Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Kiwis go to Kalakshetra and Vidya Sagar

Sir Richard Hadlee turned to me and asked, “Raam! Does the protocol allow a couple of my boys to take off their shirts?”

The venue was a classroom in Kalakshetra, the year 2000. The man posing that question on native sartorial norms was indeed the great New Zealand fast bowler. We had just been witness to a brilliant demonstration of bharata natyam by a couple of girls and a boy, all three students of Kalakshetra.

This story is akin to the apocryphal (non) relationship between Abdul Khader and Amavasya. Back in 2000, I decided that a bunch of cricketing visitors from the antipodes needed to have their education enhanced by a visit to Kalakshetra among other places in Chennai. On a busman’s holiday from my day job of sports editor, I had taken a few days off to follow the trail of the New Zealand Cricket Academy team taking part in the Buchi Babu Memorial tournament conducted by the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. The academy went on to win the championship, though I don’t remember if they did it that year or the next. Many of the players in that side coached by Dayle Hadlee and managed by his brother Sir Richard Hadlee went on to play for New Zealand with the big boys in Test cricket if they had not already done so.

As a regular at the NZCA’s matches, I soon got to know the Hadlee brothers and some of the players well. During one of our conversations while watching a game, I asked Dayle Hadlee if he and his team had got round to seeing anything of the city. The answer was in the negative. The boys just went from their hotel rooms to the cricket ground, gym or swimming pool and back, when they were not attending boring parties, formal and prim and proper.

Dayle readily accepted my offer to take the cricketers on a tour of Kalakshetra and Vidya Sagar, formerly Spastic Society of India. I almost regretted my impulsive offer when I considered the logistics and expense of carting 20 New Zealanders all but two of them energetic youngsters whose idea of a day off from cricket would have been slightly different from a visit to such strange places! I struck gold when T A Sekar of the MRF Pace Foundation immediately offered the use of the foundation’s bus free of charge to ferry the cricketers that September morning.

My next great piece of luck was the prompt response I received from Kalakshetra Principal S Rajaram. He not only enthusiastically agreed to my request, but also arranged a 20-minute dance recital in one of Kalakshetra’s classrooms.

The New Zealand boys were a cheerful lot in the bus, but to my nervous eyes they seemed supremely indifferent to the entertainment I had laid out for them. There were a few moans and groans as some of the youngsters expressed reservations about an alien classical dance, which was sure to be a far cry from the popular arts of their choice.

The Kalakshetra atmosphere was the first brownie point I scored with my visitors. They found it beautiful and remarkably peaceful and quiet in the heart of our urban chaos. The Spartan classrooms and the lovely young ladies only strengthened their positive feelings. The crowning glory was provided by the impressive performance by the young students. The cricketers were totally bowled over, particularly by the dancers’ obviously high level of physical fitness.

Then came the climax of the morning. My reply to Richard Hadlee’s query about the cricketers’ proposed striptease act was that a bare torso was absolutely mandatory for men in Indian classical dance. What followed was an authentic display of the Maori hakka, complete with high jumps and war cries. The threesome including the Marshall twins, James and Hamish, received a standing ovation from the small crowd.

More groans and growls of protest prefixed our next stop, but the Hadlee brothers did not offer the cricketers the choice of opting out. The team trooped reluctantly into Vidya Sagar, at Kotturpuram. My friends there were thrilled to recive the cricketers as most of their wards were crazy about cricket. Unfortunately, the air-conditioner did not work, or the hall where we met the kids had none, and a very warm, sweaty session of interaction followed. The children, however, were unfazed by such minor inconveniences and put up quite a riveting show of entertainment. The crowning piece was a bright little speech by a seven-year-old. “One day cricket was very similar to life, he told us. Just as the batsman enjoyed great freedom in the first 15 overs, helped by the field restrictions, in life, too, children enjoyed freedom for the first 15 years, before the cares of life caught up with them, he said. The cricketers gave him a standing ovation and were visibly moved by the spirit and courage of the children. To a man, they came up to me and thanked me for giving them one of the most memorable days of their lives.

PSR

My cousin Raman

Any mention of Coimbatore cricket reminds me of a number of exciting cricketers, most of them delightful people as well. Sundaresan, Giri to all, was an eccentric wicket keeper batsman in the 1960s. He was eccentric only on the cricket field. His orthodox ritualistic ways, which included cold showers in the morning followed by sandhyavandanam, were perfectly acceptable off the field to those used to such practices, but his continuance of these at the batting crease raised a few eyebrows. He constantly looked at the sun between deliveries and followed these glances at his favourite god with some earnest sloka muttering, severely testing the patience of the fielding side, waiting irritably for him to take guard. Imagine the plight of Bangalore Agricultural University when Giri scored a double century back in 1969.

