Thursday, October 30, 2014

M J Gopalan

By V Ramnarayan

He was one of the most respected elder statesmen of Tamil Nadu cricket, long after his playing days were over, even beyond his days as a selector and administrator. He could be seen at the stadium, tall, handsome, ramrod straight and a picture of dignity, watching matches and appreciating the finer points of the game. When he could no longer make the effort to commute, he turned to television to absorb every nuance of the game. Not a single cricket match did he miss well into his nineties.

When M J Gopalan died on 21st December 2003, after a brief illness, he was 94, the oldest Test cricketer in the world and the lone survivor from the Madras team that played the first Ranji Trophy match. He it was who bowled the opening delivery in the national championship.

One of India’s two double internationals—the other was left hander C Ramaswami, who represented India in cricket and tennis—both from Madras of yore, Gopalan achieved excellence in cricket and hockey, but it was never an easy path for him. Hailing from a family of modest means, he had to fight his way up the sporting ladder, but he took good care of his health and fitness, and, naturally well endowed with strong bones and sinews, he was able to devote all his time to the pursuit of excellence on a cricket or hockey ground.

In 1926, Gopalan played for the Indians for the first time against the Europeans in the Presidency Match the greatest cricketing event in Madras before the advent of Test matches. In 1927-1928, when the first MCC team visited Madras, Gopalan captured four wickets for 87 for the Indians and three for 108 for Madras in the two matches the tourists played in the city. He also had a fine all round performance against West Indies, playing for South Zone.

It was C P Johnstone, the Kent, England-born Madras captain, who, instrumental in securing him a job with Burmah Shell, introduced the first element of security in the young all rounder’s life. Another Englishman, R C Summerhayes provided the inspiration for Gopalan to achieve excellence in hockey. On any match day, young Gopalan would cycle to Chepauk after finishing his daily rounds visiting Shell petrol stations, enter the arena just before the start of the match, change into his hockey shorts and run on to the field, accompanied by the roars of a cheering crowd.

Gopalan bowled the first ball in the Ranji Trophy, on 4 November 1934, at Chepauk, opening the bowling for Madras against Mysore, a match Madras won by an innings in a single day of cricket. Gopalan’s figures in the match were 8-2-11-0 and 12-4-20-3. He also scored 23, second to the topscorer C Ramaswami (26) in a Madras total of 130. On a rain-affected wicket Mysore managed only 48 and 59, AG Ram Singh wrecking their innings with his left-arm bowling.

Forsaking hockey and a chance to be selected for the Olympics—with the clear prospect of a gold medal—in favour of playing Test cricket, Gopalan was chosen to tour England in 1936, but was given few opportunities on the trip made notorious by the idiosyncratic captaincy of the Maharajah of Vizianagaram, who sent Lala Amarnath home midway on so-called disciplinary grounds. Earlier, a fine piece of bowling for an All-India XI in Calcutta against Jack Ryder’s Australian XI had won him a place in the Indian team for the second ‘Test’ in that series.

“On figures alone Gopalan is entitled to an honoured place in the history of the game, but his greatness can never be measured by the yardstick. If only he had wanted he could have hit more centuries, but Gopalan never stays at the crease unless he must. To him the game alone is all that matters and nothing else. He approaches it in a cavalier spirit and bats and bowls with a freshness and vigour that fill the field and heighten the game”, wrote P N Sundaresan, The Hindu’s sports correspondent, during Gopalan’s silver jubilee year in cricket.

Gopalan was a spontaneous strokemaker, who breathed aggression all the time he was at the crease. As a bowler, he began his career trying to bowl fast and short, but with experience, especially after his 1936 tour of England, he concentrated on length and movement. Gopalan’s subtle variations and control made him a feared bowler even in his forties. He might have been capped more often for India but for the presence of a galaxy of fast bowlers during his period, like Nissar, Amar Singh, Jehangir Khan, and Nazir Ali.

