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.