Madras Club started in 1953 as a team of the employees of Madras Hotel. The hotel shut down in 2005, but the club soldiers on by unfailingly putting cricket ahead of cricketers
The half matting rolled out, nailed, ready to use. It was an enduring routine, every afternoon, on the lawns outside the National Stadium. Passersby would halt to watch some of the finest local talent and move on as the sun set. The Madras Club ‘nets’ would conclude only when spotting the ball became an impractical exercise.
The familiar sight of T. P. Bharathan on his cycle was the inspiration for the trainees.
One of the oldest members of the club, Sean San Lee, now 65, remembers, “We would put ice cubes on the head in a kerchief to beat the heat and reach the venue before Ustadji (Bharathan). He was punctual, disciplined and the best coach you could have. His technical knowledge was unmatched.” Bharathan was a graduate in Maths and remained a bachelor to be able to devote time to cricket.
Madras Club was known to produce cricketers the traditional way. The club came into existence in 1953 following a match at the Bangla Sahib ground between Madras Hotel employees and a local sports journalist squad that included iconic names like K. N. Prabhu, R. Sriman and C.S. Rao.
The Madras Club would hold its ‘nets’ at the then Lady Hardinge ground, where the Shivaji Stadium Bus Terminus stands now, before moving on to the National Stadium and subsequently the India Gate Lawns, where the practice was held under a tree.
“The tree is still there,” informs Venkat Sundaram, one of the best known products of the club. “We would train at the National Stadium before moving out. I remember jackals would howl in the evening. The conditions were tough but then Ustadji made us tougher. We were very proud of our club and all due to Bharathan. He would train novices into competitive players.”
Rakesh Shukla, who bowled leg-spin for India, had initially reported as a medium-pacer at the Madras Club. Ustadji transformed him into a slow bowler.
For founder member S. P. Rao, Madras was a model club. “The atmosphere was friendly. No player uttered a cuss word ever. We did not invite outsiders to play our matches and we offered no appearance money to our boys,” recalls Rao, whose father was proprietor of the Madras Hotel, which shut down in 2005 after 70 years of wonderful south Indian catering.
I have seen Rao carrying dosas and idlis for the entire Madras Club team at local matches.
Also, any Madras Club player could anytime walk into Madras Hotel for a free meal.
Apart from Sundaram, some of the best players who did Madras Club proud were Virender Sehwag, Vijay Mehra, Ashok Gandotra, Ramesh Saxena, Feroz Ghayas, J. B. Saxena, Rahul Dixit, Ranjan Shorey, Sudhir Pathak, Vinod Wadhwa, V. P. Kaushal, Balram Sharma, P. K. Dharmalingam, Vinayak Anand and Puneet Bisht.
Among the established Madras Club administrators was R. Ramanujam, resident editor of the Newsweek.
After Bharathan passed away in 1980, Satish ‘Neelu’ Sharma took charge and pushed the players into higher recognition.
Sehwag was the most famous member of Madras Club. Bharathan remains the most remembered. Ajit Chaudhary, who played for Madras Club for more than two decades, is in charge now.
The ‘nets’ are held at the DDA Sports Complex in Vasant Kunj twice a week. “Varun Sood, Aditya Jain, Saurabh Tiwari, Arjun Arora have distinguished themselves in recent times,” says Chaudhary.
Madras Club has many titles to its credit but old timers still recall the match, sometime in the 70s, when a full-fledged Railway team was stunned by a bunch of youngsters.
“It was a Salwan tournament match against the Indian Railways. They had big names like William Ghosh, Hyder Ali, Ram Nath. We were trembling when taking the field. I and Rakesh (Shukla) travelled from Lucknow overnight to make it in time. They made 172. We made it with nine wickets to spare,” reminiscences Sundaram.
“Cricket above cricketers” was Bharathan's motto. Madras Club follows it unfailingly.