Gopalan served the game of cricket for long after his career was over. As a national selector, he was responsible for Tamil Nadu cricketers of the calibre of A G Kripal Singh, A G Milkha Singh and V V Kumar playing for India. He took his job as Madras University selector equally seriously, and this writer is one of several young cricketers to have benefited from his ability and courage to recognize talent overlooked by his colleagues. In his old age, he became a great fan of Kapil Dev, in whose swashbuckling ways he saw glimpses of his own versatile talent. The two all rounders often met whenever India played a Test match at Chennai, and they made a striking looking pair.

The permanence of Gopalan’s place in the annals of Indian cricket was—or should have been—assured when the annual tournament between Madras and Ceylon was named after him. Unfortunately, after Sri Lanka gained Test recognition, enthusiasm for the Gopalan Trophy contests between the island nation and Tamil Nadu flagged and efforts to revive the tournament since the 1990s have been less than successful. The last attempt was in 2007, when R Ashwin led Tamil Nadu against not Sri Lanka, but a squad comprising under-19 and ‘A’ team players.  For over three decades, however, the tournament, launched in 1952-53, gave much pleasure to spectators in both countries and exposed young cricketers to the international experience.

Monday, September 8, 2014

My favourite team: Karnataka

V Ramnarayan

As someone who rubbed shoulders with some of the most charismatic personalities in domestic cricket of the 1970s, I loved the Hyderabad cricket team of the period. The 1975-76 season, when I made my first class debut, was particularly memorable as my teammates included MAK Pataudi and Abbas Ali Baig, both in their last season, our captain ML Jaisimha and Syed Abid Ali, each a fantastic cricketer and fabulous character. With abundant talent at our disposal, however, we somehow managed to not win the Ranji Trophy in the two decades Jaisimha led us.

My respect and admiration, therefore, went to another glamorous side in the South Zone, Karnataka, which actually won the title a few times, toppling Bombay from its high perch for the first time a couple of seasons before my first. In March 1974, it prevailed over Bombay in the semifinal by virtue of a 78-run first innings lead. Two master batsmen, the wristy Little Master GR Vishwanath (162), and that king of domestic cricket, Brijesh Patel (106), starred in that triumph, while spin twins Prasanna and Chandrasekhar were outstanding while defending a total of 385. Prasanna’s floater that removed Gavaskar’s off bail was the magical delivery of the match. The victory was no mean achievement, as Bombay’s batting line-up included the likes of Ajit Wadekar, run out for 62 and Ashok Mankad, who made 84.

In the final that season, Karnataka beat Rajasthan fairly easily in the end, but not without a few alarms early on. Both Vishwanath and Patel failed, but its dashing all rounders came to the fore: VS Vijayakumar who opened both the batting and the bowling, left arm spinner and hard hitting batsman B Vijayakrishna and medium pacer-batsman AV Jayaprakash in the middle order. Each of them was considered Test material at one time or another.

In addition to these splendid youngsters, who formed the nucleus of the team of the seventies, others too came good during the decade. Sudhakar Rao’s 200 against Hyderabad in 1975-76 won him a berth on the West Indies tour that season, Roger Binny soon came into the side, Sanjay Desai became a solid presence as an opening batsman, though kept out of keeping duties by that world class stumper Syed Kirmani, who was also frequently a thorn in the flesh of opponents, just when they thought they had got rid of the cream of Karnataka’s batting.

Karnataka was to win the Ranji Trophy once again in that decade in 1977-78, when Vishwanath hammered a magnificent double century in the final against Uttar Pradesh, following a hundred in the semifinal against Delhi after a newspaper reporter made the mistake of dubbing him Bishan Bedi’s bunny. The state has repeated the feat five times since then.

If the honour of leading the team to its first two title triumphs went to Prasanna, Vishwanath was the unfortunate captain to lose two finals—once after Karnataka made 705 in the first innings, only for Delhi to gain a lead. Brijesh Patel was the captain next season in 1982-83, when Karnataka beat Bombay in a gruelling final at Bombay. Significantly, the winning eleven had as many as five players from the champion side of a decade earlier—Vishwanath, Patel, Sudhakar Rao, Jayaprakash, Vijayakrishna. Syed Kirmani had been eclipsed by young Sadanand Viswanath—who played a winning hand—only to make a comeback a few years later.

