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Vol. XXXIII No. 6, July 1-15, 2023

Boyhood reminiscences of ­Madras Cricket

-- by Vivek G Row

I’ve been bitten by nostalgia for Cricket. The triggers were many – the latest articles carried in Madras Musings courtesy a good friend, a recent write-up in The Hindu on the exploits of the Holkars in Madras, and so on.

I was ensnared by the sport sometime in the early 1950s. My age was a single digit and our family had moved to a new area. The house was a bungalow with an unbuilt space in the shape of a large L–shaped compound, with our rented house at one end of it. Three of our neighbours had boys of my age group. The stage was set for gully cricket and the L-shaped compound lent itself to experiments in emulating Denis Compton’s iconic legside sweeps. 

C.K. Nayadu. Picture courtesy: Wikipedia.

Noting my new found interest in cricket, my father recounted stories of the Holkars Cricket team, whose matches he had seen in action. It was the 1920s and he had then been studying at the Presidency College. A hostel was right behind the institution, and he had stayed there during his college years. On weekends, students would walk across the road to the Cricket Ground. My father always grew particularly animated when he spoke of C.K. Nayudu, the Holkar’s star player – a soldierly-straight six footer, he reportedly hit the ball tremendously hard. Whenever the tempo slackened, some spectator would yell, “Nayudu, sixer!” and the great man would oblige – a few deliveries later, the ball would sail over the boundary line in the direction of the shout!

My father’s enthusiasm extended to buying me a subscription to the Sports & Pastime magazine as well as a low cost cricket bat. I assiduously oiled the bat (with linseed oil, I think) and furthered its seasoning by using it against an old ball wrapped inside a pair of socks and hung from a tree branch, rafter or door frame. It might have also improved my forward-defensive stroke, but nothing more by way of batting prowess.

I devoured all the articles in the magazine. The despatches of the Australian Jack Fingleton introduced me to a new world. My prized possession was a series of Ray Lindwall’s photos in various stages of run-up and delivery. Pinned together and flipped continuously, it produced a moving picture, rather like a Walt Disney Animated film. A son of one of my neighbours told me rather recently that I had presented him my entire collection of the back issues of S&P magazines including the Lindwall photos, when they had moved out of the neighbourhood. The gesture had won me a friend for life. 

Seeing my interest, the cricketer son of our house-owner benevolently invited me to practice with their B-Division League team’s weekend net practice sessions. I aspired to be a spinner like him, but gauging my limited potential, he advised me that a spinner required long hours of practice to achieve the requisite accuracy. I would be better off, he advised, bowling slow medium on the stumps and letting the ball do the rest on the matting wicket. My disappointment was soon forgotten when he began to give me Members Stand passes for Test matches. He was apparently the Secretary or Treasurer of the Club and knew when some Members would be out of town on Office duty during test matches. 

That’s how I got to see my heroes in action! The sight of the gigantic West Indian Wes Hall, in particular, was awesome. To a young school boy, many tall men appeared to be giants, but Hall was particularly huge and powerfully built, a veritable Titan. However, the crowd’s hero was Gulabrai Ramchand. Those were the days of minimal protective gear. One one occasion, he had been forced to retreat to the Pavilion, having been hit on the head by a rising delivery. It didn’t keep him away for long, though – he came back to bat shortly after, with a bandaged head. His return was greeted by a roar of approval from the stands. Gulabrai refused to flinch and retreat from the leg stump towards square leg but stood his ground even to the pacers. He made his point when he hit Hall for a flat six over long-on. It was heady stuff, indeed, pun intended.

The Australians provided variety. Neil Harvey was classy and elegant, whether batting or fielding at cover. However, his penchant for stepping out to spinners was exploited by the wily Vinoo Mankad. Two juicy deliveries to which Harvey promptly stepped out as if on cue, and lifted them over Mankad to the sight screen were followed by an apparently similar delivery, only subtly wider and faster which Harvey just missed, only to be stumped. I also got to see Ray Lindwall live, with his following, rhythmic game, runup, delivery and all. With conditions not favouring swing or pace, his accuracy at sustained speed fetched him 7 wickets in an innings! My hero Keith Miller was indisposed and did not play. I could catch a glimpse of him from afar, sitting forlornly in the Pavilion. When the West Indians came again, we saw the great Gary Sobers – lithe, with a spring in his step. Sadly he did not set the Stadium on fire that day.

Being an average fielder, I have always admired outstanding fielders. Rohan Kanhai’s fielding at fine leg and his accurate throwing at the stumps was electric. For someone like me, who had never managed to throw a cricket ball to any decent distance at school, Collie Smith’s throw from the sight screen into the keeper’s gloves at the other end of the pitch was mind-boggling. The swift swoop from cover and the accurate throw-in were exemplified by Harvey with his economy and compactness of movement. More flamboyant but also impressive was the fielding of the much-touted Norman O’Neil who had the features of a movie star.

There were moments of amusement too, such as when the ball was given to the gangling Australian fast bowler Ian Meckiff. He had an unusually long run up and when he started to walk to the top, shouts would go up from the G-Stand – Jolly Stand urging the gatekeeper to open the Stadium gates for Meckiff’s run up!

My benefactor’s moving away from Madras on transfer as well as my own to a hostel to pursue engineering studies broke cricket’s spell on me. But the charm endured.

The 5-day Test matches clearly tested a cricketer’s endurance, resolve and grit and had all the elements of drama and were the stuff of legends and ballads. Little wonder it inspired biographies, autobiographies and writers like Cardus. Unsurprising too that it has caused veterans of the game to be slow to warm towards the shortened versions.

Salim Durani. Picture courtesy: The Hindu.

No nostalgia of Madras Cricket of the previous century can be complete without remembering the recently deceased swashbuckling cricketer who had turned out for Jolly Rovers in the Madras League for a couple of seasons. League matches being of shorter duration (besides being unticketed) suited the knowledgeable lovers of the game who could not spare several days for the Test and First Class Matches and were attended by large numbers.

He carried on the C.K. Nayudu tradition of drawing in and delighting crowds and also hitting sixers at will and on request. 

As remarked by a player of Club Cricket in the Bombay League of the time, “… he was a Cricketing Genius who could do anything with a Bat or Ball that he decided to set his mind to. A real game changer who could alter the course of a match in a trice.“ RIP Salim Durani.

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