Friday, November 14, 2008

Playing for India

Former England Test cricketer Basil D'Oliveira first showed signs of his class on a tour of the West Indies with Derek Robins's team. Young Kapil Dev impressed senior Indian cricketers with his phenomenal talent on a private tour of East Africa and not long afterwards, he was in the Indian team that toured Pakistan. Teams like Cricket Club of India and Hyderabad Blues have been excellent ambassadors of India, not only in the regular Test playing nations, but in other countries where a small minority pursue the sport with passion. They take young cricketers - and veterans - to some unusual locations of stunning beauty.

I can never forget the experience of playing for Hyderabad Blues before 35,000 paying spectators at Dhaka, in January 1978, long before any Test nation toured the newly-formed Bangladesh. We might have been a loose combination of players from all over India, but as our acting skipper Ajit Wadekar reminded us minutes before the toss, no matter what we were called, we were the Indian team and it was as good as a Test match. The match was played in all seriousness, like the rest of the matches on that tour of Australia, South East Asia and Bangladesh.`

Today, we have the A team concept and India's young hopefuls gain valuable exposure to international cricket in conditions they do not experience at home. In the 1970s, tours by clubs like the Blues or CCI filled this gap admirably. What they also did was to enable young cricketers to mingle with Test cricketers, past and present, and enrich their cricket education. Equally fortunate were cricketers who knew they had missed the bus and would never otherwise visit these nations and play against their Test and first class cricketers in superb cricketing conditions full of history.

An example of the kind of preparation such tours afforded youngsters was the experience of playing in Australia, where even club grounds have 85-yard boundaries. Anyone who has chased the ball to the fence and thrown it back to the keeper on one of these vast grounds is more likely to go home and strengthen his throwing arm than a stranger to those conditions. You also learnt to bowl and bat on wickets vastly different from Indian pitches.Private tours make for greater interaction with people of the host nation than Test tours do. Very often, the visiting cricketers are billeted with cricketers' families and the resultant friendships are sometimes lifelong.

My own unforgettable memories include playing against and sharing a few beers back in 1978 at a Perth clubhouse, with a young Englishman called David Gower, who we thought was not a bad little player! Gower opened the innings for the club Claremont Cottesloe, and treating our medium pacers with scant respect, got away to a flier, making 30 odd in no time. His innings was all too brief, for the wicket yielded some purchase, and the two off spinners of our side, my skipper Jaisimha and I, created serious problems for the young lefthander. To my disappointment, a couple of chances went abegging off my bowling and Gower eventually fell to Jai, though I took five wickets in the innings.

That evening, Gower and the secretary of the club asked me if I would play for the club as a professional the following season as Gower was not returning. This was not only a huge honour but a tremendous opportunity as well, but I refused the offer as it would clash with the Indian first class season. I was at the time close to selection to the Indian team and did not want to jeopardise my chances with the long awaited tour of Pakistan round the corner. As it turned out, I did not even make it to the probables list before the tour, despite my record. Thus are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities missed by those who want to play safe.

That innings was one of the high points of my bowling on that tour in which I led the pack with 35 wickets. Another was my performance under gruelling conditions in Penang against an RAF side, when Jai cursed me fluently after I asked to be taken off (the only time in my life), having run out of shirts and trousers, drenched in perspiration as never before or after in my career, and unable to grip the ball, the sweat simply pouring out from every pore in my body. “Stop giving me f---ing excuses! Can’t grip the ball indeed! God save me from bloody sissies!” he said. I had no option but to go on.

My final figures of 30-8-47-8 leading to a thumping win were more than adequate compensation for all the trouble, but even more pleasurable was the praise Jai dished out over a couple of drinks—again for the first time in my life, because cricketers, especially those belonging to the old school, generally don’t believe in praising you to your face.

If these were some of the high points, I had a few low ones as well on that tour, starting with our first match—against Kowloon Cricket Club at Kowloon, Hong Kong. Both leg spinner Narasimha Rao (Bobjee) and I bowled badly in that game, nearly losing it for us. Occasional medium pacer K Jayantilal, our opening batsman, came to our rescue, bowling an unplayable spell of swing and seam, and picking up some seven wickets for next to nothing. That night, we received our first dressing down of the tour, with Ajit Wadekar telling us for the first time that we were the Indian team, no less. He also confessed how much he had benefited from Jai’s wise counsel on the victorious West Indies tour of 1971.

We quickly recovered from that initial shock on the morrow, when we beat the stronger Hong Kong Cricket Club by a big margin, with my brother Sivaramakrishnan and his fellow left hander P Ramesh scoring hundreds at the top of the order, and me acquiring the only hat trick of my life. Ajit Wadekar took two splendid diving catches at backward short leg, reminding us all what a brilliant close-in fielder he was.

Our experience against Singapore Cricket Club, later on the tour, was even worse. In a near replica of the Kowloon match, we were again rescued from a fate worse than death by Jayantilal, who picked up six wickets after the regular bowlers had proved to be profligate. Jai was never known to be a gracious loser, and this time was no exception. The hospitality in the barroom of the club was long and expansive, but Jai was quite happy to put our hosts firmly in their places for the crowing they had indulged in earlier when the game seemed to be heading their way. Well past closing time, everyone except Jai and the unhappy threesome of Vinod Reddy, Bobjee and I, had left, after the hosts had offered in vain to drop us home, failing to persuade our angry skipper to get up from his perch. We finally left after the staff started shutting doors and windows pointedly.

Soon we wandered out, walking extremely carefully with the kind of dignity only the inebriated can muster, but soon realised that all our hosts had gone home. There was no taxi in sight either, and Jai was ranting and raving by now, cursing his extreme bad luck that made it necessary for him to play cricket with such nincompoops. Still unable to locate a cab, we walked on, trying not to pay any attention to the captain’s lecture, not realising that we had drifted into a freeway where no vehicle would stop. We saw several taxis fly past us not heeding our desperate pleas and fluent curses in chaste Hyderabadi. All of 90 minutes later, a kindly taxi driver going in the opposite direction, took pity on us, and stopped for us. He of course had to go all the way to where we started before he could take a U turn and drop us at the hotel. It was three in the morning when we reached there!

Coming back to the match at Dacca, Bobjee and I again went wicketless on a white, gleaming clay wicket, which yielded turn but extremely slow turn. Batting first, we made over 400, with Ajit Wadekar making a hundred and Sivaramakrishnan and Jayantilal playing substantial knocks. The Bangladesh team made a decent reply, some 300 plus for seven or eight, batting out nearly two days. It was slow, excruciating attrition and the Hyderabad bowlers had to be content with containment. Tukaram Surve, our veteran wicket keeper conceded 69 byes and was mercilessly teased by Wadekar, leading the team in the absence of Jaisimha, already back in Hyderabad to finalise the arrangements for his benefit match. “You were in great form, Godfrey,’ he said, calling Surve by his nickname on the tour—after the former England great Godfrey Evans. Surve’s retort was quick and angry: “How do you expect me to keep to these spinners? One of them bowls off breaks on the leg stump and the other his googlies outside it!”

Later that evening Wadekar told Surve that both Bobjee and I were deeply hurt by his remarks. A very contrite Surve then sought me out and apologised profusely. “I’m so sorry, Rama. You actually bowled well for the first time on the tour!”

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Kaka of Bombay

Yesterday was a perfect day. It was my 61st birthday; my kids called me from abroad; I went to a great concert (Sanjeev Abhyankar); my blog started getting noticed thanks to Sriram Veera and Cricinfo; an eccentric informal group I belong to—the Raga-muffins—got written about in the Times of India; and I found out I shared my birthday with Brett Lee as I do with another cricketer, Murtuza Ali Baig.

Yesterday was a perfect day. Or so I thought, until my brother called with the horrible news—our old cricket mate, wicket keeper H Sundaram, had accidentally fallen to his death from the roof of his house.

Sundaram, Sundu to most of his friends, was an unusual left hander among wicketkeepers. His lefthandedness showed in his keeping, as he often gathered with one hand, the left hand. It often produced spectacular results, especially in the form of legside stumpings. He loved to stand up to the medium pacers and remove the bails in a flash. In the 1970s, he was regarded as the best stumper in Tamil Nadu, and even played for the State briefly, until one fine morning, miffed at being overlooked in favour of the young Bharat Reddy, he wrote to the cricket association asking them not to consider him any more for selection.

Sundu was a close friend of my brother Sivaramakrishnan, and a member of a cricket 'gang' who have stayed in touch over the decades. He played for the Indian Overseas Bank team in the local league and later became a state selector. He and I played together for Madras University in Rohinton Baria back in 1969, when we reprieved a young Bangalore University batsman fresh from a tour of Australia with the Indian Schoolboys. The talented Brijesh Patel survived to score a hundred that day, and he and Sundu were among those who went on to play for South Zone University that year in the Vizzy Trophy.

This has been a bad year for cricketers. Not long ago, K Ganapathi, an outstanding off spinner-opening batsman whose career coincided with that of Test off spinner S Venkataraghavan, died in almost identical circumstances. Ganpa was a good friend of mine.

