Thursday, July 4, 2013

At the Madras Cricket Club

An excerpt from "The Spirit of Chepauk", 1998.

I first set my eyes on the beautiful English village green-like outfield of that elite Cricket club of Madras, the Madras CC, in the Sixties. Every youngster dreamt of playing there one day, of diving full length on its springy, velvety grass, without bruising himself badly as he was likely to on any other ground. The only other exception to the general rule of matting wickets and less than adequately grassed outfields prevalent then in all of Madras was another lovely ground, this one in distant Tambaram, inside the sylvan campus of the Madras Christian College.

There was magic in the air as I stepped into the old pavilion of pre-stadium vintage. Everything looked as I had imagined an English clubhouse would look like, from years of being brought up on a diet of Wisdens, Sport and Pastimes and Test Match Specials. There were wrought iron chairs — and cane ones — there was a coir carpet on the wooden floor, the bathrooms were tiled and there were lockers for players to keep their stuff in. It all seemed luxurious and ever so stylish. The names of Indians and Europeans, Test teams and other first class cricket elevens who played at Chepauk inscribed on the wooden panels on the walls lent just the right touch of nostalgia and enchantment. C P Johnstone and H P Ward figured in so many places. Nailer was someone I had heard my uncle P N Sundaresan describe, with rapture in his voice, for the daring of his strokeplay. There were other names which ex­cited my interest for more immediate reasons. A W Stansfeld was someone who lived not very far from my home and to realise that he had batted, bowled and fielded on this very ground all those aeons ago was to feel a quickening of the pulse.

I could not wait to change into my cricket gear and run on to the ground to knock a few around or take some catches or merely take in lungfuls of Chepauk air. I dashed out of the gracious old clubhouse, past the lawn and on to the tree-shaded ground only to find that half my teammates were already there showing rare alacrity and athleticism while they were making the most of a rare opportunity. Can today's young cricketer who has so many first rate cricket grounds and such splendid facilities to choose from, ever un­derstand the thrill we felt in our hearts on our first outing at Chepauk?
It was what is known in Madras cricket parlance as a practice match, meaning nothing was at stake beyond aching bones and good natured leg pulling at the end of the match — no trophy, no title, no points won or lost. My team, Nungambakkam Sports Club 'A', was led by the irrepressible D Ranganathan, popu­larly known as 'Don' Rangan, a fiercely competitive wicketkeeper-batsman who singlehandedly leased the Pithapuram ground at present day Nandanam and provided top class practice facilities for his players as well as anyone else who wanted to have a regular net. Rangan felt his team could beat just about any side and entered every match with that kind of cocky self-assur­ance. It was hardly surprising then that he approached the Madras CC pavilion that morning more than 30 years ago and announced to all and sundry how we proposed to pulverise the opposition.

Talking to Rangan recently, I came away with the story that we had thrashed the Madras CC in that match, though my own memory suggests that it was a drawn encounter in which we finished on more or less level terms with our redoubtable opponents. Whatever the result, the match was an unforgettable experience. For most of us, it was our first experience of a turf wicket. I remember that fielding was an undiluted plea­sure that day and we all chased, dived and picked and threw as we had only seen happen in Test matches.

I also remember that the Chepauk wicket was a truly sporting one. It had some purchase for the quicker bowlers as well as the spinners, without offering much turn, but the bowlers could hardly complain of lack of life in the turf. Batting on it was sheer delight. Even I, normally a tailender, enjoyed a measure of success, driving off both front and back foot. I had on that occasion my first glimpse of the teasing swing of Bala, the accurate medium pace of M Subramaniam and the relatively quick bowling of Prabhakar Rao. I was to play strokes with a freedom seldom experienced by me on matting.

There were loud guffaws from the close-in fielders every time I sent the ball to the boundary and I was puzzled if not hurt by their seeming amusement at the way I batted. It took me a while to realise that they were actually pulling the legs of their bowlers; it was all part of the camaraderie and sense of fun that characterised the Madras CC's matches — the practice matches at any rate.

