“There can be no summer in this land without cricket.” — Neville Cardus
I was a ten-year-old stripling when I was taken to my first Test match at the Corporation (later renamed Nehru) Stadium in Madras, between Australia and India in January 1960. Chepauk was under renovation. India was led by G.S. Ramchand and the Aussies by the charismatic Richie Benaud. Both teams had some great names. Apart from the captains, Harvey, O’Neill, Grout, Mackay, McDonald, Davidson, Desai, Jasu Patel, Nadkarni, Contractor, Borde, Roy and Kunderan spring to mind. It was the series in which India beat the Aussies in Kanpur on a matting wicket, thanks to off-spinner Jasu Patel’s 14 wicket haul.
Australia won the Madras Test by an innings, their first innings score of 342 was enough cushion to dismiss India twice. You would think that as a ten year old, I would hardly remember anything barring the unbearable excitement of being at a Test match. It is true that I could barely contain my joy and anticipation, but looking back, everything about that game was not a blur. It was played over fifty years ago, but I still vividly remember Ramakant ‘Tiny’ Desai’s smooth run up to the wicket, and his sending the stumps of Harvey, O’Neill and Burge cartwheeling, tearing out the very heart of Australia’s strong middle order. Favell and ‘Slasher’ Mackay gave some respectability to the Australian total.
When it was India’s turn to bat, I can recall the wonderfully rhythmic bowling action of Alan Davidson, and Ian Meckiff clearly chucking at great pace, and Kunderan slashing him repeatedly past point for four, à la Sehwag. Meckiff was hounded for his ‘illegal’ action by the establishment and quit the game in disgust. And then there was Captain Benaud, looking every inch the leader, and spearheading the bowling with his classical leg breaks.
Another strange, almost irrelevant, recollection from that match was India’s Ramnath Kenny, a stylish batsman, who can be remembered best for always playing with his silk sleeves rolled down. Though I don’t believe he set the stands on fire with his batting exploits.
Exactly a year later, I watched another Test match at the same venue in Madras, this time against Fazal Mahmood’s Pakistan, in a series that saw five boring draws, with neither side wanting to lose. Borde and Umrigar scored centuries for India while Imtiaz and Saeed Ahmed did likewise for Pakistan. The only brief moment of thrill for me was running to the nets while the players were practising before the match, proferring my autograph book to the first couple of players I saw, not knowing who they were. In those carefree days, you could do things like that. Only when I returned to my stand did I notice that I had obtained the signatures of three Pakistani players — Nasim-ul-Ghani, Javed Burki and Mushtaq Mohammad, whose famous brother Hanif, opened their batting.
Moving swiftly to December 1969, and the fourth Test match between India and Australia at the Eden Gardens, Calcutta. The Aussies led by the tough Bill Lawry and India by The Nawab of Pataudi Jr., if you want to be pedantic. Before we could even settle down in our seats at the bursting-at-the-seams Eden Gardens, India had lost opener Engineer and Wadekar in the same over, to Graham Mckenzie, without a run on the board. In walked a very slight, young man, about 5 foot nothing in height, who could not have withstood a light breeze, leave alone a swinging tornado like Mckenzie. If it were not for the fact that this young batsman had just scored a century on debut against this selfsame attack a few days earlier in Kanpur, we could not have believed that such a puny figure could actually hold a bat.
That young man’s name was G.R. Viswanath, and when he square drove the first ball he faced from Mckenzie past point for four, Eden Gardens found its raucous, collective voice. Vishy was finally out for 54 of the most delectable runs, and from that day on he became one of Calcutta’s favourite sons — Bishoo. When he was out, alas too soon, the combined groan of 80,000 fans could be heard in his hometown in faraway Bangalore. He has played many other great innings at the Eden and elsewhere, but that memory of Viswanath walking in to bat on a cold, grey wintry morning, capless and shy, as if he didn’t belong, and proceeding to take apart the Aussie attack almost apologetically, will stay with me forever.
Venkataraghavan, the off-spinner and former captain of India, was a family friend, and he was part of the playing eleven. I took some of my friends to the Great Eastern Hotel, where the teams were being hosted. It was the rest day of the match, a concept today’s fans are unaware of. Venkat received us warmly. This was also something one could do quite easily those days — no security hassles, nothing. More than that, he introduced us to the new hero, Viswanath, who graciously signed our autograph books. However, getting him to speak even a word or two was next to impossible.
After we mumbled our grateful thanks and farewells to Venkat and Vishy, we skirted past the hotel swimming pool, where we ran into the Aussie vice captain, Ian Chappell, sunning himself, only a large towel to cover his modesty. He had been dismissed the previous day by Bishan Bedi for 99. Out came our autograph books, which he cheerfully signed. For want of something to say, I nervously muttered, “Sorry you missed your century yesterday.” To which Chappell calmly replied, “Well, you can’t get ’em every time, can you ?” I reminded the great man, now a sought-after commentator, of this incident almost twenty years later, when I ran into him at the lobby of the Oberoi Grand, Calcutta. He sounded genuinely shocked and said, “Did I actually say something so daft ?”
