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.