Monday, November 14, 2011

When I met Peter Roebuck

First published In Madras Musings in April 1998

“It’s a different kind of audience—so well behaved and appreciative of the finer points of cricket," remarked my brother Sivaramakrishnan, the former Tamil Nadu opener. "Test match crowds are so much more knowledgeable than the one-day variety, whose sole aim, it seems, is to have a good time, the cricket be damned," he continued, warming to the theme that Chepauk draws a good, old-fashioned segment of the population to watch Test matches staged on its turf. "It also produces some wonderfully competitive cricket and, yes, the crowd is distinctly different from its one-day counterpart," agreed Mike Coward, the Australian cricket writer and broadcaster.

Yet another honorary Australian, cricket critic Peter Roebuck of Somerset — he fraternises with the old enemy rather more than the average Englishman, spending six months of the year in the former colony writing for newspapers there — thoroughly enjoyed his stay in Chennai, especially the comforts and friendly ambience of the Madras Cricket Club where he stayed for the duration of the Test match. (After the match, he took a train to Mysore and a breather from the cricket.) Roebuck proved a friendly, amiable visitor, ever willing to talk cricket with the locals. He had a special word or two of encouragement for Rohit Mahendra and Vidyut Sivaramakrishnan, youngsters who bowled to both the Indian and Australian batsmen in the nets. To the sixteen year-old left arm spinner Vidyut, he gave some words of advice on why a good education was as important as bowling, batting and fielding — "What happens if you get knocked down by a bus and can never bowl again?" To which the youngster quickly added: "Yes, and there could be a world war and no cricket for the next five years. At least that's what my mother says." "Mothers! They get it right every time, don't they?" mused Roebuck, and in this great state of mother worshippers, he will find many who will agree with him.

Neil Harvey, the stylish Australian left-hander — he was delighted to meet so many ardent fans of his batting in Chennai 35 years after his retirement from Test cricket — endorsed the view that the Chepauk Test had brought a superior type of spectator to the ground. Harvey simply detests one-day cricket. He loved every moment of the Test.

Harvey considers Sachin Tendulkar the best batsman in the world. "His thinking is like my thinking on cricket. Just the way I decided to go after Subhash Gupte 40 years ago at Bombay, he decided to attack Shane Warne here." And how!
Harvey remembers that a Bombay newspaper had carried a titbit on what Gupte had allegedly said he would do to the Australian batsmen. "I was at the breakfast table at CCI, Brabourne Stadium, when my captain Richie Benaud walked up to me and without a word, put a clipping of that newspaper story on my breakfast tray and walked away. I took up the challenge and managed to knock Gupte’s bowling around, getting a hundred in the process. Soon, they dropped him from the team and we were delighted. He was a fine bowler."

Another pressman I ran into after a long gap was Rajan Bala who in the Seventies loomed large on the Indian cricket scene. He is now a great admirer of Mumbai cricket. "No player who has to take a train from Mulund or Virar to Churchgate every day to practise in the nets would like to fail in a match." This was Bala's 210th Test match as a reporter/critic and from the unending flow of cricket conversation and impromptu calypso songs that poured forth from him late into the night, it was obvious age had not dimmed nor custom staled his love for the game. Some of his comments on some of the players on view were unprintable but uncomfortably close to the bone.

The talking points of the Chennai Test other than Tendulkar's batting were Rajesh Chauhan's bowling action and the umpiring, particularly in the fourth innings. Several spectators were convinced that Chauhan threw the odd ball ("What does it matter when he throws so badly?" remarked one cheeky youngster). The question uppermost in their minds was, why aren't the umpires calling him? As for the umpiring, "That must be Venkat's first mistake in a Test," said a long-time cricket enthusiast and former TNCA office-bearer, referring to one of his dismissals. His neighbour in the stands was quick to point out, "I am sure he has made mistakes before, after all, he is human, but he is a fine umpire, one of the best".

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Will India play safe?

The most interesting aspect of the new-look Indian team to meet West Indies in the forthcoming Test series is the presence of three spinners in the squad. One of them, Pragyan Ojha, is a proven quantity in Test cricket, quite unlucky to have missed the tours of the Caribbean and England.

The left-arm spinner has immaculate control, and makes it well nigh impossible for most batsmen to dominate the bowling, thus facilitating the fall of wickets at the other end even when he is only containing the flow of runs. He can be an attacking option, too, when he is on song.

Off spinner R Ashwin and leg-spinner Rahul Sharma are similar in that they both rely on subtle changes of pace and trajectory in planting doubt in the batsman’s mind in limited overs cricket and both display excellent control.

Ashwin, who seems certain to play in the first Test next week, can look forward to his moment in the limelight. With the West Indies not too formidable an opponent, he has a great chance to prove that he is a Test match bowler ready to step into Harbhajan Singh’s shoes. If he does well in the series, the selectors may be tempted to replace the sardar with him on a more permanent basis. While there seems no doubt that he has big match temperament and a sharp cricket brain, the big question is: Does Ashwin have the genuine spinning ability to win Test matches for India? Can batsmen play the waiting game and fare better than they have against him in ODIs and twenty-twenty cricket?

The Indian selectors also have an opportunity to play three spinners in the side plus two seam bowlers at the expense of one of the batsmen, as a moderate opposition in Indian conditions should be the ideal scenario for such experiments. Knowing the general conservatism of the five wise men, such adventurism can however safely be ruled out.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The music of cricket

25 Aug 2003 18:40:30

The music of cricket
V Ramnarayan

The late MLV, we are told, in the year she got the Sangita Kalanidhi, spent the whole day at Chepauk and then in the evening set off for her concert at the Academy. This set us thinking and we requested good friend V Ramnarayan, no mean cricketer and a music buff, to pen his thoughts. - Editor,

As the train was entering the Western ghats, my heart was filled with happy recollections of how well my first season in first class cricket had gone for me and the exalted company in which I was now moving. My teammates were getting ready for dinner, putting away the card packs after a long session of rummy and ridiculous games invented on the spot by the man sitting next to me, the former Nawab of Pataudi, and by far India's most charismatic cricket captain. I was reading a much
reread old PG Wodehouse favourite and whistling a Lata Mangeshkar song from the film Mughal-e-Azam, hardly aware I was doing it. "Do you know what raag that is?" my neighbour asked in a schoolmasterly tone that obviously did not expect an answer.

I happened to know the answer to that one and promptly replied: "Kedar." Tiger, for that is how Mansur Ali Khan was known to everyone in cricket circles, was suitably impressed and he actually lifted one eyebrow to show he was, just as Beach the butler would have done in his salad days.

The conversation that followed went along predictably enthusiastic lines, as it often happens when two people have discovered a common interest. I learnt in the next half hour of the many wonderful concerts Pataudi had listened to in his ancestral home at Bhopal, of a particularly memorable recording of a great Hindustani vocalist performing for the royal family when he was very drunk. "You must come home and listen to it one day," he said, now in an expansive mood after a few drinks himself. Unfortunately, I never got round to listening to that gem by that celebrated Ustad who happened to be my favourite!

Pataudi's family was keen on music and reputed to be close to Begum Akhtar the great exponent of ghazals, dadra and thumri and Tiger was known to play the tabla well enough to accompany professional musicians in private concerts.

Ravi Kichlu was my teammate in Calcutta where I turned out for Rajasthan Club during the 1968-1969 season. He was an opening batsman who played Ranji and Duleep Trophy cricket but his greater claim to fame was as one half of the well known Kichlu brothers, vocalists of the Agra gharana if I remember right. Ravi passed away a few years ago but his brother Vijay is the director of ITC's Calcutta-based Sangeet
Research Academy. I don't know if he played cricket, but I spent delightful hours fielding in the slips listening to my neighbour Ravi giving me impromptu samples of alap and khyal.

Many, many cricketers of my time were fans of the Hindi film playback singer Mukesh, a trend started by the incomparable leg spinner B S Chandrasekhar. A couple of them were good singers in their own right. Bombay's left arm spinner Padmakar Shivalkar sang well enough to give light music concerts and so has Sanjay Manjrekar been in recent years, just as his father Vijay was in his time.

Closer home, I have had the pleasure of playing cricket with Radhakrishnan of Bunts Cricket Club fame, as well as his son Unnikrishnan, who might have gone on to play at least state level cricket had he not decided to concentrate on developing his
considerable musical talent instead. Sivakumar and Burma Shankar, were both my team mates in the TNCA cricket league in the sixties.

Sivakumar as we all know is D K Pattammal's son and a mridanga vidwan in his own right besides being the father of Carnatic music's new star Nityashree Mahadevan. Burma's son, the hugely talented Sanjay Subrahmanyan is crazy about cricket too. I believe he spends more time thinking about cricket than about Carnatic music!
When I first met Sanjay in the Music Academy foyer during a concert, I introduced myself as an admirer of his music. There were a number of friends surrounding him and he acknowledged my compliment modestly. But after I had walked away from him, he shouted: "I have been a fan of your cricket, too", to my utter surprise and delight.