Prasanna and Chandrasekhar of course spun a great web together around batsmen for well over a decade, but amazingly, the team always found a place for at least one other spinner like Vijayakrishna in the playing eleven, besides some excellent seam bowlers like Vijayakumar, Jayaprakash and Binny. Each of them could be counted on to come up with hundreds or five-wicket hauls, especially when the team badly needed them.

Both Prasanna and Patel were astute leaders, and Vishwanath a thoughtful one with a softer touch, and the men under them somehow managed to play consistently winning but rarely boring or defensive cricket. With one of the world’s finest middle order batsmen in Vishwanath, a great keeper-batsman in Kirmani, and two members of India’s famed spin quartet in Prasanna and Chandrasekhar, Karnataka managed to be an attractive, entertaining outfit throughout the time I watched them at close quarters.

V Ramnarayan

Monday, October 14, 2013

Farewell to runs

"Sachin aura about him", I punned shamelessly, while headlining one of his performances in the 1992 World Cup. We already knew how gifted he was, but it was his batting at the top of the order in that tournament that gave the first indications that he was probably superhuman. I was working for an eveninger then, and what better way of blackening white pages than going gaga over the premier one-day tournament in the world!

The young Tendulkar still looked ridiculously boyish. He gave the impression he believed he could hit every ball to the boundary or over it. True, he did not quite annihilate bowling attacks in quite the ruthless way he was to hammer the likes of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne years later, but his straight drives and cover drives were gorgeous—a sign of things to come.

The boy wonder took a while to earn the sobriquet of The Little Master, which had belonged to Hanif Mohammed and Sunil Gavaskar before him. Though his first Test hundred arrived a year after his debut, at Old Trafford in England, we had to wait for two more years before he repeated the feat in Sydney and Perth, in the same year as the World Cup.

By the end of that decade, he had scored 22 Test hundreds, including three marvellous efforts at Chepauk, every one of which I was privileged to watch. His 165 against England and 155 not out against Australia had resulted in Indian wins, but his peerless 136 amidst excruciating back spasms in January 1999 ended in tragedy for India and a lap of honour by the triumphant Pakistani team to thunderous applause from a Chennai crowd that did India proud. By that time, his batting in One Day Internationals had already assumed awesome proportions, with his two hundreds against Australia in successive matches at Sharjah going into the annals of cricket history as fables.

An Australian writer, Christine Williams, interviewed me about Tendulkar a few years ago, when many of us were wondering why he was prolonging his career, so obviously over the hill was he. Or so we foolishly thought. I said to her then, "He has remained for the major part of his career a completely natural cricketer; he follows his instincts." I had, however, found him going through an annoying phase. "He's trying to be a different kind of player—very watchful, extremely, irritatingly watchful," I had told her.

I was convinced it was the end of the road for him. In all fairness to Indian cricket, he must retire, I strongly felt. But even amidst the gloom of his scratchy, tentative ways, he was still scoring more runs than most, at a faster pace than most. The redeeming feature of that depressing phase was that the little boy in Sachin Tendulkar would break through every now and then in ever so many playful ways, when he would launch into outright aggression all of a sudden.

He came back so strongly that he seemed to return to full bloom, with a seemingly unending flow of runs, a rediscovery of the joys of batting, and irrepressible pleasure in the success of his peers and juniors.

Sachin Tendulkar has done everything on a cricket field, except perhaps keep wickets. Or has he? His bowling when he was younger and fitter must rank as perhaps the most versatile on a cricket field, with the exception of the magic of Sir Garfield Sobers. The same boyishness that made him attempt every variation as a bowler, except extreme pace (though he did try to learn that as well, from Dennis Lillee at the MRF Pace Foundation) was also perhaps behind his occasional reluctance to walk when he knew he was out. The same boyishness also gave the game away almost every time that happened, because his facial expression said it all. The 2011 World Cup showed him in a new light when he walked in the match against the West Indies, though the umpire had declared him not out.