Just when I was recovering from that blow came the news of Ashok Mankad's unexpected death in his sleep. Kaka, as he was known to one and all, had been a cricketer I greatly admired for his phenomenal feats as a batsman in domestic cricket and his astute leadership. And for a few years, we enjoyed a great rapport whenever we met as foes on the cricket field or friends off the field, for example, during a conditioning camp for India's Test probables of 1977-78 at Chepauk. That is when we shared a dressing room, and he kept me and the rest of the boys constantly entertained with his mostly apocryphal cricket stories. One particular anecdote involving 'Nana of Poona', P G Joshi, the late Indian wicket keeper, had us convulsed.

That was the first time I heard the typically Mumbaiyya expression 'leg n' leg' that Kaka repeatedly used to describe our condition after our coach Darshan Tandon put us through the wringer day after day. The Indian skipper Bishan Bedi, away playing county cricket in England, joined the camp only for the last three days or so. Kaka's brilliant impersonation of how Bishan would come into the stadium for training on his first morning in the camp and find no-one there was a brilliant act of mimicry. Imitating the captain, and giving wild vent to his imagination, Mankad went through the whole gamut of emotions—surprise, bewilderment, anxiety, and finally anger—peaking with the dawning of realisation in a sterling show of the adbhuta rasa, when Bishan finds the entire team jogging on the roof of the stadium.

Bishan was part of the audience that stood around Mankad at M L Jaisimha's Marredpally, Secunderabad residence one evening during Jai's benefit match, in which the Indian team led by Bedi played against an 'international' eleven captained by Jai. Asif Iqbal, Sarfraz Nawaz, Imran Khan, Zaheer Abbas and Mushtaq Mohammed formed the strong Pakistani contingent at the match. Most of them gathered around Kaka, who told story after story, embellishing fact with fiction, slowly building up suspense in each tale, like the master raconteur he was.

Mankad was growing redder and redder in the face as the beer kept flowing after a long day in the sun, and the rest of us were struggling to stay on our feet as he kept us all in rollicking good humour.

That morning, Sunil Gavaskar had pulled a long hop from me straight into Mankad's hands at deep square leg, and one of the guests, a police official, who was generally inflicting his company on the celebrity cricketers at the party, now reminded Kaka about that. “Mr Mankad,” he said, wagging a naughty finger at Kaka, “is there an old rivalry between you and Mr Gavaskar?” Not satisfied with Kaka's firm reply in the negative, he said, “Then why did he fling his bat in the dressing room after getting out and mutter, 'Sala, drops catches in Test matches, holds mine in a benefit match'?”

Mankad's riposte was a classic, but one he was quick to stress was just a joke. He said, “Reddy Saab, catch me dropping Sunil Gavaskar! Wake me up at midnight and I will hold his catches!"

We all knew that the two Bombay mates had enormous respect for each other, but that did not mean they could not indulge in the kind of friendly rivalry and banter at each other's expense that make competitive sport so memorable. The laughter that greeted Mr Reddy's unintended, indiscreet humour was loud and long. And laughter is what true sportsmen would want to be remembered with, I am sure.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mumtaz Hussain

This is your last chance Taz. You'd better give it all you've got. I don't know what you'll do, but you must get wickets. If you don't, I'll have no choice but to drop you for the next game at Madras.

Abid Ali, the Hyderabad captain, spoke these words in a matter of fact voice, but his heart was heavy as he uttered them, because the man he was addressing was the seniormost player in the eleven after the captain himself. The selectors had told him in unequivocal terms that his senior left arm spinner was on trial.

Mumtaz Hussain, the recipient of the bad news, was close to the end of a distinguished career in which he had taken 173 Ranji Trophy wickets at less than twenty runs apiece. He had been a vital part of the Hyderabad spin attack, forging a successful partnership with off spinner Naushir Mehta, no longer a member of the team, having been replaced a few years earlier by me. The occasion was a Ranji Trophy match against Kerala at Kollam.

Initially depressed and dejected, Mumtaz decided on calm reflection, that it was time to unveil the rare bag of tricks he had kept hidden from public view for over a decade. In his Ranji Trophy career, he had stuck to bowling left arm orthodox spin, never attempting the bizarre variety he had unleashed on unsuspecting batsmen in the inter university matches for the Rohinton Baria Cup in the late 1960s. He then had the standard left arm spinner’s stock delivery which left the right hand batsman, bowled a chinaman using his wrist, a googly from the back of the hand, and both these deliveries with a finger spin action for variety. Batsmen were completely foxed by his changes of grip and action, or the lack of either, as they misread ball after ball, until they were bowled, caught, lbw or stumped, simultaneously looking very, very foolish indeed.

One famous victim was Sunil Gavaskar of Bombay University in 1970. He describes in his autobiographical 'Sunny Days' how he shouted to his partner Ramesh Nagdev that he had learnt to read Mumtaz, only to be completely fooled by one that looked like a perfect Chinaman but went the other way.

Wicket-keepers were not immune to the Mumtaz magic either. They had to resort to secret signals to anticipate what would come their way from a Mumtaz Hussain in midseason form.

The first innings was over at Kollam and Kerala was heading for defeat. Not bringing Mumtaz on even for a solitary over in the first innings, Abid Ali tossed the ball, barely seven or eight overs old, to the left arm spinner in the second. He dearly wanted his old teammate to perform well today and save him the embarrassment of being dropped.

In his very first over, Mumtaz attempted a chinaman, despite the newness of the ball. The ball pitched short, but the batsman did not take advantage of the long hop. Very soon, Mumtaz’s length improved reasonably but more important, he bowled a few unplayable deliveries and ended up with a bag of six wickets, though his loose deliveries were hit to the boundary.

The next stop for the Hyderabad team was Chepauk, Madras. The Tamil Nadu batting line-up was formidable, with V. Sivaramakrishnan, V. Krishnaswamy, T. E. Srinivasan and Abdul Jabbar prominent in it. Once again Mumtaz displayed his wares, for the second time after his university days. He was now up against a foe of great talent. There would be no meek surrender this time. He would not find the edge or a defensive blade as often as he encountered in the previous match. Still, Mumtaz claimed five utterly bamboozled batsmen, including Sivaramakrishnan, who went chasing a delivery outside the off stump like one hypnotised, and Krishnaswamy, who was bowled trying to withdraw his bat.

There was a brief moment in cricket history when fame and fortune flirted with Mumtaz Hussain, teasing him and cheating him in the end. He had just completed taking 48 wickets for the season in Rohinton Baria, a record until then, and had been included in the Board President's team to play against the touring West Indies led by Gary Sobers. The other left arm spinner in the squad answered to the name of Bishan Singh Bedi, a young bowler of immense promise. The chairman of selectors was former India captain Ghulam Ahmed--who belonged to Hyderabad--intent on being seen to be scrupulously fair as a selector. When it came to a choice between Bedi and Mumtaz, the local boy naturally lost out, or so the story goes.

Ghulam Ahmed's decision was justified by subsequent events, as Bedi took six wickets in the match and went on to become arguably the world's greatest left arm spinner of all time. But had fate been kind to the Hyderabadi in selection terms, what might have been his future in the game? When Indian batsmen found him practically unreadable, what chance did batsmen overseas enjoy of surviving his wiles and tricks? Had he played against West Indies at Fateh Maidan the day Bedi made such an impressive showing, could the Hyderabadi have made a sensational impact on the world stage?

These questions are merely hypothetical and not for a moment is it being suggested that Mumtaz was a greater bowler than Bedi, but it remains an unsolved mystery of domestic cricket why the former gave up his delightfully mysterious wares, and toed the line as an orthodox spinner in Ranji Trophy cricket, untouched by the greatness that might have been his, had he chosen the other path. Did his captain and seniors tell him to do so in the interest of economy and accuracy, as claimed by his teammates or did he do so of his own volition, as some others have suggested? What heights might he have reached had he continued, considering the way he resumed his old magic from where he left off after a gap of ten years, without any substantial loss of effect?

Mumtaz Hussain is no more today, a victim of cancer. Essentially happy go lucky, he had more than his share of woes in his short life of 52 years. The loss of a daughter a few years earlier was a grievous blow. Yet the enduring image of my old team mate and colleague is that of a man of a cheerful disposition, given to grinning wickedly at batsmen he had fooled.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Lawrence of Madras

‘T.E.’ The initials can mean only one person in Madras: not the English genius T E Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia, but T E Srinivasan, one of the better batsmen Tamil Nadu cricket has produced over the decades. And like ‘El Aurans’, our own TE is not your conventional hero but a man of quite a few parts, each of them as intriguing and eccentric as the other.

But first things first. TE was a brilliant player of fast bowling in his time, whose better innings were reserved for the big occasion. And he was completely self-made, an original who honed his batting technique on the concrete wicket at the Nungambakkam Corporation School ground. Even as a youngster playing for Vivekananda College when I was turning out for Presidency College—for that’s how old TE is, though he hardly looks it—TE had the foresight and ambition to realise that he had to play pace well if he wanted to play international cricket. Towards this end, he regularly hired bowlers from the neighbourhood to bang them in from 15 to 18 yards on the fast surface.

In first class cricket, TE was a bit of a late bloomer, mainly because he was very uncomfortable against spinners who hounded him along the way. I remember a string of poor scores in the Duleep Trophy before he hit the big time, when he would complain bitterly: ‘Ennada, what kind of cricket is this, you have to face bloody slow bowlers all the time!’ I think he first broke the jinx by scoring a brilliant hundred against North Zone at Bangalore in the 1977-78 season. TE went on to play many more attractive innings in the Duleep Trophy, against touring teams, and an all important Irani Cup match which earned him a berth in the Indian team that toured Australia under the captaincy of Sunil Gavaskar.

That TE had a reputation as one of the characters of the game, whose big mouth cost him quite a bit, is constantly brought home to those of us who played with him in our interactions with the cricket watching public. Even today, at cricket conversations, people ask me if it is true that TE told Gavaskar during the Australia-New Zealand tour what was wrong with his (Sunil’s) backlift, and if that is what cost him (TE) his career! I find it difficult to believe that even TE was capable of such effrontery or that it could have made any difference to Sunil Gavaskar’s attitude to his cricket. Of course, another story that has done the rounds since that tour, is even more spectacularly funny: that of TE landing in Australia and informing the press, ‘Tell Dennis Lillee TE has arrived!’

Whether either of these stories is true or not, I can confirm that TE successfully riled another Australian fast bowler Rodney Hogg by confronting him on the lawns of a hotel in Hyderabad during a tour game and begging him ‘to please stop bowling flipping off spinners.”

If the other TE was known to seek anonymity following his high pressure Arabian adventure--he once enlisted as an ordinary soldier in the army under the assumed name of Ross, the central character of the eponymous play by Terence Rattigan--our own TE loved playing the fool with officials by pretending to be someone else, just to prove that some of them did not watch cricket. Sure enough, no sooner had he once introduced himself as Sivaramakrishnan to a national selector than he asked him, “And how is TE Srinivasan?” TE’s response was classically zany. He said, ‘That fellow TE is thoroughly irresponsible, he’s always smoking and drinking and neglecting his cricket.’ On other occasions, he has passed himself off as a visiting overseas dignitary at five star hotels, even sung ‘Ceylon bailas’ on stage as Cheena from Colombo, all totally impromptu, and with no intent other than that of having some fun.

This is what I wrote a few years ago about TE: “Today, Cheena runs a coaching clinic. The way his bat comes down whenever he demonstrates technique to his wards is still a purist’s delight, though his advice may often be unconventional. In his mid fifties, he looks decades younger and has the waistline of a teenager. He has even become a grandfather recently, but a less credible senior citizen it is hard to imagine. TE will always be TE!”

I must have really tempted fate with those words, for not long afterwards, came the bad news of a major setback to TE's health. His battle with cancer, a saga of courage, has been told elsewhere (Nirmal Shekar, for instance, paid him a moving tribute in The Hindu) and I am one of many friends and admirers who pray for his recovery. No praise is too high for his wife Mala who has looked after him devotedly. God bless them both.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Syed Abid Ali

The non-striker in the photograph of Tony Greig lifting Gundappa Viswanath in Cricinfo’s “Photographic Memory” is Syed Abid Ali, the popular all rounder who was an important part of the victorious Ajit Wadekar-led Indian team of 1971.

"Kya bole?" (What did you say)? Abid is credited with asking this classic question of Viswanath, when they met three quarters of the way down the pitch, with GRV rooted to the spot and repeatedly shouting "No!" at the top of his voice, and Abid still charging down regardless for a run. This no doubt apocryphal story of an incident in a Test match was told with much relish by the Karnataka batsman, at the expense of the Hyderabad all rounder, who had a reputation for getting mixed up in run outs. Abid Ali was about twice as swift between wickets as most other batsmen and was always on the lookout for quick singles. He was more than once stumped off the first ball he faced, because he had taken off for a single even before playing the ball.

I was fortunate in the number of self-appointed mentors I had in Hyderabad soon after my arrival there in 1971. My State Bank of India teammates spread the word about me in cricket circles, and that is how Abid came to watch me in action in the practice nets behind the bank's local head office at Kothi, Hyderabad. Abid straightaway decided to take me under his wing. For the next few years, I was to enjoy that protective umbrella and benefit from his willingness to share his experience and knowledge with me.

His way of helping me become a better off spinner was to hit my best deliveries repeatedly out of the ground during net practice, so that I would learn to adjust my flight when confronted with batsmen who could do that to me in matches. He was of course completely innocent of the damage to my morale he was actually doing . Even in matches in which we were pitted against each other, the lessons continued, ruining my bowling analysis in the process. Of course, on the rare occasion I got him out, he had a perfect explanation for the accident that had nothing to do with good bowling!

Abid Ali was a genuine character among cricketers, an original in many ways. For instance, he set high standards of physical fitness for a generation of cricketers known for its lackadaisical attitude to such matters. The punishing regimen of training he followed was often the subject of anecdotes, perfect entertainment in the evening after a long day at the ground.He practised his fielding with devotion and became an acrobatic close-in fielder and an athletic one in the outfield, with an unerring, flat throw. He developed enough variations in his military medium pace bowling to keep the batsmen guessing. He also had the knack of making the ball skid on most wickets. He was demonstrative in an age when most bowlers tended to hide their emotions. His appeals to God when he beat the edge, and his sardonic grins at batsmen blessed by the Lord - unfairly in Abid's opinion - were sights to see and remember.

When Abid took over the Hyderabad captaincy from the cerebral and celebrated M L Jaisimha, he was determined to make a strong impression. He was solemnity personified as he addressed the team just before taking the field in his first Ranji Trophy match as captain. "Boys, I want you to play tight, mean cricket. I want us to give not LESS than 40 runs in the first hour." He had meant to say "not MORE than 40 runs," and the giggles and suppressed guffaws that interrupted him, spoiled his speech somewhat, but it was a happy Hyderabad team that took the field that morning.

When the mood captured him, Abid could be the life and soul of the party. He was great company while travelling with the Hyderabad team, taking part in crazy card games devised by M A K Pataudi, or singing calypso songs he learnt in the Caribbean. His favourite line was "Great India bowler Abid Ali" which he sang with gusto.Few cricketers exploited their talent better. Abid Ali was an honest-to-goodness medium pacer, who could also bat aggressively. He made a sensational Test debut in 1967 when he took 6 for 55 against Australia at Brisbane, following it up with two brilliant innings of 78 and 81 opening the innings in the Sydney Test.Abid took his cricket with him when he migrated to the USA by the end of the 1970s. There, he was an active participant in the local cricket scene in Los Angeles and coached many Indian, Pakistani and other immigrant groups still passionate about cricket. He always wanted to come back to India on a coaching assignment and even had stints as the coach of the Andhra team. He has also coached the UAE team.

When I look back on those treasured days of essentially amateur cricket with gratitude for my good fortune in getting to rub shoulders with the likes of Abid, I tend to remember the lighter moments rather than the grim ones of toil in the sun. Especially memorable was a team meeting at Bangalore after Abid had launched a typically unorthodox assault on Karnataka’s world class spin attack of Prasanna and Chandrasekhar, pulling the straight deliveries from off stump, cutting vicious off-breaks leaving all three stumps completely unguarded for boundaries, and randomly charging down the wicket without regard to length or line. “I was very relaxed today, Skip,” he told Jaisimha at the meeting. Pat came the retort from one of his senior colleagues: “Of course, you were relaxed. Only for us watching you was the tension unbearable.”

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More tales from Moin-ud-Dowla

“Match nahin dekha to hum ko bahut dukh hota ba,” little G R Viswanath said in his pidgin Hindi to an intruder into the players' enclosure blocking his view as he sat with pads on. The place was the Lal Bahadur Stadium, Hyderabad and the occasion a Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup match. His teammates in the State Bank of India team knew that Vishy simply had to watch every ball while awaiting his turn to bat, getting up from his perch only during the drinks break to go into the dressing room to do some shadow practice or wrist exercises with the steel presses he constantly carried with him. This was around 1974 or so, and Vishy was already a Test veteran of some six summers, but he was still a boy at heart, polite, humble, his quiet, mischievous sense of humour part of his charm.

An apocryphal story of the time had it that he turned up for a game without thigh pads, and was wandering around trying to borrow one from one of the other players, when one of them advised him to ask Salim Durrani. To Vishy's innocent query, Durrani's alleged retort was revealing if completely unhelpful. “Look young man, do you see that huge picture in the dressing room? (He was referring to a blow-up of Wesley Hall). I never wore thigh pads when facing him. Do you expect me to one now?”

The lefthanded genius was the author of one of the many great stories you were privileged to listen to during that golden era of the Gold Cup, if you happened to be a player taking part. When we were not playing we watched other matches in rather distinguished company including the likes of Salim Durrani and M L Jaisimha, V V Kumar and E A S Prasanna, to name a few. The conversation on one occasion veered around to the practical jokes MAK Pataudi reportedly played on some of his cricket friends. Durrani came up with this particularly diverting version of a popular episode of that genre. (The story of a stage managed dacoity in the vicinity of Bhopal, Pataudi's maternal ancestral home has been told elsewhere. Palace servants disguised as dacoits came rushing to where the young Karnataka players Viswanath and Chandrasekhar were in the woods after a gunshot was heard and announced that Prasanna had been killed. The youngsters burst into tears, believing the yarn).

According to Durrani, Vijay Manjrekar, retired from Test cricket, and an officer in Air India then, handed over his watch to one of the "dacoits" and told him that was all he possessed. “Please let me go, I'm an LDC (lower division clerk) in Morarjee Mills, basic pay Rs.300, DA Rs.225, HRA Rs.150. I'm a poor man with a family to support.” At this point, Raj Singh Dungarpur, unable to control his laughter, ran off towards a nearby hideout to join Pataudi's mother and sister, watching all the fun from there. Manjrekar, who Durrani said maintained to his dying day that it was a real dacoity, is said to have insisted later that Raj Singh had beaten a cowardly retreat. “Sala, Rajput bolta hai, darke bhag gaya.”

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Somasundaram grounds

Mylapore, Triplicane and Egmore-Purasawalkam were the strongholds of Madras cricket in the early years. The league matches between Mylapore Recreation Club (MRC) and Triplicane Cricket Club (TCC) were even dubbed the local version of the War of Roses between Yorkshire and Lancashire in English county cricket. M J Gopalan and C R Rangachari were the stalwarts of TCC while the descendants of Buchi Babu moved from Madras United Club, or MUC, where he first defied the British, to Mylapore, to make MRC a strong force. While Mylapore, Triplicane and south Madras beyond the Adyar continued to produce cricketers of merit in independent India, a new centre of cricket emerged in T Nagar and the surrounding areas, known as Mambalam, West Mambalam and so on.

A whole new generation of talented and enthusiastic cricketers followed the birth of Mambalam Mosquitos towards the end of the 1940s. The trend continued and grew in strength, so that by the time the 1970s came round, Mambalam was as much a stronghold of cricket as the traditional nurseries of the game.

If there is one place in Chennai where cricket is played with a fervour and in numbers unmatched by any venue outside Mumbai’s maidans, it is the Mayor Somasundaram ground in T Nagar, though in recent times, the Marina ground, belonging to Presidency College, presents a similar picture.

I refer in particular to the number of cricket games that can be in progress simultaneously. Anyone who has stood and watched the mind-boggling number of informal cricket ‘matches’ that can be on at any given time on Mumbai’s Azad Maidan or Cross Maidan will understand what I refer to here. At Somasundaram ‘ground’ too, a young collection of cricketers can walk in and pitch their stumps in a territory they informally come to own over a period of time, and start an evening’s practice session or ‘sign match’ at will. It can be confusing for the onlooker when he finds the third man of one ‘match’ literally rubbing shoulders with the first slip of another (or occasionally even with someone, God forbid, involved in some other sport), though the players themselves suffer from no such handicap, as they focus on their own game to the exclusion of
everything else.

In the 1980s and nineties, I was an occasional visitor to watch my younger friends who were regular players at ‘Somasundaram ground’. It was a revelation to me how many state level ricketers active in Chennai during that period owed their beginnings to that venue. The TVS and lwarpet Cricket Club wicket-keeper Venkatasubramaniam, popularly known as ‘Bondu’, was one f them. Anyone who had watched his brilliant takes behind the wicket and his attacking batsmanship, especially against short-pitched bowling, could easily guess where he learnt to hook and pull with such power. His quick reflexes and footwork were unmistakable products of tennis ball cricket honed over the years at the ground bearing the former mayor’s name.

Another fine batsman who comes to mind immediately is K Bharatan, the Railways batsman who made waves in the eighties and nineties. Leg spinner S Madhavan and fast bowler T A Sekar are a couple of other cricketers who were often seen there in their youth.

With the increasing urbanisation of our times, parks like Somasundaram grounds are fast becoming a rare commodity and children and young adults no longer enjoy the luxury of such open spaces, often being forced to adopt streets as their playgrounds. But as long as these open spaces survive, they will continue to delight young players not only of cricket but a wide a variety of games, often changing with the season.

Promise unfulfilled

Two innings by a young batsman stand out in memory whenever I think of Hyderabad cricket. The first was a fearless century against a West Indies pace attack consisting of Malcolm Marshall and Vanburn Holder. The second one was another hundred, this time against Tamil Nadu on a square turner at Chepauk a couple of years later. The batsman was Saad bin Jung, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi’s nephew, barely 16 when he took on the might of the pace bowlers from the Caribbean at Lal Bahadur Stadium, opening the South Zone innings, no matter that Marshall was a raw colt and the other bowlers were not exerting themselves unduly in a tour match.I had been silently critical of his inclusion in the zone team, following a fifty against the tourists playing for the Indian Under-19 or Schoolboys XI. He was an unknown quantity at the first class level, not having made his Ranji Trophy debut yet. The only glimpses we had had of his batting had been at the local league level, where he represented Hyderabad Public School. There were whispers that he was in the team because of his pedigree and proximity to the chairman of the selection committee, M L Jaisimha.

We, the critics, were proved wrong and Jaisimha was proved right by what happened when South Zone won the toss and batted first. The young Hyderabad batsman played the fast bowlers as though he had played them all his life. He had this uncanny ability of seeing the ball early and playing it late. Pace and bounce did not trouble him, nor movement in the air or off it. He played a calm, collected innings worthy of his seniors in the side like G R Viswanath.Secure in defence, he was unequivocal when it came to playing attacking shots. He cut, drove and pulled with insouciance, and when he came back to the pavilion with a century under his belt, chubby cheeks and all, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

If after this display against genuine pace, we entertained any doubts about Saad’s ability against quality spin, these were dispelled a couple of years later, when he made 113 and 37 not out against Tamil Nadu in conditions inimical to batting. The wicket was a minefield with the ball rearing and turning viciously. Venkataraghavan, Vasudevan and Santosh Kumar were the spinners in operation, and no batsman was secure, especially in the second innings.

The exception was Saad bin Jung, who used his feet in a masterly fashion to the spinners, dancing down the wicket and smothering the spin with his body. The second innings cameo was really worth its weight in gold, as it saved the match for Hyderabad. At the end of the match, Venkataraghavan paid Saad a generous compliment when he appreciated his batting as some of the best he had seen against spin on a turning wicket.

Saad faded away soon after that magnificent performance. Part of the blame must lie with him, because he perhaps got carried away by all his early success and began to focus less on cricket than the trappings going with it. The administration too was perhaps unhelpful; and uncaring, and instead of nurturing an unusual talent, came down heavily on him when he did not toe the line. An extremely promising career got cut even before establishing itself.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Off to Hyderabad

A minor miracle took me to Hyderabad, and a renewed cricket career, in July 1971. As a Probationary Officer of State Bank of India, I had been working at a small town called Anakapalle, some 20 miles from Visakhapatnam. I hadn't played cricket for more than a year, while at Anakapalle. Now I was transferred to Vijayawada, the second of the four branches I had to serve at in an 18-month training period.

I had missed the first part of the 1970-71 league season at Madras waiting for the SBI appointment letter. The great leg spinner V V Kumar, a State Bank officer at Madras, had asked me not to play for Alwarpet CC, the team I had represented the previous year, as he had inside information I had been selected by the bank after my entrance exam and interview.

Unfortunately, by the time the letter came, almost half the season was over. VV asked me to play a single game for the bank's B team, also in the first division, before I left for Anakapalle. Played on the Marina ground, my home ground for all of five years in Presidency College, it was a match against my previous team. I had a good match, claiming two wickets including that of the elegant S Nataraj, who was to marry my sister Sarada a couple of years later.

VV had advised me to contact Habib Ahmed, former captain of the bank's team at Hyderabad, if I wanted a Hyderabad posting, but I did nothing of the sort, being the introverted chap I was then. I was at Anakapalle for over six months, learning the ropes at every counter of the branch, except for a month-long training programme at New Delhi in between. The bank's POs spent time at four branches during their probation, followed by a stint at the local head office at Hyderabad, before they were confirmed as officers of the bank. I soon learnt that Vijayawada was my next branch. My wife who had been studying at Madras joined me at Anakapalle, and we were all packed and ready to go, when a string of coincidences led to the cancellation of my Vijayawada posting and our departure for Hyderabad instead. My benefactor in this sudden change in my fortunes was S Satyadev, captain of the SBI Vizag team—someone I have never met—played a key role,.

"Report to Personnel Department on July 1," said the telegram from our Local Head Office at Hyderabad. The cryptic message left me wondering whether I was now transferred to Hyderabad or summoned there on a brief errand. With hope in my heart and disbelief that my fortunes were taking a turn for the better, I duly met the Personnel Officer at the appointed hour. "It seems the cricket team wants you," the old man—he couldn't have been older than 50, but he looked ancient to my young eyes —told me with about as much enthusiasm as if he had found a fly in his soup.

The reason for the SOS was that the strong SBI team at Hyderabad was now without five of its regulars, with the new season about to start in a week's time. Three of them, Manohar Sharma, G Mohan and Mumtaz Husain were touring East Africa as members of the Hyderabad Blues team and two others, D Govindraj the fast bowler, and P Krishnamurti the wicket keeper, were in the West Indies with the Indian team that was making history under Ajit Wadekar's leadership.

A letter from me asking Satyadev if he could help get me a Vizag posting to enable me to play cricket there had been forwarded to him at Hyderabad where he was attending a training course. Just then his friend and colleague M N Prabhakar Raju, working in the Personnel Department had been entrusted with the task of finding a temporary replacement for these absent players, and one thing led to another.

It was exciting to walk into the Local Head Office of State Bank of India and meet so many outstanding cricketers there. Perhaps the first player I met was Nagesh Hammand, an attacking batsman who had pulverized university attacks in the Rohinton Baria championship in the three preceding seasons. He was also a more than useful off spinner, capable of sharp spin and thinking batsmen out. A brilliant fielder anywhere, Nagesh had been hugely successful at that level of cricket. We had played against each other at the Marina ground the previous season, when he had led Hyderabad juniors in an Inter-Association match for the P Ramachandra Rao Trophy. There was Ali Hassan, an opening batsman, who too had played in that match which Madras had won by an innings. Soon I was sitting down in the bank canteen and enjoying a coffee with these two, when we were joined by another talented cricketer, Lyn Edwards, the tall, handsome medium pacer.

I didn't know it then, but Nagesh, Lyn and Sultan Salim were to adopt me soon as their responsibility to shape as a bowler, because they believed in my talent. Not long afterwards, Krishnamurti, the wicket keeper, would join that band of young mentors. It was quite extraordinary that these cricketers took such an active interest in a fellow player, considering that each of them was no more than 23 to 25 years old.

The SBI team of that year was pretty formidable. At full strength it read: D Govindraj (captain), P Krishnamurti, Murtuza Ali Baig, Manohar Sharma, Nagesh Hammand, Sultan Salim, Mumtaz Hussain, Ali Hassan, M N Prabhakar Raju, G Mohan, Lyn Edwards, Mazhar Ali Baig, and Abid Zainulabuddin, with me bringing up the rear. Most of the players had played for their state or zone in the Ranji and Duleep Trophies, and Govind and Murti had already represented India. Add veteran Habib Ahmed, occasionally taking a break from his official responsibilities to assist us, and we had perhaps the strongest outfit in Hyderabad, closely followed by State Bank of Hyderabad, led by the redoubtable all rounder, Syed Abid Ali.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Gold Cup Part II

A year had passed since Hanumant's wager. My cricketing prospects were getting dimmer by the day. My workload at the bank was heavy and I was one of a few officers of the public sector State Bank targeted by a boss keen to cover his posterior in the face of some crude attempts by an all powerful ruling party to find scapegoats for their failures in priority sector lending. I had given up all hope of making it to the Hyderabad team in the Ranji Trophy and even walked out of a zonal match midway with a high fever, something I would not have done in earlier years.

Miraculously, my luck turned one fine morning. My rival Noshir Mehta was drafted into the State Bank of India team for Moin-ud-Dowla—like Abid Ali, he belonged to our subsidiary State Bank of Hyderabad and qualified to play for SBI. This opened a vacancy in the Hyderabad team for the Gold Cup and the selectors included me in the squad ahead of younger contenders like future Test off spinners Shivlal Yadav and Arshad Ayub, who were both still university students.

I wasn't exactly overjoyed. I had had a couple of false alarms earlier and my enthusiasm was now singularly lacking in the first fine rapture. As I said earlier, I hadn't been in the best of practice, having missed some games during the season. The work pressure at the office was high and I had been smoking quite a bit. So it was that I trudged reluctantly to the Hyderabad nets on a wet afternoon long after the scheduled start of practice. I had a bad cough and cold, and told my captain Abbas Ali Baig I was unfit for the game on the morrow. It had been raining and the practice wickets were wet, so Abbas was having a knock outside the nets with a young marker throwing a few balls at him. “Come and bowl,” he ordered me, and I obliged, still in my working clothes. After some ten minutes, he said to me with finality, “Nothing wrong with you. Sleep well tonight and come back in the morning. You are playing.”

As the host team, we had been given a bye, and we were already into the second round. Our opponents were Vazir Sultan Colts, some of India's most promising youngsters bunched together into a motley crew. They were led by Anshuman Gaekwad, a young batsman from Baroda who had made a gallant debut against Clive Lloyd's West Indies team that toured India the previous season. Kapil Dev, Dilip Vengsarkar, Arun Lal and P Ramesh were some of the other youngsters in the side to have made a mark in first class cricket.

The Colts won the toss and elected to bat. We shot them out for 73, my share of the spoils being 4 for 22 in some 15 overs or so. My spin partner Mumtaz Hussain took three of the remaining wickets. Mumtaz was a huge talent at university level, holding the record for the highest number of wickets in a season, at 49. The record had stood from 1968 or so but would soon be broken by S K Patel of Madras University, another left arm spinner. Mumtaz was still a brilliant fielder and attacking batsman as he had been in his college days, but his bowling no longer posed the multiple threats to batsmen it had earlier, when he used to send down a bewildering array of unreadable deliveries. He was now an orthodox left arm spinner, accurate and intelligent, but no match winner.

Mumtaz and I were colleagues in the bank, and I was a great fan of his cricket, yearning for his approval of my bowling. Unfortunately, for most of our careers, Mumtaz remained a critic of my cricket—my bowling, my fielding, my attitude, all of which he looked at with a somewhat jaundiced eye. That day, too, his praise of my bowling was muted. “You should have finished with seven or eight wickets, today. You didn't bowl as well as you can.” I don't know what his intention was, but these remarks stung me to the quick and strengthened my resolve to do well in the matches to follow.

We won the match comfortably and qualified to meet U-Foam XI in the semifinals. It was led by M L Jaisimha, the man who had been Hyderabad captain for over 20 years then. It was because players like Jai turned out for other teams in the Gold Cup, that people like me got into the Hyderabad team. That year there were as many as six players in the second string Hyderabad team who were not part of the Ranji Trophy squad already selected. U-Foam were formidable. Besides Jaisimha, they had players like Brijesh Patel, Parthasarathi Sharma, Mike Dalvi, Prasanna, Chandrasekhar, Kailash Ghattani and a number of promising young Hyderabad players.

The first two days' play was completely washed out by rain. The ground was very wet on the third day too, but it had stopped raining. After a number of inspections by the umpires, it was decided to play a 30 overs a side match. The only alternative was to decide the winner of the match through a toss. “Jai is so confident he can beat us, he has bullied the umpires to start the game,” my friend and teammate Vijay Paul said. “That would be better than risking the toss.” He was probably right, as the ground was so soggy and muddy, no match would normally have started in those conditions.

If Jai thought his team would rout us in the shortened game, he could not have been more wrong. We had in our team younger legs and greater experience of over-limit cricket than our opponents. Batting first we made 99 for 8 in the allotted thirty overs, with our openers C R Chandran and Inder Raj giving us a flying start. The score was equal to about 200 in normal conditions, so difficult it was to score boundaries or even twos and threes on it, except when a fielder found it tough to reach the ball through the slush. When U-Foam batted, they found our medium pacers Jyoti Prasad and Govind Raj too hot to handle. They were bundled out for exactly 60 runs. I didn't have to bowl at all. We were through to the final!

The final was against a superb all round team led by Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi—JK XI. Two prolific scorers in domestic cricket, Laxman Singh and Rajeshwar Vats of Central Zone, opened the innings. Abdul Hai, Salim Durrani, Surinder Amarnath, Pataudi, Mohinder Amarnath and Karsan Ghavri followed. The tail was brought up by wicket keeper Ved Raj (or was it someone else?), off spinner Ranjan Baindoor and left arm spinner Rajinder Singh Hans.

As you can see from the list, there were five left handers in the batting line-up, including Hai, Durrani and Surinder Amarnath in the top order. JK batted first. There was much start-stop-start as it rained intermittently. I think I came on to bowl in the last hour of play. I enjoyed a big stroke of luck, once I overcame my nervousness and settled down to a length. Laxman Singh miscued an on drive and the ball ballooned over Nagesh Hammand at mid-on. It should have been a simple catch, but as Nagesh took a couple of steps back to get under the ball, he slipped and nearly lost balance. A superb athlete and fielder, Nagesh managed to recover quickly and hold on to the catch.

As it often happens, that first wicket improved my bowling—and my confidence—miles. At that very moment, another piece of luck came my way. In walked the brilliant left hand batsman, Abdul Hai, known for his strokeplay and tall scores in domestic cricket. The one thing in my favour as he took guard was that we played against each other regularly in Hyderabad. And I invariably got his wicket—a twin advantage now, as I was confident I could get him, and he must be nervous against me. Abdul did not last long as he became my next victim.

Wonder of wonders! The next batsman too turned out to be one against whom I felt I had a chance. I had once bowled to Salim Durrani on a fiery matting wicket in Madras, beating him many times. Having a few catches dropped off my bowling, I did not dismiss him that day, but now, when I saw him, I felt a great adrenaline surge. I was all fired up to do my best against a world class batsman, with my memory of that long ago day spurring me on. I fired a vicious off spinner on the off and middle and Durrani edged it into the wicket keeper's gloves.

The ball I bowled to dismiss Surinder Amarnath was perhaps the best delivery I ever bowled. Going round the wicket, I bowled what could only be described as a right arm bowler's arm ball to a left hander from wide of the crease. Suri went to cut but his middle stump was knocked out before he could bring his bat down. I had Tiger Pataudi dropped by Inder Raj and Mohinder Amarnath played a beautiful unbeaten innings as JK crashed to 175 all out. My tally was 8 for 75 and I had nailed all five left handers.

Despite a few hiccups along the way, we won the Gold Cup after a lapse of 11 years. At the end of the match, the state selectors added my name to the already announced Hyderabad Ranji squad as its 16th member. I had arrived at last!

Many circumstances had conspired to bring about this happy conclusion, beginning with Noshir's inclusion in the State Bank team, and the decision to hold a 30 overs a side semifinal between us and U-Foam, enabling us to enter the final, without my having to bowl an over. The catch Nagesh held despite slipping, the sight of Abdul Hai and Salim Durrani at the crease, each bringing out the best in me for a different reason, all these were serendipitous occurrences that helped me along.

One other crucial factor was Abbas Ali Baig's captaincy. I had played a number of matches under him for Hyderabad Zone in the local zonal tournament, and he had invariably nagged me constantly on the field of play, only to praise me to the skies after the match. Nothing I ever did seemed to please him on the field, yet he kept me on for long spells. In the Moin-ud-Dowla final, he suddenly stopped harassing me with his constant advice and admonition. He let me be my own man for the first time. Perhaps I had earned my spurs with him. Whatever the reason behind his change of manner, he was happy and proud that one of his boys had come good, and that we had regained the Gold Cup.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Gold Cup Part I

There was a popular theory in the 1970s that the Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup was Hyderabad’s answer to drought. Usually the season opener, the tournament had some of the best combinations in India fight for a gold cup in the name of a former local aristocrat. It was held in August-September, and invariably rain interfered with the progress of the event. Even on the few occasions the tournament was conducted at other times of the year, the rain gods decided to visit Fateh Maidan where the cricket was in progress. When in 1972 or thereabouts, a severe drought was broken by thundershowers and a truncated final, people were convinced that it was divine retribution or mercy at play, depending on whether they belonged to the cricket association or the water-starved general public.

It was without doubt the premier cricket event in India outside of Test matches. All the Test players and the best of the rest took part in this invitation tournament. The Lal Bahadur Stadium wore a festive look for a fortnight, all the matches being played at the same venue up until the 1980s. They were three-day affairs and regarded as first class fixtures until over limitation was introduced in 1974 to make for results and exciting finishes as opposed to drawn games. These were not slam bang affairs, at least in the first innings of 90 overs each, but sometimes the second innings of 40 overs could produce exciting run chases. The decision to withdraw first class status was an unfair one, as much of the cricket on view those days was superior to most inter-state matches. It also meant players had fewer first class runs and wickets against their names. In a limited career, I for example, finished with 96 wickets in 25 first class matches, while recognition of Moin-ud-Dowla would have given an additional fifty or so. Worse was the case of a number of excellent cricketers, who, in such a scenario, would have been eligible for the BCCI's pension plan for former cricketers. I managed to qualify by the skin of my teeth, having played exactly 25 first class matches, but my friend Nagesh Hammand fell short. He would have gained if Moin-ud-Dowla had continued to be treated as first class cricket.

I played in the tournament for five or six years in the 1970s, bowling my first ball at that level of cricket to Rohan Kanhai. Behind that most unusual occurrence lay a tale—a tale so astonishing that I might have been forgiven for believing that I was destined for international recognition. (I have described in an earlier chapter the miraculous circumstances which took me from Anakapalle, a tiny but thriving business centre in Andhra Pradesh, to Hyderabad and inclusion in the State Bank of India's star-studded cricket team, followed by a long wait for a permanent place in the playing eleven. Throughout that frustrating period, when my captains Habib Ahmed first, and D Govindraj later, preferred another off spinner, G Mohan to me, a few of my teammates—Indian wicket keeper P Krishnamurti, Nagesh Hammand, Sultan Saleem and Lyn Edwards—had kept my morale up, by constantly encouraging me to believe I was India material, when I was not even a local regular).

Going earlier than reporting time to the Nizam College ground for a league match one morning in 1974, I found my friend and mentor, the late Krishnamurti, already there, sitting on a cement bench under a tree. By this time, I had more or less lost interest in cricket, with time spent at home with a young wife and new-born daughter a vastly more exciting prospect than continuing to work hard at cricket with no prospect of breaking into the big league, as Noshir Mehta was firmly entrenched in the Hyderabad team. I had actually begun to be casual about my cricket gear, having more or less decided to quit the game to focus on my work at the bank.

Krishnamurti took one look at my footwear and burst out in a volley of abuse. “Have you taken leave of your senses?” he said to me. “Are you a G Division player, wearing these cheap Bata shoes only rickshawallahs wear? Do you look like someone about to play for an international XI in Moin-ud-Dowla?”

I was astonished and thrilled when Murti explained he had persuaded HCA secretary P R Man Singh who fielded the Hindustan Breweries XI in the tournament to include me in the team as the top off spinners Prasanna and Venkataraghavan were not available and Noshir Mehta was playing for Hyderabad in the Gold Cup. Man Singh had been scouring the length and breadth of India to find an off spinner good enough to play alongside Pataudi (captain), Kanhai, Budhi Kunderan, Anura Tennekoon, Duleep Mendis, David Heyn, Russell Hamer, Tony Opatha, Krishnamurti,Kailash Ghattani and William Anderson Bourne, a West Indies-Warwickshire fast bowler who promised much but never graduated to Test cricket. Man had been on the verge of calling Rehmat Baig, a Hyderaabd-born NIS coach serving the armed forces at the time, when Murti somehow managed to convince him that I was good enough to belong in that exalted company.

It was a proud moment when I received my official call-up letter, with my name appearing at the bottom of a distinguished list of players. Readers of the newspaper announcement of the team must surely have been perplexed to find my name in the team, as I had never played for the state, nor even for the all India State Bank of India team, our prospective opponents in the first round. It was an even prouder moment, when, seated behind some senior cricketers watching an earlier match in the Gold Cup, I overheard my former skipper Habib Ahmed—the one who had once laughed patronisingly after I took three wickets in an over in a league match (“Not bad, this guy has come in useful”, he had said)—tell my new captain MAK Pataudi, “Look out for this lad Ramnarayan, he's a great prospect.” And Pataudi soon asked me to bowl to him in the nets, where, in my eagerness to impress, I gave him a torrid time on an unplayable drying wicket, a very unprofessional thing to do to a batsman looking for some practice. 'Tiger' was sporting enough not to mind my immature exhibition; he in fact went so far as to tell Habib I was a match winner.

A huge surprise awaited me the next day at the nets. I had barely sent down a few deliveries, excited beyond words by the august company I was keeping, when Pataudi called me aside. “Ram, go and bowl in the other nets. Chhotu wants you there.” Nonplussed, I went over to meet Hanumant Singh, the Chhotu Tiger was referring to, and a former prince like the Nawab of Pataudi, who was also the captain of the State Bank of India team, our opponents of the morrow. Hanumant explained to me that he had decided to hijack me from the Breweries XI. I was going to play for State Bank tomorrow! I immediately saw the hand of Syed Abid Ali, Indian all rounder, who was grinning at me from behind Hanumant. Abid had been one of my great supporters in Hyderabad cricket, and he had put a simple question to Hanumant: “Why should our off spinner play for our opponents?”

I was both disappointed and elated at the turn of events. I had looked forward to playing for the Breweries XI, which was truly international in its composition, with my boyhood hero Kanhai from the West Indies, five cricketers from Sri Lanka and Budhi Kunderan now settled in Scotland. At the same time, selection to the bank's all India team was a huge promotion, as I had not even been picked for its Hyderabad team in its inter-circle tournament. It was as star-studded as the Breweries XI too. G R Viswanath, Hanumant Singh, Syed Kirmani, and Abid Ali were Test cricketers and most of the other members were knocking on the doors of Test cricket.

We won the toss and batted first. Our openers Gopal Bose and Madhu Gupte gave us a flying start, Viswanath and Kirmani ran into mid-season form and we made over 400 in rapid time. Poor William Anderson Bourne was belted all over the park and had to be content with a solitary wicket—mine. When Hindustan Breweries batted, they lost an early wicket. In walked Rohan Kanhai to a grand welcome by the crowd and all of us on the field as well. I couldn't believe my luck when Hanumant handed me the ball as soon as Kanhai took guard. Nervous as hell, I bowled my first ball a little wide of the off stump, and Kanhai, obviously rusty from lack of practice, flashed at the ball; and missed! Despite that encouragement, I did not bowl the rest of the over very well and the veteran picked a couple of easy runs. That was the last over of the day.

The weather gods decided to smile on us. It rained in the early hours next morning. Only those who have played cricket in our era, when it was allowed to leave the wicket uncovered, can appreciate the difficulties of batting on a wicket drenched by rain, once the sun starts beating down on it afterwards. The ball tended to turn and jump alarmingly. It was a dream wicket for an off spinner to bowl on, and I was licking my fingers in anticipation. Play started about an hour late, and Hanumant straightaway started the proceedings with spin—unfortunately, not with me. Fellow off spinner Arun Ogiral (Rajasthan) and Zahid Ali Khan (Hyderabad) ran through the top order, Ogiral in particular proving to be devastating. He took five wickets including Kanhai's scalp, and Zahid took three. I did not get to bowl until towards the end of the innings. The wicket improved by then and though I took two tail-end wickets, I did nothing of great note.

Worse was to follow. We won the match by virtue of our first innings lead and entered the final of the tournament. I was looking forward to bowling to the U-Foam XI batsmen—the likes of Brijesh Patel, Parthasarathy Sharma, Mike Dalvi and M L Jaisimha, when Hanumant Singh summoned me to his room on the first floor of the stadium. The rooms overlooked the cricket ground, and you could watch the action from the front veranda. Chhotu seated me there and made me feel comfortable with his affectionate conversation and a couple of beers, before dropping a bombshell. He was dropping from the eleven for the final. The great Haryana left arm spinner Rajinder Goel was to replace me. The U-Foam batsmen were all very strong against off spin bowling, so the captain had decided to go into the final with two left arm spinners—Goel and Zahid. There was no question of dropping Ogiral, as he had taken five wickets in the semifinal. Moreover, he had been going through a rough patch, even dropped by his club in Bombay, and this was just the encouragement he needed.

Hanumant Singh went to assure me that I was a better spinner than Ogiral and Zahid and that I had a bright future. Hyderabad skipper Jaisimha and Pataudi thought highly of my bowling and I would soon find myself in the Hyderabad Ranji Trophy squad. “You must work harder, though. I hear you miss practice sometimes, saying you are busy at work. The bank lets off cricketers to practise, doesn't it?” I tried to explain that my career was more important to me than cricket with the uncertain future it held for me. There was no way the state selectors were going to replace Noshir Mehta with me. His father was the chairman of the committee and I didn't see the other selectors proposing my name ahead of his son's, even if the old man was willing to give me a fair break. “You are being unfair to the selctors, Ram,” Hanumant said. “I'll take a bet you will play for Hyderabad this year. If you don't, I'll eat my words. I'll retire from first class cricket.”

Hanumant's solicitude greatly reduced my disappointment. During our conversation, he gave me plenty of technical advice on my bowling, advice I never forgot. It was to stand me in good stead throughout my career. When I failed to get into the Hyderabad team that year, I toyed with the idea of sending Chhotu a telegram reminding him of his threat to quit cricket, but did not actually do it. He had taken so much trouble over my cricket, when he hardly knew me. It made me a better, stronger cricketer.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

My cousin Raman

Raman was to all intents and purposes my elder brother, in true Indian extended family tradition. He was my first cricket hero and his exploits in schools cricket fired my imagination before I entered my teens. He was a leg spinner of considerable potential, the best in PS High School and the best in the city and state as I was to find out soon. He was an orthodox spinner then, who took wickets by the bagful and could bat a bit, known more for brutal power than finesse of any sort. He took eight wickets playing for the City Schools XI once and his photograph appeared in the newspaper, to the delight and pride of his growing band of young admirers in the neighbourhood and at school.

It was in college that Raman blossomed. He joined the PSG College of Technology at Coimbatore, where for the next five years he constantly hit the headlines. Very soon, he was opening the innings for his college, the District Colleges and eventually Madras University, besides bowling fastish legbreaks from a good height. He had abandoned his earlier slower, well flighted style when he shot up in his first year in college. He found he extracted considerable bounce and as most of the cricket at that level was then played on matting wickets, Raman was soon a successful and dreaded bowler. His batting was positive, full of attacking shots. He drove powerfully on the rise and, with strong wrists, he could flick the new ball over square leg or midwicket for six.

At the university and junior level Raman was a most successful cricketer. He was a contemporary of BS Chandrasekhar, the great Indian leg spinner, and bowling in a similar style, PSR was just as successful for Madras University and Juniors, sometimes outperforming Chandra to win matches for his side.

When PSR finished his engineering studies and found employment in Madras, he was expected to graduate to Ranji Trophy cricket, but unfortunately, his form deserted him. He had a miserable couple of seasons in the TNCA league, when he strung together any number of single digit scores. He worked hard, practising for long hours at the nets, where he looked to be in no discomfort, but runs just dried up. His bowling too seemed to have gone to pieces. He was hardly able to land the ball. I was his teammate, generally enjoying greater luck with my form, and it broke my heart to watch his cricket disintegrate.

Raman had other problems as well in the local league, in which matches were occasionally fixed to help one team to garner championship points or another to stave off relegation. He refused to be party to such unsporting practices and even walked out of a match half way through. Among his calculating peers and his secretary, he found no sympathy, but I respected and admired him for his honesty and integrity—which marked all aspects of his life, accompanied by a somewhat short fuse.

Raman later migrated to New Zealand and from there to Australia, where his cricket enjoyed a second innings. Playing grade cricket in Sydney, Raman was a team mate of a young man beginning to make waves in Australian cricket called Steve Waugh. His leg spin bowling had made a comeback when I met Raman in Sydney in the summer of 1986. I was touring Australia as a member of the late Ram Ramesh's team Madras Occasionals, consisting mostly of Madras Cricket Club players. He was happy to show me a newspaper clipping in which Steve Waugh had praised his bowling. I was delighted to meet my cousin at a time when he had regained his form.

Raman came to India a year later, but by then he was a condemned man, a victim of lung cancer. His enthusiasm for life or love of cricket hadn't waned one bit. He was there at Chepauk to cheer Tamil Nadu to its second Ranji Trophy triumph in the 53-year old history of the championship, and he had to endure great physical hardship to go to the stadium and climb the stairs to the pavilion terrace enclosure. (He refused to watch the game from downstairs because he enjoyed the view from the terrace). He was happy and proud that Tamil Nadu won, doubly so as my younger brother Sivaramakrishnan played a key role in that victory.

When Raman went back to Sydney, we all knew that we would not see him again. The end came soon—the end of an honest, hard working career, in cricket and at work. He was a devoted husband and loving father to the end.


We must have come back to Madras during 1955 or 1956, for I clearly remember listening to the radio commentary in our first floor house on Murrays Gate Road when Jim Laker took 19 for 137 against thse Australians at Old Trafford, the second time the off spinner claimed all ten wickets in an innings that season, having performed the feat for Surrey against the touring Aussies. I remember twiddling the knobs of our old Murphy valve radio to find the exact spot where the BBC commentary was at least half way audible. I was not yet ten and went to a Tamil medium school, so much of the commentary must have gone way above my head, even if I did manage to hear the voices of Swanton and Co. amidst all the static. I don't think John Arlott was as yet a member of the team, nor Brian Johnston or Christopher Martin Jenkins. It wasn't much later that I began to recognize these much beloved voices as I did Rex Alston and Trevor Bailey. Still, there wasn't a single cricketing point that I—or my teeming army of brothers and cousins—missed. The explanation is simple: we belonged to a completely cricket-crazy extended family.

We lived on Murrays Gate Road, a quiet enough street then, extending east-west from Alwarpet Corner to Teynampet, the whole stretch a long straight line from the Santhome Church, via Luz Church Road, almost all the way to Mount Road. 'Suprabha' was our home, a two-storeyed bungalow facing north. We lived on the first floor, my father now the agent of the Mylapore branch of IOB, and downstairs lived my father's elder brother P N Sundaresan, Raja to family and friends, at the time a struggling reporter in the Indian Express, but soon to join the Hindu.
Raja was an attacking batsman who opened the innings for Mylapore Recreation Club 'A', one of the top sides in the Madras cricket league, whose clashes with arch rival Triplicane Cricket Club starring M J Gopalan, C R Rangachari and the like, were known as the War of the Roses. MRC had many of its own stars, with most of Buchi Babu Nayudu's sons, nephews and grandsons turning out for the club at one time or another. The well known diplomat G Parthasarathi or GP, an aggressive leg spinner-batsman, C R Pattabhiraman, son of Sir C P Ramswami Ayyar and the founder of the club, and opening batsman M Swaminathan were some of the MRC regulars.

My father's uncle P S Ramachandran or 'Pattu', the tall, wiry fast bowler who took 10 for 18 for MRC vs. TCC, was overlooked by the selectors who met the same evening to pick the 'Indians' for that season's Presidency Match. Pattu, like quite a few other cricketers of his time, was an orthodox brahmin, whose hairstyle consisted of a shaven head with a tuft of hair tied in a kudumi or chignon at the back. As he ran up to bowl his fast medium seamers, his knotted hair came off and fluttered in the breeze, and he almost instinctively reached for it to tie it back in place even as he was completing his follow through. In group photographs, he is seen wearing a black cap more like a Gandhi topi than a cricket cap.

Though he missed out on the Pongal match after that splendid burst in the Roses battle, he managed to impress the selectors enough to be included in a tour game for Madras against the visiting MCC team under the captaincy of Douglas Jardine. Pattu bowled well in both innings, picking up a couple of wickets. He was probably in his late forties when I first heard him describe the cricket he played in his youth. “Jardine said “Well bowled” to me at the end of the match. He even patted me on my back.” When Pattu came home that evening, his mother, whose word was law in family circles, told him to wash even harder than usual, as he had made physical contact with a mlechha or outcaste!

Pattu lived and practised law in a gracious old bungalow in a sprawling compound on Eldams Road, parallel to and behind Murrays Gate Road, and his elder brother P S Venkatraman, a building contractor and a leading tennis player of his time, was his next door neighbour. Their two houses were named Sundar (after my great grandfather Justice P R Sundara Iyer) and Parvati (after my great grandmother). Pattu's three sons Kalyanam, Dorai and Thambi, took after their father and became more than useful medium pace bowlers, two of them making it to the Ranji Trophy team and Dorai almost getting there. My uncle Raja's sons Kannan and Raman were both fine all rounders. While Kannan played Ranji Trophy, Raman again just failed to make it. Add to these five, my brothers Nagan and Krishnan (V Sivaramakrishnan) and yours truly and we needed just three more for a complete eleven, though Kalyanam was far too senior to play with all of us.

Coming to the point I have been building up to, no compound wall separated the two houses Sundar and Parvati on Eldams Road and Suprabha on Murrays Gate Road, and we energetic youngsters were constantly running from one house to another and playing a whole range of outdoor games, in which all the girl children of the family were also included in all the games--except cricket. And as if all this was not enough to spoil us silly by way of sporting facilities, bang opposite Suprabha was a vast open field where we played the more organised cricket everyday after school. The 'ground' as we called it is untraceable today, as it has been completely built over, a residential area called Venus Colony.

Kannan, or P S Narayanan, to give his official name, was the most talented all round sportsman of the family, if a bit laid back. Everything he did, he did with style. It came naturally to him. He was of medium height, very slightly built, supple and agile. He was a smart ball game player who used the angles to advantage whatever game he played. In cricket, he was all wrists and timing, a very good eye and quick reflexes. I do not remember his exploits as a schoolboy cricketer. In fact, not until he completed his undergraduate studies from Vivekananda College and joined the Madras Law College did he blossom into a consistent opening batsman and an off spinner with an uncanny ability to break partnerships. In the 1960s, he became a mainstay of Jolly Rovers, the team that dominated Madras cricket for the next four decades, regularly outperforming his more glamorous teammates, and often giving the side a scintillating start matching his partner K R Rajagopal stroke for stroke. Those who watched Raja in his prime will know that's a high compliment—the wicket keeper batsman narrowly missed selection to the Indian team that toured Australia in 1968.

At the school level, it was Kannan's younger brother Raman (P S Ramachandran) who came into prominence in representative cricket. He bowled vicious leg breaks and played attacking shots from the word go as an opening batsman. Of the three fast bowling brothers who were my father's cousins, Kalyanam or P R Sundaram (by now the reader would have guessed that each of us have two names; throughout this story, I will use the names we were known by at home rather than our 'school' names) was a genuine quickie, who would surely have played more matches at the first class level than the solitary Ranji Trophy appearance he was allowed to make. His two brothers were good bowlers too, and all three were rated highly by the West Indies fast bowler Roy Gilchrist when he coached Madras's promising young pace bowlers handpicked by the selectors in the 1960s.

My brother Nagan, just a year younger than me, was a stylish left handed batsman, who later played for Vivekananda College and IIT Madras. He never fulfilled his early promise, because he simply did not have the patience or temperament to build innings. He was capable of attacking any bowling successfully and was on his day a delight to watch. He chose to focus more on academics than cricket. My youngest brother Sivaramakrishnan, Krishnan to all of us at home, was the opposite of Nagan in terms of temperament. Five years younger than me, he was a thorn in the flesh from the time we let him join us older brothers and cousins, showing an annoying tendency to score double hundreds even at the age of ten. He went on to score more than 5,000 first class runs, coming close to selection as India's opener during the Gavaskar-Chauhan era.

Here, I have gone a little ahead of the story, as Krishnan was not yet a force to reckon with during our Suprabha day, barely seven when we left Suprabha and Madras, thanks to my father's transfer to Tuticorin in 1960, and Delhi a year later. There were a few more good cricketers in the extended family, including my cousins G R Venkatakrishnan and P S Ashok, and all of us honed our cricket skills on the Venus Colony ground in the 1950s and 1960s. We were all barefoot cricketers and wore no protective equipment, sometimes played on uneven, even dangerous wickets and always used a cricket ball and not a tennis ball unlike other kids. I describe our Venus Colony cricket in some detail elsewhere in this chronicle, but I am convinced that some of us would have been better batsmen had we played on good wickets during our formative years with a semblance of protection.

Monday, September 1, 2008


Looking back, it had to be divine intervention or a completely benign arrangement of the stars in my favour that must have helped my cricket along, when there was no conscious effort to make a career of it, on the part of my parents or self. (More of this later).

The first time I held a bat was around 1952, in the backyard of our Quilon (now Kollam) home, in the company of my brother Nagan, a left handed, far more talented and stylish novitiate into the game at which so many in the family were good. I was barely five and for the next three years, the only cricket action we saw was provided by my father’s exploits in the game.

P N Venkatraman, Ramani to his siblings, cousins, and cricket mates, was Appa to us, his children—by then four of us, with the latest adddition Krishnan arriving on 13 May 1952. Appa had been a stalwart of Mylapore Recreation Club, albeit a reclusive, even reluctant one, mainly because he was a bit of a hypochondriac and feared he would collapse on the cricket field, thanks to an imaginary heart condition a mischievous uncle or elder cousin had led him to believe afflicted him. (When I saw the Adoor Gopalakrishnan film Anantaram in the 1980s, a scene in it reminded me of my father’s unhappy experiences with elders in the extended family who casually planted in him fears and anxieties with far reaching consequences, preventing the full flowering of this gentle, shy, unusually talented young lad).

Appa therefore never reached the heights he was expected to as a cricketer and indeed in his professional career. He was too inhibited to exploit his talents fully. That made no difference to us kids who all hero-worshipped him. He was easily the most loving father in the world. He doted on us—whenever he found the time. His work as the manager of the Quilon branch of the Indian Overseas Bank Ltd (they were called agents back then), was demanding and involved long hours at the bank. It helped though that we lived in quarters attached to the office.

Appa had played cricket in Madras in the company of some of the greatest names of the city—
M J Gopalan, Ram Singh, the Bhat brothers, G Parthasarathi or GP, and his own uncle P S Ramachandran or Pattu who once took 10 for 18 in an innings for Mylapore Recreation Club against Triplicane Cricket Club in a league match. Appa was a medium pace bowler with a high arm action with the intention of bowling fast 'offbreaks' as he described them in the fashion of the day. They did not call them cutters or seamers in Madras then, but I suspect Appa did exactly that—bowl ferocious in-cutters, made deadlier by the matting surfaces on which he played most of his cricket. What made his bowling diabolical was his almost unconscious ability to swing the ball away from the batsman before it landed and broke back. There were no TV cameras in world cricket and therefore not many Test bowlers were known to have such ability, Alec Bedser being a notable exception. Appa's friends in cricket often likened his bowling to Bedser's.

Appa quickly formed a team in Kollam. It included, besides himself, a couple of IOB men and other friends like Monappa, a stylish man in his thirties with an aquiline nose, sharp features, dark, brushed back hair and a moustache. Like other Coorg-born men, he was athletic and sunny tempered as well. The Anglo Indian railway guard Clifton was built on strong lines and was fair skinned like a European.

I vaguely remember that Monappa was a lithe, stylish all rounder. Clifton was a powerful batsman. Though Appa's forte was his bowling, I remember some lusty hits by him at the Fathima College ground where I watched some of his matches. When he smote the ball once over midwicket for a six—a rare occurrence those days—my joy knew no bounds.

Inspiration was also provided by the newspaper accounts of the England tour of Australia, made memorable by England's great comeback after Len Hutton won the toss and inserted the opposition in the first Test, only to lose the match by an innings. 'Typhoon Tyson', a quiet schoolmaster who later migrated to Australia, struck terror in the hearts of Australian batsmen and almost single handedly won the series for England with his hostile fast bowling. The Hindu came to Kollam around four pm, and I eagerly grabbed it to read the cricket headlines, which I only vaguely understood . Still, Colin Cowdrey and Peter May, Denis Compton and Godfrey Evans became my heroes during that and subsequent series. I had to wait until 1956 for my biggest cricket hero to steal the limelight decisively once and for all from his spinning colleagues. Jim Laker was to take 19 wickets in a single Test match against the touring Australians that season, but we are going ahead of the story.

The most exciting cricketing moments in Kollam came when our cousins Kannan and Raman visited us soon after their upanayanam or thread ceremony, which meant that they both sported an unusual hairstyle, with the front half of the head shaved and the back part ending in a dangling tuft of hair. For some strange reason, this was called an appala kudumi. Kannan and Raman were slightly older at 9 and 11, and they were avid cricketers who brought a touch of class to our informal matches in the vast, snake-infested grounds of the new bank quarters we had moved into in distant Tangaserry on the backwaters or kayal of Kollam. Our games were vigorous and competitive, and the players included besides the four boys, one sister, Sarada and one female cousin, Rama, as well as the domestic staff.

Soon after the cousins went back to Madras, Nagan and I accompanied Appa on a trip to Trivandrum, where he played in local matches for Sasthamangalam Cricket Club, a strong outfit led by the elegant and accomplished Balan Pandit, Kerala's most successful cricketer till then. Appa bowled well in the matches we watched, and SCC won the local league. Over the years, I have managed to lose what was a precious possession--a group photograph in which Balan Pandit looked regal in his spotless gear that included a stylish scarf worn like a muffler, and Appa tall and handsome. Of the two youngsters squatting for the photograph in front of their seated seniors, one was a smart young man who would go on to play for India in unofficial Tests as a medium pacer--C K Bhaskar. I was to play some inter-collegiate cricket with Bhaskar in Madras in the 1960s, when he was a student of Madras (or Stanley) Medical College, and league cricket against his elder brother Vijayan who was also in the group picture.