I am sure the annual cricket match among leading Carnatic musicians is common knowledge by now. I happened to officiate as umpire in one of those some years ago. The intensity of the competition had to be seen to be believed. Ravi Kiran, T M Krishna, Sanjay and Unni would give nothing away; there were a few other equally fierce competitors but I don't remember their names. At least one of them gave me a withering look when I gave him out lbw, a decision that obviously did not satisfy him. That was when Vijay Siva whose idea it had been to invite me, must have had second thoughts about the wisdom of my appointment.

I may add that I have never again been asked to umpire in this gala affair, but I do hope I will get another chance in the future. Who knows, I may have the pleasure of giving a Sangita Kalanidhi out, provided the Music Academy relaxes the age criterion a bit in honouring its vidwans.

Music lovers and musicians are few and far between among cricketers, but the few I know are diehard rasikas. Kedarnath, an accomplished opening batsman of yesteryear, was a trained mridanga vidwan, who forsook music for cricket. He is a wonderful mimic who can imitate some of Carnatic music's greats. His takeoff on MD Ramanathan is pretty impressive, but he can do an equally creditable Pattammal. His ontemporary, the late Devendran, played the mridangam on the concert stage.

Fast bowler Kalyanasundaram - the man who once took a hat trick against Bombay -- is a dedicated concertgoer whose knowledge of music seems to be good enough for him to discuss its technical aspects with musicians and even advise them sometimes. I must ask Unni what he thinks of Kalli's expert observations, as I believe he has reserved
him for special attention, having known him as a cricketer.

M O Srinivasan is well known in music circles as the founder of Dasanjali, a one-man crusade to teach a large number of school kids music especially of the bhajan or light classical variety. I wonder how many people in music circles know that he played for India as a wicket keeper in what were known as unofficial Tests in the late forties-early fifties. He was highly respected as an efficient wicket keeper and stubborn batsman. His son M O Parthasarathi, naturally known as Mop to one and all, was a Ranji and Duleep Trophy player, who bowled fastish leg breaks with a Paul Adams like action, except he was a right arm bowler. He was also a hard hitting batsman, somewhat unorthodox, but extremely successful. He learned Hindustani music and does a very reasonable imitation of singing -- he almost sounds like the real thing. He is a familiar figure at Hindustani music concerts in Chennai and has stopped listening to Carnatic music, I believe, after the demise of Maharajapuram Santhanam.

S D Sridhar the violinist, we all know, is the proud father of S Sriram who now plays for India. Sriram too learned the violin for a few years before the pull of cricket proved too powerful. Former Ranji trophy cricketer S V S Mani, an elegant batsman who played for Tamil Nadu and South Zone with considerable success in the sixties, and once fielded as a reserve against England, is the son of Kottamangalam
Cheenu, that talented singer, who faded away after a stint in films.

S Radhakrishnan (Ambi), a consistent batsman who could also bowl off spin, played for several seasons for Parry's in the league and Hindu Trophy,. Once, a century by him in the league led to a newspaper report which said Radhakrishnan, the son of Semmangudi Srinivasier, had scored a century, thus revealing to the world at large his musical ancestry only friends had hitherto known about.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Pataudi and Hyderabad cricket

First published in the Times of India on 24 September 2011

Hyderabad’s cricketers and cricket lovers had the redoubtable Ram Prakash Mehra and his fiefdom, the Delhi and Districts Cricket Association, to thank for MAK Pataudi’s transfer from Delhi to Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy.

He was already India captain when he fell out with the DDCA administration and his close friendship with ML Jaisimha, the Hyderabad skipper, brought him south, with his sister’s address in Begumpet giving him the necessary residential qualification.

Thus began Tiger’s over-a-decade long love-hate affair with Hyderabad cricket, with most of his new teammates and the local crowds welcoming him with open arms and a lunatic fringe of sons-of-the soil partisans opposing the transplant.

What Tiger’s arrival in the twin cities did to Hyderabad cricket was to double the glamour quotient of the team, which already had Jaisimha—with his matinee idol looks and inimitable swagger--and Abbas Ali Baig with his boyish charm that once induced a pretty young thing to run on to the middle at the Brabourne Stadium, Bombay and kiss him.

There were at times as many as six Test cricketers and almost the entire South Zone eleven in the squad—Tiger, Jai, Abbas, Abid Ali, Jayantilal, Krishnamurti, Govindraj, Mumtaz Hussain, Abdul Hai, Narasimha Rao, Noshir Mehta and so on—who formed as exciting a line-up as anywhere.

The seniors were naturally older and altogether more experienced and polished than the rest of the team, but for all the awe that their stature demanded, we were a remarkably relaxed lot in the dressing room if generally on our best behaviour.

Tiger, who never led Hyderabad, was ever mindful of who the boss was, not once hinting by action or word at his own exalted position in the cricket world.

In fact, some of us were once witness to what came close to a ticking off by the captain, when he pulled up Tiger for going off the field without sufficient cause, suggesting that he had taken a cigarette rather than a toilet break during a painfully long session.

On a personal level, I was his teammate for exactly one season during 1975-76, though we remained in touch afterwards.

My first season for Hyderabad was his last. He had just retired from Test cricket after a thrilling series as captain against Clive Lloyd’s West Indies, though a poor one as batsman.

The rapport between us was instant, and his approval of my cricket did wonders for my morale.

Imagine coming into a team with at least four stars you ahd watched and admired from a distance—in my case at the ripe old age of 28, when I had given up all hope of playing first class cricket!

It was nothing short of a dream, to drink in the special atmosphere of the Hyderabad dressing room, to enjoy the long train journeys to Ranji Trophy matches, the interesting, sometimes electrifying conversations about cricket and cricketers that taught you more about the game than any coaching manual, the card games from bridge and rummy to the most absurd games of pure chance that Tiger invented, the conviviality inspired by Mr. McDowell, in short, the sheer camaraderie of it all, with every member of the team included in all the fun.

Several mental images of that debut season have stayed with me. The first memory is of Jaisimha, Tiger and Abid joining me and my roommate Prahlad in the balcony outside our hotel room just as we were about to turn in, the night before my debut at Trivandrum.

“Nonsense,” Tiger’s and Jai’s voices boomed as I said good night. “Have a drink with us.”

I didn’t realise it then, but it was their way of ensuring that in trying to sleep early, the nervous debutant did not toss and turn all night in anticipation of the morrow.

Next morning, when I took my first wicket, it was Tiger who ran up to me and said, “Wish you many more wickets, but for God’s sake, stop bowling rubbish.” It was just the wake-up call I needed to overcome my nerves and start bowling my normal stuff.

Tiger’s sense of humour and his pranks were well known. During that match at Trivandrum, he quickly sized up as a cricket ignoramus a magazine journalist who sought an interview with him.

What followed was so hilarious it was extremely difficult to keep a straight face.

Poor Mr Pillai! What horror he must have undergone when he filed the story of
Pataudi’s great successes and failures as Test batsman and captain—such as a double century against Belgium, an innings victory over Argentina and defeat at the hands of Netherlands!

V Ramnarayan, former Hyderabad and South Zone off-spinner

Tribute to Tiger

“When I saw the English bowling,” was Mansur Ali Khan’s pat reply to a British journalist at a press conference immediately after his maiden Test hundred at Madras against Ted Dexter’s visiting England side in 1961. The question had been about when after the loss of one eye he had started believing he could play Test cricket again.

In his autobiographical Tiger’s Tale, Pataudi recounted how he decided to have some fun in the middle in that game. “The crowds here have rarely seen Indian batsmen take the aerial route,” he told his batting partner and skipper Nari Contractor, and proceeded to play some delightful lofted shots, including a couple of sixes, in an innings that broke away from the defensive mould of the time.

Pataudi was the first superstar of Indian cricket, arguably more charismatic than anyone before or after him to don India colours. The reasons were not far to seek: his brilliant wit and repartee as much as his striking good looks, superb athleticism and positive cricket.

He was inarguably the first Indian captain to demand consistently hard work in the fielding department, though there had been the occasional flash in the pan before his time. He set a marvellous personal example, patrolling the covers with lissome authority—those fortunate enough to watch the early Pataudi believed that he was not only a genius of a batsman but also a world class slip fielder, before he became blind in one eye. One of the first things he is said to have told his team after taking over as Sussex captain was: “Gentlemen, let’s see some scuffed trousers and bruised knees and elbows.”

Acknowledged as one of the world’s best fielders of his time, he was once invited by a television channel to compete in a fielding contest with Colin Bland, South Africa’s original Jonty Rhodes, to be telecast live, but Tiger declined because it involved getting up early on a non-match morning!

I write this hours after his death and almost every tribute I have watched has stressed his major influence on the self-belief of Indian Test cricketers hitherto known for their defeatist attitude (though Tiger himself was known to have acknowledged the role played by such predecessors as GS Ramchand).

