Curdrice cricket


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NOT long ago, four Chennai cricketers were barred from playing any further games for the season, following unacceptably aggressive on-field behaviour during a league match. Their ‘sledging’ prowess would have put the worst excesses of the Australian Test team to shame. All four suspended players belonged to the fielding side, the umpire who reported the incident to the cricket association finding the opponents innocent of any misdemeanour. ‘They were perhaps cleverer than those who got caught,’ the cynics said. ‘Chances are that they too mouthed obscenities, insulted the opposition, and questioned their parentage; only they did it out of the umpires’ hearing, to go by the general trend of behaviour on our cricket grounds.’

What a far cry this scene is from Madras cricket of yore. Just to give you an idea of the kind of spirit that pervaded the game as it was played here in the fifties and sixties, even the seventies, let’s join the action in the first ball of a limited over match back in the sixties. The new ball bowler K.S.S. Mani is known for movement and intelligent variation rather than speed. The batsman is R. Vijayaraghavan, an entertaining stroke-maker. To ‘Viji’, if a ball is there to be hit, it is meant to be hit, even if it is the first ball of a match. Mani’s first delivery is an inswinging half volley, and Viji flicks it imperiously over square leg for six. The crowd is on its feet, but look at Mani’s reaction. He runs to the batsman and pats him on his back, shouting, ‘Great shot da, Viji.’ Though such extreme acts of sportsmanship were not a daily occurrence, most of the cricket of the time was played in a spirit of friendly combat.

Cricket was initially an elitist pursuit, learned originally from the British by the landed gentry and educated upper crust and then percolating to the middle class. It was Buchi Babu Nayudu, a dubash well-versed in the ways of the ruling British at the turn of the century, who first assembled an Indian outfit capable of beating the ‘European’ at his own game. Soon the game spread far and wide in Madras – from Purasawalkam to Perambur, Triplicane to Mylapore and beyond, with caste Hindus and Anglo-Indians the most prominent practitioners of the game.

‘Curdrice cricketers’ was the epithet still reserved for Madras cricketers of my time, especially of the Brahmin variety (who probably form a substantial percentage of the cricket playing population of the city even today), though the demographics of the game was gradually changing, with many of the Anglo-Indians leaving India, and more and more of the ‘backward communities’ taking to the game with each succeeding generation. It was a sarcastic reference to the soporific effect of the staple diet of the majority back then. We were said to lack the steel for stern battle, our artistry and skills no match to the aggression of cricketers elsewhere.

Brilliant strokemakers and spin bowlers in local cricket, we were considered no-hopers when it came to locking horns with the more robust if less stylish combatants from Delhi or Bombay. Fielding was at best an unavoidable nuisance and the slips the preserve of seniors, with the babies of the team banished to the distant outposts of long leg and third man. Fast bowling was too close to real work, left best in the hands of those endowed with more brawn than brain.

League cricket then was relatively informal. There was no registration of players by the clubs, and you could walk in a few minutes before the toss and join the eleven. There was much banter and fielders and batsmen often traded jokes or gossip, with the umpires sometimes joining in. The action rarely approached the frenetic and the accent was invariably on style rather than substance. The spinner who did not turn the ball and the batsman of dour defence or crude power were treated with contempt by all these different constituents of the game in my youth. To give you an idea of the cricketing values of the period, I – as an off spinner – was not infrequently warned by umpires that all my appeals would be refused unless I flighted the ball! To them, how you bowled was more important than taking wickets.



On most grounds, the shade of a large tree served as the dressing room and facilities were generally primitive. Lunch involved a hurried dash to Ratna Café, Udipi Sukha Nivas, Shanti Vihar, Udipi Home or Dasprakash and back, depending on the venue of the match. The effects of the blazing sun were countered by glasses of unboiled, unfiltered and often multihued water stored in mud pots or brought in buckets that resembled relics dug out by archaeological expeditions.

Most Madras cricketers were unable to afford high quality gear. In fact, you needed contacts abroad or access to visiting Test cricketers to buy bats and other gear from them at fancy prices. A Gunn and Moore, Gray Nicolls or Autograph bat could cost upwards of a hundred rupees and that was a lot of money for the average cricketer. The gloves, leg guards and shoes worn by most of us often performed a psychological rather than protective role. At the lower levels of cricket it was not unusual for batsmen to wear a single leg guard rather than a pair because that was all the team could afford. The bats could be handcrafted things of beauty, but they did not possess the carry of contemporary bats that can send a top edge out of the ground.



Despite these constraints or possibly because of them – for they served to make playing cricket seem an adventure, a privilege earned by the worthy, not something handed to you on a platter as it is today – the enthusiasm for the game was plentiful and infectious among players and spectators alike, not to mention the men behind the scenes like club secretaries, scorers and markers. Of humour, there was never any shortage and the spirit of competition was always softened by a sense of camaraderie that went beyond team loyalties.

Cricket was an indispensable part of growing up in sleepy Madras of the 1950s and 1960s. Everywhere in the city, there were cricket-mad children, their fancy fed by radio commentary and newspaper reports, and the occasional visit to the cricket ground to watch their local heroes. In most houses with sizable compounds, siblings, cousins and their neighbourhood friends played much of their cricket within the four walls of their homes. We had charcoal stumps drawn on a number of walls in the compound, every corridor and hallway was a makeshift ground when it was too hot outside, there were three or four pitches within the compound that we kids levelled and rolled – even had cowdung sprayed by our helpful domestic staff – but for most of us the crowning glory was a vast ‘ground’ nearby, empty plots of land still to be swallowed by residential buildings.

Usually, the wicket was a beauty, levelled by humans and cattle using them as shortcuts from one street to another. The ground was often manicured by grazing buffaloes, which seemed to equal the human population of the streets we lived on.

Only when it rained did the playing surface pose problems, challenging the technique and courage of the barefoot batsmen, while transforming military medium pacers into demon fast bowlers. The hoofmarks of the buffaloes on wet soil hardened into dangerous ridges from which the ball reared up steeply. Batting then became largely a matter of survival of the luckiest.



There were countless such private grounds which the young cricketers simply entered one day and occupied, so to speak, until the Rip Van Winkle who owned the plot woke up suddenly to build his dream house, in the process shattering the dreams of many prospective Prasannas and Venkataraghavans, Pataudis and Bordes. Only for the dreams to be resumed in technicolour as soon as the intrepid young cricket warriors conquered their next new territory.

Cricket did not stop even in the classroom, where boys played ‘book cricket’, by opening pages at random and affixing runs or dismissals to the two imaginary batsmen – they could be Mankad and Roy in one generation and Gavaskar and Viswanath the next. If for example you opened page 54, the second digit was the reference point for the scorekeeping, and the batsman got four runs (or two, under a different set of rules), if the page number ended in a zero, the batsman was declared out and so on.

In my extended family, we invented our own brand of home cricket, an ingenious adaptation of the bagatelle board in which we gave cricket values to the various points on the board. 150 was six runs, 125 was four, LTP was bowled, 75 was two runs, 90 three, and we had different positions for different kinds of dismissals, caught, lbw, stumped, run out, even hit wicket. A skilful player, experienced in steering the little steel ball bearings we used for marbles, could make his team score 300-400 runs if he held his nerve, and score those runs pretty rapidly. It provided perverse pleasure to make Laker and Lock or Desai and Surendranath score centuries after the top order had failed.



Madras cricket of those days had its share of characters. P.R. Sundaram, a first rate fast medium bowler and an entertaining wielder of the long handle, was also one of the funniest men seen on a cricket field. He kept up a fairly constant chatter on the field, and was not above laughing at an umpire after he had given a dubious decision. He once informed an official after he had lifted his finger in response to his own loud appeal, that the poor batsman had not played the ball on its way to the wicketkeeper. On another occasion, he bowled a googly as his opening delivery of the match and laughed with his arms akimbo at the batsman who had been bowled shouldering arms.

Some others raised a laugh without intending to. There was ‘Kulla Kitta’ Krishnamurthy, who opened the innings for Crom-Best Recreation Club, one of numerous short statured players known by that nickname over the years, who, dismissed off the first ball of a match once, told the incoming batsman as they crossed: ‘Be careful. He moves the ball both ways.’ ‘Dochu’ Duraiswami bowled a series of full tosses in a junior match at the Central College ground in Bangalore and later declared to his teammates: ‘I have never bowled on a turf wicket before.’



Opening batsman Balu sat up all night reading Don Bradman’s ‘The Art of Cricket’ with every intention of putting precept into practice, only to be run out first ball next morning, his partner’s straight drive brushing the bowler’s fingers on the way to the stumps, and catching him out of the crease! ‘Clubby’ Clubwalla was another popular character whom the crowds loved to boo, for his slow batting and fascinating contortions whether batting at the top of the order or bowling his alleged off spin with a most complicated action. He was a stonewaller par excellence who once made 37 runs in a whole day of batting.

There were other unforgettable characters. Probably the best known was K.S. Kannan, the veteran all-rounder who became one of the best-loved coaches of the state, more famous for his original English than his undeniable cricket skills. For a man who was fluent in Tamil, his mother tongue, but could barely pass muster in English, he loved expressing himself in the Queen’s language, with invariably hilarious results. ‘Give me the ball to him,’ he would tell one of his wards, and ‘ask me to pad up one batsman.’ ‘Thanking you, yours faithfully, K.S. Kannan,’ were the famous last words of a speech he made at a school function.

In recent years, the stylish right hand batsman T.E. Srinivasan was famous for his wit and eccentric behaviour. On an Australian tour, his only one, T.E. allegedly told a local press reporter, ‘Tell Dennis Lillee T.E. has arrived.’ On the same tour he persuaded a security official at a Test match to warn innocent Yashpal Sharma that he would be arrested if he continued to stare at the ladies through his binoculars. Yashpal’s panic and the resultant roar of laughter from the Indian dressing room caused a stoppage in the middle as the batsman Gavaskar drew away annoyed by the disturbance.

League matches often attracted crowds in excess of a thousand and the 30-overs a side Sport & Pastime (later The Hindu) Trophy final invariably drew five or six thousand spectators. Many finals were played at the Marina ground on the Beach Road, now Kamarajar Salai, which wore a festive appearance on such occasions, with every seat in the gallery taken, every treeshade occupied and dozens of cars and scooters parked on Beach Road, providing a vantage view of the match from just beyond a low wall. If you were patrolling the boundary line, you could eavesdrop on the most knowledgeable cricket conversations among spectators who knew not only the finer points of the game but also the relative merits of all the league teams and their players backwards. You could even receive some useful advice gratis, but God save you if you misfielded or dropped a catch!



Devoted spectators sometimes went from ground to ground watching more than one match in a single day. ‘IOB 73 for 4 at Viveka, State Bank 100 for no loss at Marina, Jolly Rovers 82 for 2 at Pachaiyappa’s,’ one of them, a league cricket fanatic of many years’ standing, would announce even before parking his scooter. Quickly collecting the scores at this new venue, he would troop off to provide similar information to players at another ground anxious to learn how the competition was faring elsewhere. Today, coaches and managers carry cell phones and information is exchanged instantly and effortlessly by all the protagonists involved in the chase for match points.

A Ranji trophy match between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka or Hyderabad could draw a crowd of 20,000-30,000 paying spectators. A match at Chepauk, with all its historic association with the ‘Pongal’ match of yore, was a most enjoyable spectacle, watched by somnolent vacationers seated under the trees surrounding the ground. That was before the concrete cauldron that today effectively reduces cricketers to dehydrated invalids in a matter of hours came to dominate the landscape.



It was an occasion to pack your puliyodarai and thair sadam and set out on a day-long excursion to catch up with old friends, and in their company, dissect the doings of the protagonists of the drama being enacted before you, to applaud or barrack bowlers, batsmen and fielders.

Madras crowds are not only knowledgeable but generally hard-to-please as well. They will never accept Anil Kumble as a better bowler than their own V.V. Kumar, a wrist spinner in the orthodox mould unlike the Karnataka express googly specialist. Gundappa Viswanath of the steely wrists and the nonchalant artistry ranks higher with them than Sunil Gavaskar, for all the Little Master’s achievements and peerless technique.

Oldtimers even today experience goosebumps when they recall a magnificent innings of 215 played at Chepauk by the Ceylon stylist Sathasivam in 1940. According to many, no better innings has ever been played at Chepauk. But post-War cricket enthusiasts rate G.R. Viswanath’s unbeaten 97 against West Indies in January 1975 as the greatest innings in living memory, better than the best Gavaskar and Tendulkar knocks played at the same venue – and there have been plenty of those at Chepauk. The Triplicane crowds still wax lyrical about E.A.S. Prasanna’s deadly spell in 1969, when he had Australia reeling at 24 for 6, and will be the first to admit that their own local hero Venkataraghavan could not have hoped to equal the magic of that afternoon.



That is the one feature of the Madras crowd that you will rarely find elsewhere in India – the ability to transcend regional, even national bias to appreciate true sporting endeavour and artistry. This sportsmanship was never more in evidence than when the Pakistanis under Wasim Akram did a victory lap at the end of a pulsating match India almost won in 1999. I remember the drama of that afternoon as though it happened yesterday. The crowd had been roaring its approval all morning as Tendulkar led an incredible assault on the rival bowling, supported by the gallant Nayan Mongia. Unfortunately, with victory seemingly within easy reach, Sachin succumbed to the strain of the painful back injury he had been carrying throughout the innings, and soon it was all over for India.

There was a stunned silence, as if the huge crowd was still waiting for a signal from the small but significant saffron brigade in the stands that had been shouting anti-Pakistan slogans on the last day of the match (Bal Thackeray had earlier called for a ban on the tour). Like many others in the pavilion terrace, I looked back anxiously at the leader of the group, who, after what seemed like an interminable wait, gave the thumbs up to his followers. They burst into applause and the rest of the stadium joined in thunderous ovation as the victors did their triumphant march around the ground. It was a moment to make every Indian proud.



This wonderful spectator support for cricket is bolstered by passionate corporate enthusiasm for the game. Chennai is the home of a uniquely powerful form of industry-institution cooperation to promote sport, especially cricket. Companies like India Cements, Chemplast Sanmar, SPIC, India Pistons, MRF and SICAL have ‘adopted’ colleges and spent fortunes on developing and maintaining world class cricket facilities, with superb turf wickets and practice facilities. Institutions like Southern Railway, Integral Coach factory and Sri Ramachandra Medical College also maintain similar grounds. These patrons as well as public sector banks SBI, IOB and Indian Bank have traditionally ensured the livelihood security of sportsmen by offering them jobs or professional contracts, though the banks are now no longer the safe havens they used to be. The MRF Pace Foundation, the MAC Spin Foundation and numerous private initiatives serve to supplement the coaching programmes of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association, one of the better run cricket bodies in the country.

All these developments have helped transform the Tamil Nadu cricketer into a professional, physically and mentally tougher than his predecessors. Proof is provided by the greater frequency of the state team’s appearance in the final rounds of the Ranji Trophy and the increasing number of Tamil Nadu players knocking at Test doors in recent times. Yet, like the many corporate patrons of the state’s cricket, most of whom have supported it for love of the game rather than any publicity, I still enjoy the curdrice flavour of Tamil Nadu cricket that has lingered despite the march of time and hope it does not lose it altogether.