Smells like community spirit

Suresh Menon

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A painting of Sachin Tendulkar on a city wall for a public initiative campaign, Bangalore, March 3, 2010
Bangalore loves its cricketers but usually leaves them alone © AFP
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Some years ago you could go to the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore to meet Chinnaswamy; today you can, if you are lucky, meet Anil Kumble at the Anil Kumble Circle. In India stadiums tend to be named after members of the Nehru-Gandhi family and traffic roundabouts after local politicians or obscure bureaucrats. The exceptions stand out. The obvious inference is the right one: Bangaloreans love their sportsmen.

It says something for the importance of cricket here that the stadium stands in the centre of the city, impossible to miss even from a great distance when a day-night match is in progress.

It might have been English soldiers who first played cricket while laying siege to one of Tipu Sultan's forts, but organised cricket made its bow later in Bangalore than it did in Mumbai, Kolkata or Chennai. In the beginning there were matches between the Cantonment Officers and the Englishmen at Kolar Gold Fields. Then came the Central College and its principal, JG Taite, who ensured that his college ground became the home of first-class cricket.

I remember watching Bill Lawry's Australians there when I was eight or nine, and can still feel the warmth and protection of my father's hand enveloping mine as we ran through the street nearby following a minor riot on the final day. Erapalli Prasanna had pushed the Australians against the wall in a spell of 6 for 11 as the visitors, chasing 200 to win, hung on grimly at 90 for 8. Lawry and John Gleeson used their pads and any excuse they could find, including a lady in a bright saree shifting in her seat in the stands, to hold up play and waste time. The crowd gave vent to its feelings, leading to the hasty exit. Lawry, a man with a dry sense of humour might have enjoyed the fact that the ground belonged to Bangalore's central jail!

In 1974-75 the newly-constructed Chinnaswamy Stadium hosted its first Test. It rained on the opening day, and many fans spent a relaxed morning at the nearby Cubbon Park, some 330 acres named after a former commissioner, and one of many parks that together gave Bangalore the right to be called "Garden City". Today the city's Metro, overhead on the city's best-known thoroughfare, the Mahatma Gandhi Road nearby, screams of modernity and progress, unrecognisable from the one Clive Lloyd's team must have driven on back then. Just off, near Brunton Road some decades earlier, lived a soldier who was later to become prime minister of England, Sir Winston Churchill.

The late Dr Thimmappaiah, president of the Karnataka State Cricket Association, loved to narrate two stories (among many) to every new generation of players. Rather like the students who asked each other, "Have you heard Chips' latest?" in Goodbye Mr Chips, youngsters, having heard the stories from their seniors, saw this as a coming-of-age ritual. The first was how he was the first man to score a century for the state in the Ranji Trophy. The second involved Jack Hobbs and how Thimmappaiah had walked miles to see him bat at the RSI grounds.

 
 
At Koshy's, the watering hole near the stadium, Dravid is usually guaranteed an undisturbed meal. Those fond of the buffet at the nearby Chancery might be startled to see a Kumble or a Zaheer Khan in the queue behind them
 

For me those two stories captured the essence of cricket in Bangalore - the continuity that comes with dipping into a common pool of stories, and the excitement of watching great players in the flesh. Bangalore's first important player, B Jayaram, was a boyhood hero of free India's first Indian governor general, Rajagopalachari. Jayaram went on the 1911 tour of England under the Maharajah of Patiala, but he had made his name earlier as a student in England, when WG Grace invited him to play for his club London County.

There is something in Bangalore's atmosphere that produces a particular type of cricketer: skilful and gentlemanly, self-effacing and confident all at once. You only have to think of Bhagwath Chandrasekhar and Gundappa Viswanath and Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid to understand this. The great players are homegrown today, and often taken for granted, which is a compliment fans sometimes pay the most charming of performers.

Unlike, say, Chennai, which draws those from outside the state into its folds, Bangalore leaves you alone. There are people who have lived here for four and five decades who don't speak a line of Kannada, have never watched a Kannada movie or play, and have no idea of the cultural heritage of the land.

The clich é d image of the Bangalorean is of a peace-loving, non-confrontational, laidback person who would rather be misunderstood than go to the trouble of proving himself right. He is spoilt by the climate, the greenery, the gentle pace of life, and is the epitome of tolerance and understanding, apart from being better educated than his cousins in the north of India and heir to better job opportunities.

It was possible to say at one time, "Tell me what music you listen to / movies you watch / books you read and I will tell you which part of Bangalore you come from." The division between "cantonment" Bangalore and "city" Bangalore is not so clear-cut any more, and the shift is reflected in its cricket. Prasanna, Vishy, Chandra, Kumble represented "city", National College, Basavangudi and Jayanagar. Dravid, Roger Binny, Sadanand Viswanath, Brijesh Patel were "cantonment", St Joseph's College, Richmond Town and Indiranagar, but with the growth and expansion of Bangalore, such convenient and somewhat limiting labels no longer hold.

Cricket has become both more cosmopolitan, and with the influx of players from the districts, less region-specific. Unlike in other places, Bangalore tends to leave its players alone. At Koshy's, the watering hole near the stadium, Dravid is usually guaranteed an undisturbed meal. Those fond of the buffet at the nearby Chancery might be startled to see a Kumble or a Zaheer Khan (putting in a session at the National Cricket Academy) in the queue behind them.


Commuters drive past a partially completed section of an under-construction elevated corridor of the Bangalore Metro Rail Project, Bangalore, March 29, 2010
The Chinnaswamy Stadium is in the heart of the city, just off the central MG Road © AFP
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Bangalore's gardens - Lalbagh is another, with its Glass House modelled on London's Crystal Palace, and with tropical trees planted by Haider Ali and his son Tipu - continue to be a feature of the city, providing it with the lung space it needs. But many of the lakes have gone, or been usurped by high-rise buildings. What has endured are the many scientific institutions, from the Indian Institute of Science and the Raman Research Institute to the Institute of Astrophysics. India's first science laureate, Sir CV Raman, lived here, and even attended a cricket party in 1934, when the Dewan of Mysore had one in honour of Douglas Jardine team on England's first Test tour of India, nearly eight decades ago. Families in the cantonment hosted Jardine's players.

Cricket was a community activity, a trend that has been rediscovered with the IPL and the Royal Challengers, who have meetings with their fan base and take in suggestions from those who make the effort. The interaction might surprise someone like V Subramanyam, Karnataka's first significant captain and the man who built the team that beat Mumbai and went on to win the Ranji Trophy in the mid-seventies.

In his time, advice was sometimes offered from across the fence by spectators, but the internet has changed all that. Yet the difference is only one of degree.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore

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Suresh Menon Suresh Menon went from being a promising cricketer to a has-been, without the intervening period of a major career. He played league cricket in three cities with a group of overgrown enthusiasts who had the reverse of amnesia - they could remember things that never happened. For example, taking incredible catches at slip, or scoring centuries. Somehow Menon found the time to be the sports editor of the Pioneer and the Indian Express in New Delhi, Gulf News in Dubai, and the editor of the New Indian Express in Chennai. Currently he is a columnist with publications in India and abroad, and is beginning to think he might never play for India.