Sunday, September 21, 2008
I had missed the first part of the 1970-71 league season at Madras waiting for the SBI appointment letter. The great leg spinner V V Kumar, a State Bank officer at Madras, had asked me not to play for Alwarpet CC, the team I had represented the previous year, as he had inside information I had been selected by the bank after my entrance exam and interview.
Unfortunately, by the time the letter came, almost half the season was over. VV asked me to play a single game for the bank's B team, also in the first division, before I left for Anakapalle. Played on the Marina ground, my home ground for all of five years in Presidency College, it was a match against my previous team. I had a good match, claiming two wickets including that of the elegant S Nataraj, who was to marry my sister Sarada a couple of years later.
VV had advised me to contact Habib Ahmed, former captain of the bank's team at Hyderabad, if I wanted a Hyderabad posting, but I did nothing of the sort, being the introverted chap I was then. I was at Anakapalle for over six months, learning the ropes at every counter of the branch, except for a month-long training programme at New Delhi in between. The bank's POs spent time at four branches during their probation, followed by a stint at the local head office at Hyderabad, before they were confirmed as officers of the bank. I soon learnt that Vijayawada was my next branch. My wife who had been studying at Madras joined me at Anakapalle, and we were all packed and ready to go, when a string of coincidences led to the cancellation of my Vijayawada posting and our departure for Hyderabad instead. My benefactor in this sudden change in my fortunes was S Satyadev, captain of the SBI Vizag team—someone I have never met—played a key role,.
"Report to Personnel Department on July 1," said the telegram from our Local Head Office at Hyderabad. The cryptic message left me wondering whether I was now transferred to Hyderabad or summoned there on a brief errand. With hope in my heart and disbelief that my fortunes were taking a turn for the better, I duly met the Personnel Officer at the appointed hour. "It seems the cricket team wants you," the old man—he couldn't have been older than 50, but he looked ancient to my young eyes —told me with about as much enthusiasm as if he had found a fly in his soup.
The reason for the SOS was that the strong SBI team at Hyderabad was now without five of its regulars, with the new season about to start in a week's time. Three of them, Manohar Sharma, G Mohan and Mumtaz Husain were touring East Africa as members of the Hyderabad Blues team and two others, D Govindraj the fast bowler, and P Krishnamurti the wicket keeper, were in the West Indies with the Indian team that was making history under Ajit Wadekar's leadership.
A letter from me asking Satyadev if he could help get me a Vizag posting to enable me to play cricket there had been forwarded to him at Hyderabad where he was attending a training course. Just then his friend and colleague M N Prabhakar Raju, working in the Personnel Department had been entrusted with the task of finding a temporary replacement for these absent players, and one thing led to another.
It was exciting to walk into the Local Head Office of State Bank of India and meet so many outstanding cricketers there. Perhaps the first player I met was Nagesh Hammand, an attacking batsman who had pulverized university attacks in the Rohinton Baria championship in the three preceding seasons. He was also a more than useful off spinner, capable of sharp spin and thinking batsmen out. A brilliant fielder anywhere, Nagesh had been hugely successful at that level of cricket. We had played against each other at the Marina ground the previous season, when he had led Hyderabad juniors in an Inter-Association match for the P Ramachandra Rao Trophy. There was Ali Hassan, an opening batsman, who too had played in that match which Madras had won by an innings. Soon I was sitting down in the bank canteen and enjoying a coffee with these two, when we were joined by another talented cricketer, Lyn Edwards, the tall, handsome medium pacer.
I didn't know it then, but Nagesh, Lyn and Sultan Salim were to adopt me soon as their responsibility to shape as a bowler, because they believed in my talent. Not long afterwards, Krishnamurti, the wicket keeper, would join that band of young mentors. It was quite extraordinary that these cricketers took such an active interest in a fellow player, considering that each of them was no more than 23 to 25 years old.
The SBI team of that year was pretty formidable. At full strength it read: D Govindraj (captain), P Krishnamurti, Murtuza Ali Baig, Manohar Sharma, Nagesh Hammand, Sultan Salim, Mumtaz Hussain, Ali Hassan, M N Prabhakar Raju, G Mohan, Lyn Edwards, Mazhar Ali Baig, and Abid Zainulabuddin, with me bringing up the rear. Most of the players had played for their state or zone in the Ranji and Duleep Trophies, and Govind and Murti had already represented India. Add veteran Habib Ahmed, occasionally taking a break from his official responsibilities to assist us, and we had perhaps the strongest outfit in Hyderabad, closely followed by State Bank of Hyderabad, led by the redoubtable all rounder, Syed Abid Ali.
