Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 15, November 16-30, 2023

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

-- by Sriram V

The Forgotten Corporation Stadium

It is still a looming presence behind Ripon Buildings en-route Periamet. But who goes to the Jawaharlal Nehru aka Corporation Stadium and what are the events that are held there? There is a Nehru Indoor Stadium constructed in more recent times on the same premises which sees better usage, but the older and larger, open-air venue is hardly ever used. And yet it has quite a history. It has in recent times made it to the news because it is one of five stadia in the city to be upgraded at an estimated expense of Rs 25 crores. Let us get to know of its past.

The brainchild of J.P.L. Shenoy, ICS, who was the Commissioner of Madras Corporation in the years leading to Independence, the Corporation Stadium was built on land carved out of People’s Park, the green lung of the city located just behind the historic stretch containing the Central Station, Moore Market, Victoria Public Hall and Ripon Buildings. Completed in 1946, it could accommodate 20,000 spectators on “earthen galleries supported by retaining walls, toe rails, etc. The central arena in the Stadium consists of six cricket pitches with football and hockey fields on either side and a cinder track 30 feet wide all around for holding of sports like running races, hurdle races, cycle races, rekla races, etc.”

An early file photograph of the Corporation Stadium, courtesy: Greater Chennai Corporaton archives.

It was cricket that made the stadium famous. The Madras Cricket Club (MCC) was the lessee of Chepauk at that time. Though it was a member of the Madras (later Tamil Nadu) Cricket Association (MCA), other constituents of that body, namely the cricket clubs in the city and state, had to apply to the MCC for permission to hold matches at Chepauk. And this was not easy to get. Following Independence, the MCA resented the MCC’s stranglehold on Chepauk and rightfully so. With the completion of the Corporation Stadium there was a new venue available, and not so far from the old one either. And what was more, it had permanent seats unlike Chepauk which was open on all sides and put up a makeshift casuarina-and-rope structure each time there was a major cricket match. Taking all of this into consideration, the MCA decided to abandon Chepauk and move to the Corporation Stadium in 1955. Cricket would not return to Chepauk for eleven long years.

M.A. Chidambaram introduces Governor Sri Prakasa to Ted Dexter and his team at the Corporation Stadium c 1961/62.

The purists were upset. The noted journalist N.S. Ramaswami lamented the shift in an article for the Swatantra magazine in 1955:

“The Stadium is a parvenu, while Chepauk has been synonymous with cricket in Madras. A notable galaxy of cricketers has trod the Chepauk field. One recalls the grave Jardine, the debonair Valentine, the stylish Walters, the scholarly Verity, McCartney with his old magnificence still in him, the elfish Hassett, the mercurial Miller, the suave Worrell, the ponderous Walcott, and the tigerish Weekes. They have become a part of the tradition of Chepauk and every player and spectator must feel their unseen presence. The Stadium, if only because of chronology has little to show. Only one Test match, that against the disreputable Silver Jubilee Overseas cricket team, has been played here.”

He also mourned the steady deterioration at Chepauk owing to the abandoning of the venue by the MCA. The MCC however did not seem overly bothered but Ramaswami was:

“The truth is that Chepauk has become a strange ground since the Corporation Stadium was preferred to it as the venue for Test matches. There were no doubt excellent reasons for this change. But they have in course of time come to produce a deterioration in one of the historic grounds of India, while the Stadium is yet to endear itself to the public. As a matter of fact, it appears impossible that the latter, huge and monstrous as it is, will ever recommend itself to the affections of the public. It does not and because of its vastness cannot possess the intimacy and charm of the older ground. It may be argued that the public is able to find better accommodation there than at Chepauk, whose harsh wooden planks with their cruel capacity to eat into one’s flesh are an unpleasant memory. Nevertheless, on a balance of conveniences it will, I think, be found that the public prefer Chepauk.”

In the ten years that it played host to the game, that venue too notched up history though it could never hope to compare with the century and more that was with Chepauk. Some of the records at the Corporation Stadium include the 413 run first wicket partnership between Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy in a Test against New Zealand in 1956, a record which remained unbroken for 52 years, India’s first Test series win against England which happened in 1962 and in which Bapu Nadkarni sent down 21 maidens. The match however also went down as the most boring event ever witnessed by spectators – many in the English team had taken ill and so batsmen at the crease Ken Barrington and Brian Bolus had been instructed to last it out as long as possible, to give others in the team time to recover. This they did, by scoring as slowly as possible, at one stage the runs went up by just 27 in two hours. The duo came to be christened Borington and Borus by the spectators and the only bit of entertainment as someone recalled years later, was a free-floating kite descending on the ground and being chased by Barrington.

Bapu Nadkarni went on to achieve other records at the Corporation Stadium. As Partab Ramchand writes it was here that “Nadkarni enjoyed the best match of his 41-Test career, picking up five for 31 and six for 91 against Australia. Indeed, Nadkarni reserved some of his best batting feats too for the Madras crowd. Against England in January 1962, he and Farokh Engineer figured in an eighth wicket stand of 101, which was India’s first century partnership for this wicket, Nadkarni’s share being 63. Three years later, the same pair broke that record by sharing an eighth wicket partnership of 143 runs against New Zealand, Nadkarni scoring 75.”

But by 1965, truce had been declared between the MCC and the MCA. With M.A. Chidambaram as President at the latter, the Government decided that when the MCC’s lease of Chepauk expired the subsequent year, it was the MCA that would be the new lessee, with the MCC being allowed only a fraction of its erstwhile holding to house its club building. The MCA promised to build a stadium at Chepauk, which it did in the 1970s, with M.A. Chidambaram playing a vital role in the process, leading to it eventually being named after him. It is ironic that it was the construction of a ‘huge and monstrous’ structure of the kind that Ramaswami criticised, which saw the abandoning of the Corporation Stadium and the return of cricket to Chepauk.

The Corporation Stadium went into the shadows thereafter, emerging once again in the 1990s when it was upgraded to host the Nehru Football Tournament. Then in 1995 it was the venue for football at the SAF Games. It has since been regularly upgraded and put to use for sports events. Over the years it has acquired other facilities – a skating rink, an indoor air-conditioned stadium to seat 8,000 people, courts for playing various games such as volleyball, kabaddi, etc. Used extensively by athletes, it nevertheless remains idle much of the time. The crowds it would seem, prefer Chepauk. Ramaswami was right after all, but perhaps cricket has something to do with it.

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