At the Pachaiyappa's College Ground in Chennai, Robin Uthappa was having an animated discussion with his personal batting coach, the former India batsman Praveen Amre, after having fallen for a low score. The setting was a far cry from the noisy cauldrons in which big-name cricketers usually play: a tiny outfield, a whitewashed compound wall passing off as a sightscreen at one end, and a gate locked to keep out fans or students on campus wanting to watch the game, since there was no space to accommodate them.
It was the quarter-final of the Buchi Babu tournament, an annual invitational competition conducted by the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association, a traditional pre-season tune-up event featuring two-day matches that has, like many other domestic tournaments, fallen in profile over the years.
It was once capable of regularly attracting marquee names, including the likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath and Mohammad Azharuddin, and vocal crowds (especially those who would fill the D stand at Chepauk), but most fans are now only dimly aware of the existence of the tournament.
Still, even in these days when the future of the long-form is almost incessantly discussed, it was an important enough competition for Uthappa, who pockets $2.1m at the IPL each year, to have his personal coach travel along and assess his performances. It was still important enough for Uthappa's team, defending champions Karnataka State Cricket Association XI, to field a virtual Ranji side.
Their batting coach J Arunkumar, who took over last season, talks up the importance of the Buchi Babu title win 12 months ago. "It was a very big honour, after 13 years we won this last year, and we know how thrilled we were, really ecstatic," he says. "It was brilliant because it was a challenge for me, one of the young coaches coming in, against all odds, and it helped me gel with the players."
This season, whether it was a senior player like Uthappa trying to tighten his technique, a previous regular like fast bowler S Aravind trying to make a comeback after missing the previous season due to injury, or a rookie like R Samarth trying to force his way into the Ranji side, having already built a case by smashing six centuries in the Safi Darashah tournament, which precedes the Buchi Babu, there was plenty to gain for everyone.
It's a storyline repeated across teams and seasons in this competition, first conducted over a century ago and named after the man referred to as the father of Madras cricket.
Venkatamahipathi Naidu, more famously known as Buchi Babu, was born into a rich Madras family of dubashes (interpreters who doubled as middlemen in business dealings between British companies and Indians) in 1868. He inherited much of his grandfather's fortune at an early age, and freed from the need to make a living, energetically set about organising the sporting scene in Madras. In those days cricket in the city was dominated by the whites-only Madras Cricket Club (MCC) and Babu's interest in the game grew watching them play at Chepauk.
He worked on his game in his sprawling bungalow in Mylapore, called Luz House. By the age of 20, fuelled by outrage over not being allowed use of the MCC pavilion, he had helped found the Madras United Cricket Club (now Madras United Club), which focused on taking sport to Indians in the city.
It was a landmark in the growth of cricket in Madras. The club's ground provided a space for locals to play, and Babu - an accomplished cricketer himself - helped organise matches, and provided the finances for cricket equipment for many players.
The club's focus was less on exclusivity and more on sporting ability, and soon Babu's side was playing regularly against MCC.
His dream was to have an annual Presidency match, where the best local players would take on the Englishmen of the MCC. He died in 1908, just before the first Presidency game, which went on to become an annual feature over the festive Pongal period every January between 1915 and 1952.
Babu kickstarted the early growth of Indian cricket in Madras, and his three sons - Venkataramanujulu, M Baliah and Cotar Ramaswami - gave it further impetus. All three were stars of the early Presidency matches, and Ramaswami went on to represent India in both cricket and tennis. After his retirement, Ramaswami was part of the national selection panel for the best part of two decades. Several of Babu's grandsons were also fine cricketers, playing the Ranji Trophy and league cricket in Tamil Nadu.
The Buchi Babu memorial tournament began in 1909-10, a year after Babu's death, and it was conceived as a tournament between local sides. Its profile got a big lift in the late '60s when it was converted to an invitational tournament, with outstation stars coming in and the TNCA taking control of its organisation.
The competition's heyday came in the next couple of decades, with teams outside Tamil Nadu eager to play, especially as Madras was relatively dry in August, unlike most of the country, where the monsoon made cricket almost impossible.
The tournament was dominated, as was much of the rest of Indian domestic cricket, by teams from Bombay. Ask former Tamil Nadu left-arm spinner S Vasudevan, who led the state to a rare Ranji Trophy title in 1987-88, about the toughest opponents he faced in the Buchi Babu tournament, and he has no hesitation in naming Mafatlal Sports Club, a team that rose to become the best in Bombay in the '70s.
Captained by Ashok Mankad, it was full of other domestic giants like Eknath Solkar, Brijesh Patel, Parthasarthi Sharma and Dhiraj Parsana. They proved unstoppable, winning the title the first six times they played the tournament.