Friday, September 12, 2008
Miraculously, my luck turned one fine morning. My rival Noshir Mehta was drafted into the State Bank of India team for Moin-ud-Dowla—like Abid Ali, he belonged to our subsidiary State Bank of Hyderabad and qualified to play for SBI. This opened a vacancy in the Hyderabad team for the Gold Cup and the selectors included me in the squad ahead of younger contenders like future Test off spinners Shivlal Yadav and Arshad Ayub, who were both still university students.
I wasn't exactly overjoyed. I had had a couple of false alarms earlier and my enthusiasm was now singularly lacking in the first fine rapture. As I said earlier, I hadn't been in the best of practice, having missed some games during the season. The work pressure at the office was high and I had been smoking quite a bit. So it was that I trudged reluctantly to the Hyderabad nets on a wet afternoon long after the scheduled start of practice. I had a bad cough and cold, and told my captain Abbas Ali Baig I was unfit for the game on the morrow. It had been raining and the practice wickets were wet, so Abbas was having a knock outside the nets with a young marker throwing a few balls at him. “Come and bowl,” he ordered me, and I obliged, still in my working clothes. After some ten minutes, he said to me with finality, “Nothing wrong with you. Sleep well tonight and come back in the morning. You are playing.”
As the host team, we had been given a bye, and we were already into the second round. Our opponents were Vazir Sultan Colts, some of India's most promising youngsters bunched together into a motley crew. They were led by Anshuman Gaekwad, a young batsman from Baroda who had made a gallant debut against Clive Lloyd's West Indies team that toured India the previous season. Kapil Dev, Dilip Vengsarkar, Arun Lal and P Ramesh were some of the other youngsters in the side to have made a mark in first class cricket.
The Colts won the toss and elected to bat. We shot them out for 73, my share of the spoils being 4 for 22 in some 15 overs or so. My spin partner Mumtaz Hussain took three of the remaining wickets. Mumtaz was a huge talent at university level, holding the record for the highest number of wickets in a season, at 49. The record had stood from 1968 or so but would soon be broken by S K Patel of Madras University, another left arm spinner. Mumtaz was still a brilliant fielder and attacking batsman as he had been in his college days, but his bowling no longer posed the multiple threats to batsmen it had earlier, when he used to send down a bewildering array of unreadable deliveries. He was now an orthodox left arm spinner, accurate and intelligent, but no match winner.
Mumtaz and I were colleagues in the bank, and I was a great fan of his cricket, yearning for his approval of my bowling. Unfortunately, for most of our careers, Mumtaz remained a critic of my cricket—my bowling, my fielding, my attitude, all of which he looked at with a somewhat jaundiced eye. That day, too, his praise of my bowling was muted. “You should have finished with seven or eight wickets, today. You didn't bowl as well as you can.” I don't know what his intention was, but these remarks stung me to the quick and strengthened my resolve to do well in the matches to follow.
We won the match comfortably and qualified to meet U-Foam XI in the semifinals. It was led by M L Jaisimha, the man who had been Hyderabad captain for over 20 years then. It was because players like Jai turned out for other teams in the Gold Cup, that people like me got into the Hyderabad team. That year there were as many as six players in the second string Hyderabad team who were not part of the Ranji Trophy squad already selected. U-Foam were formidable. Besides Jaisimha, they had players like Brijesh Patel, Parthasarathi Sharma, Mike Dalvi, Prasanna, Chandrasekhar, Kailash Ghattani and a number of promising young Hyderabad players.
The first two days' play was completely washed out by rain. The ground was very wet on the third day too, but it had stopped raining. After a number of inspections by the umpires, it was decided to play a 30 overs a side match. The only alternative was to decide the winner of the match through a toss. “Jai is so confident he can beat us, he has bullied the umpires to start the game,” my friend and teammate Vijay Paul said. “That would be better than risking the toss.” He was probably right, as the ground was so soggy and muddy, no match would normally have started in those conditions.
If Jai thought his team would rout us in the shortened game, he could not have been more wrong. We had in our team younger legs and greater experience of over-limit cricket than our opponents. Batting first we made 99 for 8 in the allotted thirty overs, with our openers C R Chandran and Inder Raj giving us a flying start. The score was equal to about 200 in normal conditions, so difficult it was to score boundaries or even twos and threes on it, except when a fielder found it tough to reach the ball through the slush. When U-Foam batted, they found our medium pacers Jyoti Prasad and Govind Raj too hot to handle. They were bundled out for exactly 60 runs. I didn't have to bowl at all. We were through to the final!
The final was against a superb all round team led by Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi—JK XI. Two prolific scorers in domestic cricket, Laxman Singh and Rajeshwar Vats of Central Zone, opened the innings. Abdul Hai, Salim Durrani, Surinder Amarnath, Pataudi, Mohinder Amarnath and Karsan Ghavri followed. The tail was brought up by wicket keeper Ved Raj (or was it someone else?), off spinner Ranjan Baindoor and left arm spinner Rajinder Singh Hans.
