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Vol. XXXI No. 14, November 1-15, 2021

The ‘Don’ of Cricket

by Ramnarayan V.

In the 1960s, ‘Don’ Rangan was the monarch of all he surveyed at the Pithapuram ground at Nandanam, Madras, where he ran the league team Nungambakkam Sports Club ‘A’. He leased and maintained the facility single-handedly, no doubt running through his family’s finances in the process. He ran a sports-goods business as well, which meant that his club always owed his firm substantial sums of money! In his heyday, he lived in style, dressing smartly and driving a Volkswagen. He offered net practice facilities round the year, insisting that his players attend these sessions without fail. The number of new cricket balls he made available at practice would be considered extravagant by any standards. All this helped portray Rangan as a larger than life persona, which he used to its full advantage in demanding the very best from his boys. Miraculously, they rose to the challenge, match after match. The Rangan influence over a whole bunch of young cricketers of the period was quite considerable. For years, they would rise to his defence against his numerous critics.

D. Ranganathan – for that was his full name – was a cocky little fellow, all muscle and sinew, very fit. He was a fiercely combative cricketer unlike the gentle Madras stereotype of his time. A competent and positive opening batsman, he was aggression personified as a wicket keeper, not afraid to stand up to fast bowlers. He was capable of the most convincing histrionics while appealing to the umpire. Rangan was also an exceptional medium pacer, a facet of his cricket he never let us forget; he would summarily discard his gloves and pads to have a go at the batsman when the occasion demanded. His supreme confidence usually resulted in the breaking up of a troublesome partnership, enabling Rangan to crow over his success where others had failed. He always had a chip on his shoulder about being ignored as a player by officialdom; reigning over his own club was his way of challenging the establishment. He not only scored runs and won most of his matches, but also made sure that the victories involved stellar contributions from other players who had also been overlooked. If there was anyone he hero-worshipped, it had to be Rangan himself. Virtually unbeatable in the lower divisions of the TNCA league, his team was a dark horse capable of toppling the best in the senior division.

I played under Rangan’s captaincy for exactly one season, at the end of which some relatives hijacked me to another club, brainwashing me into believing that Rangan was a bad influence. At any rate, they felt that I was not ready for the first division, where NSC ’A’ was at that point in time.

The season I did spend with NSC was an exciting phase of my cricket, with some of the best practice facilities in Madras at my disposal. Our home ground at Pithapuram had a pacy matting wicket and a lightning fast outfield. If Rangan’s captaincy was eccentric, his loyal band of talented players were equally so – partly out of fear and respect for Rangan but also because of the skipper’s obvious contempt for the opposition. Rangan loved a fight and made it a point to get under the skin of his oppenents. He taunted and teased them before, during and after matches. The bigger the reputation of the visitors to Pithapuram, the more hostile was the reception. He was notorious for his drive to win at any cost. He was even credited with cheating at the toss – he would pick up the coin and announce, ‘We bat,’ before the rival captain saw which way it fell.

We played matches every Saturday and Sunday, including against so-called friendlies in the absence of official fixtures. Rangan enjoyed inviting strong opponents and defeating them with his young team. One such practice match was against the star-studded Jolly Rovers, who among others included Salim Durrani and S. Venkataraghavan. The visitors ended our giant winning spree but not before we had put up a fight. Batting first, we were bundled out for 99 with Durrani, Venkat and the medium pacers doing the damage on a lively wicket. Going in at number 9, I made an unbeaten 15 or so, inspired to defy Jolly Rovers’ top class spin attack. I was raring to go when it was our turn to field, wanting to do well against the stars whom a largish crowd had come to watch, Salim Durrani in particular. Our medium pacer K.V. Mahadevan, Maka to all of us, was in full flow and brought on early; I was also all charged up, desperately wanting Durrani’s wicket. I was barely 18 then – Rangan revelled in throwing his young ones in at the deep end, cocking a snook at established reputations. My growth as an off spin bowler was accelerated by the faith Rangan showed in my ability.

