Ave Marina

Kadambari V Subramanian
On Chennai's extra-long beach, cricket came with its own rules and unique delights. No longer, alas

Like all city landmarks, the Marina means many things to many people. It implies a cozy huddle on the sands for a couple of twentysomethings, a pleasant evening away from the rigours of daily life for a family of four (with squealing children to boot) or even a fervent attempt at weight loss for the joggers chugging relentlessly along the coast. The lone kite runner is not uncommon, nor is the smattering of the elderly, patiently watching over a bunch of footwear, smiling distantly into the sea. All this interspersed with the calls of vendors, excited chatter, a lone balloon off the hook somewhere, the constant lashing of the waves, and of course, the sharp phat of the ball meeting a bat, accompanied by loud cheers and catcalls.

Those last two, though, are increasingly rare these days, ever since the city authorities banned cricket matches on the Marina, citing disturbance to more sedentary users of the beach. Now the best games live in memory.

And there are plenty of those. After all, this is hallowed ground, the place where former Indian captains like Kris Srikkanth and Srinivas Venkataraghavan played tournaments before they joined the big league. But it's not just about big names: almost every Chennaiite of a certain vintage has stories to tell of Sunday cricket on the Marina.

Matches would begin as early as 6am. The grand prize? Possession of the "pitch" for the whole day.

As the day went on, the second-longest beach in the world would be dotted with makeshift wickets and raucous bunches of youngsters. On a good day there were 200 teams playing on the Marina. "Those were glorious Sundays," reminisces Karthi Sekar, an entrepreneur in his thirties.

Marina cricket developed its own rules, often twisted and tweaked to suit the location or the batsman/bowler's fancy. "We used to play right on the wet sand because the ball would bounce better there," explains Karthi. "So the bowler would time the delivery in between two waves."

Also, the batsman was allowed to play shots only on the off side. "We spent half our time waiting for the sea to bring the ball back!" Karthi laughs. "And when the sun came out, we would head straight to a restaurant for a huge brunch of dosa, pongal, vada and coffee."

Aravindhan Ramakrishnan, a management professional who used to captain a beach cricket team, remembers an instance "when the strong breeze made my bowlers seem Wasim Akram-ish. We clean-bowled the rival team in three overs. Of course, the wind was on our side."

The cardinal rule of beach cricket is that the ball has to reach the batsman on the full - thanks to the sand. With that handicap came an advantage: "The sand would unleash the Jonty Rhodes in us while fielding," says Raghuveer Sarathy, a law associate currently based out of Mumbai.

But the beach was also riddled with "dire adversities", he says. "I remember our star batsman once injuring his foot on a piece of glass. Laxman's recent match-winning knock in Mohali reminded me of his brave effort, with me as the runner between wickets," he laughs. "We lost by two runs, though."

Needless to say, batting on the Marina was a treat, with no imposing buildings in sight and thus no windows to break.

All that changed in November 2009. Beach cricket regulars are yet to find a replacement for their legendary strip. "Now, there are just a few grounds - so crowded that the bowlers will end up delivering to the wrong batsman." Karthi says. "Nothing can compare to the Marina. We are still looking for something that will match up."

The Marina is centrally located and quite close to the stadium (2km), most of the five-star hotels (within a radius of 5km) and the busiest areas like Mylapore, Nungambakkam and Mount Road. A couple of people with a bat and a ball shouldn't have trouble wielding the willow on the Marina, but larger numbers will invite unwanted attention. If it's just a pleasant walk along the shore that you are looking for, Elliots Beach in Besant Nagar (about 10km from the hub) is a better bet.

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