Followed the final phase of his grand career, when even his wellwishers began to wish he would announce his retirement. That has been a sad part of a wonderful career. It is painful to watch him struggle like a mortal, often surprised by ordinary bowlers. What new record is he chasing, has been the question his critics are asking? Though Sachin has stoutly denied that he was ever interested in records, we all know how he tends to slow down in the nineties, how agonizing the wait for his hundredth hundred was. Yet, if that charge were true, how come he has never scored a triple hundred in Test cricket, when carefree Sehwag achieved that feat apparently effortlessly? Had Tendulkar wanted, could he not have scaled that peak?

As Ian Chappell has said, Sachin Tendulkar is the reason why millions watch cricket today; every Test cricketer in the world owes him for that. Millions will probably stop watching the game (Test cricket, at least), the way they used to desert the stadium in an exodus the moment he was dismissed in a match. 

How will he remain connected to the game after his 200th Test? As a television commentator? As a captain on the field, Tendulkar spoke constantly to the bowlers, overdid it perhaps. Did he do the same thing in the dressing room? So many young cricketers have spoken of how he has motivated them, cheered them up when the chips are down. Will he give us glimpses of his cricket wisdom, his world view, as a commentator? Or will he choose a different role to play—as a mentor, as an administrator? 

I can’t wait to watch Tendulkar Version II in action.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

CD Gopinath: An aristocrat among cricketers

CD Gopinath was the aristocrat of the Madras team of the 1950s. Not only was he from an elite social background—his father CP Doraikannu was general manager of Indian Overseas Bank—his cricket too was quite regal. He batted with panache, and seemed to have the kind of time to play his shots that tends to invest batting with an air of majesty. Of erect stance and equipped with a range of shots all around the wicket, he averaged over 50 in Ranji Trophy cricket during an era of uncovered turf wickets and matting. He scored two brilliant hundreds in the year Madras won the national championship for the first time under Balu Alaganan’s stewardship, sharing the batting honours with his younger teammate AG Kripal Singh. He scored 122 against Bengal in the semifinal and 133 against Holkar in the final. Remarkably, those were the only two Ranji matches he played that season, and they also happened to be his first two hundreds in the championship. He had debuted as far back as the 1949-50 season, starting most inauspiciously with a pair against Mysore. His 74 and unbeaten 53 against Mysore at Bangalore in the 1950-51 season must have cemented his place in the side.

The late Alaganan who lauded Gopinath’s role in that success—along with those played by Kripal Singh, indubitably the star of the season, MK Murugesh, AK Sarangapani and others—also credited Gopinath with vital tactical inputs. He said, “In the semifinal, C D Gopinath plotted Pankaj Roy’s dismissal on the hook shot off the bowling of BC Alva with his fastish offbreaks. We had a fielder about halfway to the boundary, Alva bowled short and Roy could not resist the temptation.” (Alaganan and Gopinath had played for college and club together as well. In an interview, Alaganan once related with much delight an anecdote involving young Gopinath, who did not see eye to eye with the Madras Christian College principal’s view that his cricketers could not play for other teams. According to Balu, Gopinath played for a club under an assumed name and scored a hundred once).

Gopinath who became state captain the very next season following Alaganan’s retirement, came to be known for his capable leadership, but could not repeat Alaganan’s success, though he continued in his role till 1963. He had been much more successful as captain of the Madras Cricket Club in the local league, leading the team to the Palayampatti Shield title in his very first season as captain in 1957-58. He repeated the feat the following season, and twice again in 1960-61 and 1965-66. As captain of Madras, Gopinath relied on his spinners led by the champion leg spinner VV Kumar, and played a key role in the development of his bowlers. In the league, however he had to rely on swing and seam, with N Kannayiram, all rounders MK Balakrishnan and MM Kumar, and Burmah Shell’s HW Joynt leading an effective pace attack.
Gopinath’s nine first class hundreds included a highest of 234 against Mysore in the Ranji Trophy and a grand 175 versus the touring New Zealand team in 1955.