As you can see from the list, there were five left handers in the batting line-up, including Hai, Durrani and Surinder Amarnath in the top order. JK batted first. There was much start-stop-start as it rained intermittently. I think I came on to bowl in the last hour of play. I enjoyed a big stroke of luck, once I overcame my nervousness and settled down to a length. Laxman Singh miscued an on drive and the ball ballooned over Nagesh Hammand at mid-on. It should have been a simple catch, but as Nagesh took a couple of steps back to get under the ball, he slipped and nearly lost balance. A superb athlete and fielder, Nagesh managed to recover quickly and hold on to the catch.
As it often happens, that first wicket improved my bowling—and my confidence—miles. At that very moment, another piece of luck came my way. In walked the brilliant left hand batsman, Abdul Hai, known for his strokeplay and tall scores in domestic cricket. The one thing in my favour as he took guard was that we played against each other regularly in Hyderabad. And I invariably got his wicket—a twin advantage now, as I was confident I could get him, and he must be nervous against me. Abdul did not last long as he became my next victim.
Wonder of wonders! The next batsman too turned out to be one against whom I felt I had a chance. I had once bowled to Salim Durrani on a fiery matting wicket in Madras, beating him many times. Having a few catches dropped off my bowling, I did not dismiss him that day, but now, when I saw him, I felt a great adrenaline surge. I was all fired up to do my best against a world class batsman, with my memory of that long ago day spurring me on. I fired a vicious off spinner on the off and middle and Durrani edged it into the wicket keeper's gloves.
The ball I bowled to dismiss Surinder Amarnath was perhaps the best delivery I ever bowled. Going round the wicket, I bowled what could only be described as a right arm bowler's arm ball to a left hander from wide of the crease. Suri went to cut but his middle stump was knocked out before he could bring his bat down. I had Tiger Pataudi dropped by Inder Raj and Mohinder Amarnath played a beautiful unbeaten innings as JK crashed to 175 all out. My tally was 8 for 75 and I had nailed all five left handers.
Despite a few hiccups along the way, we won the Gold Cup after a lapse of 11 years. At the end of the match, the state selectors added my name to the already announced Hyderabad Ranji squad as its 16th member. I had arrived at last!
Many circumstances had conspired to bring about this happy conclusion, beginning with Noshir's inclusion in the State Bank team, and the decision to hold a 30 overs a side semifinal between us and U-Foam, enabling us to enter the final, without my having to bowl an over. The catch Nagesh held despite slipping, the sight of Abdul Hai and Salim Durrani at the crease, each bringing out the best in me for a different reason, all these were serendipitous occurrences that helped me along.
One other crucial factor was Abbas Ali Baig's captaincy. I had played a number of matches under him for Hyderabad Zone in the local zonal tournament, and he had invariably nagged me constantly on the field of play, only to praise me to the skies after the match. Nothing I ever did seemed to please him on the field, yet he kept me on for long spells. In the Moin-ud-Dowla final, he suddenly stopped harassing me with his constant advice and admonition. He let me be my own man for the first time. Perhaps I had earned my spurs with him. Whatever the reason behind his change of manner, he was happy and proud that one of his boys had come good, and that we had regained the Gold Cup.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
It was without doubt the premier cricket event in India outside of Test matches. All the Test players and the best of the rest took part in this invitation tournament. The Lal Bahadur Stadium wore a festive look for a fortnight, all the matches being played at the same venue up until the 1980s. They were three-day affairs and regarded as first class fixtures until over limitation was introduced in 1974 to make for results and exciting finishes as opposed to drawn games. These were not slam bang affairs, at least in the first innings of 90 overs each, but sometimes the second innings of 40 overs could produce exciting run chases. The decision to withdraw first class status was an unfair one, as much of the cricket on view those days was superior to most inter-state matches. It also meant players had fewer first class runs and wickets against their names. In a limited career, I for example, finished with 96 wickets in 25 first class matches, while recognition of Moin-ud-Dowla would have given an additional fifty or so. Worse was the case of a number of excellent cricketers, who, in such a scenario, would have been eligible for the BCCI's pension plan for former cricketers. I managed to qualify by the skin of my teeth, having played exactly 25 first class matches, but my friend Nagesh Hammand fell short. He would have gained if Moin-ud-Dowla had continued to be treated as first class cricket.
