Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Kiwis go to Kalakshetra and Vidya Sagar

Sir Richard Hadlee turned to me and asked, “Raam! Does the protocol allow a couple of my boys to take off their shirts?”

The venue was a classroom in Kalakshetra, the year 2000. The man posing that question on native sartorial norms was indeed the great New Zealand fast bowler. We had just been witness to a brilliant demonstration of bharata natyam by a couple of girls and a boy, all three students of Kalakshetra.

This story is akin to the apocryphal (non) relationship between Abdul Khader and Amavasya. Back in 2000, I decided that a bunch of cricketing visitors from the antipodes needed to have their education enhanced by a visit to Kalakshetra among other places in Chennai. On a busman’s holiday from my day job of sports editor, I had taken a few days off to follow the trail of the New Zealand Cricket Academy team taking part in the Buchi Babu Memorial tournament conducted by the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. The academy went on to win the championship, though I don’t remember if they did it that year or the next. Many of the players in that side coached by Dayle Hadlee and managed by his brother Sir Richard Hadlee went on to play for New Zealand with the big boys in Test cricket if they had not already done so.

As a regular at the NZCA’s matches, I soon got to know the Hadlee brothers and some of the players well. During one of our conversations while watching a game, I asked Dayle Hadlee if he and his team had got round to seeing anything of the city. The answer was in the negative. The boys just went from their hotel rooms to the cricket ground, gym or swimming pool and back, when they were not attending boring parties, formal and prim and proper.

Dayle readily accepted my offer to take the cricketers on a tour of Kalakshetra and Vidya Sagar, formerly Spastic Society of India. I almost regretted my impulsive offer when I considered the logistics and expense of carting 20 New Zealanders all but two of them energetic youngsters whose idea of a day off from cricket would have been slightly different from a visit to such strange places! I struck gold when T A Sekar of the MRF Pace Foundation immediately offered the use of the foundation’s bus free of charge to ferry the cricketers that September morning.

My next great piece of luck was the prompt response I received from Kalakshetra Principal S Rajaram. He not only enthusiastically agreed to my request, but also arranged a 20-minute dance recital in one of Kalakshetra’s classrooms.

The New Zealand boys were a cheerful lot in the bus, but to my nervous eyes they seemed supremely indifferent to the entertainment I had laid out for them. There were a few moans and groans as some of the youngsters expressed reservations about an alien classical dance, which was sure to be a far cry from the popular arts of their choice.

The Kalakshetra atmosphere was the first brownie point I scored with my visitors. They found it beautiful and remarkably peaceful and quiet in the heart of our urban chaos. The Spartan classrooms and the lovely young ladies only strengthened their positive feelings. The crowning glory was provided by the impressive performance by the young students. The cricketers were totally bowled over, particularly by the dancers’ obviously high level of physical fitness.

Then came the climax of the morning. My reply to Richard Hadlee’s query about the cricketers’ proposed striptease act was that a bare torso was absolutely mandatory for men in Indian classical dance. What followed was an authentic display of the Maori hakka, complete with high jumps and war cries. The threesome including the Marshall twins, James and Hamish, received a standing ovation from the small crowd.

More groans and growls of protest prefixed our next stop, but the Hadlee brothers did not offer the cricketers the choice of opting out. The team trooped reluctantly into Vidya Sagar, at Kotturpuram. My friends there were thrilled to recive the cricketers as most of their wards were crazy about cricket. Unfortunately, the air-conditioner did not work, or the hall where we met the kids had none, and a very warm, sweaty session of interaction followed. The children, however, were unfazed by such minor inconveniences and put up quite a riveting show of entertainment. The crowning piece was a bright little speech by a seven-year-old. “One day cricket was very similar to life, he told us. Just as the batsman enjoyed great freedom in the first 15 overs, helped by the field restrictions, in life, too, children enjoyed freedom for the first 15 years, before the cares of life caught up with them, he said. The cricketers gave him a standing ovation and were visibly moved by the spirit and courage of the children. To a man, they came up to me and thanked me for giving them one of the most memorable days of their lives.


My cousin Raman

Any mention of Coimbatore cricket reminds me of a number of exciting cricketers, most of them delightful people as well. Sundaresan, Giri to all, was an eccentric wicket keeper batsman in the 1960s. He was eccentric only on the cricket field. His orthodox ritualistic ways, which included cold showers in the morning followed by sandhyavandanam, were perfectly acceptable off the field to those used to such practices, but his continuance of these at the batting crease raised a few eyebrows. He constantly looked at the sun between deliveries and followed these glances at his favourite god with some earnest sloka muttering, severely testing the patience of the fielding side, waiting irritably for him to take guard. Imagine the plight of Bangalore Agricultural University when Giri scored a double century back in 1969.