He made an impressive Test debut in 1951-52, playing two lovely innings of 50 not out and 42 against England in a drawn match at Bombay. It must have been a daunting experience for the young man to bat at No. 8 in a line-up that had Roy, Mantri, Umrigar, Hazare, Amarnath and Sarwate and Adhikari bat ahead of him in the order and Vinoo Mankad after him! He seemed to have coped very well, scoring a fluent half-century in a first innings total of 485. The story was different in the second innings. India were 77 for 6 when Gopinath went in, and soon 88 for 7, before he and Mankad put on 71 for the eighth wicket. He made 35 in the final Test at Madras, which India won, its first Test victory over England.

Gopinath fared quite well in an unofficial Test series against the touring Commonwealth team, a fighting unbeaten 67 that helped India to ward off an innings defeat the highlight of his performances.  He made a few runs in the limited opportunities that came his way in Pakistan in 1954-55, after declining an invitation to tour the West Indies a couple of seasons earlier! Those days, it was not unthinkable for a player to make himself unavailable for Test cricket for business reaons.

Omitted for the tour of England in 1959, but brought into the team again in the final Test against Australia at Calcutta in the 1959-60 season, he played a fighting knock of 39, topscoring in the first innings as India collapsed, but made no run in the second innings—when India fared much better. He was Richie Benaud’s victim in both innings. He never played for India again.

It is difficult to resist the conclusion after studying Gopinath’s career records, and having watched him bat with great style and confidence, that he did not receive a fair deal from the selectors. His was certainly a talent worth nurturing. In domestic cricket, he continued to bring joy to the Madras partisan, with several top innings of great authority. This writer had the pleasure of bowling to him in a local match in the 1960s. None of his skill had left him, though he was by now essentially a Sunday cricketer.

After his playing days, Gopinath became a national selector and toured England in 1979 as the manager of the Indian team. Today, he comes across as a thoughtful commentator on the game, when approached for his views. At a recent function to launch the Wisden India almanac, he gave the audience some amusing glimpses into the past by recalling the infinitesimal “smoke allowance” Test players received in his days, and the nature of the accommodation they enjoyed in Pakistan: a railway compartment! He also suggested that 20-20 cricket be renamed as something else than cricket, just like snooker and pool as different from billiards.

Nowadays 83-year-old Gopinath and his wife Comala, a champion golfer in her day, live at their Coonoor residence.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

At the Madras Cricket Club

An excerpt from "The Spirit of Chepauk", 1998.

I first set my eyes on the beautiful English village green-like outfield of that elite Cricket club of Madras, the Madras CC, in the Sixties. Every youngster dreamt of playing there one day, of diving full length on its springy, velvety grass, without bruising himself badly as he was likely to on any other ground. The only other exception to the general rule of matting wickets and less than adequately grassed outfields prevalent then in all of Madras was another lovely ground, this one in distant Tambaram, inside the sylvan campus of the Madras Christian College.

There was magic in the air as I stepped into the old pavilion of pre-stadium vintage. Everything looked as I had imagined an English clubhouse would look like, from years of being brought up on a diet of Wisdens, Sport and Pastimes and Test Match Specials. There were wrought iron chairs — and cane ones — there was a coir carpet on the wooden floor, the bathrooms were tiled and there were lockers for players to keep their stuff in. It all seemed luxurious and ever so stylish. The names of Indians and Europeans, Test teams and other first class cricket elevens who played at Chepauk inscribed on the wooden panels on the walls lent just the right touch of nostalgia and enchantment. C P Johnstone and H P Ward figured in so many places. Nailer was someone I had heard my uncle P N Sundaresan describe, with rapture in his voice, for the daring of his strokeplay. There were other names which ex­cited my interest for more immediate reasons. A W Stansfeld was someone who lived not very far from my home and to realise that he had batted, bowled and fielded on this very ground all those aeons ago was to feel a quickening of the pulse.