I played in the tournament for five or six years in the 1970s, bowling my first ball at that level of cricket to Rohan Kanhai. Behind that most unusual occurrence lay a tale—a tale so astonishing that I might have been forgiven for believing that I was destined for international recognition. (I have described in an earlier chapter the miraculous circumstances which took me from Anakapalle, a tiny but thriving business centre in Andhra Pradesh, to Hyderabad and inclusion in the State Bank of India's star-studded cricket team, followed by a long wait for a permanent place in the playing eleven. Throughout that frustrating period, when my captains Habib Ahmed first, and D Govindraj later, preferred another off spinner, G Mohan to me, a few of my teammates—Indian wicket keeper P Krishnamurti, Nagesh Hammand, Sultan Saleem and Lyn Edwards—had kept my morale up, by constantly encouraging me to believe I was India material, when I was not even a local regular).
Going earlier than reporting time to the Nizam College ground for a league match one morning in 1974, I found my friend and mentor, the late Krishnamurti, already there, sitting on a cement bench under a tree. By this time, I had more or less lost interest in cricket, with time spent at home with a young wife and new-born daughter a vastly more exciting prospect than continuing to work hard at cricket with no prospect of breaking into the big league, as Noshir Mehta was firmly entrenched in the Hyderabad team. I had actually begun to be casual about my cricket gear, having more or less decided to quit the game to focus on my work at the bank.
Krishnamurti took one look at my footwear and burst out in a volley of abuse. “Have you taken leave of your senses?” he said to me. “Are you a G Division player, wearing these cheap Bata shoes only rickshawallahs wear? Do you look like someone about to play for an international XI in Moin-ud-Dowla?”
I was astonished and thrilled when Murti explained he had persuaded HCA secretary P R Man Singh who fielded the Hindustan Breweries XI in the tournament to include me in the team as the top off spinners Prasanna and Venkataraghavan were not available and Noshir Mehta was playing for Hyderabad in the Gold Cup. Man Singh had been scouring the length and breadth of India to find an off spinner good enough to play alongside Pataudi (captain), Kanhai, Budhi Kunderan, Anura Tennekoon, Duleep Mendis, David Heyn, Russell Hamer, Tony Opatha, Krishnamurti,Kailash Ghattani and William Anderson Bourne, a West Indies-Warwickshire fast bowler who promised much but never graduated to Test cricket. Man had been on the verge of calling Rehmat Baig, a Hyderaabd-born NIS coach serving the armed forces at the time, when Murti somehow managed to convince him that I was good enough to belong in that exalted company.
It was a proud moment when I received my official call-up letter, with my name appearing at the bottom of a distinguished list of players. Readers of the newspaper announcement of the team must surely have been perplexed to find my name in the team, as I had never played for the state, nor even for the all India State Bank of India team, our prospective opponents in the first round. It was an even prouder moment, when, seated behind some senior cricketers watching an earlier match in the Gold Cup, I overheard my former skipper Habib Ahmed—the one who had once laughed patronisingly after I took three wickets in an over in a league match (“Not bad, this guy has come in useful”, he had said)—tell my new captain MAK Pataudi, “Look out for this lad Ramnarayan, he's a great prospect.” And Pataudi soon asked me to bowl to him in the nets, where, in my eagerness to impress, I gave him a torrid time on an unplayable drying wicket, a very unprofessional thing to do to a batsman looking for some practice. 'Tiger' was sporting enough not to mind my immature exhibition; he in fact went so far as to tell Habib I was a match winner.
A huge surprise awaited me the next day at the nets. I had barely sent down a few deliveries, excited beyond words by the august company I was keeping, when Pataudi called me aside. “Ram, go and bowl in the other nets. Chhotu wants you there.” Nonplussed, I went over to meet Hanumant Singh, the Chhotu Tiger was referring to, and a former prince like the Nawab of Pataudi, who was also the captain of the State Bank of India team, our opponents of the morrow. Hanumant explained to me that he had decided to hijack me from the Breweries XI. I was going to play for State Bank tomorrow! I immediately saw the hand of Syed Abid Ali, Indian all rounder, who was grinning at me from behind Hanumant. Abid had been one of my great supporters in Hyderabad cricket, and he had put a simple question to Hanumant: “Why should our off spinner play for our opponents?”
I was both disappointed and elated at the turn of events. I had looked forward to playing for the Breweries XI, which was truly international in its composition, with my boyhood hero Kanhai from the West Indies, five cricketers from Sri Lanka and Budhi Kunderan now settled in Scotland. At the same time, selection to the bank's all India team was a huge promotion, as I had not even been picked for its Hyderabad team in its inter-circle tournament. It was as star-studded as the Breweries XI too. G R Viswanath, Hanumant Singh, Syed Kirmani, and Abid Ali were Test cricketers and most of the other members were knocking on the doors of Test cricket.