I was Giri’s teammate for Madras University that day. One of the men he annoyed during that innings was P Mukund, the rival captain, who went on to do a masters degree at the Agricultural University at Coimbatore. He played for Coimbatore for the next couple of years. He was a fine all rounder, a great future India prospect, who unfortunately did not go beyond Ranji Trophy in any significant way. Mukund, Giri and that elegant and consistent batsman P R Ramakrishnan—equally unfortunate in his cricket career—are among the Coimbatore players I have admired and known personally over the years. In recent years, we have been able to meet and talk of the old times, largely through the efforts of Mukund.

The Coimbatore cricketer—if I may call him so based on his five years of cricket for PSG College of Technology and the district—closest to my heart was my late cousin PS Ramachandran, PSR in cricket circles, Iyer-Nadar at PSG, and Raman in the family, an attacking opening batsman and fastish leg spinner, who was enormously successful at schools and university cricket.

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 he 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, 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 V 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.


K R Rajagopal came like a breath of fresh air to Madras cricket from Bangalore, when he joined the star-studded Jolly Rovers team of the 1960s. He quickly established himself as one of the most entertaining batsmen in the state, an opener crowds went miles to watch.

Rajagopal was one of the most aggressive opening batsmen around. He played his shots from the word go, shots based on a straight bat, free downswing and follow-through. With his keen eye, swift footwork, perfect balance and steely wrists, all buttressed by a sound technique, he looked for scoring opportunities all the time, and for a few years culminating in the 1967-68 season, he electrified both local and national matches played at Madras.

In an era of swing bowling, Raja had an equally delightful answer to the outswinger or the inswinger. He cover drove imperiously, but he also played a gorgeous ondrive. He loved to hook and cut.

Raja struck a fine partnership with his teammate and captain Belliappa. Both were openers and wicket keepers, and as state captain, Belliappa was the first choice behind the stumps, though Raja was brilliant in that department. When Raja was a strong contender for a place in the Indian team touring Australia in 1967-1968 after a magnificent domestic season as a batsman, another wicket keeper Indrajitsinhji was preferred to him on the pretext that Raja did not keep for his own state.

Raja is a simple man. For most of his playing days in Madras (he earlier played for Mysore), he worked at Sankarnagar, Tirunelveli, and took the night train to Madras to play league matches on the morrow for Jolly Rovers, the highly successful team sponsored by his employers. He brought as luggage a ridiculously small bag and went straight to the house of another “Raja”, P N Sundaresan, The Hindu’s cricket correspondent and the father of his teammate P S Narayanan.

On the morning of the match, Raja enjoyed the simple home cooking of Mrs Kamala Sundaresan, topped by the ubiquitous curdrice, jumped on to the pillion of Narayanan’s Lambretta, tousled hair, stubble on his chin, crumpled shirt and trousers and all, with his cricket shoes wrapped in an old copy of The Hindu. He might carry a bat with him, or simply pick one up from the team kit bag once he reached the ground.

Such was Raja’s pre-match preparation, but once he put on his pads and settled down to face the first ball of the innings, the change in him was electric. Slight of build and short in stature, he was a picture of poise as the bowler started his run towards him. Little notice did he give of the daring strokes he would soon play all round the wicket, but soon they sprang forth from his bat, audacious hits on the rise, dancing down the wicket, or swivelling effortlessly on to his backfoot as the mood captured him and the hapless bowler was left floundering.

Few batsmen in the history of Tamil Nadu cricket have given as much pleasure to so many, except perhaps those at the receiving end of his fury.

They also served

Unsung TN cricket heroes
The world at large only knows the stars who wear the India cap and Indian colours. To a generation of cricket fanatics glued to their TV sets, even the names of past cricketers as accomplished as M J Gopalan or A G Ram Singh may mean little, much less the humble league cricketers, the devoted club secretaries, umpires, scorers, markers and other staff who have remained anonymous over the decades.

Early accounts of organised cricket in Madras state as it was called then bristles with the names of several personalities who enriched the game. Not all of them were champion performers; some of them added value by their passion for the game, their love of its nuances, and their loyalty to the clubs they supported. Some declared that their clubs were dearer than their wives! There was this devoted follower of the Palayampatti Shield league who went from ground to ground on his bicycle, stopping only to inform anxious fellow enthusiasts the scores at other grounds and collect the details of the match in progress to share with other diehard fans elsewhere. This role of score-disseminator was performed with equal conscientiousness by the ubiquitous Rita ice-cream vendor and peanut seller.

