Priyadarshini Paitandy talks to former cricketer Milkha Singh who recalls how the A.G. Singh family based in the city served the game for three generations

When A.G. Jwala Singh migrated to Madras from Amritsar in 1904, little did he know he was to give Tamil Nadu three generations of cricketers. A self-taught engineer, he moved here as the city had more employment opportunities. From their home which overlooked the BS Nets on Wallajah Road, his son Ram Singh would watch the cricket matches that were regularly held there. He soon developed an interest in the sport and started playing it. And that's how the first family of Tamil Nadu cricket (as they are popularly known) started out.

Setting a record

“My father (Ram Singh) played the first Ranji match for Madras in 1935. He created a record by taking 11 wickets and finished the match in one day,” recalls A. G. Milkha Singh, second-generation cricketer from the family. Milkha started playing along with his brother Kripal in the 1950s. Soon their younger brother Satwinder joined them. “We played for Madras. Kripal and I also got to play for India. To have three of his sons playing for the state was a proud moment for my father,” he adds.

One of the gates at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium is named after Ram Singh. The Chepauk ground didn’t have a concrete stadium then. There were makeshift galleries from where spectators watched matches. Some of the matches were also played at the Corporation Stadium next to the Central Station and smaller matches at the Marina Stadium. “You won’t believe it! Ranji matches attracted as big a crowd as Test matches did. So did events such as The Sports & Pastime Trophy. The galleries would be full and the crowd would spill onto the roads,” adds the gentle sardar, his warm smile belying the feisty batting he was known for during his heyday.

In 1955, Kripal played his first match against New Zealand. In 1959, Milkha was chosen to play in the Board President's XI at Ahmedabad. “I scored 60-odd runs and that’s how I earned my Test cap. I got picked to play against England in 1962. Nari Contractor was captain and Polly Umrigar, Bapu Nadkarni and Chandu Borde were some of my teammates.”

As he reminisces we realise that the Singhs belonged to an era when the use of helmets was as uncommon as space travel. The gloves and pads were flimsy too. Narrating an incident, the former cricketer says, “It was a match against the West Indies. G.S. Ramchand was batting and the West Indian bowlers were bowling at speeds above 90 mph. Eminent doctors Ramamurthy and Basheer watching the match happened to discuss how even a single blow from a top-speed delivery could prove fatal to a batsman. Just then the ball struck Ramchand on the head...he fell to the ground. All of us froze. But he got up and was rushed for medical assistance.”

Not just lack of adequate gear, adapting to different wickets was also a challenge. Not all wickets were turf. “Kerala and Andhra Pradesh used coir or jute mats. The bounce was greater on a matting wicket and we batsmen had to adapt accordingly.”

Today, the game has evolved. Better protective gear, more matches, changed formats, more money…. When the Singhs played, they earned around Rs. 300 to Rs. 350 for a five-day Test match. “Now earnings run into lakhs. Today cricket is a full-time career option. Earlier, we needed a job as security.” Milkha worked with the State Bank of India and Kripal had a job with EID Parry. “The cost of everything has vastly increased. I remember buying a cricket bat from Sialkot for Rs. 25. I scored three centuries with it. Now, you don't get a bat for less than Rs. 5,000.”

A few years later, Kripal's son, Arjan Singh too started playing for the state. “In 1935, my father played his first Ranji match and in 1985 my nephew Arjan Singh played his last Ranji match. If you think about it you’ll realise that in those 50 years some member or the other from our family has been part of the state team,” says the 71-year-old with a sense of achievement.

Unfortunately, nobody from the present generation in Singh’s family has taken to the gentleman’s game. But Milkha is hopeful his four-year-old grandson will carry forward the A .G. Singh legacy.

The Madras that was

Growing up in Madras was safe in my days. A woman could go back home safely after watching a night show. It was mandatory for a cycle to have a lamp. If it didn’t, the cyclist would be penalised. If someone was found sullying the roads he would be caught. It was truly singara Madras. Even now, the city is known for its excellent educational institutions and for providing job opportunities.

Ask him to compare Amritsar with Chennai, and he says, “Amritsar is great when it comes to food, but I am a Chennai lover!”

Chennai Central at The Hindu celebrates Madras Week

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This article has been corrected for a factual error.