Saturday, November 8, 2008

Kaka of Bombay

Yesterday was a perfect day. It was my 61st birthday; my kids called me from abroad; I went to a great concert (Sanjeev Abhyankar); my blog started getting noticed thanks to Sriram Veera and Cricinfo; an eccentric informal group I belong to—the Raga-muffins—got written about in the Times of India; and I found out I shared my birthday with Brett Lee as I do with another cricketer, Murtuza Ali Baig.

Yesterday was a perfect day. Or so I thought, until my brother called with the horrible news—our old cricket mate, wicket keeper H Sundaram, had accidentally fallen to his death from the roof of his house.

Sundaram, Sundu to most of his friends, was an unusual left hander among wicketkeepers. His lefthandedness showed in his keeping, as he often gathered with one hand, the left hand. It often produced spectacular results, especially in the form of legside stumpings. He loved to stand up to the medium pacers and remove the bails in a flash. In the 1970s, he was regarded as the best stumper in Tamil Nadu, and even played for the State briefly, until one fine morning, miffed at being overlooked in favour of the young Bharat Reddy, he wrote to the cricket association asking them not to consider him any more for selection.

Sundu was a close friend of my brother Sivaramakrishnan, and a member of a cricket 'gang' who have stayed in touch over the decades. He played for the Indian Overseas Bank team in the local league and later became a state selector. He and I played together for Madras University in Rohinton Baria back in 1969, when we reprieved a young Bangalore University batsman fresh from a tour of Australia with the Indian Schoolboys. The talented Brijesh Patel survived to score a hundred that day, and he and Sundu were among those who went on to play for South Zone University that year in the Vizzy Trophy.

This has been a bad year for cricketers. Not long ago, K Ganapathi, an outstanding off spinner-opening batsman whose career coincided with that of Test off spinner S Venkataraghavan, died in almost identical circumstances. Ganpa was a good friend of mine.

Just when I was recovering from that blow came the news of Ashok Mankad's unexpected death in his sleep. Kaka, as he was known to one and all, had been a cricketer I greatly admired for his phenomenal feats as a batsman in domestic cricket and his astute leadership. And for a few years, we enjoyed a great rapport whenever we met as foes on the cricket field or friends off the field, for example, during a conditioning camp for India's Test probables of 1977-78 at Chepauk. That is when we shared a dressing room, and he kept me and the rest of the boys constantly entertained with his mostly apocryphal cricket stories. One particular anecdote involving 'Nana of Poona', P G Joshi, the late Indian wicket keeper, had us convulsed.

That was the first time I heard the typically Mumbaiyya expression 'leg n' leg' that Kaka repeatedly used to describe our condition after our coach Darshan Tandon put us through the wringer day after day. The Indian skipper Bishan Bedi, away playing county cricket in England, joined the camp only for the last three days or so. Kaka's brilliant impersonation of how Bishan would come into the stadium for training on his first morning in the camp and find no-one there was a brilliant act of mimicry. Imitating the captain, and giving wild vent to his imagination, Mankad went through the whole gamut of emotions—surprise, bewilderment, anxiety, and finally anger—peaking with the dawning of realisation in a sterling show of the adbhuta rasa, when Bishan finds the entire team jogging on the roof of the stadium.

Bishan was part of the audience that stood around Mankad at M L Jaisimha's Marredpally, Secunderabad residence one evening during Jai's benefit match, in which the Indian team led by Bedi played against an 'international' eleven captained by Jai. Asif Iqbal, Sarfraz Nawaz, Imran Khan, Zaheer Abbas and Mushtaq Mohammed formed the strong Pakistani contingent at the match. Most of them gathered around Kaka, who told story after story, embellishing fact with fiction, slowly building up suspense in each tale, like the master raconteur he was.

Mankad was growing redder and redder in the face as the beer kept flowing after a long day in the sun, and the rest of us were struggling to stay on our feet as he kept us all in rollicking good humour.