Add all these ingredients and what you get is the magic of Tiger Pataudi, whose heroic exploits in a losing cause once earned him the newspaper headlines His Excellence The Nawab of Headingley. This was during the 1967 tour of England and he made 64 and 148 as India scored 510 after following on, forcing England to bat a second time. Next year, he was leading India in Australia, where after being forced to miss the first Test by a hamstring injury, he earned the sobriquet of Captain Courageous with his brave batting in the remaining three Tests—“with one good eye and on one good leg.”

It has been suggested that his 2793 runs at an average of 34.91 are ordinary figures, but these statistics have to be seen in the right perspective. For the major part of his career he averaged around 40, which was not far behind the performance of the leading Indian batsmen of his period. His failure against the West Indies at both the start and end of his career it was that brought down his average considerably. At the peak of his career, he modestly dismissed any excessive praise of his batting by claiming that most of his runs were scored against medium pace bowling! In rare moments, he however admitted that with two eyes, he might have equalled the great batsmen of the game.

I had the privilege of playing for Hyderabad when he was still a member of the team, with my first season his last. I walked on air the whole season, thanks to the sheer joy of sharing the dressing room with the likes of Tiger, my captain ML Jaisimha, Abbas Ali Baig and Abid Ali. I wonder if there has ever been a more glamorous outfit in domestic cricket than the Hyderabad side of the 1970s. I was very lucky to win the approval of these nawabs of Hyderabad cricket, even if the sojourn was all too brief, for Tiger and Abbas retired after that season and Jai and Abid soon afterwards.

Two memories linger from that season: one a totally unexpected cameo by him in a match against Andhra, when following an off-drive off my bowling, the batsman MN Ravikumar dived back to his crease after starting a second run as he saw Tiger pick up the ball in a feline swoop and fling it—feign a throw, in fact—only to see him walk up to where the ball had actually stopped on a damp outfield and retrieve it casually; another a masterly 198 against Tamil Nadu after demanding a promotion in the batting order and promising the captain a double hundred.

I remember suggesting to Pataudi that his decision to retire from Test cricket at the end of the 1974-75 series India lost 2-3 to Clive Lloyd’s West Indies. His reply was heartbreaking. “I don’t want to be killed on a cricket field, Ram,” he said, referring to his inability to see the express deliveries of Andy Roberts and Co.

In the midst of the swirling surge of emotions the news of his passing has caused, my thoughts keep going back to a moment at the end of my first Ranji Trophy season. We were sitting on the terrace at the Wankhede Stadium after losing to Bombay a match we should have won. I had had a good match personally, and Pataudi was quietly happy about it in the manner of a kindly senior. “Seven wickets against Bombay!” he repeatedly muttered, but adding a disclaimer. “Next year, wickets will be harder to come by, because every batsman will take you more seriously.” Prophetic, those words turned out to be, though I did not take them seriously then.

What he said next devastated me. “All the best, Ram. I won’t be playing next year. I am announcing my retirement from first class cricket.” It was Hyderabad cricket’s irreparable loss then. Today, cricket is poorer without him.

The author was MAK Pataudi’s Hyderabad teammate in the 1975-76 season. An off-spinner, he played in the Ranji Trophy, Duleep Trophy, Deodhar Trophy and Irani Cup.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Third man

The trouble with an interview for television or youtube is that you cannot say everything you want to say, nor can the producers of the show include everything you say. The result is that you could come out sounding slightly different.
In my recent conversation with the superb young team of Jaideep Varma and Gokul Chakravarthy, I spoke at length about my first class cricket career that ended thirty years ago—for the first time in my life. It was also the first time that anyone asked me to speak about it! We discussed the highs and lows of my career, with special reference to my exclusion from first class cricket when I was still hoping to make it to the Indian team. While on the subject, either I did not mention it or the editing process eliminated it, but there are things I wish I had done better in my cricket, even if I firmly believe I deserved a look-in by the national selectors on the evidence of my performance. I wish I had worked harder, bowled better, perhaps developed a doosra—with a legal action—improved my physical fitness and my fielding beyond being a safe fielder to a brilliant one, even my batting, AND made those strategic moves that I confessed in the interview I did not make.

I should have also stressed the fact that Venkataraghavan and Prasanna were world class cricketers, though they do not need a certificate from me. I cannot claim to be a close friend of either of them, though I played a lot of cricket with Venkat right from my boyhood, but I must mention one instance involving Venkat and me here.

I was really in seventh heaven when my name—along with my brother V Sivaramakrishnan’s—was headlined in The Hindu sometime in the second half of 1977, when both of us were included in the shortlist of 29 players to attend a physical conditioning camp at Chepauk, Madras, prior to the selection of the Indian team to tour Australia that winter. I prepared hard and when the camp conducted by Darshan Tandon, an ex-gymnast from the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, started, I was fit and raring to go. Four more players—including a certain Kapil Dev Nikhanj—were last minute inclusions in the camp, so that we were now 33 probables.

The first few days of the camp were sheer bliss, though Tandon put us through the wringer in the Chepauk cauldron. I was happy that I was proving equal to the exacting demands of our trainer, while some of the players were struggling, though after the first week almost everyone attained a good level of fitness. It was also the occasion my brother and I became close friends with Rajinder Goel, that great left arm spinner and lovely human being. Around the third day or so, Paji, as we called him, strained his calf muscle, which became a hard lump and made it impossible for him to move around, except inside his hotel room. Every evening, as we called on him, he would ask anxiously, “Is everyone fit? Ashok Mankad? Prasanna? Even Parthasarathi Sharma?” and feel extremely let down if we told him that all these players not known for their supreme athleticism were showing no signs of breaking down.

My idyll was broken by an injury I sustained during fielding practice, with our coach Polly Umrigar’s assistant PK Dharmalingam hitting a flat head-high catch for me to take. I ran towards the ball and lost sight of it against the sun, and trying to protect my face with my hands, dislocated a finger. Venkat, an expert in such matters, pulled out my skewed finger and there was some immediate relief, but the rest of the camp was ruined for me, not only because I could not bowl for a few days, but also because my injury was blown out of proportion. I do not know whether it was used against me, but 32 of the 33 attendees played in the Duleep Trophy tournament immediately after the camp, while I was not included in the South Zone 16. Ironically, the South Zone selectors, led by my former captain ML Jaisimha, met to pick the team at the very Chepauk stadium where the camp was held. It was a huge blow, and I was almost reduced to tears by the seeming injustice of it all. I tried to console myself with the thought that with the South Zone captain Venkataraghavan and Prasanna in the eleven, I would have been the third off-spinner in the squad (we were the only three off-spinners in the whole camp), but I realized that it had five opening batsmen and three wicket keepers. It was hard to escape the feeling that it was a deliberate slight.

Something that happened then made the whole situation slightly more bearable. Bharath Reddy, one of the three wicket keepers in the squad that also had the no. 1 keeper Syed Kirmani and KN Charan of Andhra, brought Venkat to my room. The skipper expressed his regret for my omission. “I am very sorry Ram,” he said, “I was not invited to the meeting and had no say in the selection. I feel very bad for you.” This time, it was hard to stop the tears.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Organised cricket began for me when no doubt owing to my cousin Raman’s clout, I was inducted into the junior team of PS High School, Mylapore, a formidable combination of state schools level cricketers and other representatives of the finest Mylapore talent of the day. Before we were picked for the school team, of course, we had to prove our mettle in inter-class competition. First Form D to which I belonged was captained by R Prabhakar, later to become a bit of a legend in Madras cricket, thanks to his ability to hit the ball long, hard and frequently and his six-hitting prowess. From First Form B was PK Venkatachalam, Babu to close friends, a talented medium-pacer all rounder, who appeared even at that early age to be Test cricket material on the evidence of his technique, elegance and temperament. Cousin Raman was already a star of the school’s senior team, which had the likes of SVS Mani and S Veeraraghavan, elder brother of Venkataraghavan. Venkat was still in PS Secondary School off Kutcheri Road, to move to PS High only next year. Other sensational PS High school cricketers of the time included ‘Suspense’ Srinivasan, a medium pacer whose windmill action kept the batsman guessing, hence the prefix to his name, gentle Kadir or A Srinivasan, an elegant batsman, Kaattu Govindan, a brilliant fielder, NA “Kulla” Sivaraman, wicketkeeper and wit who kept us all in splits with his jokes and mimicry, and Sashikant, now famously known as Seth, a medium pacer who decades later took all ten wickets in a league match innings bowling off breaks.

