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Vol. XXX No. 22, March 16-31, 2021

Is Buchi Babu now a forgotten memory?

by V. Ramnarayan

A recent conversation with P. Ramesh, a gifted left handed opening batsman, who played a stellar role in Tamil Nadu’s Ranji Trophy campaign in the 1970s, led to both of us wondering aloud if the Buchi Babu Memorial tournament had been abandoned once and for all from the TNCA’s annual cricket calendar. If so, it would be a real pity. Many a future Test star was first spotted in this contest. The Buchi Babu tournament is a memorial to a man widely acknowledged as the father of Tamil Nadu cricket, someone who looked the Englishman squarely in the eye and often defeated him on the cricket ground.

Modavarapu Venkatamahipati “Buchi Babu” Nayudu, a Telugu by birth, was the grandson of a wealthy dubash. Brought up as a westernised, sports loving young man with the confidence to rub shoulders with the English ruling classes, he was perhaps the greatest sportsman of his time in Madras. He founded the Madras United Club, because he wanted to compete on equal terms with the ‘Europeans’ of the Madras Cricket Club who treated Indians as second class citizens. He died in 1908, just before the fulfilment of his dream project – the annual Presidency Match between Europeans and Indians, which, before Test cricket came to Madras – was the greatest event in the state’s annual cricket calendar.
Buchi Babu was proficient in riding, tennis and cricket. His younger brother Chitti Babu was a tennis champion, and a cricketer. His three sons were all versatile sportspersons who played in the annual Presidency Match. Eldest son Venkataramanujulu, popularly known as “Bhat”, the only right-hander among the trio, was an all-rounder at Cricket but also played golf and rode horses with much success.

Second son, C. Ramaswami was one of the members of the Madras team that defeated Mysore within a day in the inaugural Ranji Trophy match in December 1934. In a low scoring match on a wicket left open to the rain, he was the top scorer of the match with 26 in a Madras total of 130, which was good enough for an innings win! He was one of only two double internationals India has produced, the other being M.J. Gopalan (Cricket and Hockey), representing the country in cricket and tennis. Born into affluence, but having, later to adjust to relatively straitened circumstances, Cotah Ramaswami (he was given in adoption to his maternal grandfather, and hence the different surname from his brothers’) joined Cambridge University in 1919 where he won his blue a year later.

On his return from England, ‘Ramu’ became one of the pillars of Madras cricket, while continuing to do well in tennis, despite being transferred frequently in his government job. Selected to play for Madras against Jack Ryder’s Australian eleven, he made a memorable 83, while Baliah scored 55. According to C.G. McCartney, the Australian cricketer-journalist writing in The Hindu, Ramaswami played a ‘grand innings’ and “gaining confidence as he went along, he made many powerful strokes and punished all the bowlers.” Incredibly, Ramaswami made his Test debut at the age of 40, but was good enough to average 56.67 in the two matches he played, aggregating 170. He made 60 and 40 on his debut against England. Post retirement, Ramaswami played a quiet role as selector and watched the game with keen interest for decades afterwards. He left his home one morning in 1985, never to return. He was at the time the oldest living Test cricketer in the world.

Baliah played almost all the strokes in the game from the late cut to the leg glance. He was an elegant left hand batsman, the high point of whose career was a fine innings against Jardine’s Englishmen. Against a Jack Ryder’s XI attack that included McCartney, Ryder and Oxenham, Baliah treated pace and spin alike, with an “audacious brilliance.” He was a good rider who won the South India Amateur Championship held by the Cosmopolitan Club in 1940.
Bhat’s three sons were excellent sportsmen. M.V. Prakash played for Madras in the Ranji Trophy, won many Gymkhana horse races and played polo. M.V. Bobjee, proficient in tennis, cricket and golf, represented six different states in the Ranji Trophy. M.V. Baba, represented the state in table tennis and tennis, a game in which he served as the director of the Tamil Nadu coaching scheme. Baliah’s elder son M. Suryanarayan played for Madras and Mysore in the Ranji Trophy and represented India in unofficial Tests, while younger son M.M. Kumar represented Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy. Ramaswami’s sons Ram Swarup and Lakshman Swarup were good all round sportsmen, too. Ram Swarup played Ranji Trophy cricket for Andhra, and Lakshman Swarup, a medium pace-bowler of merit, played for Tamil Nadu in the Inter Association competition for the P. Ramachandra Rao Trophy. An active hockey player as well, he became the president of the Madras Cricket Club. Many members of the extended family were prominent sportsmen of the state, with S. Vishnu Mohan (tennis), G. Mohan Rao (golf, cricket, tennis and bridge), the best known among them. The next generation too produced many good sportspersons, with left hand batsman P. Ramesh, the most accomplished of them. Ramesh scored a century on his Ranji Trophy debut against a Karnataka attack led by Prasanna and Chandrasekhar, but unfortunately did not progress to Test cricket.

The Buchi Babu Memorial Trophy

The Buchi Babu Memorial tournament conducted by the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association has over the years grown into one of the most popular cricket competitions in India. It involves some of the top teams in India and the best of homegrown talent. It serves as a selection trial for the Tamil Nadu boys and a useful warm-up for the season ahead for the visiting players.

The tournament was instituted in 1909-10 and the first edition was appropriately enough won by the Madras United Club, founded by Buchi Babu Nayudu. Initially a competition for clubs, it was subsequently made into a zonal tournament, with teams representing Mylapore, Nungambakkam, Egmore, T. Nagar and so on taking part. In the sixties, it became an invitation event.

In 1967-68, the tournament was upgraded into an all-India invitation event. Hyderabad Blues won the inaugural championship, followed by the Madras-based Jolly Rovers CC over the next three seasons. Subsequent champions include star-studded teams like Nirlon, Mafatlal, State Bank, ACC, India Cements, MRF, Indian Airlines and the New Zealand Cricket Academy. The tourney was regularly conducted for nearly four decades, after which the crowded national and international cricket schedules plus the massively popular IPL have made it well nigh impossible for the organizers to accommodate the Buchi Babu and other domestic tournaments largely celebrated for their amateur spirit.

With the probable demise of the tournament, there is no permanent memorial for Buchi Babu left in the city, except a non-descript street in his name in Triplicane. The TNCA will do well to name one of the stands or gates at the MA Chidambaram Stadium at Chepauk after him. It will be a fitting tribute to the man who taught the Madras cricketer to compete with the Englishman and repeatedly defeat him on the field of play.

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