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.