Saturday, February 28, 2015

Third Man at the Madras Book Club

Earlier today, my friends received a pornographic video, purportedly from my FB account. Before any of you buy the book, let me give you the disappointing news that there is nothing racy in Third Man, except for some references to maiden overs and long legs.

First, about the title Third Man. I chose it to show off that I was the third off spinner in the country for a while, definitely in the South Zone, after the great bowlers Prasanna and Venkataraghavan. I wore that distinction like a badge of honour, and if the title gives the impression that it is my expression of any disappointment, it was far from my intention.

Why did I write this book? Mainly because nothing happened in my career till I reached cricketing old age, and then there was a miraculous change in my fortunes. Much of what happened, both good and bad, was stranger than fiction. For several years after my playing days, I insisted on regaling (or boring) my friends with stories cricketing and off the field. I was lucky enough to play with and against some fine cricketers and wonderful personalities. The stories I told were sometimes enriching and uplifting but almost always funny. My friends repeatedly asked me to put all those stories into a book. And I eventually succumbed to the temptation. I actually started writing Third Man some 30 years ago, but shelved the project as I was preoccupied with eking out a livelihood.

It took the constant persuasion of my friend and fellow author Krishna Shastri to make me take the plunge. After writing it, I am convinced that there is a book in almost every cricketer, and I hope some of my friends will start recording the highs and lows of their careers. That is what I have done, and in addition to some hilarious anecdotes, the book tries to document the crucial twists and turns of a cricket journey.  I thought long and hard about including the unhappy moments in the narrative, because I did not want to be seen as complaining, but decided to go ahead, as it would not be an honest book otherwise. I have spared you some of the gorier details, but I believe it is important to say it like it is, to provide a true account of a cricketer's life.

The book is also my attempt to remember and salute the many cricketers I have played with and watched, those who supported, encouraged and mentored me. The cricket ground and dressing room are among the most egalitarian spaces you can imagine. For instance, I have always called our chief guest VV, not Sir or Mr Kumar as we tend to do older people in any other walk of life. In the Hyderabad team I played in, the former Nawab of Pataudi and champion cricketers like Jaisimha and Abid Ali evoked awe and respect with the quality of their cricket and their wisdom, not because of their seniority or social position.

A few words about VV Kumar. He was quite simply the greatest Indian leg spinner I have seen and played with. I did watch Subhash Gupte, but I was too young to appreciate the finer points then. VV's magic was something my generation of cricketers knew intimately. 
He had all the tricks of the trade of Shane Warne, except the huge leg break, which VV did not fancy. He had two types of googly, while Warne was not known for his wrong Ășn. 

He played only two Test matches and was unfairly omitted thereafter, and though he was all the time improving as a bowler, the genius of the freak spinner Chandrasekhar blocked his re-entry into Test cricket. I am very sure that had he had a long run in international cricket, he would have achieved great feats and merited comparison with Warne.  At a vital phase of my career, he gave me advice which I never forgot, and which stood me in good stead. The great Hanumant Singh was another whose guidance shaped my bowling.

I was once able to share my view that VV was the best leg spinner after Gupte with Sir Garfield Sobers, when he asked some of us our opinion on the subject. Sobers was then helping VV out at his spin academy, and he nodded in agreement. "Even today, he bowls long spells in the nets, and he is better than all his wards," he said.

Though I pride myself on being computer savvy, I have realised during the production of this book that I am far from that. During the numerous exchanges of email between me and the editor of the book, Karthik Venkatesh, I managed to lose a few chapters of the book. It is a mystery I have not been able to solve, since I deleted much of the contents of my outbox. I regret the omission of these chapters and hope there will be a second edition so that I can restore them.

One of the chapters was a poignant one, recalling an emotional moment. During a conditioning camp for Indian probables before the 1977-78 Australia tour, I learnt  at the very ground where we were training, that I had not been included in the South Zone squad to play the Duleep Trophy before the tour. Every one of the other 32 players was picked and actually played in the eleven for his zone. The young wicket keeper Bharath Reddy felt so bad about it, he brought the South Zone skipper S Venkataraghavan to my hotel room late that afternoon. Venkat told me I should have been in the team, explaining that he had not been part of the selection committee and apologising to me. His caring gesture softened the blow.

Another chapter I managed to lose was on GR Viswanath, my favourite cricketer. Vishy figures in the book more than once, and I have expressed my admiration for him, but I feel my tribute to this extraordinary cricketer should have been more complete.

Finally, also missing is the story my late cousin Raman, who played competitive cricket and loved the game enough to watch Tamil Nadu win the Ranji Trophy in 1987, knowing that his days on earth were numbered. He proudly watched my brother Sivaramakrishnan play a key role in that match.

I deliberately omitted several stories involving my friend Meher Baba that Inspector Clouseau among cricketers with his unintended humour. I would have certainly included them if he had not died in the prime of his life. I know Meher, wherever he is, won't mind if I tell one of his stories here. Shivlal Yadav, Shahid Akbar, Meher and I, all members of the South Zone team, were walking past the Sachivalaya building in Mumbai with its national flag and Ashoka Chakra, when Meher turned to me and said, "Look Ram, Indian Embassy." I said, what are you saying, Meher? He realised his gaffe, smote his forehead with his palm and said, "Oh God, that is in Delhi, isn’t it?"

Music has been an important part of my life, and I now edit an arts magazine. There were always musicians of varied capabilities around in my playing days, including the late Ravi Kichlu my Rajasthan Club teammate in Calcutta and P Unnikrishnan in Parrys in Chennai. You will find them both in Third Man.

Many, many thanks to the Madras Book Club, Ms Jayanthi Ramesh of Westland, Mr Muthiah, Mr Rajan, My daughter Akhila, my brilliant colleague Ramkumar Shankar who so readily agreed to critique the book for us today, my wife Gowri, and the great Mr VV Kumar, whom it has been my privilege to know and play cricket with. 

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your presence here this evening.