CRICKET R. Prabhakar's days as a player may have ended, but the all-rounder's enthusiasm for the game has far from waned
A gaggle of youngsters from an event management firm trotted on the pathway leading to a giant enclosure at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium. The bunch reflected the game's rapidly changing profile.
Behind, children frolicked in the blue waters of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association's swimming pool. The cool evening breeze from the Bay of Bengal was comforting.
Yet, the buzz in the arena ahead of the cash-rich Champion's League tournament matches at Chepauk was unmistakable. The television crew was busy giving meaning to all those cables and wires of myriad hues. Soon, the big hits would light up the ground.
R. Prabhakar contorted his visage and then smiled wryly. High-octane cricket was familiar territory for him. Did he parade his skills in the wrong era?
He could have been a star in the one-day and twenty20 formats with his exceptional ability to clear the ground, swing the ball and gambol on the field. Somebody with his attributes would have been hot property in the IPL.
When Prabhakar, a blithe spirit, ended his Ranji Trophy career for Tamil Nadu in the mid-70s, all he received was Rs.10 as conveyance allowance for home matches.
But then, Prabhakar maintains he played in the right era. “We got so much satisfaction, enjoyment from the game. Nothing can compensate for that.”
Playing for pride
Indeed, this glorious game is not about money alone. Prabhakar, like several of his ilk, played for pride. Cricket was a love, a quest and a passion. Providing entertainment was his career's leitmotif and the crowd's roar his biggest reward.
He is emphatic when he says, “I have no regrets.”
Prabhakar's new ball partner for Tamil Nadu B. Kalyanasundaram reveals, “He used to rejoice at my wickets. He was a complete team-man and a clean-hearted person. And Prabhakar was a genuine article as an all-rounder. Had he been around today, he would have surely represented India in one of the shorter formats.”
However, Prabhakar failed to figure in the South Zone side of the late 60s and the early-to-mid 70s. With a good reason too for it was, perhaps, harder to break into the star-studded South Zone team than some of the present injury-hit Indian teams. There is a growing belief, not without reason, that an India cap has become a lot cheaper.
As Prabhakar points out, those were the days when the Indian team had a well-defined off-season; the series was spread out and the stars would take part in the Ranji, Duleep and Irani Trophies. “I remember a crucial Tamil Nadu-Hyderabad Ranji Trophy match in Chepauk where we had a crowd of more than 25,000,” he remembers.
Today, we would be lucky to have 25 spectators for the same marquee duel.
Indeed, Prabhakar paints a vivid picture of cricket of his time — sepia memories really — when there would be no parking space for the much-awaited The Hindu Trophy final at the Marina ground; Prabhakar smashed an awesome 41-ball 167 not out with 16 sixes for his beloved State Bank against McNiel Barry in the competition.
There was no dearth of humour too in the Tamil Nadu camp with the likes of P.K. Belliappa, K.R. Rajagopal, Milkha Singh and Satwinder Singh, all accomplished cricketers, in the side. “The evenings would be lively,” recalls Prabhakar.
A different era
And those long train journeys with the team enabled the younger cricketers to learn a lot about the game as the seniors discussed and dissected cricket over a game of cards. Those were different days. Despite his talent and game-changing ability — Prabhakar made two Ranji Trophy centuries and struck a few telling blows with the new ball — he was largely an unsung hero. He often surfaced too low down in the batting order at No. 9 yet it was at this slot that he came up with a rousing 67 under adversity in the 1968 Ranji Trophy final against Bombay at the Brabourne Stadium.
When Tamil Nadu required a bonus point, Prabhakar would be promoted to No. 3 and he would seldom fail. And in an era where spin giants S. Venkatraghavan and V.V. Kumar sent down countless overs, Prabhakar hardly bowled after the initial burst with the new ball; in fact, those were the days when the shiny sphere would be rubbed against the ground to hasten the arrival of the spinners.
Still Prabhakar had his moments; he made a habit of dismissing the strokeful Budhi Kunderan of Mysore by swinging the sphere and having the batsman picked up at slip or gully.
He is concerned about the declining standards of the Tamil Nadu bowling and adds, “The bowlers are not using the crease and they are not accurate. The bowling appears to be mechanical for most part.”
Hailing from a family of cricketers — his elder brother R. Chandrasekar was a fine off-spinner — Prabhakar's nonchalance underlined his ability. The game saw him admire his idol Gundappa Viswanath — “he played the ball so late” — from rather close quarters and marvel at Bhagwat Chandrasekar's unorthodoxy and beguiling variety.
And the power he himself imparted on the ball was not generated by the astonishing modern day bats. Prabhakar's strong wrists propelled the sphere a long way. He often gave the charge to the pacemen. “Remember, we never wore helmets those days,” he quips to drive home a point.
It's time to celebrate the spirit of this forgotten champion.