May 14, 2013

The Malayalis who made cricket great

Three prominent cricket figures who you may not have known hail from a southern Indian state

Ever since Sanju Samson, and to a lesser degree Shantakumaran Sreesanth, began to dominate the sixth edition of the Indian Premier League, cricket fans from all over the world have begun to finally sit up and take notice of Kerala's stellar cricketing heritage. And not a minute too soon.

Hitherto this small state in the south of India has been better known as a source of world-class footballers, volleyball players, authors, method actors and sex-symbol diplomats. This is an embarrassment of riches for a state that is merely the size of single districts in other vastly larger, overrated states such as Maharashtra and northwards.

With such a high intensity of social, cultural and intellectual greatness, it is little wonder that Kerala's cricketers have never really had the opportunity to get noticed. As the old Malayalam saying goes: "What is the point in shining a rechargeable torch at the sun, Biju?"

And even when these great cricketers are noticed, rarely is the Kerala angle appreciated. This is because Kerala has a tradition, going back centuries (pun intended), of sending some of its finest sons and daughters abroad in order to flourish in other countries, and to fertilise these other countries with greatness. American inventor Thomas Aluva Edison and French military genius NapoleMon Bonaparte are just two examples.

Now that the IPL has finally drawn attention to this facet of Kerala's sporting heritage, it only seems right to highlight just three of the state's finest cricketing personalities.

1. Wilson "Grace" George: Wilson George was born to a lower-middle-class family in a small village outside Kochi. His parents - father an agriculturalist, mother a part-time Naxalite - spent many years in pilgrimages and prayer before Wilson George was born. Thus he was called "Grace" by his family.

The exact details of how he discovered the sport are shrouded in cricketing mystery and legend. What we do know is that George eventually moved to London, where he joined the East India Company as senior accountant.

Unfortunately, due to a confusion at the Trivandrum Regional Passport Office his official name had to be changed to Wilson George Grace. WG Grace, as he is known in the record books, went on to become one of cricket's original superstars. To this day, in certain social circles in London, he is known as the Mohanlal of English Cricket. It is not uncommon to hear the phrase "Oh he has Lall-ed it like anything..." at Lord's or The Oval these days when a batsman hooks a ball over midwicket on tiptoe.

2. Vivian Richards: When many people first hear that Vivian Richards is of Malayali stock, their immediate reaction is: "No way! Vivian Richards is not at all a traditional Malayali name!" But then neither is Anatoly Karpov. Such analysis is meaningless.

Richards comes from a family that originally moved to Antigua in the early 19th century from Kodungalloor, when in 1813, Alexander "Tintu" Richards, a senior accountant with South Indian Bank (Chavakkad Branch), was transferred to Antigua in order to develop the NRI business.

This history of the Richards family was unknown for many, many years, until Vivian Richards first began playing cricket at the stadium in Sharjah. There he ran into another Malayali and a distant great-grand cousin, Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, a local entrepreneur. Bukhatir and Richards were discussing family histories over non-alcoholic drinks one sweltering afternoon in Sharjah when suddenly they realised their close relationship. The rest is the stuff of Kerala legend.

3. Mohan Vasudevan: Vasudevan was a cricketer but never one of any great ability. So his relative obscurity is understandable. However what many people do not know is that in 1864 he published the first edition of the Vasudevan's Cricketer's Almanack at Century Printing Press in Kothamangalam. Initially sales for the publication were very poor and Vasudevan had to make ends meet through his day job as a senior accounts manager at what was then a small local company: Exxon Mobil Bakery and Novelty Gift Items.

However the publication was picked up later that year by an English cricketer and investor who slightly rebranded it and relaunched it in the UK. Due to higher disposable incomes and less focus on hard work and social revolution, the decadent English market accepted the Almanack more enthusiastically than the Kerala market.

In 2013, Vasudevan's Almanack celebrated its 150th edition. These days as people read copies of the Almanack and enjoy cricket's finest and greatest, they often don't realise that the book has its origins in a small state in the south of India.

Sidin Vadukut is a columnist and editor with Mint, and the author of the Dork trilogy

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