V Ramnarayan narrates the fascinating tales of the perennials – the less known and unsung heroes from the club cricket level in India, and tells us why their competitiveness cannot be disregarded.
I played collegiate cricket in Madras in the 1960s, and first-class cricket after my move to Hyderabad in 1971. I was 28 when I made my Ranji Trophy debut four years later. I had almost given up hope. I had been sure, even perversely proud, that I would never be a first-class cricketer; surely the loss was for cricket, not me! There were Test cricketers and Ranji Trophy players I admired, but I was drawn to those who didn’t make it and carried on regardless, putting up their best show in encounters with players and teams way above their level. I was proud to owe allegiance to this unusual breed of overachievers whom the selectors overlooked year after year.
My Presidency College (Madras) spin twin CS Dayakar was one of them. A left-handed all-rounder, he saved his best for our matches against the College of Engineering, Guindy, perhaps one of the strongest college teams in India. Its captain was S Venkataraghavan, who had debuted as India’s off-spinner against New Zealand in the 1964/65 season, and he led a side brimming with talent. Dayakar and John Alexander, our stocky, resolute batsman in the Vijay Manjrekar mould, approached these matches with steely determination and fierce pride, invariably scoring big.
Dayakar was selected in the Madras University squad that travelled to Dharwad in Karnataka in December 1969 to compete in the Rohinton Baria Trophy, but declined, certain that the other left-arm spinner of the team, Bhargav Mehta, would be preferred in the playing XI. Dayakar was never picked again in representative cricket, but wheeled away gamely for years for the doughty Indian Overseas Bank team in the highly competitive Tamil Nadu Cricket Association league.
Mehta was to turn out to be a very unlucky cricketer, too, despite a magnificent Rohinton Baria final the very next season, in which he bowled Madras to victory over Bombay with 14 wickets. Amazingly, Mehta never played Ranji Trophy cricket, a mystery perhaps only slightly less puzzling than the story of fast bowler Vikram Thambuswami, who took 8-37 in the first innings of his only Ranji Trophy appearance for Tamil Nadu versus Andhra.
Two other Madras University players played stellar roles in that season of triumph for their team under the captaincy of R Ravichandran. PR Ramakrishnan was an upright, stylish batsman from Coimbatore, one of the most prolific scorers in university and junior cricket in the 1970s. His partner in a huge lower-order association at the Osmania University ground in Hyderabad was N Bharathan, an orthodox off-spinner with a lovely action, flight and deception.
— V Ramnarayan (@pnvram) April 24, 2020
In that game, both Ramakrishnan and Bharathan scored big hundreds, with the spinner also bagging a rich haul of wickets. Both were successful in the TNCA league for many seasons without ever gaining the selectors’ nod. Bharathan was one of the finest off-spinners I have seen or played with. With Venkataraghavan and VV Kumar leading the Tamil Nadu attack for a couple of decades, Bharathan stood little chance of playing Ranji cricket. Ravichandran was a consistently successful captain in junior and university cricket, but had to be content with scoring plenty of runs at that level, never progressing beyond it.
I am focusing here not only on those I consider unfairly treated by selectors, but also others who knew they belonged at the purely local level, with no hope or aspiration for higher honours, manfully turning out for their clubs season after season.
‘Don’ Rangan, so named for his Bradmanesque deportment on the cricket field, his arrogant self-belief disproportionate to his cricketing accomplishments, was master of all he surveyed on the Pithapuram cricket ground in south Madras in the 1960s. He maintained a superb ground and nets out of his own (some say his family’s) hard-earned money. Besides offering net practice facilities through the year, Rangan relished inviting strong visiting teams to ‘friendly’ matches (though they fit the description only nominally as Rangan was arguably the inventor of sledging, and often cheated at the toss, breezily declaring, “We bat,” no matter which way the coin fell) and trying to beat them. ‘Opening batsman and wicketkeeper’ was his official description, but he sometimes called on some unsuspecting junior player to deputise for him behind the stumps so that he could take an absurdly long run-up to bowl his military medium. His crowing at bowling success, often after he bullied the umpire, would have earned him suspension for at least a couple of matches under today’s behaviour norms.