I was Giri’s teammate for Madras University that day. One of the men he annoyed during that innings was P Mukund, the rival captain, who went on to do a masters degree at the Agricultural University at Coimbatore. He played for Coimbatore for the next couple of years. He was a fine all rounder, a great future India prospect, who unfortunately did not go beyond Ranji Trophy in any significant way. Mukund, Giri and that elegant and consistent batsman P R Ramakrishnan—equally unfortunate in his cricket career—are among the Coimbatore players I have admired and known personally over the years. In recent years, we have been able to meet and talk of the old times, largely through the efforts of Mukund.

The Coimbatore cricketer—if I may call him so based on his five years of cricket for PSG College of Technology and the district—closest to my heart was my late cousin PS Ramachandran, PSR in cricket circles, Iyer-Nadar at PSG, and Raman in the family, an attacking opening batsman and fastish leg spinner, who was enormously successful at schools and university cricket.

Raman was to all intents and purposes my elder brother, in true Indian extended family tradition. He was my first cricket hero and his exploits in schools cricket fired my imagination before I entered my teens. He was a leg spinner of considerable potential, the best in PS High School and the best in the city and state as I was to find out soon. He was an orthodox spinner then, who took wickets by the bagful and could bat a bit, known more for brutal power than finesse of any sort. He took eight wickets playing for the City Schools XI once and his photograph appeared in the newspaper, to the delight and pride of his growing band of young admirers in the neighbourhood and at school.

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 he 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, 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 V 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.

Raja

K R Rajagopal came like a breath of fresh air to Madras cricket from Bangalore, when he joined the star-studded Jolly Rovers team of the 1960s. He quickly established himself as one of the most entertaining batsmen in the state, an opener crowds went miles to watch.

Rajagopal was one of the most aggressive opening batsmen around. He played his shots from the word go, shots based on a straight bat, free downswing and follow-through. With his keen eye, swift footwork, perfect balance and steely wrists, all buttressed by a sound technique, he looked for scoring opportunities all the time, and for a few years culminating in the 1967-68 season, he electrified both local and national matches played at Madras.

In an era of swing bowling, Raja had an equally delightful answer to the outswinger or the inswinger. He cover drove imperiously, but he also played a gorgeous ondrive. He loved to hook and cut.

Raja struck a fine partnership with his teammate and captain Belliappa. Both were openers and wicket keepers, and as state captain, Belliappa was the first choice behind the stumps, though Raja was brilliant in that department. When Raja was a strong contender for a place in the Indian team touring Australia in 1967-1968 after a magnificent domestic season as a batsman, another wicket keeper Indrajitsinhji was preferred to him on the pretext that Raja did not keep for his own state.

Raja is a simple man. For most of his playing days in Madras (he earlier played for Mysore), he worked at Sankarnagar, Tirunelveli, and took the night train to Madras to play league matches on the morrow for Jolly Rovers, the highly successful team sponsored by his employers. He brought as luggage a ridiculously small bag and went straight to the house of another “Raja”, P N Sundaresan, The Hindu’s cricket correspondent and the father of his teammate P S Narayanan.

On the morning of the match, Raja enjoyed the simple home cooking of Mrs Kamala Sundaresan, topped by the ubiquitous curdrice, jumped on to the pillion of Narayanan’s Lambretta, tousled hair, stubble on his chin, crumpled shirt and trousers and all, with his cricket shoes wrapped in an old copy of The Hindu. He might carry a bat with him, or simply pick one up from the team kit bag once he reached the ground.

Such was Raja’s pre-match preparation, but once he put on his pads and settled down to face the first ball of the innings, the change in him was electric. Slight of build and short in stature, he was a picture of poise as the bowler started his run towards him. Little notice did he give of the daring strokes he would soon play all round the wicket, but soon they sprang forth from his bat, audacious hits on the rise, dancing down the wicket, or swivelling effortlessly on to his backfoot as the mood captured him and the hapless bowler was left floundering.

Few batsmen in the history of Tamil Nadu cricket have given as much pleasure to so many, except perhaps those at the receiving end of his fury.

They also served

Unsung TN cricket heroes
The world at large only knows the stars who wear the India cap and Indian colours. To a generation of cricket fanatics glued to their TV sets, even the names of past cricketers as accomplished as M J Gopalan or A G Ram Singh may mean little, much less the humble league cricketers, the devoted club secretaries, umpires, scorers, markers and other staff who have remained anonymous over the decades.

Early accounts of organised cricket in Madras state as it was called then bristles with the names of several personalities who enriched the game. Not all of them were champion performers; some of them added value by their passion for the game, their love of its nuances, and their loyalty to the clubs they supported. Some declared that their clubs were dearer than their wives! There was this devoted follower of the Palayampatti Shield league who went from ground to ground on his bicycle, stopping only to inform anxious fellow enthusiasts the scores at other grounds and collect the details of the match in progress to share with other diehard fans elsewhere. This role of score-disseminator was performed with equal conscientiousness by the ubiquitous Rita ice-cream vendor and peanut seller.

But whether they were players, spectators, markers, umpires, scorers or club secretaries, the combined contribution of all these colourful elements to the fabric of Tamil Nadu cricket will always be greater than the sum, of that there can be little doubt. Who can ever forget Muthu of BS Nets with his trademark 'Last set Rajen' or his talented sons Padmanabhan, Arunachalam and Santosh Kumar who did him proud with the quality of their cricket? Or K R S Mani who spent a minor fortune on nurturing the game in his own way by supporting a club against overwhelming odds, neglecting his own financial security in the process, or his ecstatic celebratory run on the field in distant Pune when Venkat, Kumar and Kalli pulled off an improbable win in the Ranji semifinal? Will there ever be another 'Don' Rangan who today may be penniless and frail, but lorded over his Pithapuram grounds as the uncrowned monarch of all he surveyed, spotting talent, defying the mighty and rubbing shoulders with the great with the insouciance of a pirate king? Will we again see the likes of M G Bhavanarayanan, R Raghavan or Y Ramachandran who wheeled away long after youth had deserted them but not their love of the game or the ardour of their competitive spirit? Can sponsorship and cola wars ever produce another S Annadurai, with his nonchalant confidence in the efficacy of his methods of keeping fit and ability to pick out the promising from the merely flattering or the generous treats he gave his wards on tour paying the bills from his own pocket?

No, the march of time and technology can never produce another K S Kannan, that brilliant coach and lovable human being, whose murder of the English language entertained two generations of cricket. It cannot equal the pristine purity of the cricket played by those supremely amateur in spirit but possessed by the desire to excel--G Parthasarathi and the Bhadradri brothers; P S Ramachandran and his three sons, pace bowlers all; Ananthanarayan of the short-lived brilliance; the less known members of the Ram Singh clan--Kalwant, Satwant, Jarnail and Harjinder; J C 'Patba' Patel who habitually delivered the ball before the batsman was ready; 'Mandalam' Mani who as captain commanded the respect of far more gifted players; the ICF trio of J R Maruthi, K Chandrasekhar Rao and stylist S Jagdish, his brother S Nagaswami who migrated to the US and helped propagate the game there; 'Goofy' Subramaniam who had one splendid match versus the 1959 West Indies team; the elegant S V S Mani who once fielded in a Test match but never tasted real success, speed merchants Mohan Rai and Prabhakar Rao; champion 'poi' (literally, false or non-existent) bowlers from Najam Hussain to J S Ghanshyam; the elegant Haridas brothers Sushil and Sunil and their father CK before them; Arvind Gopinath, who could on his day bat in a manner reminiscent of his father CD; S K Patel who wheeled away for interminable hours at the BS Nets until he was ready one day to break a Rohinton Baria bowling record, and mysteriously one day lost it all; the deceptively lazy R Prabhakar who could explode with the bat; the list could go on forever and one could never do justice, because there would still be many a name left out.

People like 'Nayana' Lakshmi Ratan and Ayyadurai who played host to visiting players, both Indian and foreign, before hotel accommodation became de rigueur, Murugesa Mudaliar of The Hindu or V Pattu who took the young under their wing and laid a solid foundation for their progress, others like P V H Babu, Netaji Ramanujam, P C Ramudu, VA Parthasarathy or T P Vijayaraghavan who spent a lifetime running clubs or institutional teams, yet others like the left arm spinners K Radhakrishnan and S Ramabhadran who defied physical handicaps to flight and spin like the best in the trade, incredible purveyors of exaggerated flight or swing like Gopalapuram's Kannan or Vivekananda College's Krishnan, competent cricketers who are better remembered for their wisecracks and puns like K C Krishnamurthi of Crom-Best, Ram Ramesh of IOB, and SJ Kedarnath of State Bank, and promising young talent lost to other fields of endeavour from Prem Kumar and Vasanth Kumar of the sixties to Unnikrishnan of the eighties, all these and many, many more outstanding individuals too numerous to mention here or elsewhere-here's an unqualified apology to all of them-have made Tamil Nadu cricket what it is today. It is a delightful amalgam of many-hued personalities and characters producing a brand of cricket that can often be exasperating in its failure to translate potential into performance, but can never, never be accused of being dull.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Platinum cricket: Hyderabad's jubilee

The Hyderabad Cricket Assocation is celebrating its platinum jubilee on 14 April 2009. Here’s my tribute to its great cricketers during my time.

ML Jaisimha. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. Abbas Ali Baig. Syed Abid Ali. What a constellation of stars! My peers and I were privileged to rub shoulders with these outstanding cricketers in the Hyderabad line-up of the 1970s. It was perhaps the most glamorous outfit in Indian cricket then, comparable with the Test team. People queued up, at least in the major centres, to buy tickets to watch our team in action. I remember the 30,000 strong crowd that watched Tiger Pataudi score 198 at Chepauk and the cricket mad fans at smaller centres. I remember the train journeys in which the team was closeted together sometimes for longer than 24 hours, and the relaxed atmosphere of those trips. I remember how knowledgeable and wise was our skipper Jai, the most stylish cricketer to walk on our grounds. I remember how dashing and handsome was our Abubhai, serious competition to the youngest team member in the department of sex appeal even in his thirties! I remember the brilliant all rounder Abid—who can ever forget him?—my brother, mentor and critic, without whom our dressing room would have been a dull place. I remember Tiger Pataudi, who blended so quietly into the strictly working class background of our team, even if he was the most charismatic cricketer India ever produced. Noshir, Mumtaz, Nagesh, Sultan Salim, Vijay Paul, Jayantilal, Krishnamurti, Prahalad, Narasimha Rao, Jyoti Prasad, Abdul Hai—a powerhouse of talent welcomed me into the Hyderabad team when I made my Ranji Trophy debut at the ripe old age of 28 in the 1975-76 season.