I could not wait to change into my cricket gear and run on to the ground to knock a few around or take some catches or merely take in lungfuls of Chepauk air. I dashed out of the gracious old clubhouse, past the lawn and on to the tree-shaded ground only to find that half my teammates were already there showing rare alacrity and athleticism while they were making the most of a rare opportunity. Can today's young cricketer who has so many first rate cricket grounds and such splendid facilities to choose from, ever un­derstand the thrill we felt in our hearts on our first outing at Chepauk?
It was what is known in Madras cricket parlance as a practice match, meaning nothing was at stake beyond aching bones and good natured leg pulling at the end of the match — no trophy, no title, no points won or lost. My team, Nungambakkam Sports Club 'A', was led by the irrepressible D Ranganathan, popu­larly known as 'Don' Rangan, a fiercely competitive wicketkeeper-batsman who singlehandedly leased the Pithapuram ground at present day Nandanam and provided top class practice facilities for his players as well as anyone else who wanted to have a regular net. Rangan felt his team could beat just about any side and entered every match with that kind of cocky self-assur­ance. It was hardly surprising then that he approached the Madras CC pavilion that morning more than 30 years ago and announced to all and sundry how we proposed to pulverise the opposition.

Talking to Rangan recently, I came away with the story that we had thrashed the Madras CC in that match, though my own memory suggests that it was a drawn encounter in which we finished on more or less level terms with our redoubtable opponents. Whatever the result, the match was an unforgettable experience. For most of us, it was our first experience of a turf wicket. I remember that fielding was an undiluted plea­sure that day and we all chased, dived and picked and threw as we had only seen happen in Test matches.

I also remember that the Chepauk wicket was a truly sporting one. It had some purchase for the quicker bowlers as well as the spinners, without offering much turn, but the bowlers could hardly complain of lack of life in the turf. Batting on it was sheer delight. Even I, normally a tailender, enjoyed a measure of success, driving off both front and back foot. I had on that occasion my first glimpse of the teasing swing of Bala, the accurate medium pace of M Subramaniam and the relatively quick bowling of Prabhakar Rao. I was to play strokes with a freedom seldom experienced by me on matting.

There were loud guffaws from the close-in fielders every time I sent the ball to the boundary and I was puzzled if not hurt by their seeming amusement at the way I batted. It took me a while to realise that they were actually pulling the legs of their bowlers; it was all part of the camaraderie and sense of fun that characterised the Madras CC's matches — the practice matches at any rate.

Before all that, I had my first and, perhaps, last glimpse of C D Gopinath's batting. The veteran was no longer very active in cricket, but all of us could easily see that he had been a class batsman, very correct and stylish. His timing was admirable as was that of M K Balakrishnan, whose elegance and assurance took my breath away. Bala was easily the best batsman I had seen up to that point at close quar­ters, and why this versatile sportsman did not play for India was a mystery to me that day. It still is.

I don't remember achieving any great success as a bowler on the occasion, though that was my area of specialisation. Rangan, however, assures me that I bagged six of the best. I think I got one or two wickets at the most — and if that was hardly sensational, I didn't disgrace myself either.

That was my first encounter in a match situation with one of the most popular characters of the Club, the late Phil 'Clubby' Clubwala. Clubby was the sort of person you had to see to believe. His close-cropped hair, soupstrainer moustache and ruddy complexion gave him a distinct, military bearing even if his bow-legged walk and easy affability did not. His essential good nature, sense of humour and gregariousness made him popular in more than one sport at the Club, but, here, I shall try to paint a picture only of the extraor­dinary devotion with which he pursued cricket. Clubby practised with the singlemindedness of a Bradman. He would be the first person to arrive at the BS Nets on the north side of the ground and get his quota of bat­ting on the coir mat wicket there. Playing and missing countless times, he would frustrate the poor bowlers who, being the optimists most of us are, lived in hope — hope that one day they would find that elusive edge or that, when they did, the snick would go to hand. Then he would send down some elaborately delivered off-breaks which, more often than not, went straight as an arrow. Clubby wouldn't be satisfied with all the huffing and puffing that went into all this hectic activ­ity. He would troop off to the Madras CC net and get a solid 45 minutes of batting on turf, engaging the markers and ballboys and some unsuspecting college crick­eter he whisked away from the BS Nets.

For all the practice he did, Clubby was a strokeless wonder in matches, once remaining 37 n.o. in a full day's batting. His bowling had more sting than did his batting and everyone admired his wholehearted effort and cheerful demeanour, regardless of success or fail­ure.

