Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More tales from Moin-ud-Dowla

“Match nahin dekha to hum ko bahut dukh hota ba,” little G R Viswanath said in his pidgin Hindi to an intruder into the players' enclosure blocking his view as he sat with pads on. The place was the Lal Bahadur Stadium, Hyderabad and the occasion a Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup match. His teammates in the State Bank of India team knew that Vishy simply had to watch every ball while awaiting his turn to bat, getting up from his perch only during the drinks break to go into the dressing room to do some shadow practice or wrist exercises with the steel presses he constantly carried with him. This was around 1974 or so, and Vishy was already a Test veteran of some six summers, but he was still a boy at heart, polite, humble, his quiet, mischievous sense of humour part of his charm.

An apocryphal story of the time had it that he turned up for a game without thigh pads, and was wandering around trying to borrow one from one of the other players, when one of them advised him to ask Salim Durrani. To Vishy's innocent query, Durrani's alleged retort was revealing if completely unhelpful. “Look young man, do you see that huge picture in the dressing room? (He was referring to a blow-up of Wesley Hall). I never wore thigh pads when facing him. Do you expect me to one now?”

The lefthanded genius was the author of one of the many great stories you were privileged to listen to during that golden era of the Gold Cup, if you happened to be a player taking part. When we were not playing we watched other matches in rather distinguished company including the likes of Salim Durrani and M L Jaisimha, V V Kumar and E A S Prasanna, to name a few. The conversation on one occasion veered around to the practical jokes MAK Pataudi reportedly played on some of his cricket friends. Durrani came up with this particularly diverting version of a popular episode of that genre. (The story of a stage managed dacoity in the vicinity of Bhopal, Pataudi's maternal ancestral home has been told elsewhere. Palace servants disguised as dacoits came rushing to where the young Karnataka players Viswanath and Chandrasekhar were in the woods after a gunshot was heard and announced that Prasanna had been killed. The youngsters burst into tears, believing the yarn).

According to Durrani, Vijay Manjrekar, retired from Test cricket, and an officer in Air India then, handed over his watch to one of the "dacoits" and told him that was all he possessed. “Please let me go, I'm an LDC (lower division clerk) in Morarjee Mills, basic pay Rs.300, DA Rs.225, HRA Rs.150. I'm a poor man with a family to support.” At this point, Raj Singh Dungarpur, unable to control his laughter, ran off towards a nearby hideout to join Pataudi's mother and sister, watching all the fun from there. Manjrekar, who Durrani said maintained to his dying day that it was a real dacoity, is said to have insisted later that Raj Singh had beaten a cowardly retreat. “Sala, Rajput bolta hai, darke bhag gaya.”

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Somasundaram grounds

Mylapore, Triplicane and Egmore-Purasawalkam were the strongholds of Madras cricket in the early years. The league matches between Mylapore Recreation Club (MRC) and Triplicane Cricket Club (TCC) were even dubbed the local version of the War of Roses between Yorkshire and Lancashire in English county cricket. M J Gopalan and C R Rangachari were the stalwarts of TCC while the descendants of Buchi Babu moved from Madras United Club, or MUC, where he first defied the British, to Mylapore, to make MRC a strong force. While Mylapore, Triplicane and south Madras beyond the Adyar continued to produce cricketers of merit in independent India, a new centre of cricket emerged in T Nagar and the surrounding areas, known as Mambalam, West Mambalam and so on.

A whole new generation of talented and enthusiastic cricketers followed the birth of Mambalam Mosquitos towards the end of the 1940s. The trend continued and grew in strength, so that by the time the 1970s came round, Mambalam was as much a stronghold of cricket as the traditional nurseries of the game.

If there is one place in Chennai where cricket is played with a fervour and in numbers unmatched by any venue outside Mumbai’s maidans, it is the Mayor Somasundaram ground in T Nagar, though in recent times, the Marina ground, belonging to Presidency College, presents a similar picture.