It was a great Hyderabad team all right—let nobody tell you otherwise—skilful, civilized, elegant, no matter that we did not win the Ranji Trophy. But allow me to digress a bit and talk of the many splendid cricket friends outside of that team who made my life in Hyderabad memorable. Let me speak of the day I reported at State Bank of India, Hyderabad LHO, on transfer from small town Anakapalle, not knowing what the telegram that read “Report to Hyderabad LHO on 1st July” meant, until I met the Personnel Officer who informed me I was to join the cricket team. My joy knew no bounds, as I hadn’t played the game for two seasons since joining the bank as a probationary officer. My benefactor Satyadev was someone I had never met; he was working at SBI, Vizag, and knowing my interest in resuming my cricket, he told his friend Prabhakar Raju who in turn informed his boss the personnel officer! Raju was soon my teammate and I don’t know if he and Satyadev knew that they had changed my life forever with that single act of kindness. Another guardian angel in the personnel department was VS Sudhir, who made sure I did not get transferred out of Hyderabad during the days I was yet to cement my place in the SBI team.

The SBI team was then almost as good as the Hyderabad team: Habib Ahmed, Govindraj, Krishnamurti, Mumtaz Husain, Murtuza Ali Baig, Mazhar Ali Baig, Ali Hassan, Manohar Sharma, Nagesh Hamand, Sultan Salim, Lyn Edwards, G Mohan, Abid Zainulabudeen and Prabhakar Raju. I am sure I am forgetting a couple of names, but there were a few guest players like Inder Raj, Muthukrishnan and Ali Hussain, Hassan’s twin brother, who did duty for us sometimes, as though the regular galaxy wasn’t enough to keep me out of the eleven!

Once the initial excitement wore out, I realised that I was no more than a filler in the team, especially as skipper Govindraj preferred G Mohan’s off spin and occasional skipper Habib Ahmed, already a veteran, did not know much about me. The many-splendoured Mumtaz Husain too did not approve of my bowling for a long time to come. My cricket career in Hyderabad would have died even before it was born but for the fantastic support I enjoyed from the likes of Krishnamurti, Nagesh and Salim and to some extent from Lyn, before he left for Australia. I will be an ungrateful wretch if I do not dedicate any success I enjoyed later in my cricket entirely to these wonderful friends, who, though of my age or thereabouts, mentored me and encouraged me, literally bullying me to keep fighting, when I was about to give up cricket altogether. This was after two years of hard work had not won me a regular place in the Bank’s eleven, my earlier experience as a Madras University bowler and the zillions of overs I was sending down in the nets not seeming to count at all.

This superb trio of friends would keep my spirits up by telling me I was good enough to play for India, leave alone the State Bank team in the local league. In fact, I had sort of ‘retired’ from cricket for a few months, when one Sunday morning in the 1973-74 season, some four of my teammates landed up at home and literally abducted me to play a match against Gujarati XI in the first round of Behram-ud-Dowla. I won’t go into the details, but that was the turning point in my cricket, because I took six wickets that day and never looked back. The team management had met a few days earlier and decided that I should be brought back into the team, by force if necessary and given a fair trial until I fulfilled my potential. By this time my seniors Manohar Sharma, Murtuza Ali Baig and Habib Ahmed had recognized the merit in my protest and decision to exit league cricket.

Other unforgettable personal memories are those of the great time I had playing for Hyderabad XI in the local zonal team under the captaincies of Abbas Ali Baig and Abid Ali, and the year I broke into the Ranji team as the 16th member of an already picked squad after taking 8 for 75 against JK XI in the final of the Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup, which Hyderabad won after a gap of 11 years. The captain was again Abbas.

The memories come in a flood: of the superb talent of Bob and Joe, Narasimha Rao and Jyoti Prasad. I think Bob, a stylish batsman and match winning bowler in the BS Chandrasekhar mould, would have been a greater cricketer had he not been obsessed with playing for India, and lost focus at a lower level. Jyoti was a brave all rounder, his big heart lifting his undeniable all round talent—sharp medium pacer, hard hitting batsman, brilliant short leg—to better than his best, especially when the chips were down. He would have walked into the Indian one-day squad had he played cricket a little later than he did. These two were for a while inseparable friends and loved by all their peers and seniors. Nagesh Hamand. What a murderer of all kinds of bowlers, especially off spinners. For quite a while, he had a paralyzing weakness against left arm spin which he overcame too late for him to defeat lack of opportunity, even unfair treatment, to become a force to reckon with in first class cricket. Sultan Salim was a boy prodigy who did not rise to the great heights expected of him. A stylish batsman, he was and is a stylish man off the field as well. Like Nagesh and Murti, he too is a loyal friend who loves to relive the wonderful days in the sun we all shared.

