Wednesday, December 31, 2014

EVEN-TEMPERED GENIUS | Gundappa Viswanath

Sunday, December 7, 2014

AG Ram Singh

The greatest cricketer not to have played for India

By V Ramnarayan

The bright spot of my school years at Chennai was my school sending me to attend coaching camps at the Madras Cricket Association’s BS Nets. I was lucky enough to come under the benevolent gaze of AG Ram Singh and TS Worthington, two wonderful coaches. Both knew when to coach and when to leave well alone. KS Kannan, who assisted them, was another marvellous coach with great empathy for the diffident among the boys.

Almost every cricketer who knew A G Ram Singh not only loved and respected him but owed him at least a small debt of gratitude—for a kind word at the right time, a vital piece of advice when things were going wrong with our cricket, or just his strong, quiet presence in the sidelines at important games.

Ram Singh was the chief destroyer of Mysore in the inaugural Ranji Trophy match at Chepauk in December 1934, taking eleven wickets in the match. For years after that, he repeated that kind of bowling performance many times, and was also the team's most consistent batsmen. A tribute written in 1953 said: "Anybody who goes through the scorebooks of the Madras Cricket Association will be struck by the amazing consistency of A G Ram Singh, the stockily built all-rounder.  It would indeed be a truism to repeat that Ram Singh bore the burden of Madras cricket on his shoulders as very few had done before and none after him.  Centuries flowed from his bat while with his left-handed spinners he sent many a batsman to his doom.  More than any other, Mysore and Hyderabad States have cause to remember Ram Singh's prowess, for against them he was in his best form.  Not that Ram Singh did not prove himself against better teams than those.  Just after the war, he bearded the lion in its own den, when in the zonal tournament at Bombay he played a magnificent century knock against the best of India's bowlers.  It was an innings that many who witnessed it said should have earned Ram Singh a place in the Indian team to England in 1946 but the 'nabobs' of cricket thought otherwise."

Before his father moved to Madras, young Ram Singh lived just a huge six away from the scene of the Jallian Wala Bagh massacre in Amritsar. "He and other members of the family were locked in a small room and they could hear the gunshots and the shrieks of the people," wrote K Sunder Rajan, Sports Editor, The Hindu, in 1980. An avid spectator of British soldiers' cricket, the young sardar was fascinated by the doings of the Englishmen on the Island ground and Chepauk once he came to Madras, and found he was a natural.  According to Sunder Rajan, "On the day he landed at Madras, his father wanted to take him to the beach.  On the way he saw members of the Madras Cricket Club practising at Chepauk.  He was so passionately fond of cricket that he appealed to his father to watch cricket rather than go to the beach."

In the first Ranji Trophy season, Ram Singh took 6 for 19 and 5 for 16 against Mysore, scoring 14 in a total of 130.  Against Hyderabad, he scored 74 and 70, and had bowling figures of 5 for 88 and 6 for 71.

In the second season, 1935-1936, he made 25 and zero versus Mysore, but took one for 63 and 5 for 55. against Hyderabad, he claimed 2 for 77 and 6 for 32, besides remaining unbeaten in both innings with 121 and 57. In the semifinal, which Madras won by 91 runs, he made 9 and 11, while capturing 4 for 43 and 4 for 30 against Bengal.  In the final that Madras lost to Bombay, the sardar scored 32 and 3 while returning figures of one for 77 and 5 for 92.

Ram Singh was overlooked when the Indian team to tour England was chosen in 1936. Ten years later, he once again missed the boat despite a brilliant century in a trial match prior to the tour of England.  (In the only Ranji Trophy tie Madras played in 1935, losing to Mysore, Ram Singh had scores of 40 and 17, and took 3 for 64 and one for 80.  Next year, the same fate befell Madras, and Ram Singh scored 32 and went wicketless in a short spell against Mysore).

Madras, or for that matter, Tamil Nadu later, has not produced many genuine left arm all rounders.  Ram Singh was certainly the only one in that category to show equal prowess in both batting and bowling. 

A keen student of the game who came under the influence of the Sussex professional AF Wensley, Ram Singh eschewed all frills in his batting and believed in spending long hours at the nets.  He was a strong hooker of anything pitched short, but generally waited for the bad ball, rather than try to play extravagant strokes. He played long innings and revelled in crisis situations. In short, he was the Mr Reliable of the pre-Independence Madras team.

Starting out as a quickish spin bowler in his youth, Ram Singh developed "a tantalising flight" in his mature years.  His accuracy was proverbial and 'never say die' his philosophy as a bowler.  On a rain affected wicket or a turner, he was virtually unplayable.

Ram Singh took to coaching in his retirement from cricket playing, serving in the National Institute of Sports and under the Rajkumari Amrit Kaur scheme. He coached well into his eighties and was much beloved in the Venkata Subba Rao school where he continued his work after his retirement from official duties at the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. 

He was arguably the greatest cricketer never to have played for his country.  He had the satisfaction of watching two of his sons grow up into Test players and at least one more develop into a Test class batsman kept out by injury. His grandsons too played good cricket, living testimony to the Ram Singh heritage.  They, like hundreds of other Tamil Nadu cricketers, learnt their cricket at his knee.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

M J Gopalan

By V Ramnarayan

He was one of the most respected elder statesmen of Tamil Nadu cricket, long after his playing days were over, even beyond his days as a selector and administrator. He could be seen at the stadium, tall, handsome, ramrod straight and a picture of dignity, watching matches and appreciating the finer points of the game. When he could no longer make the effort to commute, he turned to television to absorb every nuance of the game. Not a single cricket match did he miss well into his nineties.

When M J Gopalan died on 21st December 2003, after a brief illness, he was 94, the oldest Test cricketer in the world and the lone survivor from the Madras team that played the first Ranji Trophy match. He it was who bowled the opening delivery in the national championship.

One of India’s two double internationals—the other was left hander C Ramaswami, who represented India in cricket and tennis—both from Madras of yore, Gopalan achieved excellence in cricket and hockey, but it was never an easy path for him. Hailing from a family of modest means, he had to fight his way up the sporting ladder, but he took good care of his health and fitness, and, naturally well endowed with strong bones and sinews, he was able to devote all his time to the pursuit of excellence on a cricket or hockey ground.

In 1926, Gopalan played for the Indians for the first time against the Europeans in the Presidency Match the greatest cricketing event in Madras before the advent of Test matches. In 1927-1928, when the first MCC team visited Madras, Gopalan captured four wickets for 87 for the Indians and three for 108 for Madras in the two matches the tourists played in the city. He also had a fine all round performance against West Indies, playing for South Zone.

It was C P Johnstone, the Kent, England-born Madras captain, who, instrumental in securing him a job with Burmah Shell, introduced the first element of security in the young all rounder’s life. Another Englishman, R C Summerhayes provided the inspiration for Gopalan to achieve excellence in hockey. On any match day, young Gopalan would cycle to Chepauk after finishing his daily rounds visiting Shell petrol stations, enter the arena just before the start of the match, change into his hockey shorts and run on to the field, accompanied by the roars of a cheering crowd.

Gopalan bowled the first ball in the Ranji Trophy, on 4 November 1934, at Chepauk, opening the bowling for Madras against Mysore, a match Madras won by an innings in a single day of cricket. Gopalan’s figures in the match were 8-2-11-0 and 12-4-20-3. He also scored 23, second to the topscorer C Ramaswami (26) in a Madras total of 130. On a rain-affected wicket Mysore managed only 48 and 59, AG Ram Singh wrecking their innings with his left-arm bowling.

Forsaking hockey and a chance to be selected for the Olympics—with the clear prospect of a gold medal—in favour of playing Test cricket, Gopalan was chosen to tour England in 1936, but was given few opportunities on the trip made notorious by the idiosyncratic captaincy of the Maharajah of Vizianagaram, who sent Lala Amarnath home midway on so-called disciplinary grounds. Earlier, a fine piece of bowling for an All-India XI in Calcutta against Jack Ryder’s Australian XI had won him a place in the Indian team for the second ‘Test’ in that series.

“On figures alone Gopalan is entitled to an honoured place in the history of the game, but his greatness can never be measured by the yardstick. If only he had wanted he could have hit more centuries, but Gopalan never stays at the crease unless he must. To him the game alone is all that matters and nothing else. He approaches it in a cavalier spirit and bats and bowls with a freshness and vigour that fill the field and heighten the game”, wrote P N Sundaresan, The Hindu’s sports correspondent, during Gopalan’s silver jubilee year in cricket.

Gopalan was a spontaneous strokemaker, who breathed aggression all the time he was at the crease. As a bowler, he began his career trying to bowl fast and short, but with experience, especially after his 1936 tour of England, he concentrated on length and movement. Gopalan’s subtle variations and control made him a feared bowler even in his forties. He might have been capped more often for India but for the presence of a galaxy of fast bowlers during his period, like Nissar, Amar Singh, Jehangir Khan, and Nazir Ali.

Gopalan served the game of cricket for long after his career was over. As a national selector, he was responsible for Tamil Nadu cricketers of the calibre of A G Kripal Singh, A G Milkha Singh and V V Kumar playing for India. He took his job as Madras University selector equally seriously, and this writer is one of several young cricketers to have benefited from his ability and courage to recognize talent overlooked by his colleagues. In his old age, he became a great fan of Kapil Dev, in whose swashbuckling ways he saw glimpses of his own versatile talent. The two all rounders often met whenever India played a Test match at Chennai, and they made a striking looking pair.

The permanence of Gopalan’s place in the annals of Indian cricket was—or should have been—assured when the annual tournament between Madras and Ceylon was named after him. Unfortunately, after Sri Lanka gained Test recognition, enthusiasm for the Gopalan Trophy contests between the island nation and Tamil Nadu flagged and efforts to revive the tournament since the 1990s have been less than successful. The last attempt was in 2007, when R Ashwin led Tamil Nadu against not Sri Lanka, but a squad comprising under-19 and ‘A’ team players.  For over three decades, however, the tournament, launched in 1952-53, gave much pleasure to spectators in both countries and exposed young cricketers to the international experience.

Monday, September 8, 2014

My favourite team: Karnataka

V Ramnarayan

As someone who rubbed shoulders with some of the most charismatic personalities in domestic cricket of the 1970s, I loved the Hyderabad cricket team of the period. The 1975-76 season, when I made my first class debut, was particularly memorable as my teammates included MAK Pataudi and Abbas Ali Baig, both in their last season, our captain ML Jaisimha and Syed Abid Ali, each a fantastic cricketer and fabulous character. With abundant talent at our disposal, however, we somehow managed to not win the Ranji Trophy in the two decades Jaisimha led us.

My respect and admiration, therefore, went to another glamorous side in the South Zone, Karnataka, which actually won the title a few times, toppling Bombay from its high perch for the first time a couple of seasons before my first. In March 1974, it prevailed over Bombay in the semifinal by virtue of a 78-run first innings lead. Two master batsmen, the wristy Little Master GR Vishwanath (162), and that king of domestic cricket, Brijesh Patel (106), starred in that triumph, while spin twins Prasanna and Chandrasekhar were outstanding while defending a total of 385. Prasanna’s floater that removed Gavaskar’s off bail was the magical delivery of the match. The victory was no mean achievement, as Bombay’s batting line-up included the likes of Ajit Wadekar, run out for 62 and Ashok Mankad, who made 84.

In the final that season, Karnataka beat Rajasthan fairly easily in the end, but not without a few alarms early on. Both Vishwanath and Patel failed, but its dashing all rounders came to the fore: VS Vijayakumar who opened both the batting and the bowling, left arm spinner and hard hitting batsman B Vijayakrishna and medium pacer-batsman AV Jayaprakash in the middle order. Each of them was considered Test material at one time or another.

In addition to these splendid youngsters, who formed the nucleus of the team of the seventies, others too came good during the decade. Sudhakar Rao’s 200 against Hyderabad in 1975-76 won him a berth on the West Indies tour that season, Roger Binny soon came into the side, Sanjay Desai became a solid presence as an opening batsman, though kept out of keeping duties by that world class stumper Syed Kirmani, who was also frequently a thorn in the flesh of opponents, just when they thought they had got rid of the cream of Karnataka’s batting.

Karnataka was to win the Ranji Trophy once again in that decade in 1977-78, when Vishwanath hammered a magnificent double century in the final against Uttar Pradesh, following a hundred in the semifinal against Delhi after a newspaper reporter made the mistake of dubbing him Bishan Bedi’s bunny. The state has repeated the feat five times since then.

If the honour of leading the team to its first two title triumphs went to Prasanna, Vishwanath was the unfortunate captain to lose two finals—once after Karnataka made 705 in the first innings, only for Delhi to gain a lead. Brijesh Patel was the captain next season in 1982-83, when Karnataka beat Bombay in a gruelling final at Bombay. Significantly, the winning eleven had as many as five players from the champion side of a decade earlier—Vishwanath, Patel, Sudhakar Rao, Jayaprakash, Vijayakrishna. Syed Kirmani had been eclipsed by young Sadanand Viswanath—who played a winning hand—only to make a comeback a few years later.

Prasanna and Chandrasekhar of course spun a great web together around batsmen for well over a decade, but amazingly, the team always found a place for at least one other spinner like Vijayakrishna in the playing eleven, besides some excellent seam bowlers like Vijayakumar, Jayaprakash and Binny. Each of them could be counted on to come up with hundreds or five-wicket hauls, especially when the team badly needed them.

Both Prasanna and Patel were astute leaders, and Vishwanath a thoughtful one with a softer touch, and the men under them somehow managed to play consistently winning but rarely boring or defensive cricket. With one of the world’s finest middle order batsmen in Vishwanath, a great keeper-batsman in Kirmani, and two members of India’s famed spin quartet in Prasanna and Chandrasekhar, Karnataka managed to be an attractive, entertaining outfit throughout the time I watched them at close quarters.

V Ramnarayan