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Madras Miscellany

Madras's cricketing sardars

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to address a group of office staff in their thirties and forties and, since the get-together was being held in the Madras Cricket Club, the topic suggested was ‘Early Madras Cricket'. It came as a bit of a shock that virtually no one knew anything about the A.G. Ram Singh family. Yet that family had been to Madras cricket what the Straceys (Miscellany, April 16th) had been to public service in India.

Of Amritsar Govind Singh Ram Singh it has been said, “(He) bore the burden of Madras Cricket on his shoulders as very few had done before and none after him. Centuries flowed from his bat while with his left-handed spinners he sent many a batsman to his doom.” Yet, this beturbaned and bearded cricketer, who would figure in any all-time Madras/Tamil Nadu XI, is a forgotten figure among so-called cricket fans.

It was not Madras, however, that produced him; it was the baghs of Amritsar, including Jallianwala Bagh, that did. It was there that as a boy he learnt his cricket watching the Tommies play. And what he learnt he improved on further by himself when he came to Madras with his father, Jwala Singh, an electrician, who worked with Spencer's for many years. In Madras, encouraged by T. Vasu Naidu, then by V.R. Lakshmi Ratan at the Rajah of Ramnad-backed Minerva Cricket Club, and eventually by the Sussex professional A.F. Wensley coaching Madras, Ram Singh honed his skills to a degree that Denis Compton and Lindsay Hassett, both of whom played against him, went overboard assessing him: the former compared him to Wilfred Rhodes, the latter thought if he had been in Australia he would have been in the running for an Australian Test berth. Certainly he was in the running for a place in the Indian team in the mid-1930s and was thought to be a sure bet for the team that toured England in 1946 after scoring over 3000 runs and taking 230 wickets in all games during the lead-up season. But he had no godfathers and, so, in 1946 turned to coaching and during his thirty years and more as a coach turned out scores of Ranji Trophy players and at least four Test cricketers: Salim Durrani, C.D.Gopinath and his sons Kripal and Milkha Singh. Ram Singh's youngest son, Satvinder Singh, was also of Test class, but a knee injury after a road accident affected his career. Two other sons, Kulwant and Satwant, like their three brothers played for the University of Madras. All that taken together is some record!

Kripal Singh, the eldest of Ram Singh's sons, was a right-hand batsman who scored a century on his Test debut against New Zealand in 1955. But thereafter he was in and out of the Indian team, playing his last Test in 1965. As his batting career waned he improved as an off-spin bowler. But it was as a batsman that he helped Madras win its first Ranji Trophy in 1954-55. His sons Swaran and Arjan both played for the State, the latter's greater promise cut short by injury.

If Kripal Singh was considered one of the finest right-hand batsmen produced by Madras, brother Milkha Singh had a similar rating as a left-hand batsman. But he, too, was in and out of the Test team, the heavy scoring he did in Ranji Trophy matches not being repeated in the few Tests he played in the 1960s. Was he blooded too young, many wonder; was barely18 when he made his Test debut.

One other member of the family had a brief first class career — and that was A.G.Harjinder Singh, a nephew of Ram Singh. While faring well in First Division club cricket as a left-hand batsman, he did not repeat that form at the Ranji Trophy level. But he, like his cousins and hundreds of other Madras cricketers over three generations, had benefitted from the cricketer described by V. Ramnarayan as “arguably the greatest cricketer never to have played for his country” and a coach who believed in no frills coaching and long hours at the nets — A.G.Ram Singh.

Will there be a cricketing family like this again in Madras, nay, India?

The Portuguese land-owner

When I first arrived in Madras to sink roots it was 1968 and rattling around in a large house I envied those further down Mowbray's Road who lived in cute little houses with a neat little garden space around each in what was one of the first ‘community' settlements coming up in the city. It was called de Monte Colony and was being established, I was told, by the Archdiocese of Mylapore. Today, the colony across from the Park Sheraton Hotel is deserted; its buildings derelicts and gardens overgrown, and the newspapers report stories of ghosts that thrive here. Whatever be the ghost stories, de Monte the merchant would have been for more concerned about the sorry state some of his properties have been allowed to fall into.

John de Monte — he was never knighted though many refer to him as Sir John de Monte — was a Portuguese from Pondicherry, which, it must be remembered, had close links with San Thomé after the French had in the 18th Century captured the latter. With trading opportunities in Pondicherry and San Thomé giving diminishing returns as British power waxed, de Monte moved to Madras and bought out a Frenchman, Latour, who was a partner of Arbuthnot's, then on its way to becoming the most successful business house in Madras. Arbuthnot, de Monte's became Arbuthnot's alone on de Monte's death in 1821.

Apart from the de Monte colony property, de Monte owned all the property embraced by Turnbull's Road, Chamier's Road and Greenway's Road down to the Adyar, property which now includes the Boat Club, Ben's Gardens, the Madras Club and what is called the Boat Club area. He also owned much property in Egmore, San Thomé (on which the Archbishop's palace came up), and Covelong. He had first lived in Egmore, then in the San Thomé property and finally in a mansion he had built in what became de Monte Colony.

The house in Covelong and what was built as a private chapel, the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, were built for his wife Mary after she became mentally ill. Their son Christopher Bilderbeck de Monte, who was brought up by her parents in Germany, died there, just before he planned to return to India in 1816, the consequence of a duel, legend has it. Thus, left without heirs, de Monte willed the greater part of his property to what was then the San Thomé Diocese to give out on rent and use the proceeds for Church charities.

In his time, John de Monte was believed to be the richest man in Madras and also its leading philanthropist. His contribution to Church charities continues to this day.

*****

When the postman knocked…



* Charles Michie Smith was not a Reverend, says my correspondent who had provided me the information for my item on the Government Astronomer in Miscellany, April 9th. He had made an erroneous presumption, he tells me. He goes on to inform me that Michie Smith was, however, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh for his considerable achievements in India and the numerous important papers he contributed to the Society. Among those achievements was published in 1899 the New Madras General Catalogue of 5303 stars, study of which had been done in Madras between 1862 and 1887 under the guidance of his predecessor, Norman Pogson. Michie Smith also published a record of meteors that were seen in Madras between 1861 and 1890. And at the total eclipse of the sun in 1898 he took several large-scale photographs with a 40-foot lens at Sahdol in Rewa State. The Royal Astronomic Society, U.K., described him as a “man of wide scientific knowledge with several interests outside astronomy”.

* Out of the blue came this photograph of the Cabinet (1962-63) of St. Thomas's Hall, one of the halls of residence of Madras Christian Collage. Paul Sabapathy (Miscellany, April 9) is seen in it as the Prime Minister. My correspondent also adds a note that Prakash Karat (1964-68), the General Secretary of the CPI(M) but in his time a resident of the Hall, was greatly influenced by the concepts of social justice and the radical and egalitarian ideas of the Warden of the Hall, Duncan Forrester, when their paths crossed in 1968.


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