A Jolly Rovers reunion
''Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,'' said the poet. I used to think the same of old cricketers. How wrong I was!
To meet the cricketers who played for the iconic team Jolly Rovers in Madras between 1966 and 1970 at a function earlier this week was to delight in the company of a league of extraordinary gentlemen who refuse to fade away. Handsomer, healthier, wittier and wiser is how I would describe their present avatars when I look back on their days in the sun.
The occasion was a celebration of the start of the 50th year of one family's involvement with the running of a cricket team. The event was hosted by N Sankar, chairman of the Sanmar Group, which has been behind the exceptional success of Jolly Rovers through the decades - with 62 titles in all, including 18 senior division league triumphs.
Many of today's cricket fans may not recognise the names of the cricketers That evening, I had the pleasure of renewing contact with PK Belliappa, KR Rajagopal, S Narayanan, K Bharadwaj, Najam Hussain, PK Dharmalingam, G Srinivasan, V Balaji Rao, VR Rajaraghavan, K Ramamurthy, P Sampath, AK Vijayaraghavan, KS Vaidyanathan, KS Viswanathan and N Kumar (absent were KVR Murthy, S Venkataraghavan and B Kalyanasundaram, while three others, KS Kannan, TH Rao and George Thomas, are no more with us).
Few Tamil Nadu cricketers of his time were more elegant on or off the field than the Jolly Rovers and state captain Belliappa, who is still his dapper old self. His greatest moment in cricket must have been his 104 for South Zone against Mike Smith's English team in the 1963-64 season. Any disappointment at his not being selected for India in Tests must be closely guarded: "Bellie" has never shown signs of such, with his cheerful, seemingly happy-go-lucky ways. He was calm and collected as a batsman, wicketkeper and captain, but endowed with a mischievous sense of fun that did not spare team-mates or opponents.
Swing bowler Rajaraghavan, himself known for his zany humour, relates the probably apocryphal story of a match when medium-pacer Ramamurthy moved the ball wildly on both sides of the wicket, testing Bellie's diving skills, and earning high praise from the captain in the evening. Rajaraghavan, who believed he and Thomas, a genuine fast bowler, bowled better, complained about this but could see the logic of Bellie's reply: "Who's buying the beer in the evening, you or Ramamurthy?" It was another matter that Ramamurthy often pulled his weight as a bowler, and on at least one occasion as stand-in captain.
Short and slightly built like Bellie, Rajagopal, was one of the most innocuous-looking cricketers - until he took guard as Bellie's opening partner. An engineer who worked at the India Cements factory at Sankarnagar, Tirunelveli, he regularly arrived in Madras by an overnight train, had a quick curd rice at his colleague PS Narayanan's house, and made his way to the ground riding pillion on Narayanan's scooter, with his canvas shoes rolled up in a copy of the Hindu. He would then randomly pick up a bat from the team's kitbag and merrily launch into the bowling attack from ball one. Rajagopal was equally brilliant behind the stumps when Bellie wasn't keeping, even bringing off spectacular leg-side stumpings off the pacy Thomas, as Tamil Nadu veteran Satvinder Singh recalled at the celebrations. Rajagopal was distinctly unlucky to miss out on the Australia tour of 1968 after amassing nearly 800 runs in the Ranji Trophy that season.
Narayanan, another player of unprepossessing appearance, made batting look easy, had a greater six-hitting propensity than his physique suggested, and with his deceptive offspin tended to break partnerships and engineer collapses. Balaji Rao, with a Ranji Trophy highest of 163 not out to his credit, was a prehensile slip catcher; an old-time team supporter rates him the best he has seen in a lifetime of cricket watching.
The ever fit Dharmalingam, who during his short commission in the Services represented North Zone, before he returned to Madras, was an attacking batsman, legspinner and brilliant outfielder, later becoming a respected coach, especially in women's cricket. I remember ruefully that while assisting coach Polly Umrigar, he broke my finger during catch practice at the Test probables camp at Chepauk in 1977, ruining whatever chance I had of making the final cut!
Hussain was tall and handsome during his playing days. Today his beard and cap signify his spiritual leanings. Laughing, he reminded me of how I had described his offspin as fictitious in a book, and I in turn referred to his match-winning nine-wicket haul on a drying wicket in a Buchi Babu match in the 1960s. I knew, of course, that as an allrounder he was the architect of many a memorable win for Jolly Rovers, but a recent fan letter revealed that during lunch on match days Hussain often distributed alms at a nearby dargah and offered a helping hand to the old and the infirm there.
Sampath, an amputee today after a road accident, was in his time as fearsome a fast bowler as the late Thomas. Visiting Hyderabad as a member of a junior team once, he took five wickets in five balls* against a representative side. His victims on that tour included Tiger Pataudi, a prize scalp.
Vijayaraghavan was a lovely little left-armer, his arsenal including a chinaman, and thrilling card tricks on rainy afternoons.
Bharadwaj was a tall, stylish right-hander the creases of whose whites were undisturbed at the end of a long day in the field.
They are a lovely bunch, these veterans, fit and raring to go. All of them remember the good old days with gratitude - for the amateur spirit of the time, and for KS Narayanan, the late patriarch of the Sanmar Group, who had the imagination and sense of adventure to assemble a band of cricketers, many of them from outside the state, and provide them the best of equipment and facilities to develop them into a cracking professional outfit.
*02:50:17 GMT, 6 August 2015: Corrected from "figures of 5 for 2"
V Ramnarayan bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s. His latest book is Third Man, Recollections from a Life in Cricket