Three brothers bowled medium pace for Mylapore Recreation Club in the same period. PR Sundaram, the eldest and tallest of them, bowled at a sharp pace and extracted steep bounce on the matting wickets of the time. Those who faced him in the league could never figure out why he played only one Ranji Trophy game, and that too with less than impressive returns. An entertaining wielder of the long handle, Sundaram was also a good tennis player. Like Rangan, he too had no respect for the big names, and loved to embarrass them — for example, by bowling them with a googly off the first ball of a match or laughing loudly after gaining an umpire’s verdict he considered wrong.
Who, according to you, was India’s most underrated Test player? pic.twitter.com/ZQtKDZLHpx
— Wisden India (@WisdenIndia) July 13, 2020
There were many club cricketers of the time who entertained with their skill or idiosyncrasies: Gopalapuram CC’s leg-spinner Kannan with his ‘donkey drops’ of legendary altitude; K C Krishnamurthi, whose constant chatter gained him more notoriety than any fame his fastish leg-breaks might have; Alley Sridhar, possibly the ugliest left-handed batsman in history; medium pacer Rajaraghavan, who religiously called a certain TNCA official once every year to inquire of him why he had been left out of the state team; CB Selvakumar, whose six-hitting prowess won him a large fan base, and PN ‘Clubby’ Clubwala, who once scored 37 not out in a whole day’s batting and held the original title of strokeless wonder before the early Navjot Singh Sidhu. These hardy perennials of Madras cricket lent it its unique personality.
Hyderabad, where I moved in 1971, was no different. My State Bank of India captain was a tiny man with a big heart. Abid Zainulabudin was a gutsy middle-order batsman and thinking captain who never played first-class cricket but defied superior teams with his strategic leadership and brave batting. It was said of Kaleem-ul-Haq, a leg-spinner with a nonchalant spring in his step and jaunty, upswept hairstyle, that he kept a careful record of the number of wickets he grabbed in net practice, rarely missing the hundred mark for the season. He reminded me of two spinners of Madras who for years haunted the nets, even though they did not get to play a single match during the period.
Left-armer SK Patel eventually did find success on the field of play: he crossed the fifty mark in the 1975/76 season to pass Mumtaz Hussain’s record in the Rohinton Baria, while wrist-spinner V Kannan just faded away from the scene after numerous seasons of net bowling. Many spinners through the decades, from CR Mukundan, K Ganapathy, MK Rajamanickam and MK Mohan in the 1950/60s, to M Subramaniam and N Raghavendran of recent decades, have soldiered on unsung.
Overseas tours with the Hyderabad or Deccan Blues I was part of were a wonderful departure from organised domestic cricket, especially for former internationals and local cricketers who might never make it big. Arranged by PR Man Singh, the manager of the 1983 World Cup-winning Indian team and a cricket tragic with the briefest of brief first-class careers, these tours sometimes threw up unexpectedly high-quality performances from both the Blues and our opponents like the Australian Old Collegians or I Zingari, amateur clubs that both hosted visiting teams and toured the subcontinent.
While I was witness to many sterling performances by my teammates on these tours, there were occasions when an unknown opponent gave us a fright. Hyderabad Blues nearly lost a match to Singapore Cricket Club in January 1978, when medium pacer Chris Kilbee, an erstwhile teammate of David Gower at school and college level, took the wickets of Ajit Wadekar, M L Jaisimha and Murtuza Ali Baig in quick succession, and then scored a brilliant 91. At 160-2, SCC were poised to overtake our modest 190, when Jaisimha desperately turned to opening batsman Kenia Jayantilal’s occasional swing and seam. Jayanti obliged with seven wickets, and the Blues narrowly escaped a humiliating defeat. The tongue-lashing some of us received that night from skipper Jaisimha was of epic proportions.
Once, tired of listening to an interminable lecture by a former Test cricketer about his international exploits, I declared I was proud of the intense cricket some of us played, albeit at a less exalted level than his. I am likewise convinced that the cricket many non-first-class cricketers play is no less competitive.
V Ramnarayan (@pnvram) was an off-spinner for Hyderabad and turned to journalism and teaching after a first-class career that brought him 96 wickets from 25 matches.
This essay was first published in the Wisden India Almanack 2019 & 2020