Shilu Ranganathan on clambering up stands to watch cricket, rubbing shoulders with tennis greats and the colourful characters who played the game

I joined Presidency College for my B.Sc. in 1946. My family lived on the premises of the Theosophical Society, so my sisters and I would cycle up to its gate and wait determinedly for a bus to take us to college every morning.

There were only eight buses on that route, part of the Public Passenger Service (PPS). Out of that, two would invariably break down, so only six would be running. It would take us a couple of hours to reach college and three hours to return home. This went on until Gandhi Nagar came up in the 1950s. Then, the scene changed and we got fast buses on the 21B and 21A route to go to college. At Presidency, our physical education director, P.R. Subramaniam got us keenly interested in sports, especially cricket and tennis. My sisters and I would tell our mother we were going to college, leave our books in the common room and go to Chepauk to watch cricket instead!

When the Australian Services cricket team was touring India, there was no other venue for the South Zone matches except Madras, so we had nine days of cricket. At that time, I was the ladies sports secretary at Presidency, and the Madras Cricket Association secretary gave me 50 tickets allotted for women at the college (the idea was to encourage women to watch cricket). I'd never been so popular with the boys — quite a few trekked all the way to the Theosophical Society asking for tickets! On the day of the matches, I had to wait at the gate, issue the tickets, collect the money and go in last. In those days, there were no permanent stands; they were all made of casuarina poles. The stands were so full, my friend and I couldn't go up from the front — we had to clamber up from the back and perch on the top rung!

In tennis, we had so many great players playing here. Frank Sedgman came here for an exhibition match the year he won Wimbledon (1952). We had Philippe Washer from Belgium come here to play. And I have sat besides Ilie Nastase in the stands when he came here with his doubles partner Ion Tiriac.

The All India Hard Court Championships and South India Championship were often held here. And then, there were the Davis Cup ties. I remember the tie against Mexico in November 1962, on a court built on the Island Grounds. Although we had the best of players, we lacked good infrastructure in Madras. So, every time a Davis Cup tie was hosted, the courts had to be built, either on Island Grounds or at MCC. And, even the wooden stands had to be constructed. So, at all these matches, it was compulsory that a fire engine be stationed at the venue; it was part of the scene.

Colourful characters

In addition, every club had a tournament, and the Ceylonese team used to come here every year. There were so many tournaments going on all the time, unlike now, when people want big names and big tournaments. There were a lot of colourful characters, who came for all-India tournaments such as the South India Championship. There was a lady called Mrs. Lobo, with a temper but a good game. And there was Laura Woodbridge, from Bangalore. My husband, V. Ranganathan, used to play barefoot; he used to say he couldn't move around the court in shoes. But when he played mixed doubles with Laura, she used to tell him, “Ranga, I'm not going to play with you if you don't wear shoes.” So, he'd rush to Bata and buy a pair of shoes and come back; everyone was terrified of Laura! She was a great woman. At Chettinad House, M.A.M Ramaswamy used to host a big party on the lawns during the championships; all of us looked forward to the party more than the game! The 1950s and 1960s were the heydays of tennis in Madras, when everybody played and everybody enjoyed themselves.

SHILU RANGANATHAN Born in 1929, she is well-known in Chennai's cricket and tennis circles. Married to former tennis great, V. Ranganathan, she was a councillor with the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA) for many years, and later, its treasurer. She was a charter member of the Tamil Nadu Women's Cricket Association (TNWCA), and served at various points as its secretary, treasurer, vice-president and president. She was also vice-president of the Women's Cricket Association of India, for three terms.

I REMEMBER

When the Gandhi Nagar Ladies Club was founded, we started a tennis court there. We couldn't afford to run it, so, in the mornings, we opened the facility to men and collected money. We couldn't even afford new balls so we used to buy one-day old balls from the Republic Club at the Suguna Vilas Sabha premises on Mount Road. All the top players, P.S. Seshadhri, V. Ranganathan, etc. used to play tennis there, and they were so pampered, they used to get new balls every day!

(As told to DIVYA KUMAR)