Our physical director Ganesamurthy and his assistant Mohanakrishnan watched me and “Babu” PK Venkatachalam with amused tolerance, calling us tiffin players much to our embarrassment. We were the babies of the team, and never really stood a chance of making it to the playing eleven in inter-school matches, on account of our extreme youth, ten or eleven at the most, while our seniors were already teenagers. Tiffin players meant we made our presence felt only at lunch or tiffin time, tucking in enthusiastically without having worked for it by way of chasing balls on the ground.
Babu was a hugely talented young lad, a fine all rounder in the making. His elder brothers Ramakrishnan, Krishnamurti and Srinivasan were all good cricketers, with Krishnamurti the best of them, going on to play for the state. They were all tall, upright batsmen with a range of strokes and good medium pacers. Babu promised to surpass Krishnamurti with his youthful exploits. I left PS High School when my father was transferred to Tuticorin, and Babu and R Prabhakar became successful cricketers at the state level. Unfortunately, Babu did not fulfil his potential, led a troubled life and died an untimely death in the 1980s. Prabhakar became somewhat of an icon in Madras cricket with his six-hitting ability and effective swing bowling, not to mention his laconic, almost lackadaisical attitude. He had mixed fortunes at the Ranji Trophy level, playing a few outstanding innings, including one in a final against Bombay in 1967, a match in which he also bowled well.
Prabhakar came from a family of cricketers. His elder brothers R Nagarajan and R Chandrasekharan were both state cricketers. Another brother Mohan took to football rather than cricket and became State Bank’s goalkeeper. Chandrasekhar was a fine off spinner who delivered the ball from a height and obtained impressive purchase. He could bat a bit too, once making 176 in a State Bank of India inter-Circle match.

Whenever I think of Chandrasekhar, I cannot help recalling a campaign local cricket patron Don Rangan—more about him later—and Harinath Babu, the secretaryran on his behalf, distributing a cyclostyled critique of the state selectors who left him out of the Ranji Trophy squad. The man the pamphlet wanted Chandrasekhar to replace went on to play for India as an off spinner and even led it—S Venkataraghavan. The pamphlet also gave me a cheap thrill, as it mentioned me as another young off spinner the selectors had unfairly overlooked.

PS High School was a strong outfit, but it often ran into a hot property in Madras Christian College School. Unfortunately, my school cricket came to an end when IOB transferred my father to Tuticorin, a port town in Tirunelveli district, an overnight train journey away from Madras. There, I joined third form in a school called Subbiah Vidyalayam, and so did my brothers, while my sisters went to St. Aloysius School. I had no chance of playing any serious cricket at Tuticorin, and for the next year and a half, spent more time on track and field, thanks to my friends Subhash, Nargunam and Ravi. My father then went on a succession of transfers to Delhi and Bombay, with my schools at neither city fielding a team in inter-school cricket, and thus ended my school cricket career—even before it began. When I came back to Madras in 1961, my father back in the Madras office of Bank of India, I joined Vidya Mandir for my sixth form and the Madras Matriculation examination. Here again there was no organised cricket, and we had to make do with a hurried game during the 40-minute lunch interval.

It was during one of these frenetic games that I discovered I could bowl sharp off-spin, with a strange grip of my own invention. I held the ball with the seam pointing vertically, and my index and middle fingers on either side of the seam. I found I was getting sharp turn and bounce with this grip. On the uneven makeshift pitch in front of the high school block, I was pretty much unplayable, but as the batting was barely competent, I had no way of learning how good my bowling was against quality batsmen. As the school had no team and as no class had enough students to make up an eleven—mine had only 8 of us—we could not compete even at the inter-class level, so my new grip and action were not tested until the next year. I played plenty of table tennis during the year both on the school table and at the Mylapore Club of which my father was a member. Though I really improved my game at the club, it proved very costly for my father, as my two brothers and I regularly recovered from our exertions there by feasting on the delicacies supplied by the club’s famous canteen. I had the opportunity to play against some state and university players at the club, which helped me to improve my game vastly, and I even toyed with the idea of joining a coaching institute to try my hand at competitive TT. My brother Krishnan also faced a similar dilemma and in fact enrolled in the Tiruvengadam coaching camp, improving his game unrecognizably. In the end, both of us stuck to cricket.

How did I land up at the Vivekananda College nets next summer? It must have been courtesy my cousin Ramachandran, back home for the summer vacation from PSG College of Technology, Coimbatore. The captain of the college team, Ram Ramesh, who had just completed the first year of his two-year MA course at the college, organised the practice, which went on throughout the summer. It was sheer heaven to attend regular net practice, which I had last done some five years earlier at the BS Nets, sent there by PS High School to attend the AG Ram Singh coaching camp. All rounder SV Suryanarayanan, medium pacer VR Rajaraghavan, lefthanded opener S Ramji, another left-hander GS Krishnan, and brothers Venu and Jaggu are some of the other cricketers I remember from that period. The camaraderie and idle chitchat afterwards, reclining on sand mounds into the night made it a transcendent moment in a young life, when you wanted it to go on forever, with not a care in the world.

Others might have nursed ambitions of becoming doctors and engineers, but for me, it was enough to savour the pleasures of cricket real and imagined—though I sometimes did fancy myself as a medical superman who saved lives—for more cricket was played in dreamland than on terra firma. More often than not I was Jim Laker tying Australians into knots in my dreams. It was not just the off spin of the Yorkshireman that I admired—I had grown to like his whole persona as revealed in his Over To You, on hindsight a rather self-centred account of his life on tour as England cricketer, in which he does not mince words while critiquing his captains Brown, Hutton and May.

Though it was a wonderful summer of never-ending cricket and cricket fantasying, I did not get to play a single match. I had to wait till the new season for that.

Cricket in the air

Looking back, it had to be divine intervention or a completely benign arrangement of the stars in my favour that must have helped my cricket along, when there was no conscious effort to make a career of it, on the part of my parents or myself. The first time I held a bat was around 1952, in the backyard of our Quilon (now Kollam) home, in the company of my brother Nagan, a left handed, far more talented and stylish novitiate into the game at which so many in the family were good. I was barely five and for the next three years, the only cricket action we saw was provided by my father’s exploits in the game.

PN Venkatraman, Ramani to his siblings, cousins, and cricket mates, was Appa to us, his children—by then four of us, with the latest addition Krishnan arriving on 13 May 1952. Appa had been a stalwart of Mylapore Recreation Club, albeit a reclusive, even reluctant one, mainly because he was a bit of a hypochondriac and feared he would collapse on the cricket field, thanks to an imaginary heart condition a mischievous uncle or elder cousin had led him to believe afflicted him. (When I saw the Adoor Gopalakrishnan film Anantaram in the 1980s, a scene in it reminded me of my father’s unhappy experiences with elders in the extended family who casually planted in him fears and anxieties with far reaching consequences, preventing the full flowering of this gentle, shy, unusually talented young lad).

We must have come back to Madras during 1955 or 1956, for I clearly remember listening to the radio commentary in our first floor house on Murrays Gate Road when Jim Laker took 19 for 137 against the Australians at Old Trafford, the second time the off spinner claimed all ten wickets in an innings that season, having performed the feat for Surrey against the touring Aussies. I remember twiddling the knobs of our old Murphy valve radio to find the exact spot where the BBC commentary was at least half way audible. I was not yet ten and went to a Tamil medium school, so much of the commentary must have gone way above my head, even if I did manage to hear the voices of Swanton and Co. amidst all the static. I don't think John Arlott was as yet a member of the team, nor Brian Johnston or Christopher Martin Jenkins. It wasn't until much later that I began to recognize these much beloved voices as I did Rex Alston and Trevor Bailey. Still, there wasn't a single cricketing point that I—or my teeming army of brothers and cousins—missed. The explanation is simple: we belonged to a completely cricket-crazy extended family.

We lived on Murrays Gate Road, a quiet enough street then, extending east-west from Alwarpet Corner to Teynampet, the whole stretch a long straight line from the Santhome Church, via Luz Church Road, almost all the way to Mount Road. 'Suprabha' was our home, a two-storeyed bungalow facing north. We lived on the first floor, my father now the agent of the Mylapore branch of IOB, and downstairs lived my father's elder brother PN Sundaresan, Raja to family and friends, at the time a struggling reporter in the Indian Express, but soon to join the Hindu.

Raja was an attacking batsman who opened the innings for Mylapore Recreation Club 'A', one of the top sides in the Madras cricket league, whose clashes with arch rival Triplicane Cricket Club starring MJ Gopalan, CR Rangachari and the like, were known as the War of the Roses. MRC had many of its own stars, with most of Buchi Babu Nayudu's sons, nephews and grandsons turning out for the club at one time or another. The well known diplomat G Parthasarathi or GP, an aggressive leg spinner-batsman, CR Pattabhiraman, son of Sir CP Ramaswami Ayyar and the founder of the club, and opening batsman M Swaminathan were some of the MRC regulars.

My father's uncle PS Ramachandran or 'Pattu', the tall, wiry fast bowler who took 10 for 18 for MRC vs. TCC, was overlooked by the selectors who met the same evening to pick the 'Indians' for that season's Presidency Match. Pattu, like quite a few other cricketers of his time, was an orthodox brahmin, whose hairstyle consisted of a shaven head with a tuft of hair tied in a kudumi or chignon at the back. As he ran up to bowl his fast medium seamers, his knotted hair came off and fluttered in the breeze, and he almost instinctively reached for it to tie it back in place even as he was completing his follow through. In group photographs, he is seen wearing a black cap more like a Gandhi topi than a cricket cap.

