N. Sankar on fiercely fought local cricket matches, the rise of the Jolly Rovers and companies as patrons.
For a 1971 Buchi Babu match, cricket fans flocked to the picturesque Loyola College ground in unprecedented numbers. The star attraction was Sunil Gavaskar, riding high on the nationwide adulation generated by his exploits in West Indies. Batting against Jolly Rovers, the little master entertained with a classy knock. But it was not a flawless innings — early on, he was dropped and he also survived a confident shout for LBW. A few days ago, I bumped into B. Kalyanasundaram, the unlucky bowler — let me tell you, that decision still galls him! I feel sorry for Kalli (as Kalyanasundaram is called), but on second thoughts, the umpire’s decision seems acceptable. An early Gavaskar dismissal would have been a colossal disappointment for the crowd — ten thousand, in round numbers.
Almost always, Madras’ cricket aficionados set talent above parochialism. They preferred keenly fought matches to all-out domination by local teams. They also displayed a tendency to side with the underdog. In the 1960s, a Buchi Babu match between Jolly Rovers and ACC (Mumbai) at the Marina cricket ground, had the crowd baying for the Rovers’ blood. The local team seemed to be running away with the match and a disputable run-out decision handed out to Polly Umrigar dashed any hopes of an ACC revival. Members of Jolly Rovers had to be escorted off the field.
The league and other local tournaments were fiercely competitive — the rivalry between Jolly Rovers and IOB added to the stock of cricket legends. While the battle raged on in the middle, my father K.S. Narayanan (who sponsored Jolly Rovers) and his counterpart, S.K. Chettur (chairman of IOB) indulged in an animated, back-slapping banter that only the best of friends can.
Chettur shared my father’s devotion to local cricket. When he held the top job at SBI and IOB, Chettur accorded great importance to it; he was an inspiration to his counterparts at other public sector corporations.
In the 1960s, sponsorship of cricket teams by private companies was a nascent idea. The Hindu, Dasaprakash and TVS sponsored teams — on an ad hoc basis. The takeover of Jolly Rovers in the mid-1960s by India Cements, then headed by my father, was path-breaking. The desire to make Jolly Rovers a formidable team was helped by an exodus of players from ITI Bangalore’s team. When ITI’s general manager asked if some of these players could be absorbed into Jolly Rovers, my father jumped at the offer. K.R. Rajagopal, one of the finest Ranji wicket-keeper batsmen not to have played for the country, was part of this unexpected gift package, as was Najam Hussain, a fine all-rounder, who, in later years, was Rahul Dravid’s coach.
In those days, cricketers who played for a company also shouldered official work. Rajagopal almost missed a crucial Ranji match between Madras and Hyderabad, because the German overseer at the India Cements foundry in Nandambakkam would not relieve him. Following an eleventh-hour intervention by my father, Rajagopal made it in the nick of time. The Madras State (also Jolly Rovers) captain Belliappa had crossed out his name and was striding out for the toss, when Rajagopal showed up. Opening for Madras, the wicket-keeper batsman notched up a stylish hundred.
Lack of exclusive cricket grounds was among other problems facing local cricket. From the start, we wanted to adopt a ground and dedicate it to the game. After unsuccessful attempts — notably, those involving the grounds at University Union and Vivekananda College — the dream was realised. The IIT-Chemplast Cricket Ground at IIT Madras is a symbol of the hard-fought victories for local cricket.
Hawkers of Rita ice creams doubled as messengers — as they wheeled their pushcarts around the ground, they relayed the scores, taken down with the scorer’s assistance.
In those days, cricketers who played for a company also shouldered official work
As told to Prince Frederick
Born in 1945, N. Sankar is the chairman of the Sanmar Group. He is a generous patron of cricket. Chemplast, part of the Sanmar Group, sponsors Jolly Rovers, a team that has continuously supplied the national team with players. Sankar is also a remarkable trail-blazer in business — in the early 1970s, he set up Sanmar Engineering on 14 acres of land (bought for about Rs. 2 lakh) in Karapakkam on Old Mahabalipuram Road, ignoring Ambattur, the industrial hub.