The greatest cricketer not to have played for India
By V Ramnarayan
The bright spot of my school years at Chennai was my school sending me to attend coaching camps at the Madras Cricket Association’s BS Nets. I was lucky enough to come under the benevolent gaze of AG Ram Singh and TS Worthington, two wonderful coaches. Both knew when to coach and when to leave well alone. KS Kannan, who assisted them, was another marvellous coach with great empathy for the diffident among the boys.
Almost every cricketer who knew A G Ram Singh not only loved and respected him but owed him at least a small debt of gratitude—for a kind word at the right time, a vital piece of advice when things were going wrong with our cricket, or just his strong, quiet presence in the sidelines at important games.
Ram Singh was the chief destroyer of Mysore in the inaugural Ranji Trophy match at Chepauk in December 1934, taking eleven wickets in the match. For years after that, he repeated that kind of bowling performance many times, and was also the team's most consistent batsmen. A tribute written in 1953 said: "Anybody who goes through the scorebooks of the Madras Cricket Association will be struck by the amazing consistency of A G Ram Singh, the stockily built all-rounder. It would indeed be a truism to repeat that Ram Singh bore the burden of Madras cricket on his shoulders as very few had done before and none after him. Centuries flowed from his bat while with his left-handed spinners he sent many a batsman to his doom. More than any other, Mysore and Hyderabad States have cause to remember Ram Singh's prowess, for against them he was in his best form. Not that Ram Singh did not prove himself against better teams than those. Just after the war, he bearded the lion in its own den, when in the zonal tournament at Bombay he played a magnificent century knock against the best of India's bowlers. It was an innings that many who witnessed it said should have earned Ram Singh a place in the Indian team to England in 1946 but the 'nabobs' of cricket thought otherwise."
Before his father moved to Madras, young Ram Singh lived just a huge six away from the scene of the Jallian Wala Bagh massacre in Amritsar. "He and other members of the family were locked in a small room and they could hear the gunshots and the shrieks of the people," wrote K Sunder Rajan, Sports Editor, The Hindu, in 1980. An avid spectator of British soldiers' cricket, the young sardar was fascinated by the doings of the Englishmen on the Island ground and Chepauk once he came to Madras, and found he was a natural. According to Sunder Rajan, "On the day he landed at Madras, his father wanted to take him to the beach. On the way he saw members of the Madras Cricket Club practising at Chepauk. He was so passionately fond of cricket that he appealed to his father to watch cricket rather than go to the beach."
In the first Ranji Trophy season, Ram Singh took 6 for 19 and 5 for 16 against Mysore, scoring 14 in a total of 130. Against Hyderabad, he scored 74 and 70, and had bowling figures of 5 for 88 and 6 for 71.
In the second season, 1935-1936, he made 25 and zero versus Mysore, but took one for 63 and 5 for 55. against Hyderabad, he claimed 2 for 77 and 6 for 32, besides remaining unbeaten in both innings with 121 and 57. In the semifinal, which Madras won by 91 runs, he made 9 and 11, while capturing 4 for 43 and 4 for 30 against Bengal. In the final that Madras lost to Bombay, the sardar scored 32 and 3 while returning figures of one for 77 and 5 for 92.
Ram Singh was overlooked when the Indian team to tour England was chosen in 1936. Ten years later, he once again missed the boat despite a brilliant century in a trial match prior to the tour of England. (In the only Ranji Trophy tie Madras played in 1935, losing to Mysore, Ram Singh had scores of 40 and 17, and took 3 for 64 and one for 80. Next year, the same fate befell Madras, and Ram Singh scored 32 and went wicketless in a short spell against Mysore).
Madras, or for that matter, Tamil Nadu later, has not produced many genuine left arm all rounders. Ram Singh was certainly the only one in that category to show equal prowess in both batting and bowling.
A keen student of the game who came under the influence of the Sussex professional AF Wensley, Ram Singh eschewed all frills in his batting and believed in spending long hours at the nets. He was a strong hooker of anything pitched short, but generally waited for the bad ball, rather than try to play extravagant strokes. He played long innings and revelled in crisis situations. In short, he was the Mr Reliable of the pre-Independence Madras team.
Starting out as a quickish spin bowler in his youth, Ram Singh developed "a tantalising flight" in his mature years. His accuracy was proverbial and 'never say die' his philosophy as a bowler. On a rain affected wicket or a turner, he was virtually unplayable.
Ram Singh took to coaching in his retirement from cricket playing, serving in the National Institute of Sports and under the Rajkumari Amrit Kaur scheme. He coached well into his eighties and was much beloved in the Venkata Subba Rao school where he continued his work after his retirement from official duties at the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association.
He was arguably the greatest cricketer never to have played for his country. He had the satisfaction of watching two of his sons grow up into Test players and at least one more develop into a Test class batsman kept out by injury. His grandsons too played good cricket, living testimony to the Ram Singh heritage. They, like hundreds of other Tamil Nadu cricketers, learnt their cricket at his knee.