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.