Soon Jolly Rovers were some 40 for 4, Maka and I sharing the spoils equally. Durrani and Venkat came together and Rangan gave me an extraordinarily attacking field with close catchers breathing down the batsmen’s necks. The wicket assisted Maka as well as me, and we were both transported to another, exalted zone by the excitement of the moment. We troubled the batsmen and they had to bat out of their skins to survive; but survive they did, until they won the game without further loss, thanks to their skill, determination and experience, not to mention some dropped catches. After the match, Durrani offered to coach me at the nets the Jolly Rovers captain S. Rangarajan had organised at Farm House, The Hindu’s family estate. I was mighty thrilled by the offer, but being the idiot I was, did not follow up, succumbing to my uncles’ advice.

That was NSC’s and Rangan’s golden age. Even people who did not like him – and there were many, thanks to his constant aggression on and off the field – respected him for the considerable contribution he made to the development of the game in the city. Almost every league, state or national cricketer of Madras came to practise at the Pithapuram nets and play in the hundreds of games he organised there. Rangan met the needs of a whole generation of cricketers better than formal institutions.

Unfortunately, Rangan’s fortunes nosedived in the 1970s and steadily grew worse through the decades. As professionalism crept into cricket, it was no longer possible for unsponsored individuals or clubs to continue to support the game. Rangan, once a non-smoker and teetotaller looked up to by his wards, started adopting a more laidback lifestyle, eventually running into financial trouble. Used to lording it over the many people whose cricket he touched, he proved incapable of holding a steady job into his forties and later.

Having moved to Andhra Pradesh in December 1970, I lost touch with Rangan. I returned to Chennai in July 1981, but had no news of him for a long time. Most of my friends, even his protégés, had lost touch with him. It was only in his seventies that he re-emerged. He began to call upon some of us, usually to discuss some grandiose, Ukridgeian scheme involving cricket. Nobody took his stories of the past or his plans for the future seriously, though nothing could stop him from weaving those tales. Most young cricketers could not see why the old timers still humoured him, but any cricketer who had come across Rangan in his prime was prepared to forgive him a great deal.

Generally in indifferent health unlike during his youth, he made it worse by chainsmoking and eating poorly. I always insisted on feeding him as soon as he landed on my doorstep, something most of his old friends tried to do as well. Many well wishers tried to ensure a regular monthly income for him by giving him the responsibility of managing a league team or some such work but he was too much of a maverick to stick to it for long. For some time he was in charge of a coaching academy and managed to rewrite the coaching manual with his original ideas that nobody any longer took seriously. He even resorted to some kind of cricket numerology for a while to the huge amusement of his young wards and friends. “Today, you will be run out for 27,” he would confidently tell a batsman on the morning of the match, disappearing from the scene once the game started. He had no compunction about making up wild stories when it came to recalling some old cricket memory. Most of these stories were calculated to please the ego of the listener, with no expectation of anything in return. He told me once that I scored 65 and took 7 for 38 against MCC in a practice match back in 1966 or so. He refused to accept that my highest score against MCC had been 40 when part timers were bowling and that my best bowling against the club had resulted in no more than two wickets, that too in a subsequent season. “Poda, unakkennada teriyum!” he said dismissively. You could not question his loyalty and his total support of his boys. I remember when he had sat in a corner of the Central Polytechnic ground and barracked me all afternoon because in that 1969 match, I did not give a single over to medium pacer Osman Ali Khan, who played for Rangan’s club and my college team. Rangan had been perfectly justified in doing what he did.

I used to meet Rangan regularly in the 1990s, and was delighted to see him settled in his daughter’s house on Sterling Road. She took excellent care of him for a while, but he disappeared once more. This time, we were not to see him again. I learnt that he had spent time with his mother in an Andhra town but left her too after a while. He had been living alone in a Chennai suburb when he passed away. I do not remember the year.

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  1. Hariram S says:

    Hi… Need to subscribe for annual print copy.. Link is not working..
    Pls let me know how to subscribe for print one..

    Hariram S

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