March 8, 2002

Voices from the past

It was wonderful to watch a recent interview of Bhagwat Chandrasekhar on a popular television programme. Harsha Bhogle, who anchored the show, handled his subject with great sensitivity and an obvious admiration for the great leg-spinner, whose saga of courage was an integral part of the romance of Indian cricket in the 60s and 70s.

Walking into the Hyderabad team of the 70s meant rubbing shoulders with some of the most glamorous cricketers of the time. I do not remember anything musical about the stylish Abbas Ali Baig, a man made famous by a scorcher of a kiss a young female fan planted on him when he reached fifty against Australia at the Brabourne Stadium.

Inevitably, after a conducted tour of the Karnataka bowler's greatest and lowest moments in cricket, the conversation veered around to his obsession with the film songs of Mukesh, evoking nostalgic memories of a whole generation of young cricketers who, inspired by Chandra, carried Mukesh cassettes and their two-inones everywhere. On a personal level, I experienced a lump in the throat as I recalled some rare moments of bonding with my peers and seniors on and off the field.

Walking into the Hyderabad team of the 70s meant rubbing shoulders with some of the most glamorous cricketers of the time. I do not remember anything musical about the stylish Abbas Ali Baig, a man made famous by a scorcher of a kiss a young female fan planted on him when he reached fifty against Australia at the Brabourne Stadium. The incident, in fact, led commentator Vijay Merchant to exclaim, "I wonder where all these enterprising young ladies were when I was scoring my hundreds and two hundreds."

But the former Nawab of Pataudi had a keen ear for music. His preferences included Hindustani classical, but also music of a lighter variety, as his frequent and stentorian rendering of Mehdi Hassan's popular ghazal "Gulshan, gulshan" in the dressing room suggested. Abid Ali was no Harry Belafonte, but he belted out calypsos in the most uninhibited manner, especially one that started, "The great India bowler, Abid A-a-li."

The skipper, ML Jaisimha, had a superbly masculine voice, and he could do an impressive imitation of Frank Sinatra. On two occasions, I was to witness bravura performances by this most elegant of cricketers - once taking over nonchalantly from a live band in a fashionable Bangkok restaurant and, years later, at the V Sivaramakrishnan testimonial dinner at the Connemara, when he struck up an improbable duet with Sunil Gavaskar.

An accomplished singer in the Hyderabad team of the 70s was opener Maheshwar Singh, who specialised in the songs of Jagmohan, a crooner of KL Saigal's vintage. Maheshwar was a regular performer at cricketers' get-togethers, where many otherwise timid bathroom singers opened up because the spirit of the singer, rather than his virtuosity, mattered in these gatherings, and everyone was assured of hearty applause. Bombay left-arm spinner Padmakar Shivalkar was a first-rate singer of Hindi film songs; so was Vijay Manjrekar in an earlier era, son Sanjay carrying on the tradition most admirably.

In Tamil Nadu - Chennai in particular - there has been a fairly close affinity between musicians and cricket, especially in the form of a fanatical following of the game among Carnatic musicians. Quite a few of the top young musicians of today have either played the game fairly competitively or have parents or close relatives who have done so. The best known among these is vocalist Unnikrishnan, who was a promising young batsman at the college and league level before he decided to concentrate on his singing.

Among the cricketers too, there has been the occasional talented singer or instrumentalist. Left-arm spinner Bhargav Mehta, who took 14 wickets in a Rohinton Baria final against Bombay University, was an accomplished vocalist on the college circuit. SJ Kedarnath, a former State Bank of India opening batsman of considerable merit, is a trained "mridangam" player, but of much greater entertainment value is his wonderful talent for mimicry. Not only can he do some rip-roaring takeoffs on Tamil Nadu celebrities like VV Kumar or Srinivas Venkataraghavan, but he can also render perfectly acceptable imitations of past masters of Carnatic music like MD Ramanathan or even the mellifluous female voice of DK Pattammal.

Thank you Harsha, and thank you Chandra, for bringing back memories of a cricketing way of life that belonged to an era altogether more leisurely than is possible today.