And Murti, Pochia Krishnamurti! When comes another like him? A brilliant wicket keeper and on his day an exciting batsman, he was good enough to play five Tests for India in the West Indies, before the start of the Syed Kirmani era. Off the field, he was a simple soul and a true friend. I owe my entire cricket to him. He and another dear friend CR Chandran were very close to me, except during an unfortunate episode when we were on opposite sides, and looking back, I feel my behaviour then was unforgivable. Both have left us, and I salute their memory. Chandran was a very talented opening batsman and new ball bowler, a handsome young man who tried always to look and walk like Amitabh Bachchan. He and Inder Raj gave the team flying starts. Unforgettable was one particular opening stand for Andhra Bank against the visiting Ceylon Tobacco XI. Their fast bowler Ranjan Gunatilleke was a genuine quickie but this unusual opening pair treated him with scant regard. Each batsman tried to outdo the other in the outrageous shots he played. Poor Ranjan!

Murtuza Ali Baig was already a part time cricketer by the time I started playing for SBI, but I caught a few glimpses of the calm, correct batsmanship that had stood him in good stead in his Oxford Blue days. I liked his quiet humour too, and many were the occasions we enjoyed smiles if not a laugh together. He was a manager and I a field officer at the time and I remember one league match when he and I left for the bank while the rest of the team decided to enjoy a nice communal beer after a match was rained off. The opponents too joined in the festivities and their captain could not resist taking a dig at us. “State Bank will collapse if Murtuz and Ram don’t go back,” he sneered. It was none other than Murtuz’s elder brother Abbas.

I happened to play for two brilliant sides in Hyderabad—State Bank from 1971 to 1976 and Andhra Bank from 1976 to 1980. I enjoyed both stints. It was a fantastic experience to share the spin attack with Mumtaz Husain and Nagesh for State Bank, and Bob, Meher Baba and MN Ravikumar forAndhra Bank. Mumtaz was a phenomenon in the 1960s when he wove magic in inter-university cricket with his bewildering mixture of orthodox left arm spin, chinamen and googlies, all bowled in a variety of ways. For most of his distinguished Ranji career, he stuck to orthodox bowling, but displayed his entire range in his last season for Hyderabad. Those lucky enough to witness his bowling against Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the 1978-79 season will never forget it. Nagesh was a brilliant off spinner, but luckily for me, he concentrated on his batting. He was also an effective medium pace bowler when in the mood, and a shrewd captain to boot.

The Andhra Bank team had a lovely bunch of cricketers, most of them considerably junior to me by the time I joined them, but I’ll speak of the spinners first. Narasimha Rao, Bob or Bobjee to everyone, was a magnificent athlete, who could field brilliantly anywhere. His batting was on orthodox lines, very straight and aggressive in intent, with strong wrists and a wide range of shots. His bowling was very accurate for its unorthodox style of fastish leg breaks and googlies. He was unplayable on some wickets and I remember occasions when wicket keepers were hit on the face off his bowling. His best bowling figures came against Tamil Nadu in 1980-81, but he was equally good against Bengal and UP in successive knockout round matches under his own captaincy in 1978-79.

Meher Baba was a fine all rounder who played for Andhra Bank and Andhra in the Ranji Trophy, except for one season when he turned out for Hyderabad. He was my teammate and constant companion, and a very dear friend. Unfortunately, like Murti and Mumtaz before him, he too was snatched away prematurely from us. Many were his sterling exploits for Andhra Bank, and he, Ravikumar and I enjoyed a nice partnership as spinners, with Bobjee away most of the time in Ireland. Meher had a gift for saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment and had us all in splits most of the time. To relate all his exploits will take up too much space here, so I will give just one example. Meher, Shivlal, Shahid Akbar and I were walking down Colaba Causeway during a trip to Bombay for a Deodhar game, when we passed the secretariat with the Ashoka Chakra on the fa├žade and the national flag fluttering in the breeze. “Look Ram, Indian Embassy!” Meher said. When I gave him a long, hard look, he corrected himself hastily: “Oh no, that’s in Delhi, isn’t it?”

Ravikumar was a very talented all rounder, a fine opening batsman with a lot of time to play, and a delightful off spinner who never turned the ball, yet beat batsmen in the air. He once took nine wickets in an innings for Andhra Bank against State Bank of Hyderabad in my absence and never let me forget it, because my best for the bank had been an eight-wicket haul.

