Enchanting vista of history

HOCKEY HISTORY in Chennai has a cornucopia of inputs to provide a fascinating insight into its ebb and flow, that could be traced back almost to the start of the last century. Any introspection into the men, matters and memories that fill the pages of history leaves an enthusiast in an emotional melange. Over the years, the city has contributed a host of players to the national teams for Olympics, World Cup and Asian Games. But chroniclers also will recall how some remarkably endowed players missed the national colours despite being more than equal to those who really made it.

Any evaluation of the fecundity of hockey in Chennai is incomplete without acknowledging the glorious role played by the European and the Anglo-Indian communities. From the days of Cullen, Tremenere, Hart and Summerheys, to the golden age of Eric Blankley, Gilbert, Richtor, down the era of Jimmy Carr, Cunningham, Joe D'Costa and the Pears brothers, competitive hockey in the 1930s and 1940s mirrored the craft in full bloom of pure skill and artistry. The success of the Anglo-Indian Sports Club, the Telegraphs, and the significant part played by the Young Men's Indian Association (YMIA), the South Indian Athletics Association (SIAA), the Madras United Club (MUC) and, of course, the Madras Cricket Club (MCC), which is the only club still maintaining the 100-year-old tradition, along with the Murugappa Group, in conducting the annual tournament here, kept alive the momentum of growth.

Interestingly, hockey in that generation had an elitist touch too, what with the leading star cricketers switching to the stick sport in summer months to maintain physical fitness. Of course, some reached a peak in both, like M. J. Gopalan, who donned the national colours in hockey and in cricket. Then there were C. K. Nainakannu and T. P. Keshavan, known for their skills in both sport. But it is MJ who is admired and revered even today. At 96, Gopalan's enthusiasm for sport must be the envy of many. Veterans of that era still recall with a touch of emotion, the physical strength and energy of Gopalan, cycling to a hockey ground after finishing a cricket match! Famous for the flick-scoop from the mid-field to the wingers as much for his fluent bowling action and exquisite strokes, the tall and broad shouldered Gopalan was, and, perhaps, continues to be the icon on the city's sports canvas.

In short, Gopalan, along with C. Ramaswami, has given this city a unique place in the country's sporting milieu as double internationals; Gopalan in cricket and hockey, Ramaswami in cricket and tennis.

When clubs gave way to institutions, teams like M & S M Railways, Telegraphs, Binny's and Police came into prominence. The combination of Gilbert and Blankley for Telegraphs sent shivers down the spines of goalkeepers.

Enchanting vista of history

But one of the finest specimen of a goalkeeper emerged from this city, and that was Ranganathan Francis, who played for India in three successive Olympics — London in 1948, Helsinki in 1952, and Melbourne in 1956. Fans of that era still wonder how the vociferous Francis, a constable, used to give instructions to the then IGP, F. V. Arul, playing as a full back for the Police team, asking the superior officer to tackle this player, or that on the field.

A great sportsman and a fantastic officer, Arul was more than happy to carry out the instructions of the goalkeeper, whose stature in the sport, he probably felt, was higher than his.

There used to be ceaseless hockey activity in the city, with the major spots being the MUC ground, where the club conducted a Gold Cup tournament, the Rajindersinghji Stadium (in front of the State Transport Depot), the Egmore Stadium, and the MCC, where the game was played in summer months.

Even the Willingdon Cup tournament, sponsored by YMIA, was a prominent event on the calendar, apart from the Mysore Cup and the Stokes Shield for Inter-Collegiate tournaments. The Pachaiyappa's College regularly conducted the Principal Krishnamurthy Cup for the colleges.

It may even be news to many of this generation that the trophy for the National hockey championship was donated by The Hindu in 1951 in honour of one of its illustrious editors, S. Rangaswamy, himself a splendid player. For three years, after the Partition, the National championship was played without a trophy. The Maori Shield was lost when Lahore held the tournament in the chaos that followed the division of the country.

When the National Championship came to Chennai (Madras), for the first time, Kasturi Srinivasan, then Editor of The Hindu, presented the silver trophy, during the final between Services and Madras at Chepauk. The Rangaswamy Cup continues to be the emblem of national hockey championship.

If Ranganathan Francis represented a saga of city's hockey heritage, it was carried forward in the Olympics by quite a few such as V. J. Peter (though he played mostly in Bangalore for MEG), Munir Sait, P. Krishnamurthy, V. J. Philips, B. P. Govinda (who became a resident here in the mid-1970s), V. Baskaran, Mohammad Riaz, Dinesh Nayak and Thirumalvalavan, who have all won the national colours in Olympics.

Of this galaxy, Vasudevan Baskaran has a unique place. Not only has he played in two Olympics (1976 at Montreal and 1980 at Moscow, leading and winning the gold in the latter), but figured as the chief coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympiad and in the World Cup at Utrecht in 1998. Baskaran also played in two World Cups, 1973 at Amstelveen (the Netherlands), where India won a silver, and again in 1978 at Buenos Aires, where another city player, V. J. Philips, led the national team. His career-graph also includes two Asian Games, 1974 at Teheran, and 1978 at Bangkok.

Hailing from a sporting family, where all the five brothers, referred to as the Panjapandavas of city hockey, Prabhakaran, Rajasekaran, both internationals, (the latter is currently the Secretary, Chennai Hockey Association), Jayasekaran and Vasikaran have played at a fairly high level. Baskaran is the third of the five. After schooling in Wesley High School and graduating from Loyola College, Baskaran played for the Madras University for four years in a row.

Baskaran goes nostalgic when he rewinds about his playing days as a left half with private clubs, the backbone of city hockey. Starting with United Gymkhana, he moved over to Nungambakkam Youngsters, and then to the Madras Blues, managed by the then Assistant Secretary of IHF, R. Dayakissen. Baskaran emphasised the commitment of Dayakissen, who always maintained strict discipline and made it a point to encourage youngsters, especially collegians. The number of State players who had donned the Madras Blues jersey must be considerable.

Baskaran concedes that the emergence of institutional teams enhanced the employment opportunities for several including himself. After joining the Railways, Baskaran rose step by step to become the Sports Officer in Southern Railway.

What saddens Baskaran, who won the Arjuna Award in 1979 and then the Padma Shri in 1980 after winning the Gold at the Moscow Olympics, is the dwindling spectator interest, not only for hockey but in other disciplines as well. He believes there is no alternative to floodlighting the sporting arenas for field games so as to enable more and more people visit the stadia after office hours.

After being relieved of the role as the chief coach at the end of the Olympics in Sydney, Baskaran continues to assist the Railway teams. Ironical, however, is the fact that Baskaran's son is a keen cricketer and an athlete!

Enchanting vista of history

The city has not lagged behind in providing administrators too, like Dr. M. A. M. Ramaswamy, who held the reins as president of Indian Hockey Federation, for two terms and served the International Hockey Federation (FIH) as vice-president. He also organised an international men and women competition for the Rene Frank Trophy in 1975 at the Corporation Stadium, now reconstructed as the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Victor Simon, former Secretary, Madras Hockey Association, served in the EC of IHF.

Now, Jothikumaran, a former Combined University player from Pachaiyappa's College, is the Secretary of the national federation for the third term in a row. Two umpires who qualified for the Olympics and World Cup were the brothers, Mohammad Ghouse and Obaidullah. The former was rated as among the top five at one point of time.

Indisputably, hockey, like cricket and tennis, in this metropolis also enjoys a special place on the country's sporting scene.


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