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Ears glued to the cricket

In the years following India's independence, many fans' link to the game was the radio, usually owned by the English-speaking, all-knowing man of the town

Krish Ashok

February 14, 2010

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The generation of Indian cricket fans whose lives straddled the British Raj and the Indian one is a unique lot. One would think that, when it came to picking a cricket team to support, the freedom movement would have impelled them to wear the tricolour on their sleeves with pride, but that wasn't the case. Down south, from where my parents come, the 1950s and 60s bred a distinctive bunch of cricket loyalists.

GS Sundaram was my grand uncle (one of many), and having served the British Raj as a privileged and educated member of an Indian society that was largely illiterate, he managed to achieve a neat bit of mental trickery that allowed him to claim: "I support India but I like English cricket."

Of course, back then Indian cricket was the equivalent of the Wright brothers' 1901 glider, while England was more an Airbus A380, so that helped. Everyone knew it was futile supporting India in a match against England, so by the 1950s it was politically correct to admire English cricket while admitting that India had some distance to cover before they could compete as equals.

It also helped that he lived in a hamlet near the southern tip of India, far away from politics and jingoism, and was the only man in the village with a radio. That confers a kind of power.

His Philips valve radio, the crystal ball that gave him his powers, could barely pick up the BBC, but static or not, GS was Moses. He held court when Ken Barrington unleashed crisp cover-drives and Colin Cowdrey leaned into an on-drive. He translated crackling bits of commentary into expressions like "splendid shot" and "wonderful flick o' the wrists", as young kids - my father among them - sat enthralled by the vivid (and often entirely made-up) cricket imagery he painted.

Like most from the radio era, he would often let ears become eyes, reprimanding Ted Dexter for needlessly chasing one wide outside the off stump, and demonstrating to his willing wards the right way to defend off the back foot. Barrington was, as far as he was concerned, the greatest batsman in the world. Ken was poetry, and GS would imagine his favourite poet, Keats, writing an ode to the square-drive, while he daydreamed about daffodils growing in Xanadu and Kubla Khan singing the rhyme of the ancient mariner.

He could afford to mix things up a bit. English literature was both mandatory and mostly inaccessible in India back then. Just being able to speak English put one on a pedestal so high that people rarely cared for the content of your speech. When his wife scolded him for spending his time fantasising about Sir Colin's majestic straight drives at times he ought to have been at work, he would respond with Shakespeare and ask if Mrs GS could hold a candle to the ethereal beauty of Desdemona. GS was an Anglophile but a harmless one.

Things became more difficult when Mr Sobers et al started to showcase to the world glimpses of what would eventually become the Caribbean juggernaut of the 80s. GS had to make some choices then. Would Peter May and Dexter still rule his cricketing heart, or would he have to start supporting West Indies? The colour of his skin eventually prevailed and he made an exception. When Rohan Kanhai faced Fred Trueman, he prayed for half-volleys. He also expounded on the evils of slavery to the kids gathered around his radio.

 
 
When Rohan Kanhai faced Fred Trueman, he prayed for half-volleys. He also expounded on the evils of slavery to the kids gathered around his radio
 

But Barrington continued to be his hero. If somebody was silly enough to make a careless remark about how Neil Harvey was really the better batsman, the radio would be switched off and the offending party removed from the premises. If Ken edged one to first slip, the radio would be switched off and the kids sent out so he could recover from his disappointment privately. Given the rarity of Test matches in those times, every garbled, static-filled "splendid shot" from the willow of Barrington was a rare thing, a treasure to be cherished.

Cricket was (and mostly still is) for most Indians a prohibitively expensive game to play. The village my father hailed from had a cricket association that would scrounge around to be able to afford their quota of two cricket balls (which cost Rs. 3 each, in the 50s) each month. Batsmen would be requested to avoid hitting the ball into the nearby river, as that tended to cause unplanned budgetary overdrafts. The leather balls themselves arrived all the way from England, and lasted about 10 days worth of cricket each. When a few over-enthusiastic improvisers indulged in a few too many agricultural heaves into the river, it was benefactors like Sundaram who coughed up the rupees and annas to buy more equipment.

It was common for batsmen to wear a pad on just the front leg, so that overall wear and tear on gear was kept down to a minimum. Indians from that era were well versed in the art of jugaad, of making do, but for some reason no one wanted to skimp when it came to the gentleman's game. Scorebooks would be procured from afar, and a good one-rupee coin used for the toss (not just any four- or eight-anna coin), and whites were mandatory.

Cricket was a ritual. Its arcane rules, the paraphernalia and the sheer minutiae involved in every game, all amounted to practically a religious experience for my father's generation. For conservative, religious and finicky gentlemen like my grand uncle, the rules of the game bore a similarity to the Vedas.

GS Sundaram, Bachelor of Arts, Gopalasamudram, Tamil Nadu, India, passed away well before innovations like limited-overs cricket reared their heads. I suspect he might not have enjoyed them. He lived his life in a more leisurely era, one that never considered time worth saving. He never ever watched a game of Test cricket in his life, and yet he managed to instill an intense passion for cricket in my father's generation. They, on the other hand, had an easier time getting us excited about cricket. They just had to switch on the TV.

Krish Ashok is an IT consultant, columnist and humourist who blogs at http://krishashok.wordpress.com

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Posted by popenoe on (February 16, 2010, 23:19 GMT)

Thanks ``fruiypastille''. Vizzy, it was. I think the Aussies' best commentator was Brian Johnston. Does my memory serve me well?

Posted by   on (February 15, 2010, 14:05 GMT)

Thank you everyone :) Looks like a lot of you have similar memories. I was particularly fascinated by richardty's account from the Caribbean.

Posted by fruitypastille on (February 15, 2010, 5:47 GMT)

The article is a walk down memory lane. To 'popenoe' the boring Indian commentator whose name he could not recall was Vizzy - The Maharajkumar of Vizianagram - who defintely could make watching paint dry more exciting than his commentary. The commentators were generally, apart from Vizzy, good and we would look forward to hearing Devraj Puri, Berry Sarbadhikary, Dicky Rutnagar, Sardhendu Sanyal, V.M. Chakrapani et al.

Posted by nelrod03 on (February 14, 2010, 22:20 GMT)

Reminds me of late 70's in India, we had AIR broadcasting the games & seeing it on B&W tv's. Early 80's & 90's listented to cricket from Aus. via Radio Aus. on shortwave with Radio Moscow jamming every 45 mts. Now ??? its all about broadcasting rights & adverts. flashing 25% of the screen. Its just BBC Test match special & to some extent ABC radio.

Posted by VivekJi on (February 14, 2010, 21:52 GMT)

Nice article and Worth Reading! It certainly reminds me of the life with my parents during the age of radio and also a little too much of awe for British, or for that matter anything foreign, and how sometimes there would be arguments between two opposite parties.

Posted by Sidhanta-Patnaik on (February 14, 2010, 21:43 GMT)

An era when Cricket was making its entry into the Indian households. That generation deserves applaud for having laid a strong foundation.

Posted by girmal93 on (February 14, 2010, 21:28 GMT)

I am a cricket fan and once I was listening to the radio in my classroom. In grade 6, we were suppose to be studying for the final exam and I got caught. I still remember the slap on my face from the Principle in front of the whole class. Since then, I never liked listening to the cricket commentary on the radio. Since thenl. I love watching on the TV or Internet.

Posted by popenoe on (February 14, 2010, 19:44 GMT)

The Phillips radio got me! Ours sporadically picked up BBC, but with a lot of static. I would put my ears to its sound box closely to hear what was going on. Turning it on loud was a no no as my mother would go crazy! Another source of enjoyment was the magazine Sports and Pastime that would publish fantastic photographs. I was so proud to have a full page picture of Phadkar's bowling action. Ah, yes! Ken Barrington (your uncle was right!), Cowdrey (always turned to when England were in trouble), Trueman & Statham (the fearsome pair), etc. But our (my boyhood friends in Mysore) favorites were the Aussies (Beanaud's team with Simpson, Harvey, Oneal, Lindwall, Davidson, ...). And the Aussie commentators, who were always a pleasure to listen to. We did not like English commentators, nor did we like Lala and some other old guy (I can't remember his name now) who were very boring. Oh, those Radio Days! Being post-independence kids, we supported India even when we lost! Pataudi was our hero!

Posted by Unmesh_cric on (February 14, 2010, 17:47 GMT)

A wonderful article. I remember, as a kid, folks from the village where my father grew up listening to cricket commentary. Everytime a four was hit (as sixes were a bit rare at that time), the joy on their faces had no bounds. Good to read this article as a throwback to the times when cricket was not just a commercial venture...no 'City Moment of Success' and no 'DLF maximum'.

Posted by richardty on (February 14, 2010, 16:25 GMT)

Very good article my friend. Your article highlights some of the commonolities between my parents generation in the West indies and yours in the East. My father described a situation in his youth where only one priviliged family in the community owned this radio which was the size of a refridgerator, and all and sundry used to gather in the yard to listen to games on the bbc from australia and england. You could tell a persons status in that colonial society by your proximity to the radio. Those of the" upper echelon" were on the porch while those of the "lower" were perched in the yard. While they all spoke the same language and could all understand the commentary, those uot in the yard dared not utter a peep lest they be banished. They had to take their cue from those on the verhanda and cheered only when they cheered.

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