A curious vignette from the 1974 West Indies tour of India. India was 0–2 down in the series, attempting to prevent a whitewash at the third Test at the packed-like-sardines Eden. I was sitting in the notorious D Block, surrounded by types you wouldn’t want to tangle with after dusk on a lonely Calcutta street. To cut to the chase, the West Indies had picked an unknown left-arm spinner, Elquemedo Willett, in the playing eleven. They fielded first, and after a few overs, their skipper, Clive Lloyd, surprisingly threw the ball to their opening batsman, Roy Fredericks, who was an occasional left-arm spinner. The crowd thought this was Willett, as did the giant scoreboard, which flashed a red light against his name.
Being a keen observer, I realized the error and told the raucous gang near me that this was not Willett, but Fredericks. I suspect I put on a somewhat superior air. At which point, I was greeted by a collective howl of derision and calumny, interspersed with an unprintable litany of the choicest Bengali invectives. Fearing for my life, I went into a shocked shell, my air completely deflated. A few deliveries later, the scoreboard corrected the error and flashed Fredericks’s name. This was confirmed by one of the lumpen who was listening to the Bengali running commentary on his transistor radio. What transpired was amazing. From being a pathetic ignoramus who should have been thrashed within an inch of his life, I became the D-Block dada, the man who knows his cricketing onions. I was offered cha and bishkoot twice a day, free. And for the next four days, if anyone was in any doubt about anything that was happening on the field, their self-appointed leader, Pintuda, would point to me with a stentorian, “Chup, Dada apni bolun [Quiet please! Dada, you tell us].” This is a quintessential Calcutta experience, which loses a bit in translation.
The other abiding memory from this game was India’s captain, the dapper and suave Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, marshalling his troops from cover point, his India cap always at a rakish angle on his head.
Speaking of Pataudi, in the mid Eighties, during one of my official visits to Delhi, I checked in at my uncle’s house. On arrival in the late evening, I was taken aback to find none other than Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, enjoying a whisky in the company of my uncle, cousin and niece. I had no idea he was known to the family. Evidently, he wasn’t. It was a chance meeting with my niece on a train journey (he hated flying), and she invited him home, and he accepted with alacrity, just like that. Well, the night wore on, with the great man showing no sign of letting up, as long as the supply of the golden nectar was not running out. Uncle, cousin and niece quietly retired, leaving me in Nawab Sahib’s charming but rapidly incoherent company. Taking matters in hand, I suggested, “Last one for the road, Tiger?” His insouciant reply, “Why last? There’s plenty left in that bottle. Mustn’t waste good stuff.” At which point, I quietly gave up.
A few years later, when I was working in Calcutta as advertising manager in a well-known tyre company, Tiger landed up at my office. We were sponsoring a quiz programme conducted by a sports magazine, of which he was the editor. We decided to walk across to Flurys, the iconic tea room, to partake of their goodies. Naturally, everyone recognized him and rushed for autographs. Selfies had not made an appearance then. I apologized profusely for the painful, but unavoidable, intrusion. To which he calmly replied, “Look, in a few years they won’t even recognize me. Might as well make the best of it.” Je ne sais quoi. When they made him, they broke the mould.
I have since been to many cricket matches, and met a few cricketers and broadcasters. But the magic of nostalgia necessarily involves recollections in black-and-white and sepia. Things that happened after 1980, including two World Cup victories for India, are played back to us on television, almost on a daily basis, starving the imagination of vital fodder.
Then there was live commentary on radio — Radio Australia’s Alan McGilvray, BBC’s John Arlott and Brian Johnston, Tony Cozier from the West Indies, AIR’s Vizzy and Pearson Surita, and from Wimbledon, Max Robertson and Morris Eddleston. We were glued to our transistor radios on short or medium wave, all hours of the day and night, while these great, noble and invisible men brought to vivid life, the drama of world sport — and it did no harm to our appreciation of the English language either.
Thus it is, that I will always remember Ramanathan Krishnan at the South Club lawns in 1967, killing softly, Thomas Koch of Brazil, against all odds in the final rubber, and taking India to the Challenge Round in Australia. Today’s high-definition telecasts featuring the likes of Federer, Djokovic, Nadal et al, don’t quite have the same magical quality.
I was so taken up with the idea of becoming a radio commentator that I sought an appointment with Pearson Surita, who was a corporate honcho with a tea major in Calcutta. To my delight, he called me to his plush office, offered me a nice cup of tea, and told me not to be a silly ass. “Finish your studies, get a good job in a tea garden, and forget about becoming a commentator. There’s no future in it,” suitably chastened, I slunk out. I was all of seventeen.
Sporting nostalgia — the eyes mist over and the vision blurs. But one’s selective memory enhances the definition. Those were the days, my friend.