Though he missed out on the Pongal match after that splendid burst in the Roses battle, he managed to impress the selectors enough to be included in a tour game for Madras against the visiting MCC team under the captaincy of Douglas Jardine. Pattu bowled well in both innings, picking up a couple of wickets. He was probably in his late forties when I first heard him describe the cricket he played in his youth. “Jardine said, “Well bowled” to me at the end of the match. He even patted me on my back.” When Pattu came home that evening, his mother, whose word was law in family circles, told him to wash even harder than usual, as he had made physical contact with a mlechha or outcaste!

Pattu lived and practised law in a gracious old bungalow in a sprawling compound on Eldams Road, parallel to and behind Murrays Gate Road, and his elder brother PS Venkatraman, a building contractor and a leading tennis player of his time, was his next door neighbour. Their two houses were named Sundar (after my great grandfather Justice PR Sundara Iyer) and Parvati (after my great grandmother). Pattu's three sons Sundaram, Venkatachalam and Viswanathan took after their father and became more than useful medium pace bowlers, two of them making it to the Ranji Trophy team and Venkatachalam almost getting there. My uncle Raja's sons Narayanan and Raman were both fine all rounders. While Kannan played Ranji Trophy, Ramachandran again just failed to make it. Add to these five, my brothers Nagan and Krishnan (V Sivaramakrishnan) and yours truly and we needed just three more for a complete eleven, though Sundaram was far too senior to play with all of us.

Coming to the point I have been building up to, no compound wall separated the two houses Sundar and Parvati on Eldams Road and Suprabha on Murrays Gate Road, and we energetic youngsters were constantly running from one house to another and playing a whole range of outdoor games, in which the girl children of the family were also included in all the games—except cricket. And as if all this were not enough to spoil us silly by way of sporting facilities, bang opposite Suprabha was a vast open field where we played the more organised cricket everyday after school. The 'ground', as we called it, is untraceable today, as it has been completely built over, a residential area called Venus Colony.

PS Narayanan was the most talented all round sportsman of the family, if a bit laid back. Everything he did, he did with style. It came naturally to him. He was of medium height, very slightly built, supple and agile, a smart ball game player who used the angles to advantage whatever game he played. In cricket, he was all wrists and timing, a very good eye and quick reflexes. I do not remember his exploits as a schoolboy cricketer. In fact, not until he completed his undergraduate studies from Vivekananda College and joined the Madras Law College did he blossom into a consistent opening batsman and an off spinner with an uncanny ability to break partnerships. In the 1960s, he became a mainstay of Jolly Rovers, the team that dominated Madras cricket for the next four decades, regularly outperforming his more glamorous teammates, and often giving the side a scintillating start, matching his partner KR Rajagopal stroke for stroke. Those who watched Raja in his prime will know that that is a high compliment—the wicket keeper batsman narrowly missed selection to the Indian team that toured Australia in 1968.

At the school level, it was Narayanan’s younger brother Ramachandran who came into prominence in representative cricket. He bowled vicious leg breaks and played attacking shots from the word go as an opening batsman. Of the three fast bowling brothers who were my father's cousins, Sundaram was a genuine quickie, who should surely have played more matches at the first class level than the solitary Ranji Trophy appearance he was allowed to make. His two brothers were good bowlers too, and all three were rated highly by the West Indies fast bowler Roy Gilchrist when he coached Madras's promising young pace bowlers handpicked by the selectors in the 1960s.

My brother Nagan, just a year younger than me, was a stylish left-handed batsman, who later played for Vivekananda College and IIT Madras. He never fulfilled his early promise, because he simply did not have the patience or temperament to build innings and chose to focus more on academics than cricket. Capable of attacking any bowling successfully, he was on his day a delight to watch. My youngest brother Sivaramakrishnan was the opposite of Nagan in terms of temperament. Five years younger than I, he was a thorn in the flesh from the time we let him join us older brothers and cousins, showing an annoying tendency to score double hundreds even at the age of ten. He went on to score more than 5,000 first class runs, coming close to selection as India's opener during the Gavaskar-Chauhan era.

Here, I have gone a little ahead of the story, as Sivaramakrishnan was not yet a force to reckon with during our Suprabha days, barely seven when we left Suprabha and Madras, thanks to my father's transfer to Tuticorin in 1960, and Delhi a year later. There were a few more good cricketers in the extended family, including my cousins GR Venkatakrishnan and PS Ashok, and all of us honed our cricket skills on the Venus Colony ground in the 1950s and 1960s. We were barefoot cricketers who wore no protective equipment, sometimes played on uneven, even dangerous wickets and unlike other kids always used a cricket ball and not a tennis ball. I describe our Venus Colony cricket in some detail elsewhere in this chronicle, but I am convinced that some of us would have been better batsmen had we played on good wickets during our formative years with a semblance of protection.

My most vivid memory of the Venus Colony ground is of being hit on the forehead fielding at short leg ridiculously close to the batsman who pulled a short ball from my leg spinner cousin, and the world around me going black. Once I came to, I was reluctant to miss the action that followed, but my mother who had been watching from home dragged me away, bleeding and concussed. Another time, I got a tooth knocked out while bending to stop a powerful cover drive, which got deflected by a pebble.

These two incidents probably determined my batting technique in the years to come, with my forward strokes characterised by an unconscious reluctance to smell the ball. Predictably, I became a better bowler than batsman, and after experimenting with medium pace and leg spin for a while settled down as an off spinner.
Quite a few members of the extended family played competitive cricket in adulthood, with Sivaramakrishnan and I progressing to the state and zone levels and figuring in the cricket board’s list of Test probables. S Nataraj, a talented and intelligent cricketer who played for both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy married my sister in 1973 played some splendid cricket in the Tamil Nadu league for over a decade.

Whom to blame

I was one of those cricketers destined, it seemed, to be known and appreciated at the local, state level at best. I found even Ranji Trophy cricket out of my reach for a long time, unlike the several sterling cricketers just below the Test level with whom I rubbed shoulders. (As, bolstered by a few milligrams of the finest produce of Scotland, I once picked up the courage to declaim to a boastful Test cricketer, I strongly believe that we often played stirring cricket of an intensity comparable to the best that world cricket could conjure).

Until I was 28, it seemed I would never play first class cricket, thanks in the main to the timing of my birth—a few years after that of India’s greatest off spinner EAS Prasanna and just two behind his own rival for a spot in the Indian team Venkataraghavan—and the curious, often cruel concatenation of circumstances that always seemed to be conspiring against my chances of winning the selectors’ nod. More later about all that, and the amazing turnaround in my fortunes in 1975 which almost, but not quite, led to a fairytale ending to my cricket story, but I must confess that during my years in the wilderness, I often thought of writing a book I would call “Autobiography of an Unknown Indian Cricketer” in imitation of the title of Nirad C Chaudhuri’s great memoirs, because I always immodestly believed I belonged as an off spinner at the highest level—a view some wonderful cricket mates shared and nurtured—with a story to tell.

My story would also include in its sweep some of the best cricketers not to have played for India, though its bias would ever so subtly tilt towards the best South Zone cricketers I have had the privilege to partner or oppose on the field of play. KR Rajagopal, B Kalyanasundaram, S Vasudevan, V Sivaramakrishnan, P Ramesh, Abdul Jabbar, P Mukund, AG Satvinder Singh, N Bharatan, V Krishnaswamy (all Tamil Nadu), Mumtaz Husain, Noshir Mehta, P Jyoti Prasad, T Vijay Paul, Kanwaljit Singh, Saad Bin Jung, Shahid Akbar (all Hyderabad), AV Jayaprakash, VS Vijayakumar, Sudhakar Rao, Vijayakrishna (all Karnataka), D Meher Baba and MN Ravikumar (both Andhra) are among the fiercely combative cricketers and unforgettable characters I would profile in this tribute to the great game as I saw and played it.

In the evening years of my cricket career, however, I discovered I had excellent recall of the many experiences and personalities good, bad and mostly funny, which had enriched my days under the sun. That was when some of my friends began to urge me to write those stories for public consumption. The result was a column I called Curdrice Cricket, largely a lighthearted tribute to cricket in Tamil Nadu. Mostly about the players and unique flavour of cricket in my home state, but including very little about my own cricket, it later formed an important part of my first book, Mosquitos and Other Jolly Rovers: The Story of Tamil Nadu Cricket

My sojourn in Chennai was only one part of the story of my cricket. The decade I spent in Hyderabad was the more fruitful, rewarding part of my career and I had not touched on it in Curdrice Cricket or Mosquitos. I moved to Andhra Pradesh in 1970, joining State Bank of India as a ‘probationary officer’ and spending most of the first year of my tenure there at rural Anakapalle, before the glorious uncertainties of life took me to Hyderabad and a fresh opportunity to play cricket in July 1971. I was four months short of my 24th birthday.

The struggle to make a mark was long and hard. It took me well nigh two years to even gain a regular place in the bank’s star-studded team in the local league and two more to be selected to represent Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy. What followed was a minor miracle and I was an official Test probable within a year! While I savoured every moment I spent in the exalted company of my illustrious teammates and being recognized as someone with an outside chance of replacing Prasanna or Venkataraghavan in the Indian team, my swift dismissal from all forms of first class cricket five years later left me bewildered, hurt and angry.

