Sreesanth has given Ernakulam Cricket Club a good reason to celebrate its silver jubilee in a big way, says STAN RAYAN
When they began their tournament more than two decades ago, even raising money to buy a trophy was a bit of a problem. And since there were no markers, club members had to prepare the wicket for tournaments during the early years. "Looking back, I don't know how we managed," said P. Sivakumar, one of the founders of the Ernakulam Cricket Club.The ECC has come a long way. And as it celebrates the silver jubilee of its annual cricket tournament, it has taken one of the country's biggest stages, the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium in Kochi, to mark the occasion. The final of ECC's Coromandel Cement all-Kerala tournament will be played under lights, a first for a State-level, inter-club event.The club members have a good reason to dance and sing, even shout from the rooftops. For just a few months ago, their star S. Sreesanth went on to play for the country, only the second Kerala cricketer to do so.When a few teenagers like Madhukara Rao, Rajnikanth, T. R. Krishnan, S. Dandapani and Sivakumar sat down one evening at the Maharaja's Stadium and talked about forming a club, by merging a few groups like Bluestar, Anchor and Heroes which played each other regularly during weekends, little did they realise that they would reach the stage that they have now reached. For none of its founders had played for the State.And it was a struggle, especially in the first few years. "The first edition, which we won beating Tripunithura CC, was a 45-over a side tournament. And since we used to play the matches only during weekends, the tournament went on for nearly a month and a half," said Sivakumar, the club's vice-chairman.But maintaining the pitch became a problem, because the Maharaja's also hosted other games like football and hockey. So, to reduce the number of days and teams, the tournament became a 30-over affair.
Along the way, ECC lost its identity a couple of times before rediscovering itself.The club began as Bluestar. A few years later, when it got Presteege, the city's leading Bombay Dyeing dealer, as a sponsor for its tournament, it changed its named to Presteege CC and the tournament was played under this banner. "That was the only thing Vishnu Das (the sponsor) wanted."Whatever. But the Presteege tournament soon became a very popular one in the State's cricket calendar. "It ran for nearly 10 years and, when we started looking for a new sponsor, with expenses rising year after year, we thought that the club's name should not be attached to the deal."So, they changed the name again, to its present one, virtually borrowing the name of an extinct club, which had won the Ernakulam District A-division league in its inaugural year (1953-54). And the affair with India Cements, the tournament's current sponsor, is now in its 11th year.
ECC's best year, in recent times, was in 1997 when it won the Ernakulam A-division league, beating heavy favourite Kochi Refineries Limited at the Tripunithura Palace Oval. It was the first time the EDCA league had a three-day final. Former Ranji star K. J. Sareesh, who scored a century and an unbeaten 70, and Sunil Pallan with a ten-wicket haul, were the stars of that triumph. Their other achievements include winning the Cluster-A titles in the Lakshmanan and KRL all-India tourneys.And the club's annual tournament has had some memorable days. Members remember Ajay Varma of SBT taking five wickets off the first five balls in a match against Tripunithura CC `B' and Sunil Pallan's 165 nearly a decade ago which came off just 60 balls.
Sreesanth shows promise
At 14, just a year after joining the club, Sreesanth was named as the most promising player in the home tournament.Apart from its Ranji players, ECC has produced many junior State stars, two international umpires - Dr. K. N. Raghavan and S. Dandapani - and nearly a dozen State-panel umpires. Despite splashing a big amount for this year's final, funds are still a big problem. "That's why we play just five or six outstation tournaments every year, mostly in neighbouring districts," said Sivakumar.The club used to bring in prominent coaches and players like Abdul Jabbar and Kanwaljit Singh for its summer camps. And for its talent-spotting and grooming efforts, it now has P. S. Manoj, a professional player.A few years ago, two young boys, both tall and fairly fast, used to bowl at neighbouring nets, and for different clubs, at the Maharaja's. The two, ECC's Sreesanth and Swantons CC's Tinu Yohannan, went on to don India colours.But with the Maharaja's now getting ready for a new synthetic athletic track, there are quite a few question marks about cricket's future at the stadium in the heart of the city."So far, we've not planned for it. But if the Maharaja's is not available for our future tourneys, we'll think of the Nehru Stadium or the Ambedkar Ground," said Sivakumar. That's the future.For now, it's time to raise a toast to all the young men behind the show.