I refer in particular to the number of cricket games that can be in progress simultaneously. Anyone who has stood and watched the mind-boggling number of informal cricket ‘matches’ that can be on at any given time on Mumbai’s Azad Maidan or Cross Maidan will understand what I refer to here. At Somasundaram ‘ground’ too, a young collection of cricketers can walk in and pitch their stumps in a territory they informally come to own over a period of time, and start an evening’s practice session or ‘sign match’ at will. It can be confusing for the onlooker when he finds the third man of one ‘match’ literally rubbing shoulders with the first slip of another (or occasionally even with someone, God forbid, involved in some other sport), though the players themselves suffer from no such handicap, as they focus on their own game to the exclusion of
everything else.

In the 1980s and nineties, I was an occasional visitor to watch my younger friends who were regular players at ‘Somasundaram ground’. It was a revelation to me how many state level ricketers active in Chennai during that period owed their beginnings to that venue. The TVS and lwarpet Cricket Club wicket-keeper Venkatasubramaniam, popularly known as ‘Bondu’, was one f them. Anyone who had watched his brilliant takes behind the wicket and his attacking batsmanship, especially against short-pitched bowling, could easily guess where he learnt to hook and pull with such power. His quick reflexes and footwork were unmistakable products of tennis ball cricket honed over the years at the ground bearing the former mayor’s name.

Another fine batsman who comes to mind immediately is K Bharatan, the Railways batsman who made waves in the eighties and nineties. Leg spinner S Madhavan and fast bowler T A Sekar are a couple of other cricketers who were often seen there in their youth.

With the increasing urbanisation of our times, parks like Somasundaram grounds are fast becoming a rare commodity and children and young adults no longer enjoy the luxury of such open spaces, often being forced to adopt streets as their playgrounds. But as long as these open spaces survive, they will continue to delight young players not only of cricket but a wide a variety of games, often changing with the season.

Promise unfulfilled

Two innings by a young batsman stand out in memory whenever I think of Hyderabad cricket. The first was a fearless century against a West Indies pace attack consisting of Malcolm Marshall and Vanburn Holder. The second one was another hundred, this time against Tamil Nadu on a square turner at Chepauk a couple of years later. The batsman was Saad bin Jung, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi’s nephew, barely 16 when he took on the might of the pace bowlers from the Caribbean at Lal Bahadur Stadium, opening the South Zone innings, no matter that Marshall was a raw colt and the other bowlers were not exerting themselves unduly in a tour match.I had been silently critical of his inclusion in the zone team, following a fifty against the tourists playing for the Indian Under-19 or Schoolboys XI. He was an unknown quantity at the first class level, not having made his Ranji Trophy debut yet. The only glimpses we had had of his batting had been at the local league level, where he represented Hyderabad Public School. There were whispers that he was in the team because of his pedigree and proximity to the chairman of the selection committee, M L Jaisimha.

We, the critics, were proved wrong and Jaisimha was proved right by what happened when South Zone won the toss and batted first. The young Hyderabad batsman played the fast bowlers as though he had played them all his life. He had this uncanny ability of seeing the ball early and playing it late. Pace and bounce did not trouble him, nor movement in the air or off it. He played a calm, collected innings worthy of his seniors in the side like G R Viswanath.Secure in defence, he was unequivocal when it came to playing attacking shots. He cut, drove and pulled with insouciance, and when he came back to the pavilion with a century under his belt, chubby cheeks and all, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

If after this display against genuine pace, we entertained any doubts about Saad’s ability against quality spin, these were dispelled a couple of years later, when he made 113 and 37 not out against Tamil Nadu in conditions inimical to batting. The wicket was a minefield with the ball rearing and turning viciously. Venkataraghavan, Vasudevan and Santosh Kumar were the spinners in operation, and no batsman was secure, especially in the second innings.

The exception was Saad bin Jung, who used his feet in a masterly fashion to the spinners, dancing down the wicket and smothering the spin with his body. The second innings cameo was really worth its weight in gold, as it saved the match for Hyderabad. At the end of the match, Venkataraghavan paid Saad a generous compliment when he appreciated his batting as some of the best he had seen against spin on a turning wicket.

Saad faded away soon after that magnificent performance. Part of the blame must lie with him, because he perhaps got carried away by all his early success and began to focus less on cricket than the trappings going with it. The administration too was perhaps unhelpful; and uncaring, and instead of nurturing an unusual talent, came down heavily on him when he did not toe the line. An extremely promising career got cut even before establishing itself.