From 1981 to 1990, I played regularly against the Madras CC in the TNCA League and, while the oldtimers of the Club fought gamely on, the inroads made by corporate teams could not be resisted for long. And the Club eventually got relegated to the Second Division.

I had the pleasure of accompanying to Australia the Madras Occasionals, consisting mostly of Madras CC members and led by Ram Ramesh. I was one of two guest bowlers who bore the burden of the attack, much in the manner of the early professionals in En­glish and Australian cricket, while the Madras CC bats­men made merry at the expense of club teams in Austra­lia. The two Arvinds, Gopinath and Subramaniam, made tons of runs. Arvind Gopinath looked particu­larly stylish and classy as he dominated some quality attacks on that tour. He, like many of his teammates, was an excellent ambassador for his country with his polished demeanour on and off the field, but his laidback attitude to cricket, though blessed with oodles of talent which should have taken him much farther, puzzled me. When I probed further, he admitted he didn't pursue cricket with the dedication of his father because he did not wish to face the heartbreak of disap­pointments and dejection that can befall any sports­man.

The men who surprised me on the tour were those cheerful fringe players who I had assumed had merely come to have a good time. It was an assumption based on their seemingly blase attitude to matters cricketing. I was to soon find out how mistaken I was. On the few occasions their services were required, Jaspal Singh, Navtej Singh and Kumar Calappa showed that for all their casual exterior, they gave 100 per cent on the field. It was important for every one of them that the Club's fair name be protected — and, as a consequence, they, as much as the more regular players, contributed to our unbeaten record on that tour during which we played at some wonderful venues and against at least one Test cricketer, Ross Edwards. A couple of young­sters who showed considerable promise on that tour were leg-spinning all-rounder Renjit Kuruvilla and wicketkeeper-batsman 'Sunny' Ramesh. Both had an excellent tour. Kuruvilla has gone on to do extremely well for the Club, with his clean hitting and his fastish leg-breaks, and still turns out for it, while Ramesh, who has represented the State, no longer plays for the Club.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Speed merchant

Fast bowler CR Rangachari was one of the more outspoken Tamil Nadu cricketers I knew. I had the pleasure of getting to know him when he officiated as the manager of the South Zone cricket team for its Duleep Trophy and Deodhar Trophy matches during the 1978-79 season. The venue, Nagpur, was notorious for being somewhat player-unfriendly. The Indian captain Bishan Bedi for instance had to face the firing squad after he had demanded orange juice for his team at breakfast and hot water for their bath at the MLA hostel where they were staying during a Test match. 

The manager spared nobody with his sharp comments made in a loud voice, be it star batsman Brijesh Patel or the brilliant TE Srinivasan. The all rounder Roger Binny came in for special mention (remember he was some distance from playing for India). Rangachari told me, “This Binny, do you call him an opening bowler? He has no pace and no skill. Later he told Narasimha Rao, “What kind of opening batsman is Roger Binny? He has no technique.” That night, Roger, suitably lubricated during the team meeting in my room, knocked continuously on Rangachari’s door with the long pole kindly provided by the management for us to hang and unhang washed clothes in the tall clotheslines that decorated every room (Yes, the noises made by Bishan Bedi a few years ago had had no effect on the Vidarbha Cricket Association, our hosts, who believed that Spartan conditions brought out the best in cricketers; hot water was still a distant dream, and orange juice was still not part of the menu). 

Rangachari was particularly harsh on the newly married TE Srinivasan who had brought his wife with him. “Has he come to play cricket or enjoy marital bliss? He should have self-control,” he thundered. “When I had a Ranji Trophy match to play soon after marriage, my wife told me, “No mischief (I have censored the word Rangachari actually uttered) before the match!” He was indignation personified when Brijesh Patel was late for a team meeting. “Mr Patel may be a Test player, but I do not tolerate indiscipline from anyone,” he told the assembled team. However, we discovered that Mr Rangachari was something of a paper tiger, because he stopped all the ranting and raving the moment the player in question entered the room.