That morning, Sunil Gavaskar had pulled a long hop from me straight into Mankad's hands at deep square leg, and one of the guests, a police official, who was generally inflicting his company on the celebrity cricketers at the party, now reminded Kaka about that. “Mr Mankad,” he said, wagging a naughty finger at Kaka, “is there an old rivalry between you and Mr Gavaskar?” Not satisfied with Kaka's firm reply in the negative, he said, “Then why did he fling his bat in the dressing room after getting out and mutter, 'Sala, drops catches in Test matches, holds mine in a benefit match'?”

Mankad's riposte was a classic, but one he was quick to stress was just a joke. He said, “Reddy Saab, catch me dropping Sunil Gavaskar! Wake me up at midnight and I will hold his catches!"

We all knew that the two Bombay mates had enormous respect for each other, but that did not mean they could not indulge in the kind of friendly rivalry and banter at each other's expense that make competitive sport so memorable. The laughter that greeted Mr Reddy's unintended, indiscreet humour was loud and long. And laughter is what true sportsmen would want to be remembered with, I am sure.

12 comments:

Southpaw said...

Thanks. I played 3 years in college with H Sundaram's son, also a wicket-keeper, who went on to play List A cricket for TN before moving to the US, where I ended up playing against him! (He was still active in Ohio leagues as of last season.)

H Sundaram was a very pleasant man who was an informal coach of our
college team since he came to see some of our games. I last met him - still coaching at Mr. Dharmalingam's camp in Adyar - on a trip to India in 2005. Very sorry to hear of his untimely demise.

Southpaw said...

Also played school cricket with/against 3 of your nephews BTW - Nikhil, Vidyut, and Harish. I remember your brother would come on his blue Ind-Suzuki to encourage them, and watch from a distance.

Ramnarayan said...

Southpaw,
I'm sure I know you too. Thanks for dropping by and please email me at vramnarayan@gmail.com

yogi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
yogi said...

I searched a bit on the net for your book "Mosquitoes..." bu was not successful. some help, please ?

Ramnarayan said...

Within India, I could send you a copy of the book by post, enclosing a bill for Rs. 295 plus postage. Cheque shd be made out in the name of Kalamkriya Ltd., the publishers. Abroad, the postage will be much higher than the price of the book!

Voltaire said...

Ram-Wonderful post again. I guess you have got rich raw material for an exciting and highly useful book. I shall be one of your first customers! Glad to know that you and Mukul are friends...you need not go further for advice i.e., strictly on cricket writing only. I was a regular visitor to OMC grounds when MV Sridhar used to score almost a 100 every match. The chatter on the ground and pavillion(basketball court)was entertaining/ribald in purest Hyderabadi. I hope the higher the level the more spicier the chatter!

Sree said...

I have a copy of "Mosquitos". Bought and read it some 4-5 years back and is probably time for a re-read.

I was wondering whether if there is a way to get it signed by you. Do you visit MAC during Ranji matches by any chance ?

Ramnarayan said...

We can of course meet at Chepauk on the rare occasion I visit there, but you are also welcome at my office, Sruti, Sanmar building, 9, Cathedral Road, Chennai 600086, 2 buildings from Chola Sheraton, any morning.

Sree said...

Thank you, sir. Shall do that soon.

Does anyone know the background of Arun Karthik who hit a hundred on Ranji debut yesterday ? I found from google that he has played for MAC Spin Foundation in minor matches.

Our office team once played against MAC-SF in the Bluestar tournament in 2000 or so, and there was 13 year old kid by the name Arun Karthik who bowled leg breaks and googlies and took three wickets. We all noticed him because he was so tiny. The Ranji player seems to be purely a batsman now but I was thinking about the possibility that this is that little kid.

Kumar Narasimha said...

Dear Sir,

I must thank Cricinfo for linking to your blog last month.

Ever since, inspite of the Ind-Aus series and my office work, I have read all your posts so far- and some posts twice.

Apart from the readability and authenticity of memoirs, you bring a very human touch to these cricket stories.

You must have seen young Azhar come up the ranks.Can you share a story or two please?

Thanks,
Kumar

Ramnarayan said...

Thank you, Kumar. I'll try to do a piece on Azhar.
Ram