Sunday, April 28, 2013

My first captain

I was immeasurably saddened by this morning’s obituary notice about Vaastu Sastri S Raman, who was my first captain in the Madras cricket league back in the 1960s (not counting the 1962-63 season when I warmed the benches for MRC ‘B’). I had been meaning to make contact with him for the past few months, because I remember him with gratitude for recognising my talent and encouraging me unstintingly when I was a beardless stripling. The path to hell is paved with good intentions, and I kick myself for missing yet another opportunity to do the right thing by old friends and mentors. The following was written a while ago and will be part of my forthcoming book.

"Do you remember who got dropped by the MRC B captain in a league match back in the sixties after his team entered the field and a quick headcount revealed twelve on the ground?" he asked. Though taken aback by these opening remarks of the bridegroom at a recent wedding I attended at Coimbatore, even as I greeted him, I knew the answer in no uncertain terms. "It was me," I informed Krishna, but he was not so sure, so he asked his father, N Murali, who bowled medium pace for the club after I left it. "It was either your brother Sivaramakrishnan or 'Vaalberi'," he confidently asserted, referring to Thyagarajan of that unfortunate nickname.

I maintained my stand and confronted "Bobji" Rangaswami -- who had led the side in 1962 and pointed the offending finger that signalled my inglorious exit from Teachers College B. "Bobji" smiled vaguely but seemed to have no recollection of the episode. Soon enough, in came Vaalberi, who too stoutly denied being given the marching orders after entering the ground all those years ago, but admitted to carrying a grudge still about being unfairly excluded on some other occasions, mainly on account of a rival's superior resources that enabled him to foot the lunch bill at matches.

 Murali was still not convinced I had been the victim of Bobji's belated success at counting up to twelve, so two days later, he asked my brother at the reception held at Chennai, if it had been he who had suffered the indignity of being found supernumerary at such a late hour. Sivaramakrishnan assured him that he had never played for MRC B and that the child prodigy he had in mind had indeed been his brilliant and deserving elder brother.

 Murali should not have bothered to ask so many people, because I could never be wrong about an incident that had had me close to tears. Ask any fifteen year old who has been dropped from the eleven - before or after the toss -- and he will tell you that he is not likely to forget the experience in a hurry. To be dropped after actually crossing the ropes to take the field was much worse than my friend Balu's experience of being run out first ball of the match off a ricochet from the bowler's hand, after he had sat up all night brushing up on Don Bradman's coaching tips for batsmen.

Though that first year in league cricket was forgettable in terms of personal achievement, the lunches courtesy the Hindu family were excellent, and I learnt to swear like a Madras rickshaw wallah from the good doctor Bala who opened our innings.

My second season was memorable. Playing for Jai Hind CC under the adventurous captaincy of the inimitable S Raman, I blossomed as an off spinner. He had complete faith in my bowling ability and gave me some superbly attacking fields. He was our best - and often only batsman - and my bowling efforts were wasted as my team invariably crashed to two-digit totals, losing ten matches and barely managing to draw one.

Decades later, Raman—a  good TT player in his youth like his younger brothers Lakshmanan and Bharathan, and now a vaastu expert—stopped me at a petrol station and extolled my bowling virtues, much to my embarrassment, moved as I was by his warmth and generosity. "You are good enough to play for India; next time I meet Venkataraghavan, I'll ask him why you could not play along with him for the state, so that the national selectors can consider you," he threatened. This was at the end of my career, but Raman felt I was still fit enough to bowl off spin for Tamil Nadu and India!

My embarrassment that morning was nothing compared to what I was to experience soon afterwards. He accosted Venkat and me at the upanayanam ceremony of a young cricketer, and actually proceeded to ask him why he had done nothing to promote my cricket career. He gave him a detailed account of my many sterling qualities of head and heart, and described the glory of my flight and the viciousness of my spin in such glowing terms that a passerby would have been pardoned for mistaking the object of his admiration to be Jim Laker or Erapalli Prasanna.

(The brothers S Raman, S Lakshmanan (bharatanatyam artiste Krishnaveni’s husband) and S Bharathan were all outstanding sportsmen in cricket and table tennis. All three of them are no more).

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