The team meetings were the best part of that trip, and they invariably took place in my spacious room, which the leg-n-leg players used as their watering hole every evening after a long day in the sun, with the two umpires Piloo Reporter and Rajen Mehra joining us and trading several rollicking stories with us. Reporter’s humour and flair for anecdotes merit a separate chapter.

For all the leg-pulling we indulged in at the manger’s expense, we had healthy respect for his cricketing prowess. His exploits for Madras were good enough for him to lay claim to being the best fast bowler his home state has produced.

With MJ Gopalan, he formed a deadly pair of opening bowlers, with Gopalan growing with the years into a seam and swing specialist and Rangachari himself remaining wedded to sheer space for most of his career.

Born on April 14, 1916, Rangachari learnt his cricket on the streets and bylanes Triplicane very much as his senior M J Gopalan had. Strongly built, Rangachari tried even as a kid to be a genuine fast bowler, and succeeded in generating considerable pace throughout his career. He was also a willing bowler of long spells.

Rangachari first caught the selectors' attention with a fine 9 for 45 against Mysore in the inter-association junior match of 1938. He made his Ranji Trophy debut the same year, and performed reasonably well.

In the very next season, Rangachari took 4 for 38 and helped bundle Mysore out for 108 at Chepauk. In his third season, his splendid bowling against United Provinces. led Madras to a win  by 25 runs,  Rangachari  5 for 75 and 3 for 31.

Rangachari, Ram Singh and leg spinner NJ Venkatesan had the formidable Maharashtra reeling at 56 for 5, before Vijay Hazare (137) and CT Sarwate (33) took the score to 284, gaining a match winning lead in the process.  Ranga's 4 for 71 included the scalps of  openers Bhalekar and Sohoni, as well as the redoubtable Prof. DB Deodhar.

In the second innings, he had the prolific Babu Nimbalkar caught behind by JAGC Law, but Maharashtra won by six wickets. Ranga also distinguished himself in the Presidency match, in which he took 4 for 41 and 4 for 30, helping the Indians win by 97 runs.
Rangachari joined the police force, and his cricket career developed nicely, as naturally fit and healthy, the policeman found in his official training new ways of keeping fit. He soon gained a reputation of being a tireless fast medium bowler and brilliant close-in fielder. He took several smart catches off the bowling of Ram Singh, fielding at silly mid-off. He also batted stubbornly towards the end of the innings.

Selected as a member of the Indian team to  Australia under the captaincy of Lala Amarnath in 1947-48, Ranga forced his way into the Test side with  some good performances in the first class matches including a hat trick against Tasmania. In his first Test at Adelaide, he bowled well without luck, beating Don Bradman a few times, and winning his  appreciation. He dismissed Keith Miller, Neil Harvey, Ray Lindwall and Ian Johnson to emerge as the most successful Indian bowler with four for 141 off 41 eight ball overs. On a visit to Chennai in 1998, Ranga was the first person Neil Harvey remembered from the city.

The Triplicane Express’s best Test performance was his 5 for 107 against West Indies in the New Delhi Test of the 1948-49 series. He claimed the wickets of Allan Rae, Jeff Stollmeyer and George Headley in a fiery opening spell and West Indies were reduced to 27 for 3. He also played in unofficial 'Tests' against the Australian Services team in 1945 and the first Commonwealth team in 1949-50.

In the Ranji Trophy, Rangachari led the Madras attack for many years and his 104 wickets cost him only 20.79 apiece. In a first class career that stretched from the late 1930s to the mid fifties, Rangachari took 200 wickets at an average of 25.98.

As a selector, coach and manager, Rangachari was known to be a good sport who spent considerable time mentoring his young wards, lightening the mood in the dressing room with entertaining if apocryphal stories from his own youth.

During the match at the beginning of this story, a young cricketer asked him if he was quicker than Kapil Dev. “Have you seen Wes Hall? Same speed!” was Rangachari’s instant response. Only it sounded like shame shpeed, thanks to the tobacco he was chewing.  The resultant giggles and tittering were understandable as the young listeners had never seen him in action or even read about his sterling deeds in first class cricket.

Those who actually did, remembered him as a speed merchant, tireless and persistent, even on dead wickets. He was a brave soldier of Madras cricket.