By V Ramnarayan
He was one of the most respected elder statesmen of Tamil Nadu cricket, long after his playing days were over, even beyond his days as a selector and administrator. He could be seen at the stadium, tall, handsome, ramrod straight and a picture of dignity, watching matches and appreciating the finer points of the game. When he could no longer make the effort to commute, he turned to television to absorb every nuance of the game. Not a single cricket match did he miss well into his nineties.
When M J Gopalan died on 21st December 2003, after a brief illness, he was 94, the oldest Test cricketer in the world and the lone survivor from the Madras team that played the first Ranji Trophy match. He it was who bowled the opening delivery in the national championship.
One of India’s two double internationals—the other was left hander C Ramaswami, who represented India in cricket and tennis—both from Madras of yore, Gopalan achieved excellence in cricket and hockey, but it was never an easy path for him. Hailing from a family of modest means, he had to fight his way up the sporting ladder, but he took good care of his health and fitness, and, naturally well endowed with strong bones and sinews, he was able to devote all his time to the pursuit of excellence on a cricket or hockey ground.
In 1926, Gopalan played for the Indians for the first time against the Europeans in the Presidency Match the greatest cricketing event in Madras before the advent of Test matches. In 1927-1928, when the first MCC team visited Madras, Gopalan captured four wickets for 87 for the Indians and three for 108 for Madras in the two matches the tourists played in the city. He also had a fine all round performance against West Indies, playing for South Zone.
It was C P Johnstone, the Kent, England-born Madras captain, who, instrumental in securing him a job with Burmah Shell, introduced the first element of security in the young all rounder’s life. Another Englishman, R C Summerhayes provided the inspiration for Gopalan to achieve excellence in hockey. On any match day, young Gopalan would cycle to Chepauk after finishing his daily rounds visiting Shell petrol stations, enter the arena just before the start of the match, change into his hockey shorts and run on to the field, accompanied by the roars of a cheering crowd.
Gopalan bowled the first ball in the Ranji Trophy, on 4 November 1934, at Chepauk, opening the bowling for Madras against Mysore, a match Madras won by an innings in a single day of cricket. Gopalan’s figures in the match were 8-2-11-0 and 12-4-20-3. He also scored 23, second to the topscorer C Ramaswami (26) in a Madras total of 130. On a rain-affected wicket Mysore managed only 48 and 59, AG Ram Singh wrecking their innings with his left-arm bowling.
Forsaking hockey and a chance to be selected for the Olympics—with the clear prospect of a gold medal—in favour of playing Test cricket, Gopalan was chosen to tour England in 1936, but was given few opportunities on the trip made notorious by the idiosyncratic captaincy of the Maharajah of Vizianagaram, who sent Lala Amarnath home midway on so-called disciplinary grounds. Earlier, a fine piece of bowling for an All-India XI in Calcutta against Jack Ryder’s Australian XI had won him a place in the Indian team for the second ‘Test’ in that series.
“On figures alone Gopalan is entitled to an honoured place in the history of the game, but his greatness can never be measured by the yardstick. If only he had wanted he could have hit more centuries, but Gopalan never stays at the crease unless he must. To him the game alone is all that matters and nothing else. He approaches it in a cavalier spirit and bats and bowls with a freshness and vigour that fill the field and heighten the game”, wrote P N Sundaresan, The Hindu’s sports correspondent, during Gopalan’s silver jubilee year in cricket.
Gopalan was a spontaneous strokemaker, who breathed aggression all the time he was at the crease. As a bowler, he began his career trying to bowl fast and short, but with experience, especially after his 1936 tour of England, he concentrated on length and movement. Gopalan’s subtle variations and control made him a feared bowler even in his forties. He might have been capped more often for India but for the presence of a galaxy of fast bowlers during his period, like Nissar, Amar Singh, Jehangir Khan, and Nazir Ali.
Gopalan served the game of cricket for long after his career was over. As a national selector, he was responsible for Tamil Nadu cricketers of the calibre of A G Kripal Singh, A G Milkha Singh and V V Kumar playing for India. He took his job as Madras University selector equally seriously, and this writer is one of several young cricketers to have benefited from his ability and courage to recognize talent overlooked by his colleagues. In his old age, he became a great fan of Kapil Dev, in whose swashbuckling ways he saw glimpses of his own versatile talent. The two all rounders often met whenever India played a Test match at Chennai, and they made a striking looking pair.
The permanence of Gopalan’s place in the annals of Indian cricket was—or should have been—assured when the annual tournament between Madras and Ceylon was named after him. Unfortunately, after Sri Lanka gained Test recognition, enthusiasm for the Gopalan Trophy contests between the island nation and Tamil Nadu flagged and efforts to revive the tournament since the 1990s have been less than successful. The last attempt was in 2007, when R Ashwin led Tamil Nadu against not Sri Lanka, but a squad comprising under-19 and ‘A’ team players. For over three decades, however, the tournament, launched in 1952-53, gave much pleasure to spectators in both countries and exposed young cricketers to the international experience.