We won the toss and batted first. Our openers Gopal Bose and Madhu Gupte gave us a flying start, Viswanath and Kirmani ran into mid-season form and we made over 400 in rapid time. Poor William Anderson Bourne was belted all over the park and had to be content with a solitary wicket—mine. When Hindustan Breweries batted, they lost an early wicket. In walked Rohan Kanhai to a grand welcome by the crowd and all of us on the field as well. I couldn't believe my luck when Hanumant handed me the ball as soon as Kanhai took guard. Nervous as hell, I bowled my first ball a little wide of the off stump, and Kanhai, obviously rusty from lack of practice, flashed at the ball; and missed! Despite that encouragement, I did not bowl the rest of the over very well and the veteran picked a couple of easy runs. That was the last over of the day.
The weather gods decided to smile on us. It rained in the early hours next morning. Only those who have played cricket in our era, when it was allowed to leave the wicket uncovered, can appreciate the difficulties of batting on a wicket drenched by rain, once the sun starts beating down on it afterwards. The ball tended to turn and jump alarmingly. It was a dream wicket for an off spinner to bowl on, and I was licking my fingers in anticipation. Play started about an hour late, and Hanumant straightaway started the proceedings with spin—unfortunately, not with me. Fellow off spinner Arun Ogiral (Rajasthan) and Zahid Ali Khan (Hyderabad) ran through the top order, Ogiral in particular proving to be devastating. He took five wickets including Kanhai's scalp, and Zahid took three. I did not get to bowl until towards the end of the innings. The wicket improved by then and though I took two tail-end wickets, I did nothing of great note.
Worse was to follow. We won the match by virtue of our first innings lead and entered the final of the tournament. I was looking forward to bowling to the U-Foam XI batsmen—the likes of Brijesh Patel, Parthasarathy Sharma, Mike Dalvi and M L Jaisimha, when Hanumant Singh summoned me to his room on the first floor of the stadium. The rooms overlooked the cricket ground, and you could watch the action from the front veranda. Chhotu seated me there and made me feel comfortable with his affectionate conversation and a couple of beers, before dropping a bombshell. He was dropping from the eleven for the final. The great Haryana left arm spinner Rajinder Goel was to replace me. The U-Foam batsmen were all very strong against off spin bowling, so the captain had decided to go into the final with two left arm spinners—Goel and Zahid. There was no question of dropping Ogiral, as he had taken five wickets in the semifinal. Moreover, he had been going through a rough patch, even dropped by his club in Bombay, and this was just the encouragement he needed.
Hanumant Singh went to assure me that I was a better spinner than Ogiral and Zahid and that I had a bright future. Hyderabad skipper Jaisimha and Pataudi thought highly of my bowling and I would soon find myself in the Hyderabad Ranji Trophy squad. “You must work harder, though. I hear you miss practice sometimes, saying you are busy at work. The bank lets off cricketers to practise, doesn't it?” I tried to explain that my career was more important to me than cricket with the uncertain future it held for me. There was no way the state selectors were going to replace Noshir Mehta with me. His father was the chairman of the committee and I didn't see the other selectors proposing my name ahead of his son's, even if the old man was willing to give me a fair break. “You are being unfair to the selctors, Ram,” Hanumant said. “I'll take a bet you will play for Hyderabad this year. If you don't, I'll eat my words. I'll retire from first class cricket.”
Hanumant's solicitude greatly reduced my disappointment. During our conversation, he gave me plenty of technical advice on my bowling, advice I never forgot. It was to stand me in good stead throughout my career. When I failed to get into the Hyderabad team that year, I toyed with the idea of sending Chhotu a telegram reminding him of his threat to quit cricket, but did not actually do it. He had taken so much trouble over my cricket, when he hardly knew me. It made me a better, stronger cricketer.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
It was in college that Raman blossomed. He joined the PSG College of Technology at Coimbatore, where for the next five years he constantly hit the headlines. Very soon, he was opening the innings for his college, the District Colleges and eventually Madras University, besides bowling fastish legbreaks from a good height. He had abandoned his earlier slower, well flighted style when he shot up in his first year in college. He found he extracted considerable bounce and as most of the cricket at that level was then played on matting wickets, Raman was soon a successful and dreaded bowler. His batting was positive, full of attacking shots. He drove powerfully on the rise and, with strong wrists, he could flick the new ball over square leg or midwicket for six.
At the university and junior level Raman was a most successful cricketer. He was a contemporary of BS Chandrasekhar, the great Indian leg spinner, and bowling in a similar style, PSR was just as successful for Madras University and Juniors, sometimes outperforming Chandra to win matches for his side.
When PSR finished his engineering studies and found employment in Madras, he was expected to graduate to Ranji Trophy cricket, but unfortunately, his form deserted him. He had a miserable couple of seasons in the TNCA league, when he strung together any number of single digit scores. He worked hard, practising for long hours at the nets, where he looked to be in no discomfort, but runs just dried up. His bowling too seemed to have gone to pieces. He was hardly able to land the ball. I was his teammate, generally enjoying greater luck with my form, and it broke my heart to watch his cricket disintegrate.
Raman had other problems as well in the local league, in which matches were occasionally fixed to help one team to garner championship points or another to stave off relegation. He refused to be party to such unsporting practices and even walked out of a match half way through. Among his calculating peers and his secretary, he found no sympathy, but I respected and admired him for his honesty and integrity—which marked all aspects of his life, accompanied by a somewhat short fuse.
Raman later migrated to New Zealand and from there to Australia, where his cricket enjoyed a second innings. Playing grade cricket in Sydney, Raman was a team mate of a young man beginning to make waves in Australian cricket called Steve Waugh. His leg spin bowling had made a comeback when I met Raman in Sydney in the summer of 1986. I was touring Australia as a member of the late Ram Ramesh's team Madras Occasionals, consisting mostly of Madras Cricket Club players. He was happy to show me a newspaper clipping in which Steve Waugh had praised his bowling. I was delighted to meet my cousin at a time when he had regained his form.
Raman came to India a year later, but by then he was a condemned man, a victim of lung cancer. His enthusiasm for life or love of cricket hadn't waned one bit. He was there at Chepauk to cheer Tamil Nadu to its second Ranji Trophy triumph in the 53-year old history of the championship, and he had to endure great physical hardship to go to the stadium and climb the stairs to the pavilion terrace enclosure. (He refused to watch the game from downstairs because he enjoyed the view from the terrace). He was happy and proud that Tamil Nadu won, doubly so as my younger brother Sivaramakrishnan played a key role in that victory.
When Raman went back to Sydney, we all knew that we would not see him again. The end came soon—the end of an honest, hard working career, in cricket and at work. He was a devoted husband and loving father to the end.
We lived on Murrays Gate Road, a quiet enough street then, extending east-west from Alwarpet Corner to Teynampet, the whole stretch a long straight line from the Santhome Church, via Luz Church Road, almost all the way to Mount Road. 'Suprabha' was our home, a two-storeyed bungalow facing north. We lived on the first floor, my father now the agent of the Mylapore branch of IOB, and downstairs lived my father's elder brother P N Sundaresan, Raja to family and friends, at the time a struggling reporter in the Indian Express, but soon to join the Hindu.
Raja was an attacking batsman who opened the innings for Mylapore Recreation Club 'A', one of the top sides in the Madras cricket league, whose clashes with arch rival Triplicane Cricket Club starring M J Gopalan, C R Rangachari and the like, were known as the War of the Roses. MRC had many of its own stars, with most of Buchi Babu Nayudu's sons, nephews and grandsons turning out for the club at one time or another. The well known diplomat G Parthasarathi or GP, an aggressive leg spinner-batsman, C R Pattabhiraman, son of Sir C P Ramswami Ayyar and the founder of the club, and opening batsman M Swaminathan were some of the MRC regulars.
My father's uncle P S Ramachandran or 'Pattu', the tall, wiry fast bowler who took 10 for 18 for MRC vs. TCC, was overlooked by the selectors who met the same evening to pick the 'Indians' for that season's Presidency Match. Pattu, like quite a few other cricketers of his time, was an orthodox brahmin, whose hairstyle consisted of a shaven head with a tuft of hair tied in a kudumi or chignon at the back. As he ran up to bowl his fast medium seamers, his knotted hair came off and fluttered in the breeze, and he almost instinctively reached for it to tie it back in place even as he was completing his follow through. In group photographs, he is seen wearing a black cap more like a Gandhi topi than a cricket cap.
Though he missed out on the Pongal match after that splendid burst in the Roses battle, he managed to impress the selectors enough to be included in a tour game for Madras against the visiting MCC team under the captaincy of Douglas Jardine. Pattu bowled well in both innings, picking up a couple of wickets. He was probably in his late forties when I first heard him describe the cricket he played in his youth. “Jardine said “Well bowled” to me at the end of the match. He even patted me on my back.” When Pattu came home that evening, his mother, whose word was law in family circles, told him to wash even harder than usual, as he had made physical contact with a mlechha or outcaste!
Pattu lived and practised law in a gracious old bungalow in a sprawling compound on Eldams Road, parallel to and behind Murrays Gate Road, and his elder brother P S Venkatraman, a building contractor and a leading tennis player of his time, was his next door neighbour. Their two houses were named Sundar (after my great grandfather Justice P R Sundara Iyer) and Parvati (after my great grandmother). Pattu's three sons Kalyanam, Dorai and Thambi, took after their father and became more than useful medium pace bowlers, two of them making it to the Ranji Trophy team and Dorai almost getting there. My uncle Raja's sons Kannan and Raman were both fine all rounders. While Kannan played Ranji Trophy, Raman again just failed to make it. Add to these five, my brothers Nagan and Krishnan (V Sivaramakrishnan) and yours truly and we needed just three more for a complete eleven, though Kalyanam was far too senior to play with all of us.