Jyoti, Chandran, Vijay Paul—one of the best domestic batsmen not to have played for India—Hafiz, H Ramprasad, Mujtaba Ali Baig, Mazhar, Dilip Reddy, Inder Raj, Meher, Ravikumar, Bobjee, Nihal Puri, Bhaskar Ramamurthy, KN Charan—these were my teammates for most of my four years in Andhra Bank, every moment of which I enjoyed thoroughly, but I’m sure I have left out a few names. Each of these was a fine cricketer and I can write pages about them, but I’ll reserve it for another day. We were a happy unit and were always in and out of one another’s homes. The most unforgettable experience was after a final between Andhra Bank and Syndicate Bank ended in a tie. Both teams came to my house for drinks and dinner and the fellowship was unbelievable. Vinod Reddy, Moses Nityanand, Shivkumar, Jugal Kishore and Sainath are some of the Syndicate Bank players I remember from that evening, though Chamundeswarnath made only a brief experience, with a black eye and other injuries he sustained after the match!

There were several others who supported us from behind the scenes—the late Blessington Thomas, Ramesam, Sam Ebenezer, Gopal, basketballer Yadgiri, footballer Rammohan, marker Babiah and others in State Bank of India and the indefatigable Mangeshkar and our smiling, indulgent big boss C S Shamlal of Andhra Bank. So many talented cricketers and wonderful human beings were part of our cricket scenario—N Ramprasad, John Tarachand, Khaja, Satyendran, Wahed, Zahid Ali Khan, Kaleem-ul-Haq, B Mohan, Abid Ali, Noshir, Prahlad and so many more from SBH made the evenings after cricket thoroughly enjoyable. Shivlal Yadav and Arshad Ayub were two off spinners who played for India when I missed out. Though they were both excellent cricketers and proved themselves at every level, the haste with which I was dislodged sure hit me hard.

PR Man Singh gave me my first break courtesy P Krishnamurti’s hardsell, when I was an unknown. He picked me in the Hindustan Breweries XI in the Gold Cup, but I got switched on the day of the match to the opponents State Bank of India, my employers. It was a great experience to bowl my first ball in that match to Rohan Kanhai and impress my captain Hanumant Singh, who taught me more about my own craft than any off spinner ever did. My cricket in Hyderabad gave me a chance to meet the great off spinner Ghulam Ahmed, and it was indeed a memorable experience. There were so many officials with whom I got on well and whose affection I enjoyed. I had the pleasure of travelling with the Hyderabad Blues when I got to know Ranga Reddy well, though I never toured with Man Singh whose hospitality was legendary. Ranga too was an excellent companion and made our life on tour pleasant and comfortable. Among the journalists, I remember Pillai of Deccan Chronicle and Radhakrishna of Indian Express, not to mention photographer Srinivasulu, who refused to acknowledge that his photo of “Sarfraz Nawaz” that Express carried during the Jaisimha Benefit Match in 1978 was in fact mine!

Returning to the subject of the Hyderabad Ranji Trophy team I started this story with, I have not mentioned the many fine young cricketers I played with after the Jaisimha era came to an end after the 1976-77 season. Saad Bin Jung was perhaps the best of them all, closely followed by Shahid Akbar, both openers, one right handed and the other left handed. It’s a pity neither of them made it big. Another Hyderabad cricketer who should have by right played for India was another off spinner, Kanwaljit Singh. He was as good as any after the greatest of us all—Ghulam Ahmed.

I have a few regrets—I only caught a glimpse or two of young Azharuddin, when he used to bowl in the SBI nets, and again in a local match, when I bowled to him. Unfortunately, I left Hyderabad in 1981, and therefore did not have any close encounters with him thereafter, nor did I ever get to play with or against Venkatapathy Raju or VVS Laxman, one of the finest batsmen India has produced. His 281 at Kolkata in 2001 will remain the high point of any cricket lover’s watching career.

I would have never played first class cricket if I had not moved to Hyderabad. It was my wonderful second home and I can never forget the many kindnesses of people connected with its cricket. It is impossible to mention all of them here, but I certainly will—in my cricket memoirs, which I am in the process of completing.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Farewell innings

"Mr Ramnarayan must have his coffee", the sardonic voice behind me said. When I turned to look at the speaker, however, the gaze was friendly and the smile affectionate. It was 'Tiger' Pataudi, former India captain and now my teammate and mentor, who was making that comment on my habit of asking for the cup that cheers after lunch at the Lal Bahadur Stadium, something my Hyderabadi friends found amusingly idiosyncratic.

He then asked me whether I was planning to go to Madras to watch the Test match against England. When I answered in the negative, this is what he told me in his best solemn manner: "You may well be playing it, for all you know." Though I was bowling well enough that season, my second in first class cricket (1975-76), I found Pataudi's statement a bit farfetched, as both Prasanna and Venkataraghavan were firmly entrenched in the Indian squad.

This was in the middle of a Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup match, and I earned the singular honour of being complimented by Tiger at the end of the day's play for my fielding. When I started my first class career barely a year earlier, fielding was one department in which I needed to improve. I had worked very hard at it, so that I could chase hard and throw flat and accurate, almost as well as my younger colleagues. Coming from the former Nawab, who set a superb personal example in the field himself, and never dished out praise unless you really deserved it, that was a compliment for me to cherish forever. A little later in the evening, I came to know that I had been included in the Rest of India team led by Bishan Bedi to take on Bombay in the Irani Cup match to be played soon afterwards.

