intimidating fast bowling tactic called Bodyline. Many have said that he got the inspiration for the tactic by watching Nissar and Amar Singh in action.
“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.” – Rusi Modi (Indian batsman) Modi described Amar Singh’s slip fielding with this statement in his book on Indian cricketers.
“Nissar’s speed during half a dozen overs was really capital; in every over we saw half-hit defensive strokes, untidy, uncertain” – Neville Cardus (eminent cricket writer) Cardus is one of the most respected cricket writers ever. This statement highlights Nissar’s raw pace and the dangers he posed to the Australian batsman when Jack Ryder’s team toured India in 1937-38. Nissar took 32 wickets in the 4 ‘Tests’ at 13.
“Nissar was a magnificent bowler and a great sportsman, who was an asset to any team of his time. A great slip fielder who could bring off surprising catches in spite of his weight. I have not seen a faster bowler than him in this sub-continent” – Dr Jahangir Khan (Indian all-rounder) Dr Khan was a contemporary of Nissar and played in India’s first 4 Tests. He is the father of Pakistan cricketer Majid Khan and the uncle of Imran Khan.
“Early in his spells, Nissar was quicker than even Larwood.” – CK Nayudu (India’s first Test captain) Nayudu believed Nissar was quicker than England’s legendary fast bowler Harold Larwood, widely considered to be the fastest and most dangerous bowler in the history of the game. Nayudu faced both the bowlers during his career. This statement was made after India’s inaugural Test in 1932, where both the speedsters played for their countries.
“What a great fast bowler he was! He was the best and the fastest I have ever played against. In my time I played against Larwood, Voce, Bowes, Allen and Gover. The first two were past their best when I played them and the other three did not come up to the standard of Nissar. I have not seen a more accurate fast bowler.” – Vijay Merchant (legendary Indian batsman) Merchant played with Nissar, and is considered India’s first great Test batsman.
“He always believed in hitting the stumps and beating the batsman through sheer speed off the pitch and never intimidated the batsman. With the new ball, he was equally fast as Larwood.” – Naoomal Jeoomal (Indian batsman) Jeoomal played in India’s first three Tests in the 1930s and was India’s first opener. He later coached the Pakistan team, guiding players like Hanif, Saeed Ahmed and Fazal Mahmood.
*Amar Singh’s brother Ladha Ramji was a tall and well-built fast bowler who was known for his sheer pace. He was a legend in Kathiawar where he played first-class cricket. He once injured the Maharaja of Patiala with a ferocious bouncer and had to flee the state. Due to his run-ins with the administration, Ramji played only one official Test (in 1933, when he was 32 years old). After being repeatedly ignored for selection, Ramji quit cricket in the late 1930s. He died in 1949 after contracting gangrene in an injured leg.