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.”