Before all that, I had my first and, perhaps, last glimpse of C D Gopinath's batting. The veteran was no longer very active in cricket, but all of us could easily see that he had been a class batsman, very correct and stylish. His timing was admirable as was that of M K Balakrishnan, whose elegance and assurance took my breath away. Bala was easily the best batsman I had seen up to that point at close quar­ters, and why this versatile sportsman did not play for India was a mystery to me that day. It still is.

I don't remember achieving any great success as a bowler on the occasion, though that was my area of specialisation. Rangan, however, assures me that I bagged six of the best. I think I got one or two wickets at the most — and if that was hardly sensational, I didn't disgrace myself either.

That was my first encounter in a match situation with one of the most popular characters of the Club, the late Phil 'Clubby' Clubwala. Clubby was the sort of person you had to see to believe. His close-cropped hair, soupstrainer moustache and ruddy complexion gave him a distinct, military bearing even if his bow-legged walk and easy affability did not. His essential good nature, sense of humour and gregariousness made him popular in more than one sport at the Club, but, here, I shall try to paint a picture only of the extraor­dinary devotion with which he pursued cricket. Clubby practised with the singlemindedness of a Bradman. He would be the first person to arrive at the BS Nets on the north side of the ground and get his quota of bat­ting on the coir mat wicket there. Playing and missing countless times, he would frustrate the poor bowlers who, being the optimists most of us are, lived in hope — hope that one day they would find that elusive edge or that, when they did, the snick would go to hand. Then he would send down some elaborately delivered off-breaks which, more often than not, went straight as an arrow. Clubby wouldn't be satisfied with all the huffing and puffing that went into all this hectic activ­ity. He would troop off to the Madras CC net and get a solid 45 minutes of batting on turf, engaging the markers and ballboys and some unsuspecting college crick­eter he whisked away from the BS Nets.

For all the practice he did, Clubby was a strokeless wonder in matches, once remaining 37 n.o. in a full day's batting. His bowling had more sting than did his batting and everyone admired his wholehearted effort and cheerful demeanour, regardless of success or fail­ure.

From 1981 to 1990, I played regularly against the Madras CC in the TNCA League and, while the oldtimers of the Club fought gamely on, the inroads made by corporate teams could not be resisted for long. And the Club eventually got relegated to the Second Division.

I had the pleasure of accompanying to Australia the Madras Occasionals, consisting mostly of Madras CC members and led by Ram Ramesh. I was one of two guest bowlers who bore the burden of the attack, much in the manner of the early professionals in En­glish and Australian cricket, while the Madras CC bats­men made merry at the expense of club teams in Austra­lia. The two Arvinds, Gopinath and Subramaniam, made tons of runs. Arvind Gopinath looked particu­larly stylish and classy as he dominated some quality attacks on that tour. He, like many of his teammates, was an excellent ambassador for his country with his polished demeanour on and off the field, but his laidback attitude to cricket, though blessed with oodles of talent which should have taken him much farther, puzzled me. When I probed further, he admitted he didn't pursue cricket with the dedication of his father because he did not wish to face the heartbreak of disap­pointments and dejection that can befall any sports­man.

The men who surprised me on the tour were those cheerful fringe players who I had assumed had merely come to have a good time. It was an assumption based on their seemingly blase attitude to matters cricketing. I was to soon find out how mistaken I was. On the few occasions their services were required, Jaspal Singh, Navtej Singh and Kumar Calappa showed that for all their casual exterior, they gave 100 per cent on the field. It was important for every one of them that the Club's fair name be protected — and, as a consequence, they, as much as the more regular players, contributed to our unbeaten record on that tour during which we played at some wonderful venues and against at least one Test cricketer, Ross Edwards. A couple of young­sters who showed considerable promise on that tour were leg-spinning all-rounder Renjit Kuruvilla and wicketkeeper-batsman 'Sunny' Ramesh. Both had an excellent tour. Kuruvilla has gone on to do extremely well for the Club, with his clean hitting and his fastish leg-breaks, and still turns out for it, while Ramesh, who has represented the State, no longer plays for the Club.

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