Indian cricket's spiritual home
The original Doubting Thomas lies buried here; and Chennai is the land of doubting Thomases. "Will Tamil Nadu ever win the Ranji Trophy again?" (they won in 1954-55 and 1987-88) has been the most important cricketing question for different generations of players. St Thomas, one of only three apostles to have a church built over his tomb (the others being St Peter in Rome and St James in Galicia, Spain), came to India in 52 AD; the Santhome Basilica in Mylapore contains his mortal remains.
The Marina, which connects the basilica to that other famous place of worship, the Chepauk cricket ground, is by popular reckoning the second longest beach in the world, sometimes elevated to first place by locals. Neither is true, but it's a good claim and teeters on the verge of accuracy, like many stories about Chennai cricket. The most enduring is the story of the Pongal Test at Chepauk. Of 30 Tests, only nine were during the Pongal week in January - the last in 1988. But a mixture of nostalgia and repetition has converted false memory into tradition. Of the nine Tests at the nearby Nehru Stadium (1956-65) four were during Pongal.
It began with the Europeans versus Indians Presidency match in 1908, an annual fixture from 1916. Europeans won eight matches, the Indians 15, occasionally thanks to imports like CK Nayudu. MS Dhoni leading the Chennai Super Kings to the IPL title is part of tradition too.
Chepauk is in Triplicane, known for the Parthasarathy Temple, which is some 14 centuries old. That's as many Test centuries as Gundappa Viswanath made, as the Chennaiite will point out, for he is the most statistically aware of fans. Such an easy familiarity with figures is also tribute to a son of Triplicane, the mathematician Ramanujan.
India's first Test win came here in 1951-52 and it is the venue where India have won the most, 12. Chepauk has seen cricket since at least the mid-19th century, and was host to one of only two tied Tests in history. It was here that the first Ranji Trophy match was played, Madras beating Mysore within a day thanks to AG Ram Singh's 11 for 35. The game was insured for Rs 3000 but the collection was just Rs 800 and the Commercial Union Assurance Company had to pay up. That ended any insurance company's interest thereafter.
If Indian cricket has a spiritual home, it is Chepauk and the MA Chidambaram Stadium, a month younger than Eden Gardens, Kolkata, India's oldest Test venue, still in use. The Gopalan Gates are a tribute to MJ Gopalan, a double international, who, having to choose between the Olympics hockey tournament in 1936 and the cricket tour of England the same year, chose the latter. He was the Adonis of Chennai cricket, an all-round sportsman who won titles in tennis and table tennis and excelled at the Indian game of kabaddi too. A contemporary cricketer, Cotar Ramaswami, also played Davis Cup tennis.
From Gopalan and Ram Singh to Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Kris Srikkanth to S Badrinath and M Vijay is an unbroken line. Yet some of the more interesting players were to be seen in the local leagues.
There was Tyte, for example, who ran in like Frank Tyson but bowled like Subhash Gupte. Or the offspinner who came in from the right of the umpire and bowled over the wicket - or, in local parlance, bowled "right arm, all over the wicket". Once, a batsman dismissed cheaply at No. 3 shaved his head and came in at No. 7, pretending to be his brother.
Then there are the classics passed down from generation to generation. Of the opening batsman dismissed first ball of the match returning to the pavilion saying, "He is swinging it both ways." Or the batsman picking up the stump that had been sent flying halfway to the boundary and passing it on to the incoming player with the encouraging words, "There's nothing in his bowling".
Through all this, the one-day international was slow in coming to Chennai. India's early home matches were played in non-traditional centres. Before Chepauk's inaugural match - the World Cup opener against Australia in 1987 - India had played 121 one-day internationals.
India lost that match by one run. Australia batted first. A boundary by Dean Jones was accepted as a six by Indian captain Kapil Dev at the break and the scores adjusted. In cricket too, no good deed ever goes unpunished.
But this being Chepauk, ODI records piled up, like Saeed Anwar's brilliant 194 which stood as the highest individual score till Sachin Tendulkar's double-century in Gwalior last season.
Chepauk, though, is more than its records. That is perhaps why officials were not keen on building a stadium on the outskirts of the city despite the offer of more space and modern amenities. You don't uproot a temple just because you might have more parking space elsewhere.
Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore