Don Rangan is but a pale shadow today, very nearly a caricature, of the imposing personality he was in the 1960s, when he ran Nungambakkam Sports Club ‘A’. He was monarch of all he surveyed at the Pithapuram ground at Nandanam, Madras, which he leased and maintained single-handedly, no doubt running through his family’s finances in the process. He ran a sports-goods business as well, which meant that his club always owed his firm substantial sums of money! In his heyday, he lived in style, dressed smartly, drove a Volkswagen, and offered net practice facilities round the year, insisting on his players attending these sessions without fail. The number of new cricket balls he made available at practice would be considered extravagant by any standards. All this helped create a larger than life image of Rangan, and he took full advantage of that in putting the fear of God into his boys and demanding great performances from them. And he miraculously got the best out of them match after match. The Rangan influence over a whole bunch of young cricketers of the period was quite considerable. For years and years, they would rise to his defence against his numerous critics.
D Ranganathan—for that is his full name—was a cocky little fellow, all muscle and sinew, very fit, a fiercely combative cricketer quite unlike the gentle Madras stereotype of his time. A competent, workmanlike but always positive opening batsman, he was aggression personified as a wicket keeper, not afraid to stand up to fast bowlers, and capable of the most convincing histrionics while appealing to the umpire. He was also a more than useful medium pacer, a facet of his cricket he never let us forget, resorting as he invariably did to the discarding of his gloves and pads to have a go at the batsman. His supreme confidence usually resulted in the breaking up of a troublesome partnership, enabling Rangan to crow over his success where others had failed. He always had a chip on his shoulder about being ignored as a player by officialdom and running his own club like a prince was his way of challenging the establishment. He not only scored tons of runs and won most of his matches, but made sure these victories were made possible by stellar contributions from other players the official selectors had overlooked. He was an original, not an imitation of some Test cricketer he admired. If there was anyone he hero-worshipped, it had to be Rangan himself. Virtually unbeatable in the lower divisions of the TNCA league, his team was a dark horse capable of toppling the best in the senior division, once it was promoted to that level of combat.
I played under Rangan’s captaincy exactly for one season, at the end of which my uncles hijacked me to Mylapore Recreation Club, brainwashing me into believing Rangan was a bad influence on me. At any rate I was not ready, according to them, for the first division, where NSC’A’ was now. The season I did spend with NSC was an exciting phase in my cricket, with some of the best practice facilities in Madras at my disposal at the Pithapuram ground at Nandanam, a superb home ground with a pacy matting wicket and a lightning fast outfield. If Rangan’s captaincy was eccentric, imaginative and defiant of convention and reputations, his loyal band of talented players were equally iconoclastic, partly out of fear and respect for Rangan, but also acquiring by osmosis the skipper’s in-the-face contempt for the opposition.
Rangan loved a fight and made it a point to get under the skin of opposing players. He taunted and teased them before, during and after matches. The bigger the reputation of the visitors to Pithapuram, the more hostile was the reception. He was notorious for his gamesmanship and his strenuous efforts to win at any cost. He was even credited with cheating at the toss, picking the coin up and announcing, ‘We bat,’ before the rival captain saw which way it fell.
We played matches every Saturday and Sunday, including so-called friendlies in the absence of official fixtures. On these occasions, Rangan enjoyed inviting strong opposition and defeating them with his young team. One such practice match was against the star-studded Jolly Rovers, who among others included Salim Durrani and S Venkataraghavan. The visitors ended our giant killing spree but not before we had put up a bit of a fight. Batting first, we were bundled out for 99, with Durrani, Venkat and the medium pacers doing the damage on a lively wicket. Going in at number 9, I made an unbeaten 15 or so, inspired by the occasion to defy Jolly Rovers’ top class spin attack. I was raring to go when it was our turn to field, wanting to do well against the stars whom a largish crowd had come to watch, Salim Durrani in particular. Our medium pacer KV Mahadevan, Maka to all of us, was in full flow and brought on early, I too, was all charged up, desperately wanting Durrani’s wicket. (I was barely 18 then and Rangan revelled in throwing his young ones in at the deep end, and cocking a snook at established reputations. My growth as an off spin bowler was accelerated by the supreme confidence Rangan showed in my ability).
Soon Jolly Rovers were some 40 for 4, Maka and I sharing the spoils equally. Durrani and Venkat came together and Rangan gave me an extraordinarily attacking field, with close catchers breathing down the batsmen’s necks. The wicket assisted Maka as well as me, and we were both transported to another, exalted zone by the excitement of the moment. We gave the batsmen hell and they had to bat out of their skins to survive, but survive they did, until they won the game without further loss—thanks to their skill, determination and experience, not to mention some dropped catches. At the end of the match, Durrani, offered to coach me at the nets the Jolly Rovers captain S Rangarajan had organized at Farm House, The Hindu’s family estate. I was mighty thrilled by the offer, but being the idiot I was, did not follow up, succumbing to my uncles’ advice—the same uncles who would remove me from NSC ‘A’ at the end of the season.
That was NSC’s and Rangan’s golden age. Even people who did not like him—and there were many such people, thanks to Rangan’s constant aggression on and off the field—admired and respected him for the enormous contribution he made to the development of the game in the city. Almost every league, state and national cricketer of Madras came to practise at the Pithapuram nets and play in the hundreds of games he organized there. Rangan met the needs of a whole generation of cricketers better than formal institutions.
Unfortunately, Rangan’s fortunes nosedived in the 1970s and steadily grew worse through the decades. As professionalism crept into cricket, it was no longer possible for individuals or clubs not sponsored by corporates to continue to support the game. Rangan who had been a non-smoker, teetotaller and an awe-inspiring figure for his wards, started adopting a more laidback lifestyle, eventually running into financial difficulties. Used to lording it over the many people whose cricket he touched, he proved incapable of holding a steady job into his forties and later. Today, he is in his seventies, and nobody takes his stories of the past and his grandiose plans for the future seriously, though nothing can stop him from weaving those tales. Young cricketers cannot see why the old timers still humour him, but any cricketer who came across Rangan in his prime is prepared to forgive him a great deal.