A Sri Lankan master
In the year 1947, a slim figure glided to the centre of the Chepauk wicket with a 'bewitching elegance', his cap worn at a rakish angle, a white handkerchief tied around his neck, and proceeded to dispatch the ball to all parts of the ground while making 215. If the old timers are to be believed, that knock from Mahadevan Sathasivam, the legendary and flamboyant Ceylonese batsman, was the finest innings ever played at Chepauk. It's apt that it is at Chepauk that the Sri Lankans now play a Test in India after a hiatus of eight years. This venue, the city and the South Indian state have played their parts in cementing the cricketing ties between the two neighbouring nations. It was the arena where the erstwhile Ceylon and Madras used to slug it out for the famous MJ Gopalan Trophy, a biannual tournament that started in 1952. Named after the Tamil Nadu allrounder - who in 1932-33 had wrecked Ceylon with 6 for 17 and 7 for 57 including a hat-trick in the second essay, to hand out the only defeat that the All-Ceylon side suffered on its first overseas tour - the Gopalan Trophy saw some wonderful artistry and craft. It was a special cricketing battle as it was not often in this global game that an international contest involving two regions was played.
When Gopalan was creating havoc at Chepauk, FC de Saram, the Sri Lankan batting stalwart who played with Sathasivam in that match at Chepauk later on, was earning his 'Blue' at Oxford, the first Sri Lankan and fourth Asian to do so after KS Ranjitsinhji, Duleep Singh and Pataudi Sr. His personal highlight of that summer of 1934 came on the grassy cricket field, but it very nearly didn't happen as Ramachandra Guha, the social and cricket historian, reveals the hardships de Saram had to undergo at the famous university: "...he was treated shamefully by the cricket authorities [as, years before at Cambridge, had been the experience of another brown-skinned aristocrat, KS Ranjitsinhji]. They would not even give him a net, so he went off instead to the tennis courts. Here the equation was man-to-man, and the colour of one's skin did not matter so long as one beat one's opponent 6-0, 6-0..."
De Saram was a natural with a tennis racquet as well, earning a 'blue', but luckily for us, he did return to the grassy cricket fields. Picked to play against the visiting Australians, he stroked a brilliant 128 out of a total of 216 in the second innings after following on against an attack comprising Clarrie Grimmett, the legspinner who invented the flipper, and Fleetwood-Smith. Of those runs, 96 came in boundaries, including four sixes with off Grimmett - who took seven wickets in that innings.
But it is to that special knock at Chepauk by Sathasivam, or 'Satha' as he was known, that we return. A flamboyant figure with a penchant for wine, women and good life, Satha enthralled the spectators with his lovely batsmanship. The knock at Chennai came against Southern India, which had a very good attack comprising MJ Gopalan, CR Rangachari, CP Johnstone, Ghulam Ahmed, the former Indian offspinner, and NJ Venkatesan.
Writing in The Hindu, SK Gurunathan eulogised Satha's century at Chepauk: "...It was well worth going miles to see the beautiful batsmanship of Sathasivam. There was all the art and style in his innings which was played on dancing feet. He played all shots from the prettiest late cut to the fine leg glance which he did as much as wave it away from his presence. He was the complete master."
Before Satha, Joe Hardstaff had held the record when he scored 213 playing for Lord Tennyson's XI against Madras Presidency XI in 1938-39. NS Ramaswami, the respected cricket writer, had written on the Satha crossing thus: "a strain of rhetoric replaced by lyric." Story is told of how on the first day his manager had promised him a bottle of scotch if he got to his century. S Muthiah, that wonderful chronicler of the Chennai city who has also authored a book on Chepauk's history wrote, "Batting first, the CCA scored 119 for 1 by lunch, 263 for 3 by tea, and 369 for 4 by close. The CCA declared the next day at 521 for 7. The 100 had come up in 105 minutes, the 300 in 281 minutes, the 400 in 315 minutes and 500 in 387 minutes. To this, Sathasivam, coming in at the fall of the third wicket, contributed 215 in 248 minutes.
"NS Ramaswami and many other cricket writers and enthusiasts have repeatedly said that 'Satha's' was the finest innings ever played at Chepauk." Sathasivam was on 120 not out at close of play on the first day and Ramachandra Guha writes of him extracting "a promise from the manager that he would send him for a week's holiday in Bombay" if he got to a double. After partying heavily through the night, he went to the crease the next day and dismissed the attack, dispatching the red cherry to all parts of the ground with a magical wave of the willow. Ghulam Ahmed rated 'Satha' as the best he had bowled against.
Fans and writers apart, cricketers too were enchanted by his skill with the willow. Michael Roberts points to a little nugget found in a book The Willow Quartette(edited by C H Gunasekara, Colombo, Sumathi Publishers, 1996) which present vignettes of distinguished Sri Lankans as further proof of Satha's batsmanship. Turn to page 57 to find Frank Worrell, who had played against Satha and been captivated by his style, hail him as the best batsman he had ever seen.
As fate would have it, both the great Sri Lankan masters spent some time in jail, de Saram for a political coup he was part of and Sathasivam for a murder that he didn't commit. De Saram was a rightist and was involved in a coup to unseat the democratically elected government of SWRD Bandarnaike, spending many years in jail in the 1960s till a legal technicality secured his release. Sathasivam was suspected of murdering his wife with 'ammi kal', a cylindrical grinding-stone. After a very widely followed trial where Dr Colvin R de Silva, a high-profile attorney, defended his case and proved that it was a servant in the house who was the culprit, Satha was released and carried from the court on the shoulders of his fans.
In jail, he was visited by the visiting West Indies team and it was said that the party included Garry Sobers and Worrell. But it's with a friend's recollection of those prison days that we shall end our story, for it's here we find what kind of a character Satha was. When Alfred Gogerly Moragoda, a distinguished civil servant and a friend of Sathasivam, went to the prison to see him on remand, Satha enquired what his friends, cricketing and otherwise, thought of him and then wondered what Alfred's wife thought about him.
Alfred confessed that his wife did think Satha was guilty and a little later when he was about to leave, Satha called out to him and asked him to pass on a message to his wife. "Tell her she is next on the list!"