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CLUB BEFORE COUNTRY
- Multiple allegiances among cricket-lovers are a thing of the past

On the second evening of the Mohali test, when the rest of India was salivating at the idea of Virender Sehwag being 90 not out overnight, I was at a cricketing function in Bangalore, held for the benefit of the players and members of the Friends Union Cricket Club. Founded in 1937, FUCC is one of Bangalore's oldest clubs, and also one of its best. For all but five years of its existence it has been in the city's high-quality first-division. It usually figures in the top four places, and has been runners-up a dozen times. But it was only in 2003 that it actually succeeded in winning the League Championship. And so we were here, in the air-conditioned dining room of the Chinnaswamy Stadium, to celebrate this long-overdue (and hence so greatly savoured) success.

FUCC has produced many fine cricketers, including at least two dozen who have played for Karnataka and two who have played for India. But I like to claim that I was its youngest-ever member. I joined FUCC in 1963, at the age of five, introduced by my uncle, who played for the club, in time captained it, and now manages and runs it. For forty-two years now I have followed and supported FUCC.

Thus I was at the FUCC's golden jubilee function in 1987, and its 60th anniversary in 1997. Here I was again, in that same dining room, to join my fellows in celebrating this first-ever championship victory. The 15 members of the A team, lean and handsome young athletes all, were handed over their prizes by the club's president. Then, for the individual awards, some special old members were asked to do the honours. The bowling prize was handed over by V.M. Muddiah, an FUCC member capped for India as an off-spinner; the batting prize by P.S. Viswanath, who played for South Zone and Mysore apart from his club; the fielding prize by R. Sudhakar Rao, who played in three Ranji-Trophy-winning teams, and also for India in a one-day international. In between, there were speeches soaked in nostalgia, recalling players forgotten and famous, matches lost and won.

It was, as the events of good cricketing clubs usually are, a most convivial gathering, bringing together several generations of players. The oldest person present was an eighty-three-year-old member who had come from Mysore; the youngest a fifteen-year-old of Chinese extraction who played for the club's B team. After the speeches and prizes, it was time for drinks and dinner, where one could catch up with cricketers with whom one had once played or merely watched.

For four decades now, the support of the FUCC has been my primary cricketing allegiance, to be honoured by going to the club's matches four or five times a year, and by writing a modest cheque once in a while. It was several years after I joined the FUCC that I chose a Ranji Trophy to follow. I lived at the time in Dehradun, but spent the holidays with my grandparents in Bangalore. The choice between Uttar Pradesh (of which Dehradun was then part) and Mysore (as Karnataka was then known) was actually no choice. For UP was the weakest side in the second-weakest zone, while three Mysoreans had just been capped for India.

At this time, the late Sixties, the Ranji Trophy was verily India's premier cricketing championship. Since test matches were few and far between, domestic cricket generated enormous interest. Very large crowds turned up for important matches. The hold of Bombay on the trophy was slipping, and half-a-dozen sides were competing for the privilege of dethroning it ' Hyderabad, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Bengal, and Rajasthan. When Bombay finally fell, it was to Karnataka at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in 1974 ' and I was there to see it happen, along with some 30,000 others. Compared to the support for my club, the returns on emotional investment were quicker and, as time would show, weightier. For in the next twenty-five years my side was to win the Ranji Trophy championship no fewer than six times.

It was also in the late Sixties that I became a supporter of South Zone. This was a logical choice, and meant something too, for back then the Duleep Trophy was very competitive indeed. Bishan Bedi led North Zone; with or under him were the Amarnath brothers, Rajinder Goel, and Madan Lal. West Zone had the great Bombay stalwarts; Gavaskar, Wadekar, Shivalkar, Sardesai, Ashok Mankad. The South had two great quartets: one of spinners ' Venkatraghavan, Chandresekhar, Prasanna and V.V. Kumar; the other of batsmen ' Pataudi, Jaisimha, Baig and the young G.R. Viswanath. Central zone was led brilliantly by Hanumant Singh, who could draw upon such variously gifted players as Parthasarathy Sharma and Salim Durrani. Even the fifth-best side, the East, had some superb cricketers, such as Dilip Doshi, Subroto Guha and Ambar Roy. Between 1965 and 1975, the Duleep Trophy witnessed some terrific matches, these followed by cricket fans over the radio and through the public prints. Afterwards, as the international calendar grew more crowded, the matches declined in interest as well as in quality.

A Bombay critic once wrote, in disgust, that 'the rather lavish praise Guha heaps on cricketers from Karnataka may be the harbinger of another Cauvery dispute'. It is true that my partisanship in this respect runs deep, into the subconscious even. The night before the most important talk of my life, I dreamt of cricket, specifically, of Anil Kumble bowling a fast leg-break which turned three inches, enough to take the edge of Alec Stewart's bat and be caught low down to his right by Rahul Dravid at slip. I knew then that if not the gods, at least the spirits of Karnataka cricket were with me.

My support for the cricketers of my home state does border on the fanatical. I do not much care if India wins or loses, so long as Dravid scores runs and Kumble takes wickets. But my partisanship equally embraces the level below the state as well as the level above it. Back in the Seventies, the first question I sought to answer on opening the morning paper was, 'How much did Sudhakar (of FUCC) make (for Karnatak) yesterday' Now, when Dravid and Laxman find themselves at the crease, with India at 40 for 4, and a match to be saved or won, I exhort them with these words, 'Come on, South Zone!'

In this respect, I am scarcely unique. For cricketers and cricket fans of my generation, and of the generation before mine, likewise had these multiple allegiances; to club and state as well as to zone and country. I have no doubt that in Raju Mukherji's mind, conscious or unconscious, Mohun Bagan still comes before Bengal, Bengal before East Zone, and East Zone before India. But the happenings of the past twenty years have sharply circumscribed the horizons of cricket-lovers. Back when there were five tests every other year, no one-day matches, and no television either, one had perforce to cultivate an interest in cricket of other kinds, to go to the maidan to watch the young make their name for club and, if they were lucky, for the state. But there are so many more matches played by the national team nowadays, all brought live into the drawing room. All the cricket fan knows is captured in a single word he utters, repetitively and maniacally, when he does go to the only ground he knows, his face painted in green-and-saffron, his hands carrying a flag to be waved in front of the cameras. The word, of course, is 'India! India! India!'.

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