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Sankaran Krishna

R Prabhakar, the obscure cricketer imprinted on my mind

Forty years ago, the Buchi Babu tournament was a crowd-puller in Chennai

Sankaran Krishna
Sunil Gavaskar drives down the ground, England v India, 1st Test, Lord's, 3rd day, June 12, 1982

A young Sunil Gavaskar attracted big crowds in Madras when he turned out for Associated Cement Company in a Buchi Babu Memorial tournament in the '70s  •  PA Photos

Test matches played in largely empty stadia have become a depressingly familiar sight for cricket fans of late. Yet one of the remarkable memories for anyone who grew up in Chennai in the 1970s were the huge crowds, often running into the thousands, which used to watch the annual Buchi Babu Memorial cricket tournament every August-September. And these were matches that weren't even rated first-class.
You got to watch past greats like Polly Umrigar, Ramakant Desai and Bapu Nadkarni, current Test cricketers like Ashok Mankad and S Venkataraghavan, rising stars like Brijesh Patel and Karsan Ghavri, and nearly men like Kenia Jayantilal, Parthasarthi Sharma and Dhiraj Parsana playing on small grounds with practically no facilities and nothing more than a line of white chalk separating spectator from player.
Private corporations like the Associated Cement Company (ACC) and Mafatlal sponsored strong teams filled with Test and Ranji stars as did the public-sector State Bank of India (SBI). Then there were the local clubs, like the Jolly Rovers, replete with some of the best cricketers in the south. The matches were keenly contested two-day affairs and mostly played on matting wickets.
Two memories from those days stand out for me. The first was a match at the scenic Loyola College ground between ACC and Jolly Rovers. It must have been in 1971 as the Indian team had just returned from winning their first series in the West Indies and England.
Opening the batting for ACC was a diminutive batsman in his early 20s named Sunil Gavaskar. And while everyone knew about his amazing recent exploits, hardly anyone down south had seen him bat. I have no idea how many spectators were actually there that morning, but the number must have been at least a few thousand as there wasn't even enough room to stand.
When Gavaskar was dropped early on in the slips, the crowd roared in approval. After some dazzling shots, he hooked a short ball and was brilliantly caught near the boundary. It was a sprawling over-the-shoulder effort by the fine-leg fielder who was clearly not in on the plot - that the thousands who had thronged the ground that day had not come to see his fielding prowess but to see Sunny bat.
I remember Gavaskar sportingly applaud the fielder as he quickly exited the pitch to the (relative) safety of the very makeshift pavilion. I doubt a bigger crowd has ever been shoehorned into Loyola's cricket ground before or after that day. My second memory is from the 1972 final between the star-studded teams of Mafatlal and SBI. It must have been late afternoon at the University Union ground and the match was as good as over as Mafatlal were comfortably ahead.
SBI's top order were all back in the hut when in walked a tall and wiry, almost thin, batsman in billowy whites who then proceeded to launch one of the most amazing blitzes of clean hitting I have ever seen. Length balls, short ones, long hops, good or bad balls, fast or spin, none of it mattered. They were sent soaring over the rope for sixes or searing along the grass for boundaries.
R Prabhakar, the mayhem creator, raced to about 70-odd runs in a few overs before being dismissed.
He was a Tamil Nadu Ranji player who often opened the bowling with his medium-pace cutters and batted well down the order. He was a local legend since his high-school days for his ability, when in the mood, to rain sixes. That afternoon, Mafatlal's strong bowling attack included Desai, a former Test medium-pacer who was still a very nippy customer on a matting wicket, and Nadkarni, the original metronome renowned for his stinginess and accuracy. Both were sent to every corner of the ground.
Mankad, Mafatlal's captain, might have felt a sense of déjà vu while watching Prabhakar's innings. The two players had met in the 1967-68 Ranji Trophy final between Madras and Bombay, where Prabhakar had played a similarly swashbuckling knock of 67, in a losing cause*, after coming in at 81 for 7. Mankad scored a century in reply.
Prabhakar's career remains a bit of an enigma because, in addition to his astonishing big hitting, he was a very useful medium-pace bowler with a knack for dismissing an opener or two fairly regularly, and an electric fielder with a flat and hard throw. Yet his overall numbers are on the ordinary side and his ESPNcricinfo player page is threadbare in terms of details. One can only imagine the sort of price he would have commanded in today's world of T20 cricket and the premium on long-ball hitting.
As the shorter forms of the game become more and more popular, and Tests, barring marquee match-ups like the Ashes or India v Australia, find it hard it to draw people to the arenas, those distant Buchi Babu days seem from another world. A world in which thousands flocked to a college ground to see a young prodigy in the flesh or to be surprised by the incredible talents of an obscure cricketer.
*October 25, 10.00GMT: It was incorrectly stated that the Ranji Trophy was shared. Bombay won it in 1967-68

Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu. @SankaranKrishn