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.