But whether they were players, spectators, markers, umpires, scorers or club secretaries, the combined contribution of all these colourful elements to the fabric of Tamil Nadu cricket will always be greater than the sum, of that there can be little doubt. Who can ever forget Muthu of BS Nets with his trademark 'Last set Rajen' or his talented sons Padmanabhan, Arunachalam and Santosh Kumar who did him proud with the quality of their cricket? Or K R S Mani who spent a minor fortune on nurturing the game in his own way by supporting a club against overwhelming odds, neglecting his own financial security in the process, or his ecstatic celebratory run on the field in distant Pune when Venkat, Kumar and Kalli pulled off an improbable win in the Ranji semifinal? Will there ever be another 'Don' Rangan who today may be penniless and frail, but lorded over his Pithapuram grounds as the uncrowned monarch of all he surveyed, spotting talent, defying the mighty and rubbing shoulders with the great with the insouciance of a pirate king? Will we again see the likes of M G Bhavanarayanan, R Raghavan or Y Ramachandran who wheeled away long after youth had deserted them but not their love of the game or the ardour of their competitive spirit? Can sponsorship and cola wars ever produce another S Annadurai, with his nonchalant confidence in the efficacy of his methods of keeping fit and ability to pick out the promising from the merely flattering or the generous treats he gave his wards on tour paying the bills from his own pocket?

No, the march of time and technology can never produce another K S Kannan, that brilliant coach and lovable human being, whose murder of the English language entertained two generations of cricket. It cannot equal the pristine purity of the cricket played by those supremely amateur in spirit but possessed by the desire to excel--G Parthasarathi and the Bhadradri brothers; P S Ramachandran and his three sons, pace bowlers all; Ananthanarayan of the short-lived brilliance; the less known members of the Ram Singh clan--Kalwant, Satwant, Jarnail and Harjinder; J C 'Patba' Patel who habitually delivered the ball before the batsman was ready; 'Mandalam' Mani who as captain commanded the respect of far more gifted players; the ICF trio of J R Maruthi, K Chandrasekhar Rao and stylist S Jagdish, his brother S Nagaswami who migrated to the US and helped propagate the game there; 'Goofy' Subramaniam who had one splendid match versus the 1959 West Indies team; the elegant S V S Mani who once fielded in a Test match but never tasted real success, speed merchants Mohan Rai and Prabhakar Rao; champion 'poi' (literally, false or non-existent) bowlers from Najam Hussain to J S Ghanshyam; the elegant Haridas brothers Sushil and Sunil and their father CK before them; Arvind Gopinath, who could on his day bat in a manner reminiscent of his father CD; S K Patel who wheeled away for interminable hours at the BS Nets until he was ready one day to break a Rohinton Baria bowling record, and mysteriously one day lost it all; the deceptively lazy R Prabhakar who could explode with the bat; the list could go on forever and one could never do justice, because there would still be many a name left out.

People like 'Nayana' Lakshmi Ratan and Ayyadurai who played host to visiting players, both Indian and foreign, before hotel accommodation became de rigueur, Murugesa Mudaliar of The Hindu or V Pattu who took the young under their wing and laid a solid foundation for their progress, others like P V H Babu, Netaji Ramanujam, P C Ramudu, VA Parthasarathy or T P Vijayaraghavan who spent a lifetime running clubs or institutional teams, yet others like the left arm spinners K Radhakrishnan and S Ramabhadran who defied physical handicaps to flight and spin like the best in the trade, incredible purveyors of exaggerated flight or swing like Gopalapuram's Kannan or Vivekananda College's Krishnan, competent cricketers who are better remembered for their wisecracks and puns like K C Krishnamurthi of Crom-Best, Ram Ramesh of IOB, and SJ Kedarnath of State Bank, and promising young talent lost to other fields of endeavour from Prem Kumar and Vasanth Kumar of the sixties to Unnikrishnan of the eighties, all these and many, many more outstanding individuals too numerous to mention here or elsewhere-here's an unqualified apology to all of them-have made Tamil Nadu cricket what it is today. It is a delightful amalgam of many-hued personalities and characters producing a brand of cricket that can often be exasperating in its failure to translate potential into performance, but can never, never be accused of being dull.