End of an eventful chapter

S. THYAGARAJAN

THE demise of M. J. Gopalan, on December 21, in Chennai, brought an end to an eventful chapter in the history of Indian sport. No tribute can be more fitting to recall on this occasion than the one by the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram (Vizzy), who was Gopalan's captain during the tour of England in 1936. Vizzy wrote in the volume to commemorate the 25 years of Gopalan's contribution to cricket and hockey in 1952, "Modest by nature and unassuming as he is, scores and analysis never figured in his thoughts. All that mattered was unalloyed loyalty, and whenever called upon to play, either in India or abroad, he gave his very best.''

With a physique that was the envy of every sportsman of his days, Gopalan performed glorious deeds. But as irony would have it, all that he held, albeit briefly, was the record of being as the oldest living cricketer. Even here, there was a dispute, whether he was born on June 6, 1909, or 1906 as the family members claimed.

At a time when it was not easy for anyone from South India to make the national grade, Gopalan was lucky to figure in a solitary Test against the Douglas Jardine's team at Calcutta in 1934. He sacrificed the Olympic hockey colours — Berlin, 1936 — and opted to be with the cricket team in England. Against Nissar and Amar Singh, the Madras fast medium bowler, never got the nod. That he was part of the Hindus along with C. K. Nayudu, Lala Amarnath and Vijay Merchant in 1938 for the Quadrangular was in itself an achievement.

Indisputable, however, is the fact that in Madras, Gopalan was a towering personality, even in the literal sense, evoking admiration and adulation from every quarter. Born in a small village of Morapakkam (Chingleput district) in a family of astrologers, Gopalan, studied in the Kellet High School when the family moved over to Triplicane, near the famous cricket ground, Chepauk. The ground then was a green wonder resembling the county atmosphere for the Englishmen who frequented the Madras Cricket Club. Interestingly, the best of Gopalan's displays came on this beautiful ground.

The highlight was the 13-wicket haul (six for 16 and seven for 57) against All Ceylon in 1932. His admirers are divided whether the 98 against the Lord Tennyson's team, or the 68 as skipper of South Zone against the West Indies in 1948 was the best batting performance on the hallowed pitch. For a few, the memorable innings was the 101 not out against United Provinces in 1940 when Gopalan was around 34 years old. He aggregated 2916 runs with an average of 24.92 and had a total of 194 wickets in first class cricket. In Ranji Trophy, Gopalan scored 1157 runs and claimed 69 wickets in a period that lasted from 1934 to 1950.

On the local league scene, Gopalan was an idol. He became a legend by taking credit for bowling the first ball for Madras against Mysore in the Ranji Trophy Championship in 1934. He achieved the rare distinction in the 30s by donning India colours both in cricket and hockey. The tour of New Zealand in 1935, under Dhyan Chand, established Gopalan as an outstanding centre-half. Dhyan wanted Gopalan to be part of the Olympic squad to Berlin but fate had willed the other way.

As a young player for the YMIA and then Madras United Club, Gopalan was hailed as one of the outstanding hockey players the State had produced and spoken of same vein as Gilbert and Blankley.

Debut in first class cricket came in 1927 in the Presidency match against the Europeans and Gopalan's reign continued in these popularly known "Pongal matches'' till 1948. Captaincy came as a matter of course and he played for the State till 1950.

After retirement, Gopalan continued his association with cricket as a national selector from South Zone and headed the committee for the State Association. The Government honoured Gopalan with the Padma Shri in 1965.

"The present day generation of players will do well if they copy Gopalan in his regular life, clean character and devotion to work undertaken. He rarely wasted his time and energy in any vain and loose talk of the games, action being his watchword.'' This assessment of Prof. D. B. Deodhar portrays the sum and substance of Gopalan.