The news brought home to me the significance of Pataudi's mysterious remark at the lunch table. Though I never actually succeeded in breaking into the Indian team, despite good bowling in that Irani match and the few times I played for South Zone, I still remember that little gesture with gratitude. I realised that Tiger must have gently nudged the selectors to pick me for the Rest of India team.

Tiger Pataudi had been a great source of encouragement ever since he first saw me bowl at the nets a couple of years earlier, before the start of a Moin-ud-Dowla match. I had clinched the issue a season later by claiming eight for 75 against a star-studded team he led in the same tournament. He was one of two batsmen I did not dismiss in that innings; he was dropped off my bowling.

It was Tiger who ran up to congratulate me on my first Ranji Trophy wicket at Trivandrum, and wish me many more wickets, only to tell me to "stop bowling rubbish, for God's sake", and start bowling in my natural, sharp style. I ended up with six for 33 in that innings and never looked back. Again, at the end of my first season, when I took seven for 68 in the first innings of our quarterfinal match, he seemed thrilled beyond words, and kept muttering almost in disbelief: "Seven against Bombay!" He then warned me that wickets would be harder to come by in the seasons to come, as batsmen began to take me more seriously. He also informed me he had played his last match for Hyderabad, a stunning blow from which I never recovered. It was as if a loved one was leaving me for good. I felt utterly desolate.

Hyderabad cricketers will always remember a marvellous innings Pataudi played in December 1975 against Tamil Nadu at Chepauk. Here is the story behind that knock.

We were staying at Admiralty Hotel, at Mandavelipakkam, Chennai. As we sat on the lawns, enjoying a few drinks, as was customary for the Hyderabad teams of that vintage, a number of fans descended on us, mainly to catch a glimpse of the stars of the team, Pataudi, Jaisimha, Baig and Abid Ali.

Among the autograph hunters was a man originally from Hyderabad, who asked Pataudi some awkward questions.

Fan: Nawab Saab, is it true that you can't play Venkat and Kumar? They say you are Venkat's bunny.
Pataudi: (Mutters under his breath).
Fan: Beg your pardon?
Pataudi: (Aloud) Of course, Venkat is a very fine bowler.
I then politely showed the visitor out.
Pataudi: Jai, I'm opening the innings tomorrow.
Jaisimha: Like hell you will.
Pataudi: I'm dead serious Jai. I'm going to score a double hundred. Venkat's bunny, indeed!
Jaisimha: (By now mellow) Okay, Tiger, have it your way. You open the innings tomorrow.

The next morning, the atmosphere was electric as Jaisimha and Venkataraghavan went out to toss before a capacity crowd. Hyderabad won the toss and elected to bat. The mood in the dressing room was equally electric, with three batsmen padded up to open the innings. Pataudi was all set to go in first, to the surprise of the regular openers Abbas Ali Baig and Jayantilal. It took all of Jaisimha's persuasive skills to get him to agree to bat at No.3, still three places ahead of his usual batting position.

When his turn to bat came, Pataudi turned on the old magic. He started by playing some spanking shots against the brisk pace of Kalyanasundaram. He was equally severe on Venkataraghavan and debutant left arm spinner S K Patel, off whose bowling he was reprieved early. He raced to his hundred, playing strokes all round the wicket.

Pataudi was not satisfied with a century that day. He took fresh guard and dug himself in, his defence studiedly elaborate, as if to give his thoughtless caviller of the previous day a message. When he finally returned to the pavilion to a tumultuous ovation, he had made 198. Just two short of his own prediction.

None of us knew it then, but that was Pataudi's last innings at Chepauk. At the end of that season, he announced his retirement from first class cricket.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Don of Madras cricket

Don Rangan is but a pale shadow today, very nearly a caricature, of the imposing personality he was in the 1960s, when he ran Nungambakkam Sports Club ‘A’. He was monarch of all he surveyed at the Pithapuram ground at Nandanam, Madras, which he leased and maintained single-handedly, no doubt running through his family’s finances in the process. He ran a sports-goods business as well, which meant that his club always owed his firm substantial sums of money! In his heyday, he lived in style, dressed smartly, drove a Volkswagen, and offered net practice facilities round the year, insisting on his players attending these sessions without fail. The number of new cricket balls he made available at practice would be considered extravagant by any standards. All this helped create a larger than life image of Rangan, and he took full advantage of that in putting the fear of God into his boys and demanding great performances from them. And he miraculously got the best out of them match after match. The Rangan influence over a whole bunch of young cricketers of the period was quite considerable. For years and years, they would rise to his defence against his numerous critics.

