Many years ago, a pro-Dalit journalist-turned political commentator asked me if the Tamil Nadu cricket team was dominated by Brahmin players. I replied that it seemed to be so during that specific period but that it had not always been so. I further pointed out that the team perhaps had an Iyengar (a Vaishnavite subsect among Tamil Brahmins) majority. “Why so?” the young man asked me and my response was that they were such talented cricketers. “Maybe also because the administration is full of Iyengars,” I added tongue-in-cheek. In a more serious vein, I said I doubted that any selection committee sat down to pick a team based on caste considerations.
The Tamil Nadu selection committee may make mistakes, but over the years, it has taken the trouble to spot talent from the far corners of the state and varied social and economic backgrounds. Particularly in the last decade or so, the number of young cricketers from deprived backgrounds to make the cut has been quite considerable.
In my own playing experience, I came across two teams in the first division made up almost entirely from the fisherman community living close to Marina Beach. I was in my late thirties or early forties then and had no business to be still in the game, but it was enjoyable all the same to bond with young cricketers. In tournaments like The Hindu Trophy, I turned out for TVS, but represented Alwarpet CC in the first division league. My friend Das, from a fisher family, played for Appiah Chettiar Memorial CC in the league, but as he was employed by TVS, was my teammate in The Hindu Trophy matches.
Small, but wiry and athletically built, Das was a more than a useful all-rounder — accurate medium pacer, attacking batsman and brilliant fielder anywhere in the field. He played the game hard and it was sometimes difficult to control his aggressive instincts.
Appiah Chettiar and Singaravelar CC, the other team with a similar social background, were the two sides feared by most opponents, not only for their undoubted talent but also their tendency to flex their muscles on and off the field. There were stories galore about how some of them frightened opponents and officials. One of them had it that one of their bowlers handed over a knife along with his cap to the umpire at the start of each over. A pair of identical twins was said to have confused everyone by the simple expedient of the better batsman of the two batting twice in an innings. Yet another player was a quick-change artist who after being dismissed batted a second time after having his head tonsured nearby.
In time, the two teams improved their standards. A few of the boys did well enough to represent Tamil Nadu, especially in limited overs competition. Das’s son was one of them, if I remember right. The officials of the teams did not hesitate to question the selectors when their players were ignored unfairly in their opinion. Though my sympathies invariably lay with the underdogs that these players were, I also knew the selectors were in an unenviable position.
Das was one of the most hard-working players in our team, and once made a heroic and spectacular hundred in an inter-office match within TVS. In the more competitive matches, he was always a useful contributor, and a very spirited one. He squatted at forward short leg and assured me, “Ram, you bowl, I’ll take off this guy,” meaning the batsman, who would by now be quaking in his boots, not knowing how Das was going to take care of him. During a post-match dinner, he became emotional after we had all had a few beers, and offered to do anything I wanted by way of a favour. When I playfully but foolishly suggested he visit a particular umpire and “give him my best compliments,” it took the collective strength of all present to prevent him from actually carrying out the task.
At the Ramakrishna School Ground in T’ Nagar, Das and I were once involved in a minor late order partnership in a YSCA Trophy match, before he was adjudged leg before. He gave the umpire a long and dirty look. After he left the crease, the umpire asked me who he was. When I told him his name, with some relish, I confess, the umpire said, “I wouldn’t have given him out if I’d known.” He was miserable with worry for the rest of the game.
On another occasion, Das, a reserve fielder for Alwarpet CC in the last league game of the season, had been quite chatty with one of the umpires, who had been hurriedly drafted from the lower divisions to replace a last minute dropout. After being closely followed to the dressing room at the tea interval with several questions regarding his parentage and health, the hapless umpire asked me who his constant heckler was. My reply had the most unusual impact on him. After umpiring for a couple of overs after tea, he complained of giddinesss, returned to the dressing room never to come back. He in fact went home immediately afterwards without informing anyone.
Das played some good cricket for a few seasons afterwards, before deciding to focus on his son’s cricket. Das junior performed well for a while, before he too faded out. Neither Appiah Chettiar nor Singaravelar could maintain for long the standards they had set while earning promotion to the first division, and both teams are perhaps languishing in the lower divisions now.
One of the reasons for the decline in the fortune of these teams could be the diminishing opportunities and facilities available to kids of the fishermen living on the seashore. Many of them had free access to the nearby Presidency College ground popularly known as the Marina ground for nearly a hundred years. As a student of the college who practised and played matches there for five years, I watched scores of children jump over the low wall and play in one corner of the field while my team had net practice in another.
All this ended when tall and impregnable steel fencing came up after a corporate group adopted the ground. True the ground now has a lovely turf wicket and lush green outfield, enabling college and league cricketers to practise and compete in ideal conditions, but a quite unintended side-effect has been the denial of playing space for the poor children of the area. With cricket on the beach also prohibited from time to time, it is hardly surprising that these kids no longer seem able to make it to professional cricket. Some alternative arrangement for them would be the right thing to do.
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