No single aspect of the game has plagued Indian cricket more than the inability of the batsmen to play fast bowling effectively. Despite the presence of some heroic figures in the formative years this problem scourged Indian cricket for about 40 years till Sunil Gavaskar showed how it should be done in the seventies.

The situation since his arrival has seen a marked improvement in the batsmen’s ability to stand up and even score handsomely against fast bowlers. But even today there are occasions notably in England, Australia and South Africa when batsmen come a cropper against this mode of bowling. To many the age old theory that England are weak against leg spin, Australia are vulnerable against off spin and Indians can’t play pace still holds good.

Under the circumstances when Vivian Richards said in 1983 ''since 1976, no other batsman has faced pacemen with such an abundance of confidence and determination as Mohinder Amarnath’’ it has to be arguably the finest praise an Indian batsman has received. Considering the fact that tackling pace bowling had been a major problem for Indian batsmen over the years, Amarnath’s fearless and consistent hooking of pace bowlers and scoring centuries off them was no minor triumph.

At his peak in 1982-83, he was freely acknowledged as the best batsman of pace bowling in the world. During the nadir years of the fifties and sixties, when Indian batsmen cut a very sorry figure against pace bowling it did not seem likely that the country would one day produce a batsman about whom Richards could hand out such effusive praise.

Lala’s second son actually made his Test debut against Australia at Madras in December 1969 but played his second game only in January 1976 in New Zealand. Thereafter he was a regular member of the team first batting in the middle order and then at No 3 besides lending a hand with his medium pacers. In 1979 however he suffered a hairline fracture of his skull after being hit by a bouncer from Richard Hadlee in the tourists’ game against Northamptonshire.

Recovering from the blow, he lost his place temporarily. But when brought back for the final Test against Australia at home in the winter, his confidence seemed to be shattered. He was most uncomfortable against Rodney Hogg before being out hit wicket to the same bowler while trying to negotiate a bouncer, after having scored only 2. The awkward manner of his dismissal shocked onlookers and seemed to have convinced the selectors that Amarnath lacked the courage and determination to counter pace bowling and stand up to rising deliveries.

This was the start of the unhappy phase of Amarnath’s career. Over the next three years, he was constantly overlooked. India played 23 Test matches without him. The team went on tours of Australia, New Zealand and England and played against Pakistan, England and Sri Lanka at home without him. A lesser cricketer would have probably announced his retirement, but Amarnath, both as a batsman and a person, was made of steely determination. He continued to score heavily around the domestic circuit and the selectors had no option but to recall him for the tour of Pakistan in 1982-83.

The lion hearted cricketer did not take long in displaying his courage, skill and polished strokes. In the first Test, he came in when India had slid from 105 for no loss to 123 for three. Amarnath nursed the innings thereafter like a doctor tending a patient. When the innings terminated at 379, Amarnath was unconquered with 109. There was a rare double failure in the next Test at Karachi where he was dismissed for 5 and 3. Scores of 22 and 78 in the third Test boosted both his morale and his average. Contributions of 61 and 64 followed in the next Test. And he rounded off a highly successful series with 120 in the fifth Test and 103 not out in the final game.

While most of the other batsmen succumbed meekly before the pace of Imran Khan, who had a haul of 40 wickets, and the swing of Sarfraz Nawaz Amarnath not only stood firm but also made fluent strokes. He ended with 584 runs at an average of 73 an outstanding performance for a side which lost the six-Test series 3-0. Midway through the series he took over the pivotal No 3 slot and retained the position for the series to follow in the West Indies.

From one triumph to another was the continuing success story of Amarnath. In the West Indies, all eyes were now on him. Could he repeat his deeds in Pakistan on Caribbean soil, against the fearsome pace quartet? The answer was provided in the affirmative in the most emphatic manner. Modest scores of 29 and 40 (top score) in the first Test were only a prelude of the great knocks that were to unfold from his bat. In the second Test, he came up with scores of 58 and 117 to enable India to draw the Test after they were in arrears by 219 runs.

After a rare failure in the third Test the apotheosis of Amarnath’s courage was witnessed in the fourth Test. The Indians were subjected to a barrage of short-pitched fast bowling. Amarnath, as he had been for the past few months, was again the one shining star. He top scored with 91 in the first innings with no other batsman getting 30. In the second innings, he was forced to retire when he was 18.

He tried to hook a short, ultra fast snorter from Marshall, missed and the result was a cut upper lip with the blood oozing onto his shirt. He resumed his innings the following morning at the fall of the fifth wicket at 139 and last out at 277 after scoring 80 of the bravest runs even he made. A double of 54 and 116 rounded off this, undoubtedly his greatest series, even after taking into account his heroics in Pakistan.

The five-match series was predictably lost 2-0 but Amarnath, symbolizing courage in adversity, was again the stand-out batsman. In finishing the series with 598 runs at an average of 66.44, Amarnath had registered undoubtedly the finest performance by any Indian batsman against high quality pace bowling.

No one else could have played the fearsome quartet of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner with greater confidence, courage or skill and this saw him gain the ultimate tribute from Richards. His golden period was to continue till the 1983 World Cup in England but that is another story.