I first heard of S Venkataraghavan, erstwhile India captain, much-feared in the many rungs of Tamil Nadu cricket, in the early 2000s.
My father and his friends had got together for another of their nights of revelry. These were "families-invited-too" parties, but the men all sat in one room, laughter and competing voices echoing into the night. The women sat in another, huddled close and talking in low tones. The children were left trying awkwardly to make conversation and perpetuate the friendships of the previous generation.
The men had all played various levels of cricket at different times in their lives. At some point, they were all in one team, playing first-division matches on weekends. This was in the "hey of their youth", as they often said. The nights of reunion were mostly a fair excuse to discuss and dissect domestic cricket and reminisce about their "playing days". Often the reminiscing consisted of laughing over goof-ups on the field and then addressing each other in shrill tones by nicknames - Dheena, Thenga, Mukka, Bondu, Naaikadi, Paapa - that defied sense to all but those who knew of the various embarrassing details that gave rise to them.
Venkataraghavan had a nickname which, unlike those of most of the others, was compatible with his on-field personality - "Panther in white". My acquaintance with this man had been restricted to watching him as a deadpan umpire in Test matches, and I laughed loudly and inappropriately when I first heard the name. He came across as an amiable person, if with a touch of weariness. A little grim, at times. But panther?
I was then told, in the manner of being mildly reprimanded, that in his day he was ruthless, often rising to violent outbursts on the field as a way of encouraging fellow players. Obviously encouragement was taken only in a few cases. Some men went crying home (confessing to near strangers that even their parents hadn't ever dealt with them thus), some dropped straightforward catches when he watched from the boundary line, and some took to frequently looking up to the sky in the hope that the match would be rained out.
Behind these recollections of my father and his friends, I realised, was pride and respect for a man considered a giant among the minnows. It was a fanboys' club of sorts.
"They were cricketers but also so much more. Knowing of cricket itself in an older time, when it happened in a smaller sphere, was a thrill of a different kind"
Over the years I heard names and stories recounted with great excitement: the genius of TE Srinivasan, the unique talent of VV Kumar, the Machiavellian Bharath Reddy. These are not the biggest names in Indian cricket but they are figures who continue to hold great intrigue for me. Their cricketing essence wasn't scrutinised at large; if at all, only inasmuch as their performances in important matches were. Their best performances weren't televised or relayed on radio. And they weren't defined by their successes and failures.
They were cricketers but also so much more. Knowing of cricket itself in an older time, when it happened in a smaller sphere, was a thrill of a different kind. More thrilling than watching international contests on shiny colour screens, where the fields are greener than the greenest grass. The stories take on the hue of legend as time passes.
There was Mirza, who came from Haryana and spoke impeccable Tamil, and once hammered the bowlers of Southern Railways for fours and sixes after being denied his choice of lunch - puri and aloo. While the manager got an earful from him and was sent to fetch the desired choice of meal, the captain decided to try starvation as future strategy to get Mirza to play his best.
In a first-division club match against Neyveli Lignite once, TE Srinivasan walked into a stunned dressing room after pulling off what had seemed an impossible feat. India Pistons, chasing, needed 24 runs for a win in the final over. TE had, with characteristic confidence, declared to the non-striker that he was going to win the match. He then proceeded, in Dhoni-esque fashion, to hit three fours and two sixes, the last of those being an out-of-stadium shot. The opposition captain, who had also made the bold decision to bowl the last over himself, fell dejectedly onto the pitch, breaking into uncontrollable sobs. Oh, the drama.
Stories about Srinivasan abound, as they do about Venkataraghavan. The time TE was wrongly given a left-hander's gloves by the 12th man in the middle of an innings is repeated endlessly. And that he realised the fact only at the end of a brilliant knock has the effect of producing awe over and over. Or the one about how in the last overs of a match he tossed the ball to my very confused newly married dad, who generally opened the bowling, after TE spotted my mother walk in. I can't get enough of that.
TE also gave me my first real tennis racket, and the importance of that gesture has grown for me over the years as I learned more about him from others. To many, he was a school of learning. His practice sessions involved batting on the hard concrete of school corridors, 15-18 yards, using a single stump as bat. The ball came at a fair clip. Since there were no real fast bowlers in Tamil Nadu at the time, this was his way of preparing for pace.
Having heard all these stories meant I could proudly name-drop with the boys at school (only boys were cricket-crazy then and so more likely to gape in disbelief at these tales). "Oh, my dad knows Srikkanth." "Oh, I've met Robin Singh."
My father's cricket connections also occasionally meant that I could be at the centre of the action. When the Indian team stopped over at Chepauk for nets once, my brother and I were granted the privilege of a see-and-meet. At first we stood in the stands, hesitant, with a security guard suspiciously eyeing us every few seconds. After what seemed like hours, Robin Singh waved to my dad from the middle of the ground, signalling us to come in. Autograph books in hand, we kicked open the gate and raced to the centre. The security guard chased us for a bit, but backed off once he realised we were "insiders". Apart from that, Sourav Ganguly's flaming red cheeks, thanks to the Chennai sun, and my brother having an argument with Ajay Jadeja over making people stand in line for autographs, are the only lasting memories from the day. Still, I have an autograph book filled cover to cover to make up. (Later I had to stumble through a phone call with Singh, thanking him for the opportunity, which reduced nine-year-old me to a bunch of nerves; the stress of it may have caused a few memory cells to die.)
Like it is for millions, cricket for me is synonymous with childhood. A time that was made more memorable by being privy to spirited conversations about the game, and the small and big incidents around it.