Coming to the point I have been building up to, no compound wall separated the two houses Sundar and Parvati on Eldams Road and Suprabha on Murrays Gate Road, and we energetic youngsters were constantly running from one house to another and playing a whole range of outdoor games, in which all the girl children of the family were also included in all the games--except cricket. And as if all this was not enough to spoil us silly by way of sporting facilities, bang opposite Suprabha was a vast open field where we played the more organised cricket everyday after school. The 'ground' as we called it is untraceable today, as it has been completely built over, a residential area called Venus Colony.
Kannan, or P S Narayanan, to give his official name, was the most talented all round sportsman of the family, if a bit laid back. Everything he did, he did with style. It came naturally to him. He was of medium height, very slightly built, supple and agile. He was a smart ball game player who used the angles to advantage whatever game he played. In cricket, he was all wrists and timing, a very good eye and quick reflexes. I do not remember his exploits as a schoolboy cricketer. In fact, not until he completed his undergraduate studies from Vivekananda College and joined the Madras Law College did he blossom into a consistent opening batsman and an off spinner with an uncanny ability to break partnerships. In the 1960s, he became a mainstay of Jolly Rovers, the team that dominated Madras cricket for the next four decades, regularly outperforming his more glamorous teammates, and often giving the side a scintillating start matching his partner K R Rajagopal stroke for stroke. Those who watched Raja in his prime will know that's a high compliment—the wicket keeper batsman narrowly missed selection to the Indian team that toured Australia in 1968.
At the school level, it was Kannan's younger brother Raman (P S Ramachandran) who came into prominence in representative cricket. He bowled vicious leg breaks and played attacking shots from the word go as an opening batsman. Of the three fast bowling brothers who were my father's cousins, Kalyanam or P R Sundaram (by now the reader would have guessed that each of us have two names; throughout this story, I will use the names we were known by at home rather than our 'school' names) was a genuine quickie, who would surely have played more matches at the first class level than the solitary Ranji Trophy appearance he was allowed to make. His two brothers were good bowlers too, and all three were rated highly by the West Indies fast bowler Roy Gilchrist when he coached Madras's promising young pace bowlers handpicked by the selectors in the 1960s.
My brother Nagan, just a year younger than me, was a stylish left handed batsman, who later played for Vivekananda College and IIT Madras. He never fulfilled his early promise, because he simply did not have the patience or temperament to build innings. He was capable of attacking any bowling successfully and was on his day a delight to watch. He chose to focus more on academics than cricket. My youngest brother Sivaramakrishnan, Krishnan to all of us at home, was the opposite of Nagan in terms of temperament. Five years younger than me, he was a thorn in the flesh from the time we let him join us older brothers and cousins, showing an annoying tendency to score double hundreds even at the age of ten. He went on to score more than 5,000 first class runs, coming close to selection as India's opener during the Gavaskar-Chauhan era.
Here, I have gone a little ahead of the story, as Krishnan was not yet a force to reckon with during our Suprabha day, barely seven when we left Suprabha and Madras, thanks to my father's transfer to Tuticorin in 1960, and Delhi a year later. There were a few more good cricketers in the extended family, including my cousins G R Venkatakrishnan and P S Ashok, and all of us honed our cricket skills on the Venus Colony ground in the 1950s and 1960s. We were all barefoot cricketers and wore no protective equipment, sometimes played on uneven, even dangerous wickets and always used a cricket ball and not a tennis ball unlike other kids. I describe our Venus Colony cricket in some detail elsewhere in this chronicle, but I am convinced that some of us would have been better batsmen had we played on good wickets during our formative years with a semblance of protection.
Monday, September 1, 2008
Looking back, it had to be divine intervention or a completely benign arrangement of the stars in my favour that must have helped my cricket along, when there was no conscious effort to make a career of it, on the part of my parents or self. (More of this later).
The first time I held a bat was around 1952, in the backyard of our Quilon (now Kollam) home, in the company of my brother Nagan, a left handed, far more talented and stylish novitiate into the game at which so many in the family were good. I was barely five and for the next three years, the only cricket action we saw was provided by my father’s exploits in the game.
