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By P. K. Ajith Kumar
It was a windy, wet day, as the monsoon was making its retreat and an Indian cricket season had just begun. There was this boy in a raincoat who was selling some evening newspapers. In one of his hands, there was a pocket radio, and he was listening to it avidly, even as he distributed the papers to shopkeepers around the bus station at Thalassery.
He was listening to the ball-by-ball commentary on radio of some Test. The sight was unusual because one was not very familiar with Thalassery at the time.
At a time when television had such a limited viewership in the country, cricket was surely not everybody's game. It was considered an elite game, even as it was derided as an alien game in which the players resembled astronauts and the umpires doctors (cricket fans were often easy targets of joke), more so in a state like Kerala, known more for football, athletics and volleyball.
So this boy coming from a not-so-privileged background eagerly catching the latest score left a deep impression. Today a kid in Kerala is as much enthusiastic to speak about that amazing double hundred by Nathan Astle against England at Christchurch the other day as a Mumbaikar. In pre-Star sports days though cricket was a very exclusive game.
But, then, one would discover later, from first-hand experiences, Thalassery has an extraordinary relation with cricket. In all probability that boy who sold the newspapers would go back home and practise his shots with his bat made out of the stem of a coconut leaf.
Years later, on the eve of a three-day match between the under-22 cricket teams of Kerala and Tamil Nadu at the Municipal Stadium, one saw a surprised look on the face of C. S. Umapathy, the amiable coach of the visiting team. He wondered aloud why there were so many spectators to watch his team practise at the nets.
``This is a bigger crowd than the ones you some time get for Ranji Trophy matches in some centres,'' he had observed.
One told him that Thalassery is so unlike most cricket venues. The people here are simply in love with this great game. They always were even two centuries ago.
The history doesn't exactly record the precise date when the first ball was bowled at the Municipal Stadium. So how did they find out that cricket was played here in 1800?
Says Murkoth Ramunni, 88, old-time cricketer and one of the most distinguished citizens of Thalassery, ``History tells us that Col. Sir Arthur Wellesley, who would be a hero of the Waterloo later, came here during the last years of 1790s as head of the Military of the East India Company in Malabar, Canara and Mysore.
Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine of 1892 says, `The Englishmen carries his cricket bat with him as naturally as his gun case or his India rubber bath.' We assume that the Wellesley and all other Englishmen took their kits to Thalassery as well. It is also recorded that a cricket club was formed in Srirangapatanam in 1799, obviously by Wellesley. Then there's also the fact that the local people had formed the Tellicherry Cricket Club in 1860.
``Apart from these circumstantial evidences, the players of my generation have heard from our fathers how cricket was being played here long ago and their fathers had played along with the Englishmen,'' adds Murkoth. One of his favourite anecdotes is how he saw the great English batsman Colin Cowdrey playing with the bat as a five-year-old. ``His father had led a team of planters from Coorg and it was a local who did the bowling to the little Cowdrey.''
The most striking thing about cricket in Thalassery is that people from all walks of life had played the game. Washermen, fishermen, peons and just about every physically fit young men. ``There was this chap called Assan, who was such a splendid batsman,'' says Murkoth. Agrees P. Moosa, 82 and another old-timer, ``Yes I have seen him bat. He was like Viv Richards. So ruthlessly aggressive he was.''
Thalassery, and the neighbouring Kannur, have produced many fine cricketers (though not any Test stars admittedly). Says Moosa, ``There have been so many of them, like C.K. Lakshmanan, who was the first Kerala Olympian (hurdles was his event at the 1924 Olympics), P.M. Raghavan, Anandan, Chippies Gopalan, K.P. Karunakaran, Mackey, Babu Acharath, the Aaron brothers...''
``There must be about 40 players from here who have played in the Ranji Trophy,'' says J.K. Mahendra, a former India schools player, who is one of the key players in the bicentennial celebrations. This ground has hosted many Ranji Trophy matches and has witnessed the exploits of some true greats of the game, like G.R. Visvanath.
On Sunday, to mark the great occasion, a one-day match between an Indian XI led by K. Srikkanth and a Sri Lankan XI led by Arjuna Ranatunga will be played. Among those featured include Mohinder Amarnath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Syed Kirmani, S. Ramesh, Robin Singh, Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Duleep Mendis and Sanjeev Ranatunga. The match, for the ANP Sanmar's Trophy, will be shown live on DD Sports.
``We hope to bring the history of Thalassery cricket to the world,'' says P.V. Sirajuddin, secretary, Cannanore District Cricket Association. ``It's a great effort, organising such a match in such a small town,'' says S. Haridas, the Kerala Cricket Association secretary.
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