Distance, or the passage of time, rather, lends enchantment and I turned to cricket writing once I was sure I could do so without bitterness, and that is how, aided by the devastating effects of a couple of poor career moves I made, I became a freelance journalist around 1994, starting with contributions to the Saturday Sports page of The Hindu. The demands from my close friends to write my cricket memoirs have continued over the decades—and, thanks to the encouragement I have received from some better known authors—I have finally decided to inflict them on the reading public.

The confidence and excellence of some of today’s cricket writers have been the biggest factors responsible for my finally taking the plunge, changing my long held perception that only international cricketers had any chance of succeeding as authors of cricket books. With their style, keen love of cricket, and sense of history, such accomplished writers as Suresh Menon, Harsha Bhogle, Rahul Bhattacharya, and Gideon Haigh have provided the inspiration; so you know whom to blame for my belated entry into the world of cricket memoirs.

Monday, March 14, 2011

They also played

The world at large only knows the stars that 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 bristle 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 to them 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 to 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 KRS 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 KS 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; PS 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 SVS 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; SK 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 PVH Babu, Netaji Ramanujam, PC Ramudu, VA Parthasarathy or TP Vijayaraghavan who spent a lifetime running clubs or institutional teams, yet others like K Radhakrishnan and S Ramabhadran left arm spinners of more recent vintage 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 KC Krishnamurthi of Crom-Best, Rajaraghavan of Jolly Rovers, 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 domestic cricket what it is today.

I have had the good fortune to split my cricket career into three enjoyable parts—the first decade in Madras and the second in Hyderabad, followed by a third in Madras-Chennai—so I also came into contact with the characters who made Hyderabad cricket a rich variant of the game in the south.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sobers Part II

One of my friends has pointed out rightly that Wes Hall did not get to bat in the second innings of the Madras Test in 1967, while in the first innings he was out to Prasanna. I did my homework too and found out that Sobers was telling us a tall story. (I even checked the scorecards of the other two Tests of the series, but the facts did not match). I decided to keep the story anyway because it was such a delightful one, especially when Garry told it in his inimitable Barbadian singsong. I did not keep any notes so I lost out on some choice lines ten years down the line.

The ten or so of us who gathered at the MCC for cocktails that evening were there, thanks to SP Sathappan, Saucy to everyone (sitting next to Sobers in the photograph I have posted on FB), the club’s president who drew up the guest list. There were bigger names in Madras cricket, but we were the ones who got invited—my brother Sivaramakrishnan, TE Srinivasan, my tennis mate Bandhu Chandhok, and, among others, the unforgettable Mahidhar Reddy, the diehard Sobers fan who fell at his feet that night and wouldn’t let go of them for quite a while. I naturally did not mention that in my story, partly because it might draw attention to the quantum of Mahidhar’s lubrication, thinking he would be embarrassed by the story. Mahidhar was extremely offended that I ignored his part in the story and here goes: I have put the record straight once and for all.

Besides his infinite capacity for tall stories, we found another aspect of Sobers’s personality striking. He treated all of us as his equals, sharing his views on men and matters with utmost candour. He was, for instance, annoyed by the selective amnesia of a former Indian cricketer who not only was vague about his golf handicap (Why can’t he make up his mind, is it 18 or 12? It can’t be both), but also conveniently remembered an almost forgotten prior appointment and failed to return Sir Garry’s famous hospitality in the West Indies.

Sometime during the evening, Sobers waxed eloquent over the great bowling ability of Subhash Gupte whom he rated higher than Shane Warne as the best leg spinner of all time (I wonder if Sir Garry still holds the same view now that Warne has gone on to achieve greater heights in cricket). He then turned to me and asked me who I thought was the best orthodox leg spinner in India after Subhash Gupte. Was it Baloo Gupte, Subhash’s younger brother, he asked. I told him that many Indians agreed that Tamil Nadu’s VV Kumar was India's best leg spinner after Subhash Gupte. When he asked me why I thought so, I said that VV had this ability to make the ball hang in the air, had two different types of googly, and was the most economical wrist spinner I knew. Sobers nodded his head. He was in Chennai to assist Kumar at the MAC Spin Academy. “Yes, I can see what you mean. He still shows glimpses of those qualities when he has a bowl in the nets,” Sobers said, thoughtfully.

Besides being a great spin bowler, Kumar is quite a character, known for his unorthodox views. Rumour had it that far from endorsing the world’s most gifted all rounder’s views on spin bowling, he quietly advised his wards not to listen to the great man! And, according to my friend Vasudevan, who assisted him earlier, VV was the most improved bowler in the camp.

Reluctant to talk about his own cricket, Sobers revealed when pressed that no bowler troubled him, certainly no Indian bowler, not even Chandrasekhar. That is when he told us the story of how Sir Donald Bradman said, “Don’t worry Garry, you will sort him out,” pointing to Richie Benaud, when he thought Sobers was in a pensive mood. Sobers was puzzled and wondered what gave the Don the impression that he worried about Benaud’s bowling. His reply was the brilliant 132 in the Brisbane Test, which ended in a tie. Sobers also had a good laugh when reminded of his statement on the last morning of the Bombay Test in 1967 that he would finish the game in time to go to the Mahalaxmi races that afternoon. And he did, despite a rampaging Chandrasekhar who took all four West Indies wickets to fall.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sir Garfield St. Aubrun Sobers

First published in The Bengal Post

The greatest all rounder in the game never played in the World Cup. Sir Garfield Sobers had quit the international scene by the time the Prudential World Cup came round in 1975, and Clive Lloyd led his men to a grand win, with Sobers’s old friend and teammate Rohan Kanhai playing a key role in the final.
Garry Sobers was perhaps the one cricketer guaranteed to lend excitement and enchantment to a tournament such as the World Cup. The quintessential all rounder, he could bowl in three different styles, and once hit six sixes in an over, besides possessing in his arsenal three shots to every delivery. Add his brilliant fielding anywhere and his infectiously positive attitude and you have the perfect ambassador for instant cricket.

We in Chennai first caught a glimpse of him when he toured India with Gerry Alexander’s men in 1958-59. At the Corporation Stadium, he created quite a flutter as he walked out jauntily with his collar upturned. Though he scored only 29 and 4 in the Test, he impressed one and all with his every action. His bosom pal Collie Smith proved to be the crowd’s favourite, with his ‘donkey drops’ and antics near the boundary line.

Not long afterwards, Collie Smith was to be killed in a car accident, with Sobers at the wheel—something that scarred Sobers for life and made sleep impossible for him during match nights. The more he tried to get his eight hours on the eve of a match, the more he tossed and turned, haunted by the memory of his friend and what might have been.

“I never went to bed before the small hours of the morning during Test matches, but it did not affect my cricket,” Sir Garry told a small gathering of cricket lovers and former cricketers around him at the Madras Cricket Club, Chepauk, late one evening some ten years ago. ‘Don’t you dare follow my example!’ he told a young player in the audience.

I was one of those privileged to be present that evening, as the great all rounder spun a web of cricket tales, real and apocryphal in about equal measure. One particularly diverting tale had it that the West Indies manager Berkeley Gaskin caught him returning to his Karachi hotel room at 5 a.m. and nodded approvingly believing that like him, Sobers was going for a morning constitutional.

Talk turned to his superb 95 and 74 not out in the 1967 Pongal match that brought Test cricket back to Chepauk, and Sobers agreed with us that, fooled by the length and additional bounce of a BS Chandrasekhar special, he had changed his shot in the last nanosecond to send the ball sailing over the sight screen in that game. This was reminiscent of a similar straight six in the Brisbane Test in 1961, when the bowler to suffer had been Richie Benaud, in the course of Sobers’s 132 in 125 minutes.

As the stories flowed thick and fast, Sobers remembered how one of his teammates was constantly barracked by the Brisbane crowd as he was patrolling the ropes. “You are the ugliest cricketer I ever saw, mate,” one spectator cried out. The fielder’s instant response was: “Wait till you see my brother back in Jamaica.”

The Chepauk Test match was the first time in a long while that India had come close to defeating West Indies, with a new Prasanna-Chandrasekhar-Bedi spin combination in place. Sobers famously drew the game with a fighting unbeaten 74 in the company of tailenders Hall and Griffith, after his team had been perilously close to defeat on the last day. Sobers’s fertile imagination was evidently at work as he related the behind-the-scenes happenings of that evening. Here’s his version of a conversation as soon as Wes Hall came in to bat.

Hall: ‘Skip, I promise I’ll stay with you till the end. I have one problem, though. This Chandrasekhar, I can’t read him.”

Sobers: “What's new, Wes? Seymour Nurse, he couldn’t read Chandrasekhar. Rohan Kanhai, he couldn’t read him. Basil Butcher, he couldn’t read no Chandrasekhar, either.”

Hall: “Come now skip, be serious. Show me when he bowl tha googly, and when tha leg break.”

