Professor and sports commentator V.Rengarajan relives Tiruchi’s sporting heydays

Whether you’re keenly following the ICC Champions Trophy or are more hooked to the controversies surrounding the game, we know that sports has been making front pages news consistently for some time. We decided to take a break and let you reminisce on this city’s sporting zenith in the sixties.

When Professor Rengarajan moved to Tiruchi to take up his job as a lecturer in St. Joseph’s College in 1955, Thillai Nagar, where he resides today, was criss-crossed with paddy fields and trees. “Will you believe this? Salai Road is bustling with shops today. Back then, people were afraid to walk on it after 5 p.m.,” he chuckles.

But Chatram bus stand had plenty of buzz about it as some of Tiruchi’s oldest colleges were grouped around it- Holy Cross College, National College (then located in the Srimathi Indira Gandhi college campus) and SPG (erstwhile Bishop Heber College, near Teppakulam), apart from St. Joseph’s, of course.

“Every classroom had students not only from all over Tamil Nadu, but also from Kerala, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Tiruchi was the preferred education hub next to Chennai in the state,” recounts Mr. Rengarajan. “But these colleges could not accommodate all the students who flocked there, which encouraged the spurt of new colleges like Jamal Mohamed and SRC.”

What do these institutes have to do with sports in the city? Rengarajan has a ready answer, “It was in these premier colleges, where sports had its roots in Tiruchi. Tiruchi, the then headquarters of the Southern Railways (erstwhile South Indian railways), brought in many talented Anglo-Indian athletes.”

“The railways was one of the cradles for hockey players, and Golden Rock had one of the best hockey teams,” Rengarajan asserts. “If not for the railways, Police and the institutions, sports would have never taken off the way it did in tier-two cities. “

When Mendis struck a six

Though Rathinavelu Thevar was before his time, Rengarajan brings to mind the municipal chairman’s sterling contribution in the form of his Trichinopoly United Cricket Club , which even had the Princes play for the it. He initiated cricket and hockey matches between the Tamil Nadu and Ceylon (now, Sri Lanka,) which was a forerunner of tournaments like the M.J.Gopalan Trophy, says Rengarajan.

Rengarajan remembers the time when the city witnessed two Ranji Trophy matches in 1968- 69 and 1989-90. The last match here was captained by K. Srikanth and was held at the B.H.E.L township. Most sporting events were held in college grounds of St Joseph’s or Bishop Heber or the railway ground until later when B.H.EL came up with a stadium. “All these venues have played host to national cricketers, hockey Olympians and Indian football stars.”

“I think it was the R.E.C. grounds but I am not sure,” hesitates Rengarajan, trying to recall one of the matches. “But I clearly remember this. Sri Lankan cricketer Duleep Mendis struck a six, which went over the pavilion and cut a clean hole in the newly built sunshade!”

Football and its fans

Cricket has always had its following, but it was football that enjoyed even greater patronage in the city, recounts Rengarajan. The homespun Dr. Mathuram Football Trophy and later the Rockfort Trophy brought the best football teams to Tiruchi. Rengarajan records the 1983 Federation Cup finals as among the city’s sporting highs. “During the football tournaments, the stands were filled to capacity by 4.30 pm. The streets around the venue would be deserted as all the shop keepers in the vicinity would run to the playground by 4.25 when the first whistle blew, and they would stay there till the last whistle,” Rengarajan says, attempting to capture the sporting spirit of the sixties. “There were no floodlights then and sometimes we had to wait till the next morning for the penalty shootout.” Yes an entire night, once, just for the last two kicks.

Another moment etched in his mind is the rambunctious welcome given by fans to the World Cup hockey team in 1975 when the squad that struck gold, played against a Tamil Nadu team in Tiruchi.

With the eighties came national volleyball, table tennis and basketball tournaments, sponsored by industrial houses.

Rengarajan rues that only a shadow of the city’s erstwhile sporting glory flashes now and then. “Today students with top sporting talent flock to engineering colleges in Chennai that encourage them.” Arts and science colleges have fallen back and today individuals like Thevar cannot dream of sponsoring tournaments, which only corporate seem to pull off.”

(V. Rengarajan, former vice principal of St. Joseph’s College, worked as lecturer in the college’s botany department between 1955- 1991. His affair-de-couer with sports made him cover collegiate sports to international events and everything in between, for The Hindu as a freelancer. Professor Rengarajan’s sound knowledge of various sports earned him the distinction of playing the role of All India Radio commentator for four games- cricket, football, hockey and volleyball.)