NOSTALGIA: S. Venkataraghavan on corporate tournaments that drew huge crowds, Test cricket at Chepauk during Pongal, and the magic of local matches
Among images of Madras etched in my memory are those of huge crowds, easily numbering 3,000 to 4,000, that would descend on the Marina grounds for the finals of the Sport & Pastime Trophy, sponsored by The Hindu. Parking their vehicles near the kerb, people would step out and watch two corporate teams slug it out. Young cricket players, who are accustomed to witnessing an abysmally poor turnout of 30 spectators for crucial Ranji Trophy matches, will probably marvel at such enthusiasm for a corporate tournament.
But, life in the 1950s and 1960s was way different. It was unhurried, and people seemed to have the time to appreciate the simple joys it offered. It was also untouched by the congestion we have come to take for granted. From our house on Sullivan Garden Road (now P.S. Sivaswamy Salai), I would pick my way through groves and reach the Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda College to watch league matches. Madras seemed to be a paradise of green. A ring of trees contributed to the ethereal beauty of the Madras Cricket Club Ground. Nature was given a free rein. Only a screen was used to separate the two grounds MCC A and MCC B. As the cricket facility had only a few concrete structures, we got a sense of watching cricket sitting in the lap of Nature.
We began to miss the inexplicable charm of Chepauk, when Test cricket was shifted to the Corporation Stadium, near Madras Central, in the mid-1950s. Among the memorable Tests played on this ground was the one against New Zealand (January 6-11, 1956) where the Kiwis were ground to pulp by a tenacious Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy, who put on a mammoth, record-making 413-run partnership for the first wicket.
Despite many sensational Tests at the Corporation Ground, the decision to bring Test cricket back to Chepauk in 1966 was greeted with joy. Pongal regained its lost lustre — for in Madras, this festival used to be synonymous with Test cricket at Chepauk. Schedules were carefully drawn so that a Test match was played at Chepauk during the season.
For the typical cricket lover in Madras, a Test match at Chepauk was imbued with a rare magic; the excitement began days before the first ball was bowled. But he also patronised local cricket. Great expectations were in the air when popular league teams such as Parry's, State Bank and SVOC played one another. Even inter-collegiate cricket had a good following. Cricket tournaments for colleges, which included the Pennycuick Trophy and the A.M. Jain College Gold Cup, were important events on the city's cricket calendar.
Prominent among those who made cricket attractive to school kids were coaches A.G. Ram Singh and K.S. Kannan. They visited schools to teach cricket. With his genteel manners, A.G. Ram Singh, a stalwart in Ranji Trophy cricket, elevated the profile of the cricket coach.
As I lived in a house with an open space measuring easily over 15 grounds, I got most of my early coaching at home. As my father ran a cricket team in the TNCA league, he converted the open space into a facility for cricket practice. I would unroll the mat and eagerly wait for the cricketers to arrive. Sometimes, they condescendingly let me bowl to them.