D Ranganathan—for that is his full name—was a cocky little fellow, all muscle and sinew, very fit, a fiercely combative cricketer quite unlike the gentle Madras stereotype of his time. A competent, workmanlike but always positive opening batsman, he was aggression personified as a wicket keeper, not afraid to stand up to fast bowlers, and capable of the most convincing histrionics while appealing to the umpire. He was also a more than useful medium pacer, a facet of his cricket he never let us forget, resorting as he invariably did to the discarding of his gloves and pads to have a go at the batsman. His supreme confidence usually resulted in the breaking up of a troublesome partnership, enabling Rangan to crow over his success where others had failed. He always had a chip on his shoulder about being ignored as a player by officialdom and running his own club like a prince was his way of challenging the establishment. He not only scored tons of runs and won most of his matches, but made sure these victories were made possible by stellar contributions from other players the official selectors had overlooked. He was an original, not an imitation of some Test cricketer he admired. If there was anyone he hero-worshipped, it had to be Rangan himself. Virtually unbeatable in the lower divisions of the TNCA league, his team was a dark horse capable of toppling the best in the senior division, once it was promoted to that level of combat.

I played under Rangan’s captaincy exactly for one season, at the end of which my uncles hijacked me to Mylapore Recreation Club, brainwashing me into believing Rangan was a bad influence on me. At any rate I was not ready, according to them, for the first division, where NSC’A’ was now. The season I did spend with NSC was an exciting phase in my cricket, with some of the best practice facilities in Madras at my disposal at the Pithapuram ground at Nandanam, a superb home ground with a pacy matting wicket and a lightning fast outfield. If Rangan’s captaincy was eccentric, imaginative and defiant of convention and reputations, his loyal band of talented players were equally iconoclastic, partly out of fear and respect for Rangan, but also acquiring by osmosis the skipper’s in-the-face contempt for the opposition.

Rangan loved a fight and made it a point to get under the skin of opposing players. He taunted and teased them before, during and after matches. The bigger the reputation of the visitors to Pithapuram, the more hostile was the reception. He was notorious for his gamesmanship and his strenuous efforts to win at any cost. He was even credited with cheating at the toss, picking the coin up and announcing, ‘We bat,’ before the rival captain saw which way it fell.

We played matches every Saturday and Sunday, including so-called friendlies in the absence of official fixtures. On these occasions, Rangan enjoyed inviting strong opposition and defeating them with his young team. One such practice match was against the star-studded Jolly Rovers, who among others included Salim Durrani and S Venkataraghavan. The visitors ended our giant killing spree but not before we had put up a bit of a fight. Batting first, we were bundled out for 99, with Durrani, Venkat and the medium pacers doing the damage on a lively wicket. Going in at number 9, I made an unbeaten 15 or so, inspired by the occasion to defy Jolly Rovers’ top class spin attack. I was raring to go when it was our turn to field, wanting to do well against the stars whom a largish crowd had come to watch, Salim Durrani in particular. Our medium pacer KV Mahadevan, Maka to all of us, was in full flow and brought on early, I too, was all charged up, desperately wanting Durrani’s wicket. (I was barely 18 then and Rangan revelled in throwing his young ones in at the deep end, and cocking a snook at established reputations. My growth as an off spin bowler was accelerated by the supreme confidence Rangan showed in my ability).

Soon Jolly Rovers were some 40 for 4, Maka and I sharing the spoils equally. Durrani and Venkat came together and Rangan gave me an extraordinarily attacking field, with close catchers breathing down the batsmen’s necks. The wicket assisted Maka as well as me, and we were both transported to another, exalted zone by the excitement of the moment. We gave the batsmen hell and they had to bat out of their skins to survive, but survive they did, until they won the game without further loss—thanks to their skill, determination and experience, not to mention some dropped catches. At the end of the match, Durrani, offered to coach me at the nets the Jolly Rovers captain S Rangarajan had organized at Farm House, The Hindu’s family estate. I was mighty thrilled by the offer, but being the idiot I was, did not follow up, succumbing to my uncles’ advice—the same uncles who would remove me from NSC ‘A’ at the end of the season.

That was NSC’s and Rangan’s golden age. Even people who did not like him—and there were many such people, thanks to Rangan’s constant aggression on and off the field—admired and respected him for the enormous contribution he made to the development of the game in the city. Almost every league, state and national cricketer of Madras came to practise at the Pithapuram nets and play in the hundreds of games he organized there. Rangan met the needs of a whole generation of cricketers better than formal institutions.

Unfortunately, Rangan’s fortunes nosedived in the 1970s and steadily grew worse through the decades. As professionalism crept into cricket, it was no longer possible for individuals or clubs not sponsored by corporates to continue to support the game. Rangan who had been a non-smoker, teetotaller and an awe-inspiring figure for his wards, started adopting a more laidback lifestyle, eventually running into financial difficulties. Used to lording it over the many people whose cricket he touched, he proved incapable of holding a steady job into his forties and later. Today, he is in his seventies, and nobody takes his stories of the past and his grandiose plans for the future seriously, though nothing can stop him from weaving those tales. Young cricketers cannot see why the old timers still humour him, but any cricketer who came across Rangan in his prime is prepared to forgive him a great deal.