April 5, 2014

Remembering the glory days of the Hindu Trophy

One of the oldest limited-overs in India used to be a thrilling affair, with Test and club cricketers fiercely competing for the title

AG Kripal Singh: one of the Hindu Trophy's shining stars © The Hindu Photo Archives

When the ECB introduced T20 cricket on the county circuit in 2003, I was one of many who thought it would never catch on. I believed the format was too short to enable players to express themselves, score enough runs or get enough wickets. Little did we sceptics imagine that the format would one day threaten Test cricket, with its twists and turns and spectator appeal, based on pure entertainment.

I should have known better as a veteran of 30-over cricket in the hugely popular Hindu Trophy of Chennai for many seasons. That uniquely Madrasi slam-bang affair started in the 1950-1951 season, in its original avatar as the Sports & Pastime Trophy for "companies and bankers". Sport & Pastime, brought out by the publishers of the Hindu newspaper, was by the way arguably India's first sports magazine, whose closure following a workers' strike led to the renaming of the tournament.

The format of the tournament suited the essentially happy-go-lucky approach of the typical Madras cricketer of the period. The inaugural tournament was won by Binny's Recreation Club, which defeated the Hindu's own team in the final. Both companies offered jobs to cricketers (and other sportsmen), and so did many of the other firms that contested the tournament, a trend that had started earlier with the likes of Burmah Shell, M&SM Railway, the police and others. Several other organisations, like Parry, Philips, State Bank of India, Indian Overseas Bank, Esso, Lucas TVS, India Cements, Chemplast and India Pistons continued to support cricket through the decades, and the Hindu Trophy provided an exciting platform for some of the best talent in the city to compete.

The Parry team in the early years was led by Test cricketer AG Kripal Singh, and had a few Ranji Trophy stalwarts, like MK Murugesh and DL Chakravarthi, both members of the first Madras team to win the Ranji Trophy, and BR Mohan Rai, a genuine fast bowler. Their clashes with the State Bank of India team that included the likes of VV Kumar and AG Milkha Singh were watched by thousands of spectators on the Marina ground on Beach Road (now Kamarajar Salai). A big six could land on the sands beyond the road or in the Buckingham Canal on the opposite side. There were several thrilling finishes and many a final turned out to be the stuff of fables.

Some of the teams cultivated 30-over specialists, in both batting and bowling. Inswing specialist R Prabhakar bowled 15 overs unchanged for State Bank (before the six-over per bowler limit was introduced in the 1980s) and became quite an expert at containing opposing batsmen when he was not running through them. He was also one of the biggest hitters of a cricket ball around, and still commands an army of fans who believe he should have played for India. He had his moment of glory in the Ranji Trophy, when he and fellow medium-pacer CK Bhaskar defied the might of Bombay with the bat in the 1967-68 final.

Through the decades, the Hindu Trophy produced many icons the crowds loved, including Reserve Bank's CB Selvakumar, the first (and perhaps only) double-century maker, WV Raman and VB Chandrasekhar, who played several spectacular innings, iconic opening pairs that featured the likes of K Srikkanth, V Sivaramakrishnan, P Ramesh, and S Ramesh and destructive middle-order batsmen like AG Satvinder Singh, TE Srinivasan, M Senthilnathan, and Robin Singh. Among the spinners were such past greats as S Venkataraghavan and VV Kumar (whose only hundred came in this tournament), and the inimitable State Bank allrounder R Raghavan, whose explosive aggression was masked by his mild banker looks and burgeoning girth. The tournament continued to be synonymous with fireworks until declining corporate and public support brought it to a halt not long ago, despite the finals being played under lights for some years to attract spectators. The tournament has recently been resurrected to the delight of the older enthusiasts of the game in Chennai.

If the Hindu Trophy has been one of the earliest limited-overs tournaments in India, the All-India Pooja Knockout championship at Tripunithura on the tiny palace grounds near Kochi in Kerala claims to be the oldest in the world. The event still draws participants from all over India and capacity crowds every year, and several entertaining finals have been witnessed there - including a tie between TVS of Chennai and a Hyderabad XI led by ML Jaisimha in 1981-82 - but the sheer drama of the Hindu Trophy through the decades remains unparalleled.

V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s