U. Prabhakar Rao on the craze for cricket in Madras, the well-organised MCA and lack of infrastructure and funds for the game

In the 1940s and 1950s, good cricket grounds were scarce. A majority of the grounds where league cricket was played lacked basic facilities. Despite the lack of infrastructure, the enthusiasm for the game was high. Cricket fans gathered, no matter where a league match was conducted; the craze for cricket in Madras was unmatched.

For most youngsters, interest in the game began at school. The Madras Christian College High School did not have a big playground in the 1940s, when it was located at the Esplanade. This was no deterrent. During the lunch break, the boys played tennis ball cricket in a small quadrangle. When I went to Vivekananda College, I played cricket that had been modified to suit a small ground. If the ball sailed over the ropes, a four was signalled. If it went down the ground or bounced before crossing the ropes, two runs were granted. There was no six.

Cricket academies were unheard of. Today, players receive coaching and make the grade; back then, it was the other way round. Players had to prove themselves before they could hope to get any professional coaching. The Madras Cricket Association had coaches of the highest calibre.

A.G. Ram Singh stood head and shoulders over the other coaches. He did not believe in changing a player's natural style, but in improving upon it. He'd watch a player bat or bowl and show him how to do it better without suggesting any dramatic changes.

The Madras Cricket Association (later, Tamil Nadu Cricket Association) has been the best- run cricket organisation in the country. Despite insufficient funds, MCA provided cricket balls to the clubs at a subsidised rate. A cricket ball cost Rs. 3.25, but MCA sold it for eight annas. The Association was run on a shoestring budget. For official work, it used one-sided paper. When it came to cricket administration, Madras showed the way to the rest of the country. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was registered in Madras.

In those days, big money and cricket did not go together. For the Madras City versus Districts matches, we travelled third class, often without reserved seats. For Ranji Trophy, players travelled first class but had to stay at hotels that would not even qualify for two-star status.

Players could not depend on the game for a livelihood. In 1958, B.R. Mohan Rai and I were called from Madras for an all-India fast bowlers' camp conducted by English fast bowler Allan Moss at the Brabourne stadium. As we had to get back to work, we could not stay for the second session. I was employed at my father's company, Commercial Credit Corporation, but was not allowed to absent myself for long on account of cricket. Companies began to take in cricketers in the late 1950s. Philips India, State Bank of India, Parry & Co, TVS and STANVAC were among the first to do so.

Even if he had not been picked by a reputed company, a cricketer had enough incentive to continue playing the game. Irrespective of the level of cricket, he was assured of a huge crowd that clapped and cheered if he performed.

I REMEMBER

On my way to present myself before a panel that would select the junior cricket team of the Madras Cricket College High School, two seniors stopped me and showed me how a right-hander should hold the bat. Until then, I gripped the bat with my left hand below the right!

BIO

U. PRABHAKAR RAO Born in 1935, is the director of Commercial Credit Corporation and a vice-president of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. He was a player before becoming a cricket administrator. A medium fast bower, he captained the Vivekananda College team in the mid-1950s and had a long career in league cricket, playing for Alwarpet Cricket Club and later for Madras Cricket Club. He has played for the Madras State and narrowly missed the India cap.