You might remember Jonty Rhodes running out Inzamam Ul Haq during the 1992 World Cup, scooping up the ball and hurling himself horizontally at the stumps. Other fielders have replicated the move since then, but without the jaw-dropping impact of the South African original.
On a misty Margazhi morning three years ago, however, someone outdid Rhodes. A 60-something mridangam vidwan named Mannargudi Easwaran.
Easwaran was taking part in a ritual that has, for over a decade, been the December music festival's end-of-season celebration – the musicians' cricket match. On January 9, four teams will play the event's 2011 edition, YACM (Youth Association for Classical Music) Cricket Kutcheri.
Carnatic musicians are, almost as a rule, cricket fanatics. “I think people in general are into cricket, period. We are just a subset of that,” says N. Ravikiran, chitravina maestro and a regular at the musicians' match, alongside such names as Sanjay Subrahmanyan, T.M. Krishna, Vijay Siva, Trivandrum Balaji and Guruprasad.
What he says might be true, but a surprising number of Carnatic artists have played cricket at various levels.
Most aficionados would know that P. Unnikrishnan played first division cricket, and could have gone on to bigger things had he not chosen to pursue singing. They might not know that others have reached similar levels of cricketing achievement.
Mannargudi Easwaran played in the first division for Bharathi SC in the ‘60s, under the captaincy of Tamil Nadu seamer B. Kalyanasundaram. “I was an opening bowler and bowled both inswing and outswing,” says Easwaran.
At the other end of the age spectrum is vocalist Rithvik Raja, president of YACM and the eyewitness who recalled Easwaran's ‘Jonty moment'. Until he turned his full attention to music at 18, Rithvik, an all-rounder who bowled off spin, was a member of the India Pistons squad. “I used to bowl quite often at the Ranji nets,” he says. Ravikiran didn't play league cricket, but kept wickets and opened the batting for his school. Wearing the big gloves was a tactical decision he made to ensure that his fingers stayed in proper shape to make their blurry way about the chitravina's 21 strings.
Others had to take more drastic steps. “I stopped playing with the leather ball from the seventh standard, after missing a concert with a broken foot,” says Mysore Nagaraj, who alongside brother Dr. Manjunath forms the renowned Mysore Brothers violin duo. The two, however, have had little chance during the musicians' matches (always tennis-ball affairs) to stitch together epic partnerships a la the Waughs or the Chappells. “We're usually on opposite sides,” says Nagaraj.
Nagaraj is known for his versatile bowling. “I bowl mainly medium pace,” he says. “But whenever the situation demands it, I can also bowl leg spin.” Veteran vocalist T.V. Sankaranarayanan, popularly known as TVS, who says he's too old to play in this contest, also bowled leg breaks as a schoolboy. “I shouldn't say this myself, but I had a killer googly,” he says. “And I was a difficult batsman to dislodge.”
TVS' uncle, the celebrated Madurai Mani Iyer, dissuaded his nephew from playing cricket beyond his PUC (Pre-University Course) days. “I would have definitely made a certain grade,” says TVS. “But my uncle told me that playing in the sun all day would ruin my voice.”
TVS has no regrets about his career choice, of course, having enjoyed a triumphant music career which includes his winning the Padma Bhushan in 2003, the same year his schoolmate and former India skipper S. Venkataraghavan won the Padma Shri. “We had played together as kids in shorts,” says TVS. Unnikrishnan's league contemporaries included the cream of Tamil Nadu's crop from the late 80s - Kris Srikkanth, W.V. Raman, L. Sivaramakrishnan and so forth. Were there any musicians among them?
“Not really,” he says. “But (former Tamil Nadu left-arm spinner) Sunil Subramaniam, who was my college-mate, was very interested in music. And, of course (former Hyderabad off spinner and editor, Sruti Magazine) V. Ramnarayan, who had retired from first class cricket by then but was still playing in the league.”
Does music ever spill over onto the cricket field? While not going as far as singing while he bats, a la Virender Sehwag, Unnikrishnan says that he often bursts into song while fielding on the boundary.
“Sometimes, you can get carried away. I remember Akbar Ebrahim, my captain at MCC, yelling at me once when I lost track of the ball.”
Not surprisingly, the musicians love watching cricketers with an artistic streak. “For me, a batsman doesn't have to score a century,” says TVS. “A single stroke is enough - a square cut by Viswanath or Gavaskar swaying away from a bouncer.”
Unnikrishnan sees other parallels between music and cricket. “You are responsible to an audience in both, and their expectations are very high,” he says. “The practice, the dedication you need to put in is tremendous.” Ravikiran agrees. “In terms of the search for perfection, Don Bradman is my god.”