Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Speed merchant

Fast bowler CR Rangachari was one of the more outspoken Tamil Nadu cricketers I knew. I had the pleasure of getting to know him when he officiated as the manager of the South Zone cricket team for its Duleep Trophy and Deodhar Trophy matches during the 1978-79 season. The venue, Nagpur, was notorious for being somewhat player-unfriendly. The Indian captain Bishan Bedi for instance had to face the firing squad after he had demanded orange juice for his team at breakfast and hot water for their bath at the MLA hostel where they were staying during a Test match. 

The manager spared nobody with his sharp comments made in a loud voice, be it star batsman Brijesh Patel or the brilliant TE Srinivasan. The all rounder Roger Binny came in for special mention (remember he was some distance from playing for India). Rangachari told me, “This Binny, do you call him an opening bowler? He has no pace and no skill. Later he told Narasimha Rao, “What kind of opening batsman is Roger Binny? He has no technique.” That night, Roger, suitably lubricated during the team meeting in my room, knocked continuously on Rangachari’s door with the long pole kindly provided by the management for us to hang and unhang washed clothes in the tall clotheslines that decorated every room (Yes, the noises made by Bishan Bedi a few years ago had had no effect on the Vidarbha Cricket Association, our hosts, who believed that Spartan conditions brought out the best in cricketers; hot water was still a distant dream, and orange juice was still not part of the menu). 

Rangachari was particularly harsh on the newly married TE Srinivasan who had brought his wife with him. “Has he come to play cricket or enjoy marital bliss? He should have self-control,” he thundered. “When I had a Ranji Trophy match to play soon after marriage, my wife told me, “No mischief (I have censored the word Rangachari actually uttered) before the match!” He was indignation personified when Brijesh Patel was late for a team meeting. “Mr Patel may be a Test player, but I do not tolerate indiscipline from anyone,” he told the assembled team. However, we discovered that Mr Rangachari was something of a paper tiger, because he stopped all the ranting and raving the moment the player in question entered the room.

The team meetings were the best part of that trip, and they invariably took place in my spacious room, which the leg-n-leg players used as their watering hole every evening after a long day in the sun, with the two umpires Piloo Reporter and Rajen Mehra joining us and trading several rollicking stories with us. Reporter’s humour and flair for anecdotes merit a separate chapter.

For all the leg-pulling we indulged in at the manger’s expense, we had healthy respect for his cricketing prowess. His exploits for Madras were good enough for him to lay claim to being the best fast bowler his home state has produced.

With MJ Gopalan, he formed a deadly pair of opening bowlers, with Gopalan growing with the years into a seam and swing specialist and Rangachari himself remaining wedded to sheer space for most of his career.

Born on April 14, 1916, Rangachari learnt his cricket on the streets and bylanes Triplicane very much as his senior M J Gopalan had. Strongly built, Rangachari tried even as a kid to be a genuine fast bowler, and succeeded in generating considerable pace throughout his career. He was also a willing bowler of long spells.

Rangachari first caught the selectors' attention with a fine 9 for 45 against Mysore in the inter-association junior match of 1938. He made his Ranji Trophy debut the same year, and performed reasonably well.

In the very next season, Rangachari took 4 for 38 and helped bundle Mysore out for 108 at Chepauk. In his third season, his splendid bowling against United Provinces. led Madras to a win  by 25 runs,  Rangachari  5 for 75 and 3 for 31.

Rangachari, Ram Singh and leg spinner NJ Venkatesan had the formidable Maharashtra reeling at 56 for 5, before Vijay Hazare (137) and CT Sarwate (33) took the score to 284, gaining a match winning lead in the process.  Ranga's 4 for 71 included the scalps of  openers Bhalekar and Sohoni, as well as the redoubtable Prof. DB Deodhar.

In the second innings, he had the prolific Babu Nimbalkar caught behind by JAGC Law, but Maharashtra won by six wickets. Ranga also distinguished himself in the Presidency match, in which he took 4 for 41 and 4 for 30, helping the Indians win by 97 runs.
Rangachari joined the police force, and his cricket career developed nicely, as naturally fit and healthy, the policeman found in his official training new ways of keeping fit. He soon gained a reputation of being a tireless fast medium bowler and brilliant close-in fielder. He took several smart catches off the bowling of Ram Singh, fielding at silly mid-off. He also batted stubbornly towards the end of the innings.

Selected as a member of the Indian team to  Australia under the captaincy of Lala Amarnath in 1947-48, Ranga forced his way into the Test side with  some good performances in the first class matches including a hat trick against Tasmania. In his first Test at Adelaide, he bowled well without luck, beating Don Bradman a few times, and winning his  appreciation. He dismissed Keith Miller, Neil Harvey, Ray Lindwall and Ian Johnson to emerge as the most successful Indian bowler with four for 141 off 41 eight ball overs. On a visit to Chennai in 1998, Ranga was the first person Neil Harvey remembered from the city.

The Triplicane Express’s best Test performance was his 5 for 107 against West Indies in the New Delhi Test of the 1948-49 series. He claimed the wickets of Allan Rae, Jeff Stollmeyer and George Headley in a fiery opening spell and West Indies were reduced to 27 for 3. He also played in unofficial 'Tests' against the Australian Services team in 1945 and the first Commonwealth team in 1949-50.

In the Ranji Trophy, Rangachari led the Madras attack for many years and his 104 wickets cost him only 20.79 apiece. In a first class career that stretched from the late 1930s to the mid fifties, Rangachari took 200 wickets at an average of 25.98.

As a selector, coach and manager, Rangachari was known to be a good sport who spent considerable time mentoring his young wards, lightening the mood in the dressing room with entertaining if apocryphal stories from his own youth.

During the match at the beginning of this story, a young cricketer asked him if he was quicker than Kapil Dev. “Have you seen Wes Hall? Same speed!” was Rangachari’s instant response. Only it sounded like shame shpeed, thanks to the tobacco he was chewing.  The resultant giggles and tittering were understandable as the young listeners had never seen him in action or even read about his sterling deeds in first class cricket.

Those who actually did, remembered him as a speed merchant, tireless and persistent, even on dead wickets. He was a brave soldier of Madras cricket.

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