Thursday, October 11, 2012

A cricketer and a gentleman

Balu Alaganan who led Madras to its first Ranji Trophy triumph against Holkar at Indore in 1954-1955, was a popular captain, with an impeccable pedigree in the game. After his high school education in Colombo, he came back to his native Madras state, where he captained the strong Madras Christian College team at Tambaram. Alaganan was an all round sportsman, who won singles and doubles titles in state tennis, and played golf as a keen amateur.

The sad news of this gentleman cricketer's death was announced today. 

A conversation with Balu (circa 2000)
In a free flowing conversation about Tamil Nadu’s maiden Ranji triumph, Balu Alaganan revealed some unusual facets of that famous victory “I was a member of the selection committee that made me the Madras captain the year we won the Ranji Trophy!” he said. “It was a bombshell to me. I had been in and out of the side, had done nothing of note, though I had a hundred against Mysore in a junior match under the captaincy of M S Shastri, uncle of Ravi Shastri. M J Gopalan, C Ramaswami and R T Parthasarathi were the other selectors who persuaded me along with ‘Ghanta’ Srinivasaraghavan (the Madras Cricket Association secretary). Ghanta promised he would be there to watch us when we won the Ranji Trophy, but while we were playing Hyderabad we received news of the air crash that claimed his life. 
About his dream run,  culminating in a match-winning innings in the final, Alaganan recalls: “The players were more motivated than I. They kept on encouraging me. On the night before the last day of the match, A K Sarangapani had a dream in which he scored 74, the exact number of runs he made in the second innings. M K Murugesh came up to me at no.11 and said: “Don’t treat me as a tailender, I’ll stay with you”, and our partnership proved vital. The 50 runs we put on were in the end the margin of our victory”.

“In the semifinal, C D Gopinath plotted Pankaj Roy’s dismissal on the hook shot off the bowling of BC Alva with his fastish offbreaks. We had a fielder about halfway to the boundary, Alva bowled short and Roy could not resist the temptation.”

“Kripal played a great role in our win. He was writing his exams and we wanted a postponement, which was granted. The star-studded Holkar team captained by Mushtaq Ali, put us in on jute matting, perfect for batting, thinking they would finish the match earlier as their main bowler Dhanwade wanted an extra day in Bombay on his way to the English league.”

As it turned out, Madras made 479 and took the lead. Holkar had heard of Gopinath, but not of young Kripal Singh who played two wonderful innings and bowled superbly. Alaganan wanted to drop himself, as he hadn’t been among the runs. True to form, he scored a zero in the first innings, the only batsman to do so.

After that memorable victory, Alaganan retired and was nominated as a Vice President of the Madras Cricket Association, but was found to be underage, and had to wait until he was 35!

“One year, we all had to resign from the committee when S R Jagannathan sued the Association, but I was determined to become president after that, which I did,” says Alaganan, who was the popular choice it seemed, whenever unpleasant  tasks had to be carried out.

He it was who had to inform skipper P K Belliappa he had to stand down as Tamil Nadu skipper in favour of Venkataraghavan, because the off spinner was being groomed for the South Zone captaincy and India vice captaincy.

Years later, when some players went up to him to express their unhappiness with Venkat, again it was Balu who had to convey their feelings to the captain.

A memorable match as manager of the state team was when Tamil Nadu beat Maharashtra in the Ranji Trophy semifinal at Poona. “When Maharashtra went into bat for the last time in the match, we led only by 120 runs, but I told the boys not to give up. Skipper Venkat said: ‘Don’t worry, we will win the match’. There was some great bowling by Venkat and VV, and we bundled Maharashtra out for 96, to register an incredible win.”

Balu was a lucky manager. At least that’s how he describes himself, though players who have toured with him think of him as a thoughtful official who really cared for them and contributed meaningfully to team strategy. The Indian teams that visited Sri Lanka, New Zealand and West Indies in the seventies thoroughly enjoyed touring with him.

Balu also did a fairly long stint as radio and TV commentator. One unforgettable incident involved the late P Ananda Rau, who invariably summed up the day’s proceedings for the benefit of overseas listeners who tuned in just after teatime on Test match days in Madras. On one such occasion, even as Ananda Rau was summing up, a few wickets fell, and the commentator went on with his resume, paying no heed to current happenings. The crowd was roaring all the while, and the noise level was quite deafening. Acting on phone calls from worried listeners, who feared some mishap at the ground, the police landed there. Balu nudged Ananda Rau even as the police were making their way towards the commentary box, and Rau woke up from his trance to announce: “As I was talking to you, dear listeners, three more Indian wickets fell.”

The veteran administrator recalls with a chuckle an instance of attempted match fixing from his own experience. It was an intercollegiate match in the forties between Loyola and Madras Christian College, Alaganan’s team. Loyola’s captain Fullinfaw wanted an outright win, as otherwise Engineering, who had star players like Aruldoss, B C Alva, and G Ramanathan, would become the league champions. He asked the MCC captain to lose the match intentionally. “Our captain G Zachariah said, ‘No, I am a true Christian, and won’t throw away a match under any circumstance,’ and we drew the match. The Loyola College crowd, obviously in the know of things, booed us.”

Monday, September 3, 2012

West Indies cricket: the golden years

Proudly wearing the rosette
of my skin I strut into Sabina,
England boycotting excitement
Bravely, something badly amiss.

Cricket. Not the game they play
at Lord’s, the crowd (whoever saw
a crowd at a cricket match?)
are caged, vociferous partisans

quick to take offence. England
sixtyeight for none at lunch.
‘What sort o battin dat man?
Dem caan play cricket again, praps
Dem should a borrow Lawrence Rowe!’

And on it goes, the wicket slow
as the batting and the crowd restless.
‘Eh white bwoy, ow you brudders dem
does sen we sleep so? Me a pay monies

fe watch dis foolishness? Cho?’
So I try to explain it in my Hampshire
drawl about conditions in Kent,
about sticky wickets and muggy days
and the monsoon season in Manchester

but fail to convince even myself.

This poem, ‘At Sabina Park’, by Stewart Brown, poet and professor of Caribbean studies, is a sample of the joyous impact of West Indian cricket on its crazy, partisan spectators, but long before Boycott and Amiss had arrived on the scene to appear wooden by unfair comparison with the gifted Lawrence Rowe, thousands of fans had been hooked—by the Three Ws, Ramadhin and Valentine, Sobers and Kanhai, Atkinson and Depeiza (if only for one heroic stand that went into the record books), Hall and Gibbs.

The first time I followed a Test series involving the West Indies was when Australia toured the islands in 1954-55 and Clyde Walcott lit up Sabina Park with two outstanding innings of 155 and 110 yet Australia won by an innings and 82 runs.  That was the fifth and final Test and Walcott had made 110 and 39 in the first Test too, on that same, lightning fast pitch, against the pace of Lindwall, Miller, Johnston and Archer and the wrist spin of Benaud. Incredibly, Walcott also scored a century in each innings at Port of Spain, Trinidad (with Everton Weekes contributing 139 and 67 not out), amassing 827 for an average of 82.7 in the series, yet West Indies lost the series 0-3. It was at Bridgetown, Barbados that Atkinson and Depeiza put on 347 for the seventh wicket and forced a draw.

A young lefthander named Garfield St. Aubrun Sobers made 35 not out and 64 in the final Test, compiling in all just 231 runs and taking 6 wickets in the rubber, in what was a modest beginning to the greatest all round Test career of all time. Notice of his greatness had already been served, the very first time he batted against the Aussies. Richie Benaud was to recall years later that, fielding at gully, he had to run for cover, seeking protection from Sobers’s fierce square cuts!

Those were still the Dark Ages of West Indies cricket: no dark-skinned player could captain the team yet. That had to wait until Frank Worrell was handed the reins from FCM Alexander for the 1960-61 tour of Australia, the historic series that brought the crowds back to Test match grounds, after the chucking and dragging controversies between England and Australia and dull county cricket had driven them away to other sport. Worrell and Benaud were the rival captains involved in what was to be a major diplomatic victory for cricket—for the spirit in which the series was played—but also in the game’s first tied Test match at Brisbane. The West Indies were gallant losers of a closely fought series and might have fared better but for a contentious umpiring decision that cost them a victory in the fourth Test. In the event, Australia scraped through with a two-wicket margin in the final Test, to emerge as a 2-1 winner of the series.

Two grand innings of 125 and 168 confirmed Sobers’ burgeoning stature as the world’s leading batting talent, after his world record 365 against Pakistan, but he was yet to achieve the phenomenal success that prompted John Arlott to declare: ‘No aspect of his cricket has been more amazing than his capacity for combining quality and quantity of effort; it is as if a single creature had both the class of a Derby-winner and the stamina of a mule.’ He was also still some distance from burying the ghosts that haunted him after his dear friend and co-star in the firmament of West Indies cricket, Collie Smith had died in a car accident with Sobers at the wheel. In his autobiography Sobers has confessed that after that shocking loss, he steeled himself to bat and bowl and field for both of them. And how the cricket playing nations of the world had to pay for that resolve!

Worrell was the great binding force, the calming influence on a team of brilliant but mercurial individuals. He took Sobers under his wing and groomed him to be his successor. And by the time Sobers led his team to India in 1966-67, he had been unofficially crowned the greatest all rounder in the world, and we in India were treated to some wonderful samples of his genius. Wes Hall was a fading colossus and so was Charlie Griffith, but Lance Gibbs was still a force to reckon with, Basil Butcher, Seymour Nurse, David Holford—Sobers’s cousin and partner in a couple of historic rearguard actions—Clive Lloyd and Jackie Hendricks, made up a powerful combination.

Another crowd favourite in India as elsewhere was Rohan Babulal Kanhai, the man who matched Sobers knock for knock in daring strokeplay that disguised technical excellence of the highest order. There was a keen rivalry between these two heroes of West Indian cricket, but it was tempered by a chivalry natural to both of them. It helped them to come together to make common cause on several occasions. If Sobers’s run as captain came to an unhappy end after his sporting declaration resulted in a series defeat against the touring England team in 1972, Kanhai’s reign began with a series defeat to Australia despite great personal form, aided by the brilliance of Clive Lloyd. One Garfield Sobers was sorely missed, as he was out of the series mysteriously injured.

Sobers and Kanhai combined briefly to post huge personal and team totals in the 1973 English summer, but the new generation was already upon them, with the elegant lefthander Alvin Kallicharran playing several delightful innings and the massive Clive Lloyd launching murderous assaults against the world’s best bowling attacks.

The Indian tour of 1974-75 was Lloyd’s first as captain. A batting sensation answering to the name of Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards was unveiled on this tour and Lloyd himself gave evidence of his enormous power in the final Test at Bombay. West Indies won the series 3-2, but not before India put up a hard fight levelling the series 2-2 at Madras. Noone noticed yet, but the greatest battery of fast bowlers in the history of cricket was in the process of being assembled. It took an abject whitewash in Australia –after Roy Fredericks played a pulsating innings in the second Test at Perth, the only one West Indies won on that tour—and a magnificent win by India chasing 404 at Port of Spain the following season, for Lloyd to marshal his fast bowling resources in a fearsome quartet, an unprecedented combination in Test cricket.

It is precisely the manner in which the fearsome foursome concept was first developed that took away for me the lustre and gallantry of West Indies cricket. Michael Holding, Wayne Daniel, Bernard Julien and Vanburn Holder unleashed a barrage of short balls on the hapless, helmetless Indian batsmen, often bowling round the wicket on a ridge around leg stump and traumatizing them with viciously intimidating bowling. The tactics showed Clive Lloyd in a poor light, desperate to maintain a winning record. It was the start of the total dominance of world cricket for over a decade by Lloyd and his men, the great fast bowlers backed by the greatest batsman in the world, Viv Richards, and the captain himself, still as destructive as ever. Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Alvin Kallicharran, Larry Gomes, Derryck Murray, Jeffrey Dujon, Malcolm Marshall, Bernard Julien, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Colin Croft and Keith Boyce were some of the names to etch themselves permanently in the memory of the West Indies cricket fan.

An ugly side of West Indies cricket was to be revealed, at least in the eyes of ‘the victim’, when Kerry Packer’s coup de tat in 1977 resulted in all the leading west Indies players joining his ‘circus’. Alvin Kallicharran refused to toe the Packer line and was rewarded with the West Indies captaincy but he was unceremoniously axed when Clive Lloyd and the other Packer men returned to official Test cricket. Kallicharran cried foul and even claimed that his Indian origin worked against him in the inter-island politics of West Indies cricket. Similar murmurs had been made by the other great east Indian icon, Rohan Kanhai, in his playing days. During the Vivian Richards era, the murmurs were louder and clearer, with the captain charged with racial prejudice in the team composition he favoured.

This was a far cry from the early days of West Indies cricket, when it was a disadvantage to be black, as in West Indian society. According to C L R James, for the dark man, “the surest sign of … having arrived is the fact that he keeps company with people lighter in complexion than himself.”

To me, the golden period of West Indies cricket was not the era of Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards and the four-man pace battery, but the journey that began with Sir Frank Worrell’s historic tour of Australia with his gallant men, and ended with Rohan Kanhai and Sir Garfield Sobers bowing out in style, or almost doing so, with individual scores of 157 and 150 not out in the Lord’s Test of the summer of 1973. (The next Test series was their last together—at home—an anticlimax for both).

It was a time when the West Indies team was united as never before, and set the pattern for Clive Lloyd and men to follow. Under Lloyd too West Indies played their cricket fair most of the time, though harder than any team before or after. The blot on their record of sportsmanship was provided by that ugly Test match at Kingston Jamaica against India, and the tantrums of their bowlers in the face of poor umpiring in New Zealand. Vivian Richards ranks with the best batsmen of all time, as does Brian Lara. Richards was part of a champion side and Lara of a struggling, loose conglomeration of no-hopers most of the time. As captain, neither has succeeded in inspiring a West Indies combination to great heights. That honour goes to Sir Frank Worrell, Sir Garfield Sobers and Clive Lloyd.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cheaper by the Dozen

"Do you remember who got dropped by the MRC B captain in a league match back in the sixties after his team entered the field and a quick headcount revealed twelve on the ground?" he asked. Though taken aback by these opening remarks of the bridegroom at a recent wedding I attended at Coimbatore, even as I greeted him, I knew the answer in no uncertain terms. "It was me," I informed Krishna, but he was not so sure, so he asked his father, N Murali, who bowled medium pace for the club after I left it. "It was either your brother Sivaramakrishnan or 'Vaalberi'," he confidently asserted, referring to Thyagarajan of that unfortunate nickname.

I maintained my stand and confronted "Bobji" Rangaswami -- who had led the side in 1962 and pointed the offending finger that signalled my inglorious exit from Teachers College B. "Bobji" smiled vaguely but seemed to have no recollection of the episode. Soon enough, in came Vaalberi, who too stoutly denied being given the marching orders after entering the ground all those years ago, but admitted to carrying a grudge still about being unfairly excluded on some other occasions, mainly on account of a rival's superior resources that enabled him to foot the lunch bill at matches.

Murali was still not convinced I had been the victim of Bobji's belated success at counting up to twelve, so two days later, he asked my brother at the reception held at Chennai, if it had been he who had suffered the indignity of being found supernumerary at such a late hour. Sivaramakrishnan assured him that he had never played for MRC B and that the child prodigy he had in mind had indeed been his brilliant and deserving elder brother.

Murali should not have bothered to ask so many people, because I could never be wrong about an incident that had had me close to tears. Ask any fifteen year old who has been dropped from the eleven - before or after the toss -- and he will tell you that he is not likely to forget the experience in a hurry. To be dropped after actually crossing the ropes to take the field was much worse than my friend Balu's experience of being run out first ball of the match off a ricochet from the bowler's hand, after he had sat up all night brushing up on Don Bradman's coaching tips for batsmen.

If that first year in league cricket was forgettable in terms of personal achievement – however, the lunches courtesy the Hindu family were excellent, and I learnt to swear like a Madras rickshawallah from the good doctor Bala who opened our innings - the second was memorable. Playing for Jai Hind under the adventurous captaincy of the inimitable S Raman, I blossomed as an off spinner. He had complete faith in my bowling ability and gave me some superbly attacking fields. He was our best - and only batsman - and my bowling efforts were wasted as my team invariably crashed to two-digit totals, losing ten matches and barely managing to draw one.

Years later, Raman - a good TT player in his youth like his younger brothers Lakshmanan and Bharathan, and now a vaastu expert - stopped me at a petrol station and extolled my bowling virtues, much to my embarrassment, moved as I was by his warmth and generosity. "You are good enough to play for India; next time I meet Venkataraghavan, I'll ask him why you could not play alongside him for the state, so that the national selectors can consider you," he threatened. This was at the end of my career, but Raman felt I was still fit enough to bowl off spin for Tamil Nadu and India!

My embarrassment that morning was nothing compared to what I was to experience soon afterwards. He accosted Venkat and me at the upanayanam ceremony of a young cricketer, and actually proceeded to ask him why he had done nothing to promote my cricket career. He gave him a detailed account of my many sterling qualities of head and heart, and described the glory of my flight and the viciousness of my spin in such glowing terms that a passerby would have been pardoned for mistaking the object of his admiration to be Jim Laker or Erapalli Prasanna.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Shut up!

Foot-in-mouth disease is bad enough, but the chief of Indian cricket selectors telling a mediaperson to shut up? In trying to defend the indefensible, K Srikkanth did the unthinkable, and then tried to explain his indiscretion by resorting to Hindi only he could understand.

One of the TV headlines called the selectors spineless. What no one called them was jokers or court jesters. That is what one member of the present panel described them as decades ago, when he was unfairly treated by the wise men then in power. I always wondered how Jimmy Amarnath would defend his own actions as selector when things went wrong or how he would react if a player or critic were to compare him to clowns and buffoons. I’m still waiting for his reaction.

Harsha Bhogle has been calling for the empowerment of the Indian selectors so that they can look players in the eye and tell them they are being dropped. That seems to be a cry in the wilderness. According to Srikkanth, Tendulkar is a great player who knows when he must go, and the selctors consulted him before including him in the Asia Cup squad.

One final question. If we are to believe the theory that Tendulkar is still available for ODIs because he wants to get his hundredth international hundred, will he opt out if India qualifies for the tri-series finals, and he manages the feat in Australia?