Tuesday, August 6, 2013

CD Gopinath: An aristocrat among cricketers

CD Gopinath was the aristocrat of the Madras team of the 1950s. Not only was he from an elite social background—his father CP Doraikannu was general manager of Indian Overseas Bank—his cricket too was quite regal. He batted with panache, and seemed to have the kind of time to play his shots that tends to invest batting with an air of majesty. Of erect stance and equipped with a range of shots all around the wicket, he averaged over 50 in Ranji Trophy cricket during an era of uncovered turf wickets and matting. He scored two brilliant hundreds in the year Madras won the national championship for the first time under Balu Alaganan’s stewardship, sharing the batting honours with his younger teammate AG Kripal Singh. He scored 122 against Bengal in the semifinal and 133 against Holkar in the final. Remarkably, those were the only two Ranji matches he played that season, and they also happened to be his first two hundreds in the championship. He had debuted as far back as the 1949-50 season, starting most inauspiciously with a pair against Mysore. His 74 and unbeaten 53 against Mysore at Bangalore in the 1950-51 season must have cemented his place in the side.

The late Alaganan who lauded Gopinath’s role in that success—along with those played by Kripal Singh, indubitably the star of the season, MK Murugesh, AK Sarangapani and others—also credited Gopinath with vital tactical inputs. He said, “In the semifinal, C D Gopinath plotted Pankaj Roy’s dismissal on the hook shot off the bowling of BC Alva with his fastish offbreaks. We had a fielder about halfway to the boundary, Alva bowled short and Roy could not resist the temptation.” (Alaganan and Gopinath had played for college and club together as well. In an interview, Alaganan once related with much delight an anecdote involving young Gopinath, who did not see eye to eye with the Madras Christian College principal’s view that his cricketers could not play for other teams. According to Balu, Gopinath played for a club under an assumed name and scored a hundred once).

Gopinath who became state captain the very next season following Alaganan’s retirement, came to be known for his capable leadership, but could not repeat Alaganan’s success, though he continued in his role till 1963. He had been much more successful as captain of the Madras Cricket Club in the local league, leading the team to the Palayampatti Shield title in his very first season as captain in 1957-58. He repeated the feat the following season, and twice again in 1960-61 and 1965-66. As captain of Madras, Gopinath relied on his spinners led by the champion leg spinner VV Kumar, and played a key role in the development of his bowlers. In the league, however he had to rely on swing and seam, with N Kannayiram, all rounders MK Balakrishnan and MM Kumar, and Burmah Shell’s HW Joynt leading an effective pace attack.
Gopinath’s nine first class hundreds included a highest of 234 against Mysore in the Ranji Trophy and a grand 175 versus the touring New Zealand team in 1955.

He made an impressive Test debut in 1951-52, playing two lovely innings of 50 not out and 42 against England in a drawn match at Bombay. It must have been a daunting experience for the young man to bat at No. 8 in a line-up that had Roy, Mantri, Umrigar, Hazare, Amarnath and Sarwate and Adhikari bat ahead of him in the order and Vinoo Mankad after him! He seemed to have coped very well, scoring a fluent half-century in a first innings total of 485. The story was different in the second innings. India were 77 for 6 when Gopinath went in, and soon 88 for 7, before he and Mankad put on 71 for the eighth wicket. He made 35 in the final Test at Madras, which India won, its first Test victory over England.

Gopinath fared quite well in an unofficial Test series against the touring Commonwealth team, a fighting unbeaten 67 that helped India to ward off an innings defeat the highlight of his performances.  He made a few runs in the limited opportunities that came his way in Pakistan in 1954-55, after declining an invitation to tour the West Indies a couple of seasons earlier! Those days, it was not unthinkable for a player to make himself unavailable for Test cricket for business reaons.

Omitted for the tour of England in 1959, but brought into the team again in the final Test against Australia at Calcutta in the 1959-60 season, he played a fighting knock of 39, topscoring in the first innings as India collapsed, but made no run in the second innings—when India fared much better. He was Richie Benaud’s victim in both innings. He never played for India again.

It is difficult to resist the conclusion after studying Gopinath’s career records, and having watched him bat with great style and confidence, that he did not receive a fair deal from the selectors. His was certainly a talent worth nurturing. In domestic cricket, he continued to bring joy to the Madras partisan, with several top innings of great authority. This writer had the pleasure of bowling to him in a local match in the 1960s. None of his skill had left him, though he was by now essentially a Sunday cricketer.

After his playing days, Gopinath became a national selector and toured England in 1979 as the manager of the Indian team. Today, he comes across as a thoughtful commentator on the game, when approached for his views. At a recent function to launch the Wisden India almanac, he gave the audience some amusing glimpses into the past by recalling the infinitesimal “smoke allowance” Test players received in his days, and the nature of the accommodation they enjoyed in Pakistan: a railway compartment! He also suggested that 20-20 cricket be renamed as something else than cricket, just like snooker and pool as different from billiards.

Nowadays 83-year-old Gopinath and his wife Comala, a champion golfer in her day, live at their Coonoor residence.

No comments: