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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XXI No. 19, January 15-31, 2012
'Curdrice cricket'

Madras Cricket 50 years ago remembered by V. Ramnarayan

What a far cry today's cricket scenario 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 in the 1950s and 60s, even the 70s, let's join the action with the first ball of a limited-overs match back in the 1960s.

The new ball bowler KSS 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. (Vijayaraghavan, a veteran journalist, a son of neurosurgeon Dr. B. Ramamurthi and a grandson of freedom fighter Rukmani Lakshmipathy, passed away recently.)

Madras cricket began as an elitist pursuit, learned originally from the British by the landed gentry and educated upper crust. It then percolated to the middle class. It was Buchi Babu Nayudu, from a dubash family 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 the Euraseans, caste Hindus and Anglo-Indians being the most prominent practitioners of the game.

'Curd rice cricketers' was the epithet still reserved for Madras cricketers of my time, the 1960s, especially of the Brahmin variety (who formed a substantial percentage of the cricket-playing population of the city well into the last decade). 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. The demographic of the game was, however, gradually changing, with the British and many of the Anglo-Indians leaving India, and more and more of the other communities taking to the game with each succeeding generation.

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.

The local league then was relatively informal. No registration of players by the clubs was required, 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 during my youth.

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 could 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.

There were countless 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), and 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 (Sundaram's) 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' Krishna-murthy, who opened the innings for Crom-Best Recreation Club, one of numerous short statured players known by that nickname over the years, and 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 off 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. Fluent in Tamil, his mother tongue, he could barely pass muster in English, yet he loved to express 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.

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!

In more 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.


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In this Issue

Is conservation on right track?
Neglect threatening QMC building
Beach, bins & beauty
Krishnan entertains off the court
In the Fort & outside...
Walking about with
Sriram V.
Collecting our memories
'Curdrice cricket'
Dennis no 'menace' in Madras
Inspiring a crop of chess champions
Changing times
Fly away with them...
Children's focus during Madras Week

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan


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