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.