The Amarnath-De Mello stand-off and bribery charges
While rifts between cricketers do have the redeeming feature of some of the action on the ground becoming livelier due to the intense rivalry, the worst kind of cricketing feuds are probably the ones where the cricketer takes on the administrator – without a 22-yard strip to settle differences.
The Lala Amarnath–Anthony de Mello face-off was of the second kind, gruesome and ugly with relentless mud slung at each other. However, even in all the squalor, it does merit a mention. As far as controversies in Indian cricket go, it is probably the second most sensational on the all-time list after match fixing.
Lala Amarnath was in many ways too hot to handle, chockfull of talent, not able to achieve full potential in the international arena, but gifted with an unenviable Midas touch for controversies.
After being sent back from England in 1936 by captain Maharajah of Vizianagram and manager Major Brittain-Jones, he had been distinctly lucky to have made his way back into the side – especially in that era of Indian cricket dominated by power-hungry autocracy. One of the main architects of his re-establishment had been Anthony de Mello, himself a despot who practically ruled over Indian cricket as founder Secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) from 1928-29 to 1937-38 and as Board President from 1946-47 to 1950-51.
While de Mello went on to claim that bringing Amarnath back into the side had involved sacrificing many great friendships, Amarnath also retorted that his own devotion to the Board had caused him many sacrifices and sufferings, both financially and in terms of friendship.
It is sad that such mutual relinquishments ended in nothing but bitterness. Amarnath was forever outspoken and independent, and once in a while, dubious in some of his dealings. Even if he was as above board as he claimed to be, there were many who viewed a lot of his activities with misgivings.
On the other hand, de Mello was an overbearing authoritarian not amused by anything less than complete subservience.
The relationship between the Board President and the caretaker captain of the Indian team came to a head when in anExtraordinary General Meeting of the Board on April 10, 1949 the former charged Amarnath with serious breach of discipline, suspending him from playing any representative cricket for India or for any province in India.
De Mello, in an interview to the Associated Press of India four days later, declared that, “The Board was unanimous in its decision to take disciplinary action against Amarnath and did not consider it necessary to hear him anymore or any longer, as it had before it plenty of evidence about the veracity of which the members had no doubt.”
At a press conference held in the Governor’s Pavilion of the Cricket Club of India on May 4, De Mello issued a statement to the media explaining 23 charges against Amarnath in exceptional detail.
These charges, as reported in the Times of India on May 6, alleged – among others – negligence by Amarnath in his duties as captain, reflected in his failure to organise net practice in good time before the first three Tests, through his comparatively late arrival in Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta, the venue for the Tests; a demand by him for additional payment as captain; out of pocket expenses in entertaining friends in his Delhi hotel; his last minute decision not to captain the states eleven against the West Indies side; failure to notify the Board President of his injury at Poona, which was subsequently a handicap to him and India in the second Test; his rude and arrogant behaviour towards De Mello, undisciplined utterances against the Board and its President at receptions and to the press and insulting disregard of the Board by not replying to two letters sent to him. However, the final and the most sensational charge was about his illegal acceptance of a purse of Rs 5,000 in return for promise to include Probir Sen in the in the final two Tests against the West Indies.
In retaliation, Amarnath went on the offensive claiming that it was strange for the Board to arrive at its decision without giving him an opportunity to defend himself, adding that he was “Not going to take it lying down”.
Amarnath found strong support in the Bengal lobby, mainly in administrator Pankaj Gupta, who declared that the suspension had been single-handedly pushed through by De Mello.
Upset at being challenged from within the Board, De Mello put it beyond doubt that it was a snarling match of epic proportions. He declared in the Times of India of May 10 that it was time to show Amarnath that “even if most of the Board’s officials did not bark, the Board of Control for Cricket in India did have a dog that could bark and bite when indiscipline in Indian cricket was concerned.”
In response to the charges, Amarnath, on June 5, addressed a press conference in Calcutta distributing a 39 page, 27,000 word statement in an attempt to prove that De Mello was out to settle personal scores against him. In this booklet of sorts, he replied to each of the 23 charges, denying most of them in unequivocal terms.
He specifically denied the allegation that he had accepted an illegal purse in Calcutta and stated that he had received Rs 5,000 from as part of the Amarnath Testimonial Fund, a scheme kicked- off by De Mello himself in 1947 when, Amarnath had cancelled his professional Lancashire League contracts and the prospect of a contract with Sussex in the interest of Indian cricket. He labelled De Mello’s aspersion that he had taken money to include Sen as a figment of the Board President’s imagination and explained that to get a player into the team, he would have needed the consent of the two other selectors, Phiroze Palia and M Dutta Roy. He questioned why De Mello had not drawn up charge sheets against Dutta Roy and Palia?
Angry words were thus not only being exchanged, but also being compiled in official booklets.
Following the publication of Amarnath’s over-verbose retort, press and public opinions were deeply divided, while many fringe characters jumped at this opportunity to make a grab for the controls of BCCI.
In the fateful Board meeting on July 31, a compromise was reached.
Although this negotiated solution was made public only after Amarnath had tendered a qualified apology to the Board and its President, it was considered to be a defeat for the BCCI. It came to light later on that BCCI had been legally advised that its decision against Amarnath was ultra vires as neither had proper notice been given and nor had Amarnath been allowed to defend himself.
The compromise, however, did little to smooth the ruffled feathers of the combatants. In April 1950, just before leaving to play for Lancashire, Amarnath asserted, “De Mello has done me a lot of harm. But my reputation has been fully vindicated by no less a celebrity than Bradman in his memoirs. He had tried to drive me out of cricket, but without success. One day soon, I feel sure, he will come crawling to me, begging me to help him once again.”
A year later De Mello was unceremoniously ousted from BCCI. The Bengal lobby, led by Pankaj Gupta and supported by Amarnath accomplished this coup and the Board President had to give up the position where he had perched undisturbed for nearly 25 years.
Senantix (Arunabha Sengupta)