The two batsmen quickly agreed Sobers would stand a foot behind the umpire at the non-striker’s end, and put his right hand out every time Chandra bowled a googly, and Hall would faithfully follow the signal. A healthy partnership developed and Hall was the toast of the team at teatime. Seymour Nurse was particularly impressed. “How did you do it maan, when all of us batsmen struggled?” he asked Hall. “Oh, that’s simple Seymour old maan,” Hall replied in his best conspiratorial manner. “You know I watch the ball in the air, maan. Poor Garry, he can’t tell tha googly from tha leg break sometimes. Coz poor chap, he tries to read Chandrasekhar’s hand.”

Unfortunately for Hall, Sobers was standing just behind him overhearing the conversation. The first ball after tea, Chandrasekhar bowls a googly, and Sobers has his right hand firmly in his pocket. Exit Wesley Hall.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011



One of the teams that D Ranganathan—Don Rangan to all in the Madras cricket circles of the 1960s—ran was Nungambakkam Sports Club ‘A’ or NSC’A’. It was arguably the strongest team below the First Division and when promoted to the senior league, a competitive young side not to be trifled with.

Rangan is but a pale shadow today, very nearly a caricature, of the imposing personality he was in the 1960s, when he ran NSC ‘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.

Rangan 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 in mid-innings 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 Rangan 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 for exactly 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.

Another memorable practice match from that period was one in which I played for a scratch combination under Ram Ramesh’s captaincy against NSC ‘A’. I don’t remember what I did with the ball that day, probably not much, as I would have remembered it otherwise, but do recall in clear detail being the junior partner in a century partnership with S Venkataraghavan. Even more vivid is the memory of facing the ultra-quick bowling of “Kuthu” Krishna Rao, who opened the bowling for Rangan’s eleven and later played as an off-spinner for the Services in the Ranji Trophy. Krishna Rao was a tall, strapping, handsome fast bowler, who struck terror in the hearts of batsmen on Rangan’s lively matting wicket. His action was a dubious one, the reason why the armed forces converted him into a slow bowler. On his day, he was quite a handful and this afternoon he was letting them buzz around your ears.

Whether I was promoted to No.3 because the team believed I had batting potential or whether I was a sacrificial lamb, I don’t know, but I do remember that Ramesh and Venkat who opened the innings with him put on a quick 60 or 70 before Ramesh got out. When I went in, I received the treatment from Krishna Rao and the other opening bowler Maka, and I can tell you it was a real baptism by fire for someone who had never played such pace or bounce before. Still, I was young and foolhardy, so I stuck around fearlessly, trying to stay with Venkat who led an astonishing assault on the quickies. He made a memorable hundred, hooking, pulling and cutting, to my 30 or so, as we coasted to a nine-wicket win. It was one of the most courageous batting displays I saw at close quarters. Those were pre-helmet days.

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.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Baig brothers

(Stop if you have read this before!)

No one could have had a more sensational start to his Test career. 20-year old Abbas Ali Baig was a dashing young batsman at Oxford University, with a few exceptional performances under his belt in English county cricket, when the 1959 touring Indian team summoned him to play in the Manchester Test. It had been a severe drubbing for the tourists from Peter May’s Englishmen, but the handsome, fleetfooted Hyderabadi made a brilliant 112 on debut and in the company of Polly Umrigar (118) salvaged some pride for the Indians. Though England beat India in that and the next and final Test to make a clean sweep of the five-match series, Baig’s name was permanently inscribed in the pages of Indian cricket history.

Unfortunately, Abbas never repeated that level of performance in his Test career thereafter, though a defiant 50 by him against Australia in the Bombay Test next season, brought him an unexpected reward in the form of a kiss planted on his cheek by a young female fan in full view of the capacity crowd at the Brabourne Stadium. (The sensational act prompted veteran commentator Vijay Merchant to say to his colleague Michael Charlton, “I wonder, Michael, where all these enterprising young ladies were when I was scoring my hundreds!” Imagine this in Merchant’s singsong intonation).

Back in his native Hyderabad, Baig played a major role in the team's consistent performances at the league stage of the Ranji Trophy for well over a decade, though neither he nor his star colleagues Jaisimha, the captain, Pataudi and Abid Ali were able to achieve a title triumph in all those years. He was stylish in all he did, be it his thoughtful yet positive batting, his sophisticated contributions to team strategy or his urbane social skills.

His three younger brothers played competitive cricket. Murtuza, slightly younger in age, but older-looking and more sober and conservative in behaviour, was also an Oxford Blue, who played for Hyderabad with less success than Abbas. So did Mazhar, next to Murtuza, with a reputation of being a murderer of most attacks below first class level. If Murtuza was polished and rather understated in a British sort of way, Mazhar was relatively earthy, given to less patrician ways than his elder brothers. The youngest, Mujtaba, was the tiniest of them, with a batting style reminiscent of Abbas, a very nice, simple man, lacking the self belief of Abbas to put his talent to comparable use. I had the pleasure of playing a good deal of cricket with all four brothers at different times, and it was a pleasure and privilege to be their teammate.

Abbas—nicknamed Buggy by peers like Jaisimha and Pataudi—was often my captain in local cricket, when we both played for Hyderabad XI in the Zonal Tournament, the Hyderabad equivalent of Chennai’s Buchi Babu before 1968, when it changed from being a local zonal event into an invitation tournament for teams from all over India. He had great confidence in my ability, but it took me a while to realize that, as he nagged me constantly on the field of play, only to praise me generously at the end of the day. He also made it a point to spread the word whenever he felt a player had done exceptionally well. It was he who persuaded me to play in the 1975 Moin-ud-Dowla tournament, when I had doubts about my fitness. I did exceedingly well, finishing with eight for 75 against star-studded JK XI in the final, finally managing to convince the selectors with that performance, that I was good enough to play for Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy. To my amazement, Abbas stopped tutoring me during that match; he must have thought I had come of age. His delight at my success in that match and throughout the season that followed was heartwarming.

As I said earlier, Abbas and Murtuza were of somewhat different temperaments, and sometimes did not se eye to eye on some matters. Once, as Murtuza and I, my senior in the State Bank, were preparing to go to the office after a match had been washed out, even as the other players decided to have a beer together, Abbas said in his best acerbic manner: "The State Bank will collapse if Murtuz and Ram don't turn up for work!"

In yet another instance of sibling rivalry, I bowled a faster ball, following a signal from Murtuza from slip, to incur Abbas's instant wrath. Marching up to me, he admonished me: "Didn't I tell you to flight every ball? Don't you dare listen to that Murtuz!"

Of the brothers, Murtuz was my closest friend, though a bit of a mentor as well. We share a birthday, but he is six years older. (I didn't take it very well when Murtuz and his selector colleagues dumped me unceremoniously from the state team, though I knew Murtuz was a perfect gentleman and it must have hurt him to be a party to my axing). But the day Abbas announced he would no longer be available to play for Hyderabad was indeed a sad day. It had been a double whammy as Tiger Pataudi too had come to the same decision at the same time. It was at the end of the 1975-76 season, after we had lost a quarter final match we ought to have won to Bombay. It was the end of an era.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Reverse swing

First published in The Bengal Post

“Do you want to know how we made the old ball swing in Barbados?” The year was 1978, the man talking to us at the Lal Bahadur Stadium, Hyderabad one sunny afternoon in February or March of that year was one of the inventors of reverse swing, though it was yet to be known by that name. The tall, gangling, tousled-haired, moustachioed, side-whiskered Sarfraz Nawaz then proceeded to rub the fairly new ball on the bare ground just outside the boundary line until it became completely rough. He went on to polish the other side to make it shine like a mirror. The umpires looked the other way, as the match in progress between India XI and an International XI was the ML Jaisimha benefit match, not a first class fixture, though they did need a bit of arm-twisting by Sarfraz before they agreed to let him tamper with the ball.

What followed was a magnificent spell of fast swing bowling by the mad, mad Pakistani seamer, which was made more exciting by the efforts of his colleague from the other end to show everyone who was the quickest bowler around. Imran Khan had just a couple of weeks earlier been declared one of the fastest bowler in the world by some Australian commentators. “Bhai, hum donon men kaun zyada tez hai? (Brother, which of us is faster?)," Sarfraz kept asking us. Though all of us knew Imran was faster, none of us had any doubt about Sarfraz’s skill and wicket-taking ability. Only we did not dare say that aloud for fear of a boycott by Sarfraz.

In later years, I was to learn that Sarfraz had given us a demonstration of what became world famous as reverse swing, but I not speak about it, worrying that my audience would accuse me of making the whole thing up. I was relieved when Dilip Vengsarkar, who played in that game, gave a detailed account of that incident in his column in the Saturday Sports Special of The Hindu.

Three non-Test cricketers—M Narasimha Rao, Shahid Akbar and I—from Hyderabad were part of the International XI led by ML Jaisimha, as were former India captain Tiger Pataudi, Zaheer Abbas, Mushtaq Mohammad, Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz and a couple of Test cricketers who had been part of the Indian Test team that had just returned from a tour of Australia, but were not included in the India XI for this match. The Pakistanis were on their way back from the Kerry Packer World Series cricket. While Zaheer Abbas gave us a foretaste of things to come in the forthcoming Indian tour of Pakistan by hammering our great spinners all around the park, the two quickies gave us a devastating display of fast bowling, the likes of which we had not seen in Hyderabad.