P N Venkatraman, Ramani to his siblings, cousins, and cricket mates, was Appa to us, his children—by then four of us, with the latest adddition Krishnan arriving on 13 May 1952. Appa had been a stalwart of Mylapore Recreation Club, albeit a reclusive, even reluctant one, mainly because he was a bit of a hypochondriac and feared he would collapse on the cricket field, thanks to an imaginary heart condition a mischievous uncle or elder cousin had led him to believe afflicted him. (When I saw the Adoor Gopalakrishnan film Anantaram in the 1980s, a scene in it reminded me of my father’s unhappy experiences with elders in the extended family who casually planted in him fears and anxieties with far reaching consequences, preventing the full flowering of this gentle, shy, unusually talented young lad).
Appa therefore never reached the heights he was expected to as a cricketer and indeed in his professional career. He was too inhibited to exploit his talents fully. That made no difference to us kids who all hero-worshipped him. He was easily the most loving father in the world. He doted on us—whenever he found the time. His work as the manager of the Quilon branch of the Indian Overseas Bank Ltd (they were called agents back then), was demanding and involved long hours at the bank. It helped though that we lived in quarters attached to the office.
Appa had played cricket in Madras in the company of some of the greatest names of the city—
M J Gopalan, Ram Singh, the Bhat brothers, G Parthasarathi or GP, and his own uncle P S Ramachandran or Pattu who once took 10 for 18 in an innings for Mylapore Recreation Club against Triplicane Cricket Club in a league match. Appa was a medium pace bowler with a high arm action with the intention of bowling fast 'offbreaks' as he described them in the fashion of the day. They did not call them cutters or seamers in Madras then, but I suspect Appa did exactly that—bowl ferocious in-cutters, made deadlier by the matting surfaces on which he played most of his cricket. What made his bowling diabolical was his almost unconscious ability to swing the ball away from the batsman before it landed and broke back. There were no TV cameras in world cricket and therefore not many Test bowlers were known to have such ability, Alec Bedser being a notable exception. Appa's friends in cricket often likened his bowling to Bedser's.
Appa quickly formed a team in Kollam. It included, besides himself, a couple of IOB men and other friends like Monappa, a stylish man in his thirties with an aquiline nose, sharp features, dark, brushed back hair and a moustache. Like other Coorg-born men, he was athletic and sunny tempered as well. The Anglo Indian railway guard Clifton was built on strong lines and was fair skinned like a European.
I vaguely remember that Monappa was a lithe, stylish all rounder. Clifton was a powerful batsman. Though Appa's forte was his bowling, I remember some lusty hits by him at the Fathima College ground where I watched some of his matches. When he smote the ball once over midwicket for a six—a rare occurrence those days—my joy knew no bounds.
Inspiration was also provided by the newspaper accounts of the England tour of Australia, made memorable by England's great comeback after Len Hutton won the toss and inserted the opposition in the first Test, only to lose the match by an innings. 'Typhoon Tyson', a quiet schoolmaster who later migrated to Australia, struck terror in the hearts of Australian batsmen and almost single handedly won the series for England with his hostile fast bowling. The Hindu came to Kollam around four pm, and I eagerly grabbed it to read the cricket headlines, which I only vaguely understood . Still, Colin Cowdrey and Peter May, Denis Compton and Godfrey Evans became my heroes during that and subsequent series. I had to wait until 1956 for my biggest cricket hero to steal the limelight decisively once and for all from his spinning colleagues. Jim Laker was to take 19 wickets in a single Test match against the touring Australians that season, but we are going ahead of the story.
The most exciting cricketing moments in Kollam came when our cousins Kannan and Raman visited us soon after their upanayanam or thread ceremony, which meant that they both sported an unusual hairstyle, with the front half of the head shaved and the back part ending in a dangling tuft of hair. For some strange reason, this was called an appala kudumi. Kannan and Raman were slightly older at 9 and 11, and they were avid cricketers who brought a touch of class to our informal matches in the vast, snake-infested grounds of the new bank quarters we had moved into in distant Tangaserry on the backwaters or kayal of Kollam. Our games were vigorous and competitive, and the players included besides the four boys, one sister, Sarada and one female cousin, Rama, as well as the domestic staff.
Soon after the cousins went back to Madras, Nagan and I accompanied Appa on a trip to Trivandrum, where he played in local matches for Sasthamangalam Cricket Club, a strong outfit led by the elegant and accomplished Balan Pandit, Kerala's most successful cricketer till then. Appa bowled well in the matches we watched, and SCC won the local league. Over the years, I have managed to lose what was a precious possession--a group photograph in which Balan Pandit looked regal in his spotless gear that included a stylish scarf worn like a muffler, and Appa tall and handsome. Of the two youngsters squatting for the photograph in front of their seated seniors, one was a smart young man who would go on to play for India in unofficial Tests as a medium pacer--C K Bhaskar. I was to play some inter-collegiate cricket with Bhaskar in Madras in the 1960s, when he was a student of Madras (or Stanley) Medical College, and league cricket against his elder brother Vijayan who was also in the group picture.