In her book Madras, Chennai And The Self: Conversations With The City, author Tulsi Badrinath profiles, among other Chennaikars, V. Ramnarayan, a former Ranji player and now editor of Sruti, a magazine devoted to classical music and dance. Taking us through his cricketing days, the author gives a glimpse of Chennai’s sporting scene. Edited excerpts:

In his own life, Ramnarayan was to bring together the two great loves of the city—cricket and Carnatic music—into his writing.

Tall, well-built, Ramnarayan is in his sixties now, and we met at the 164-year-old Madras Cricket Club, the crown holding the Kohinoor that is the Chepauk stadium. Walking past founder Arbuthnot’s portrait, we settled down in the silent pavilion. Sipping on MCC’s signature drink ‘Cricket’, part 7 Up, part Fanta, my eyes flitted over the empty tiers that on a match-day are surcharged with energy, anticipation and the high-decibel buzz of fifty thousand people.

It was here that Buchi Babu Naidu, who had grown up watching cricket matches at Chepauk, and practising the game in his home Lakshmi Vilas set in 20 acres in Luz, confronted the whites-only policy of the MCC. Even when it condescended to play with ‘native’ teams, they were not allowed entry to the pavilion and had to change their clothes or lunch al fresco, under the trees.

Cricket on the beach. Photo: Sharpe Image/Mint
Cricket on the beach. Photo: Sharpe Image/Mint

That Irwin-designed pavilion no longer exists.

The Chepauk stadium was officially named the MA Chidambaram stadium, though people still refer to it as ‘Chepauk’.

The recently renovated stands with folding seats, fabric tensile roofs and gaps welcoming the sea breeze were a clear improvement on the earlier heavy-pillared concrete oven. A few kilometres away from Fort St. George where it all began, Chepauk upholds the city’s pre-eminence on the map of Indian international cricket.

Gazing across the green field at work being done on the pitch, Ramnarayan reminisced about the time before the stadium existed at all.


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Cricket on the street. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Cricket on the street. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Lunch was not fancy at all. ‘It involved a hurried dash to Ratna Café, Udipi Sukha Nivas, Shanti Vihar, Udipi Home or Dasaprakash and back, depending on the venue of the match. When I see the fancy drinks cart of today, I remember the countless glasses of unboiled, unfiltered and often multi-hued water we drank. It was stored in mud pots or brought in buckets that resembled relics!’

The spirit on the field was one where a bowler could openly appreciate a batsman’s stroke even if he had just been hit for a six. Humour was constant, so also camaraderie. ‘My father’s cousin, a fast bowler for the state, would appeal for an out, get the decision and then chastise the umpire, “Idhukku poyi out kuduthiyai … You gave an out for this? It wasn’t an out." The cricket-map of the city was dominated by Mylapore, Triplicane and Egmore onwards, grudgingly accommodating Adyar and Mambalam later on. The Marina, Loyola, Somasundaram grounds were as well populated as Chepauk. A true fan knew the short-hand … danda out=bad decision, azhukku batsman= ugly-strokes batsman, poi bowling =bowling more for show than spin, manga=chucking balls as though aiming a stone at a mango, and the hilarious grease for crease.

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Madras, Chennai And The Self—Conversations With The City: Pan Macmillan India, 232 pages, Rs 299
Madras, Chennai And The Self—Conversations With The City: Pan Macmillan India, 232 pages, Rs 299

The composition of a team has also undergone change. ‘Though Brahmins still seem to dominate the game, earlier, there were many non-Brahmins and Anglo-Indians who played, cricket enabled the inter-mingling of castes.’ In one of Ramnarayan’s articles there is a hilarious description of his grand-uncle whose top-knot would come undone while bowling, and whose orthodox mother insisted on his having a purifying bath after Jardine, great no doubt but still a foreigner, shook his hand. ‘Currently, among the kids who play league cricket, it is more a question of class than caste.

‘Here, fathers drop their kids by car at the grounds. We do not have much steel in us. That is why we have won the Ranji Trophy only twice. You need to be a Bombay chap catching two trains to play, lugging your heavy kit along. Or spend years in a sports hostel like some of the cricketers in the North.’

And for that reason, ‘We do not find a Dalit kid coming up easily in cricket or any sports. Very difficult for them to even believe in themselves. They have to be tough to survive competition from more privileged children.’

Even so, there were a few notorious teams such as the Appiah Chettiar Memorial and Singara Velar CC in the eighties and nineties, whose many players were fishermen from Triplicane. ‘They were good kids with the angst that society is against them. They had to be disciplined but had a lot of raw talent.’

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We returned to the trajectory of Ramnarayan’s career. In December 1970, he joined the State Bank of India as a probationary officer through a competitive process, not as a cricket recruit, though he could still play cricket for the bank’s team.

‘The cricket season starts in July. I wasted a few months waiting for the job, and to play for SBI.’ He was about twenty-three now, and players younger than him had already made the grade years before, reaching the state team.

Ramnarayan was posted to a small town, Anakapalle, in Andhra Pradesh where he missed cricket intensely. The only connection he had with the game was listening to the radio commentary on Sunil Gavaskar’s glorious exploits in the West Indies in his debut series. When in January 1971 the Madras University team came to play at Visakhapatnam, twenty miles away, he would catch a bus every weekend to watch them play and return on Monday, emotionally replete.

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At the age of twenty-eight, late by cricketing standards, Ramnarayan finally played for Hyderabad, and in the Ranji trophy with renowned cricketers such as ML Jaisimha, MAK Pataudi and Abbas Ali Baig.

‘Many of us toil hard without expectation of reward. My nature was like that. You could say I was philosophical about it. Though I was always a positive bowler, my disappointments had given me a negative mindset. I never seriously believed I would make it to the Indian team.’

Ramnarayan never played for India, though he was in the official list of Test probables before the 1977-78 Australia tour. The best he played was Duleep and Deodhar Trophy cricket for South Zone and the Irani Cup for Rest of India.

There is a tendency to venerate only those few who make it to the Indian team, but Ramnarayan’s story illustrates how luck and politics also play a role and reminds us of the city’s vibrant cricket circuit, indeed culture, that exists away from the more publicized, financially lucrative games played by the national team.

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