We must have come back to Madras during 1955 or 1956, for I clearly remember listening to the radio commentary in our first floor house on Murrays Gate Road when Jim Laker took 19 for 137 against thse Australians at Old Trafford, the second time the off spinner claimed all ten wickets in an innings that season, having performed the feat for Surrey against the touring Aussies. I remember twiddling the knobs of our old Murphy valve radio to find the exact spot where the BBC commentary was at least half way audible. I was not yet ten and went to a Tamil medium school, so much of the commentary must have gone way above my head, even if I did manage to hear the voices of Swanton and Co. amidst all the static. I don't think John Arlott was as yet a member of the team, nor Brian Johnston or Christopher Martin Jenkins. It wasn't much later that I began to recognize these much beloved voices as I did Rex Alston and Trevor Bailey. Still, there wasn't a single cricketing point that I—or my teeming army of brothers and cousins—missed. The explanation is simple: we belonged to a completely cricket-crazy extended family.
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.