Title: Madras On My Mind
Edited by: Chitra Viraraghavan and Krishna Shastri
Publisher: Harper Collins
Price: Rs 350
Madras cricket of yore was a far cry from its combative, sometimes ill-tempered avatar of today. For instance, I remember this rare sight of the first ball of a match being imperiously flicked over midwicket for six on the Marina ground. Even as the crowd roars its approval, the bowler runs to the batsman and pats him on his back, shouting, “Great shot, da!” True, such extreme acts of sportsmanship were not a daily occurrence, but most of the cricket of the time was played in a spirit of friendly competition. Cricket was initially an elitist pursuit, learnt originally from the British by the landed gentry and educated upper crust, and then percolating to the middle class. It was Buchi Babu Naidu, 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.
I started playing club cricket in the early 1960s, and we were often scornfully dismissed as “curd-rice cricketers”. It was a sarcastic reference to the soporific effect of the staple diet of the majority of cricketers back then. We were said to lack the steel for stern battle, our artistry and skills no match for the aggression of cricketers elsewhere.
Brilliant stroke-makers and spin bowlers in local cricket, we often faltered against our less stylish but more determined opponents 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, best left in the hands of those endowed with more brawn than brain.
League cricket then was relatively informal. You could walk in a few minutes before the toss and join the eleven. Fielders and batsmen often traded jokes or gossip, with the umpires sometimes joining in. The action rarely approached the frenetic, and the accent was on style rather than substance. The spinner who did not turn the ball and the batsman of dour defense or crude power were treated with contempt by players and spectators alike. The general air of camaraderie extended to umpires taking a benevolent interest in your progress. One of them, M.D.S. Murthy, a virtual stick of a man, who habitually stole a quick puff or three of his Berkeley cigarette during drinks breaks, once refused to give decisions in my favour, sternly warning me, ‘’You won’t get an LBW or caught behind from me today if you don’t flight the ball.”
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 Dasaprakash and back, depending on the venue of the match. The effects of the blazing sun were countered by glasses of unboiled, unfiltered and often multi-hued water stored in mud pots or brought in buckets that resembled relics dug up by archaeological expeditions. “When will you stop bringing water in a kakkoos bucket?” my teammate Mukund once thundered at the ground staff.
“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. Kids had charcoal stumps drawn on walls, and every corridor and hallway was a makeshift ground when it was too hot outside.”
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 & 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.
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. Kids had charcoal stumps drawn on walls, and every corridor and hallway was a makeshift ground when it was too hot outside. In my extended family, we had rough, mud pitches in our compound. These were cow-dung sprayed by our helpful domestic workers, but the crowning glory was a vast “ground” nearby, empty plots of land still to be swallowed up 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. 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.
Extracted with permission from Madras of my Mind, by Chitra Viraraghavan, published by Harper Collins