The first time I visited M. J. Gopalan at his Triplicane residence in Chennai, the reason was professional. He had indicated he might be willing to speak of the notorious tour of 1936 when inept skipper Vizzy sent back home his best player Lala Amarnath. But we ended up speaking about everything else. Gopalan, who had maintained his silence for more than half a century, couldn’t break the habit. He was over 90 years old, but stood ramrod straight and had a handshake that was close to being bone-crushing.
The next time, he had invited my wife along too, and we spent a delightful morning together. But once again, there was no talk of 1936. We spoke of hockey, his tour to New Zealand with the Indian team in 1934-35, and his relationship with Dhyan Chand. It was an education listening to a man who had made his Test debut under another icon, C. K. Nayudu.
Soon Gopalan had to make a choice — cricket or hockey? Lord’s or the Olympics, in 1936? On the one hand, an assured Olympic gold for the centre-half of the team; on the other, as suggested by his boss at Burmah Shell, a chance to broaden the mind and educate himself in England. Cricket won, although Gopalan returned without playing a Test match.
Some amazing sportsmen — increasingly fewer, as modern professional sport leaves little time for absorption in more than one — have had to make these choices. On that 1936 tour was Cota Ramaswami, who had represented India in the Davis Cup a decade and a half earlier. He was 40, and by his own admission was chosen as a ‘quota’ compromise. But he scored 40 and 60 on debut at Old Trafford, giving the audience a glimpse of the power of his strokeplay Chennai crowds had been familiar with.
The passing of Everton Weekes — who played bridge internationally after he quit cricket — has brought back into focus the double international. Choices have to be made earlier now. Yuzvendra Chahal represented India at the under-12 worlds in chess before deciding that cricket was the answer. Karnataka’s B. V. Muralidhar was an opening batsman who toured England with the Indian Schoolboys (under-19) under Ravi Shastri; he also led the national sub-junior side in football, but didn’t progress to higher levels in either sport.
International women cricketers Clare Taylor and Ellyse Perry also played football at the highest level, while Suzie Bates, the New Zealand cricketer, played basketball at the 2008 Olympics. But the daddy of them all has to be C. B. Fry, England cricketer and footballer, world record holder in the high jump and good enough at rugby too. He was too busy with cricket to bother about the 1896 Olympics where he might have been a star, since he was a sprinter with victories in the 100m. He once beat Charlie Chaplin in table tennis, playing with a butter knife instead of a racquet!
Martin Donnelly, New Zealand cricket star, played rugby for England, a double-double!