The match started on a slightly damp wicket following an early morning shower. The wicket was certainly not fit for play, with a couple of wet spots threateningly close to the good length area. Chetan Chauhan and Anshuman Gaekwad opened the innings, sportingly agreeing to an on-time start because a large crowd had bought tickets for the benefit game. Unfortunately for the Indian openers, Imran and Sarfraz were intent on outbowling each other unmindful of the physical danger to the batsmen. The ball kept flying from a good length and both Gaekwad and Chauhan had a torrid time negotiating the pace and the bounce. “Come on Jai, what’s going on?” Chauhan complained to Jaisimha. “Why don’t you tell these guys to take it easy? No sensible batsman would have agreed to bat on this wicket, but these chaps don’t seem to care.”

The captain looked on helplessly while Pataudi sported a wicked grin as we slip fielders were jumping and leaping, trying to hold on to perfect defensive shots taking off first bounce over our heads.

Jaisimha solved the problem by bringing on the spinners soon after the first two wickets fell, with a grim-faced Chauhan and an equally upset Gaekwad trooping off. Though it should have been a great moment for me, my spirit was somewhat dampened by Mushtaq Mohammad walking in from mid-off every other delivery and saying, “Runs do, Bhai (give runs, brother)!” As if the great batsmen facing me, Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar needed any such help. But the unexpected did happen. While Vengsarkar helped himself to a flurry of boundaries, Alaska pulled a long hop straight into the hands of deep square leg Ashok Mankad.

That evening, at a dinner hosted by Jaisimha, Mankad was entertaining a small crowd that included the Pakistani visitors, Bishan Bedi the Indian captain, and me, with some great stories delivered with characteristic panache, when an intrusive guest asked him, “Mankad saab, is there any old rivalry between you and Sunil Gavaskar saab? After getting out, he came into the dressing room, flung his bat and said, ‘The chap drops catches in Test matches, but holds this one in a benefit match.” Mankad’s reply was a classic: “Sunil Gavaskar’s catch and me drop it? Wake me up at midnight and I’ll still hold it.”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A murderer of off spin


Nagesh Hamand was one of those cricketers you come across often wherever the game is played, someone who is very successful at the junior and university level but does not quite make the grade in first class cricket. He was one of the first cricketers I met at Hyderabad, and one of my dearest cricket friends, who for years advised and guided me, constantly appreciating my efforts and pointing out my mistakes. He was my State Bank colleague as well as neighbour, living in a quiet residential area originally called Walker Town and renamed Padmarao Nagar.

Nagesh had captained Hyderabad Juniors at Madras in 1969 when we beat his team by an innings. He had put up a lone fight with a brilliant 80 or so, the first time I saw the raw power and aggression of his batting. What I did not know then was what a good off spinner he was, as well. He bowled with a brisk, economical action, and, while he was perhaps not so classically side-on as the purist might wish, he made up with his whippy action and the sharp tweak he gave the cricket ball. He was a confident, aggressive bowler who always believed he could get the batsman out. Also capable of bowling medium pace quite effectively when the mood caught him, Nagesh was convinced he was a better off spinner than Noshir Mehta, who formed a successful pair with left armer Mumtaz Husain for years in Ranji Trophy cricket.

Happily for me, he believed I was a better bowler than both of them and never hesitated to pass me useful tips. It was as a batsman that Nagesh made his mark in university cricket. He was an explosive middle order batsman, who would often take the bowling by the scruff of its neck and give it a mauling. He was particularly severe on off spinners, and loved to go after poor Noshir in local cricket. I too received the brunt of his fury on occasion, though I probably tamed him more often than other purveyors of my trade. The one chink in Nagesh’s armour was his weakness against left arm spin, which he managed to conquer on matting, but surfaced, sometimes embarrassingly, on turf.

A shrewd student of the game and an excellent tactician, Nagesh was an astute captain, though he did not receive too many leadership opportunities in his career. He was however an invaluable part of the State Bank think tank for well over a decade. An all round sportsman who could play a very decent game of tennis or table tennis, he had the irritating habit of smiling mischievously at you after defeating you, often coming back from difficult situations.

In the cricket conversations that are part and parcel of the game at all levels, Nagesh was a frank participant who did not bother to pull his punches. Of the firm view that he was a better cricketer than a number of middle order batsmen the Hyderabad selectors preferred to him over the years, he made no secret of his feelings, regardless of who was present. Based on performance at the local level, it was difficult not to agree with him.

An employee of State Bank of India, Nagesh is a conscientious worker at the bank, who made a smooth transition from player to officer. Today, he keeps in touch with the game he loves through coaching, partnering another outstanding Hyderabad cricketer of the past, Vijay Paul. Future India star Ambati Rayudu is a product of the Nagesh-Paul stable.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Greatest all-rounder of all time

“Comparisons are odorous,” said Mrs Malaprop. She was only partly right. In fact, comparisons are sometimes not even odious, especially when they are as inevitable as the debates on whether Jacques Kallis is the equal of Sir Garfield St. Aubrun Sobers. (I know that punsters will grab the chance to say that this particular comparison cannot be odious as Kallis has played vastly more ODIs than Sobers ever did). Here we are discussing the merits of two champion cricketers of two different eras.

The arguments have gathered strength after Kallis’s recent exploits against India: he not only got a notorious monkey off his back by recording his first Test double century, but went on to fully realize his strength in a grand show in the Durban Test that could be described as the viswarupa of this Hanuman of modern day cricket. Like the monkey-god, he often seems unaware of his own true potential. Sobers might have had his faults but self-doubt in cricket was certainly not one of them. He always backed himself to do well by himself and the West Indies.

A classic instance was when a hasty Australian media dubbed him Richie Benaud’s bunny after a single failure against the leg spinner in a tour match. Legend has it that Don Bradman, one of his greatest admirers, ruffled his hair and said to him, “Don’t worry, son. You will be able to sort him out,” while a pensive-looking Sobers sat with his pads on in the 1960-61 Brisbane Test, watching Benaud in action. Sobers was puzzled by this suggestion that he was capable of being worried about any bowler. Soon enough, he was facing Benaud in the middle. Misreading a googly, he still had the time to change his shot and send the ball to the boundary with a blistering, if uppish, straight drive, forcing the bowler to duck in self-defence.

The statistics of the two all rounders are remarkably similar. Kallis has a Test batting average of 57.43 to Sobers’s 57.78, 270 wickets and 166 catches in 145 Tests to the left hander’s 235 and 109 in 93 Tests. The South African’s relative longevity in international cricket is a testament both to his fitness and desire as well as the greater professionalism of his era compared to the West Indian’s. Like Sachin Tendulkar, Kallis seems to have gained second wind in a long, distinguished career and can be expected to play 175 or more Tests, and finish with an unsurpassable record as an all rounder.

I agree with Bishan Bedi, who entered the argument recently, that Sobers has the edge between the two great all rounders, but not entirely because I played and watched cricket during the great Barbadian’s heyday, though it can be difficult to eliminate bias in favour of your own generation. I will prove my overcoming of any such partisanship in a bit, but before that, let me substantiate my claim by referring to Sobers’s superior record as a match winner and match saver. His rearguard actions in partnership with his cousin David Holford were of the stuff fables are made of. He bowled in three distinct styles, fast medium, orthodox left arm spin and chinamen, and on occasion could be almost as quick as the fastest. He won a few Test matches with the ball against England and Australia, and his close-in catching was quite magnificent—standing almost intimidatingly near the bat at leg gully and picking them effortlessly in the slips. His six sixes in an over against Malcolm Nash of Glamorgan in a county match and his memorable 254 for World XI versus Australia were stunning displays outside Test cricket that served to invest him with the halo of cricketing immortality, but no less awesome were his many gems in Test cricket, some of them below a hundred runs.

Spectators at Chepauk were privileged to watch two innings of stunning effortlessness, the second of them in adversity, in the 1967 Pongal Test, when he saved the match in style for the West Indies with 9, 10 and Jack for company. A straight six in that match off a rampaging BS Chandrasekhar was reminiscent of that straight drive that nearly decapitated Benaud six years earlier—in that it was the result of a last moment change of shot; only Chandra did not have to take evasive action, the ball sailing well over his head.

Sobers’s versatility, self-confidence, enjoyment of the game, aggressive intent and his conviction that it is imperative for cricketers to entertain, make him the better all rounder in my estimation. Yet Kallis has time on his side, and who knows what new facet of his cricket he will unfurl in the years to come? I was one of those who believed that Sunil Gavaskar and GR Viswanath were greater batsmen than Sachin Tendulkar—until in the second innings of his career the Little Master proved beyond doubt that he had gone past his illustrious predecessors to the title with his incomparable performances against all comers, in all conditions, in all forms of the game. Perhaps Kallis will similarly out-Sobers Sir Garry some day.