"We used to always have a strong team, and we used to enjoy ourselves in Madras," recalls former Hyderabad batsman Kenia Jayantilal, a regular in the Mafatlal side. "It was a good tournament to begin the season, as they prepared good pitches and you used to face some tough opponents. We used to start our fitness training in July, and some net sessions, so that we were ready by the time the tournament came around. And our captain, Ashok Mankad, didn't just score lots of runs, he was a very shrewd leader."
Teams like Bombay's Nirlon Sports Club - which included three players who are still powerful figures in Indian cricket, Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and Sandeep Patil - and State Bank of India won multiple titles in the '80s, but none could repeat the extended streak of Mafatlal.
The local teams were usually the clubs that topped the league standings, but they were at a disadvantage. "The problem was the best bowlers in the local teams were distributed," says former Tamil Nadu fast bowler B Kalyanasundaram. "If we had Venkat [S Venkatraghavan] and VV [Kumar] together in the same team, Mafatlal wouldn't have stood a chance." This has since been addressed by usually having two Tamil Nadu teams in the tournament, comprising the best players in the state.
Many of the tournament's memorable moments came from contests between the big outstation stars and lesser-known players.
VB Chandrasekhar, the former India batsman, recalls his first Buchi Babu game, which he played when barely out of his teens, and several years before his first-class debut. "It was an extraordinary challenge, facing the Mumbai teams, almost impossible to beat," he says.
"Karsan Ghavri was on fire, having recently been part of the Indian team that won the Melbourne Test. We were quickly three down, and it was my turn to bat, when a fan told me, 'Just go out there and hit it.' The first ball I hit one-bounce into the sightscreen. Ghavri responded with a bouncer, which I pulled for six. The next ball was a beamer, which I put away over square leg for four more. Even Sunny was laughing, looking at the contest. I made 83, and the match really showed me that I could take on guys at that level."
The diminished status of the Buchi Babu competition these days is partly due to the amount of cricket played. Even as the tournament was on this season, many of the regulars of the Indian team were on a well-earned break, an India A side was touring South Africa, another was preparing to face New Zealand A, and an Under-23 side was competing in Singapore. "It used to be a big tournament but now it is just one of the tournaments," Chandrasekhar said. "It felt good playing then, with a packed D Stand, as me and Cheeka [Kris Srikkanth] walked out to bat, and we would entertain them."
At Chepauk for this year's quarter-finals, the few dozen spectators present could largely be divided into three groups. The handful of teenagers were more interested in taking photos of themselves with the Chepauk outfield in the background, possibly for their Facebook pages, than in the cricket. Another set was a gang of former first-class and league players, boisterously sharing anecdotes from their playing days while keeping one eye on the cricket.
And finally, a knot of die-hards in the lower A Stand, who try to show up irrespective of what match is being played - Test, Ranji, league, what have you got? One 81-year-old among them had been coming since his retirement in 1987, but the majority were twenty- and thirty-somethings. In the first ten minutes that I watched the game with them, they discussed a bewildering array of cricket topics, including Andre Russell's six-ball 29 in the Caribbean Premier League that morning (a game that started at 5.30am), the best set-top-box plan if you were looking to get as many sports channels as possible, whether Darren Lehmann was right to call Stuart Broad a cheat, the troubles Zimbabwe's batsmen would have facing Saeed Ajmal, and the relative merits of seating arrangements in the smaller cricket grounds in Chennai, interspersed with comments on the game in progress.
While the Buchi Babu tournament - and perhaps even the Ranji Trophy - might not be able to draw big crowds in major cities again, the most common complaint about the competition is the format, a two-day 100-overs-a-side contest.
"We would love to have three-day games," TNCA secretary Kasi Vishwanath says. "The problem is, the schedule doesn't permit. We have to play about seven league games in July, on the basis of which we select our local teams, and there are other tournaments coming up." The Safi Darashah tournament in Karnataka ends just before the Buchi Babu, and the Moin-ud-Dowlah Gold Cup in Hyderabad usually starts in early September. In addition, the Champions League is three weeks away, and the Duleep Trophy kicks off the domestic season in the first week of October.
Arunkumar says: "Buchi Babu was three days, then they made it two. Three was good actually, but two, sometimes even if you have one bad session, you are done, so I'm in favour of three- and four-day matches. When it was 90 and 40 [overs a side in each innings], you had a chance of coming back at least."
A rule was introduced this season that makes it mandatory to have three close-in fielders at all times, to encourage attacking play. The forced aggression worked for Uttar Pradesh in the quarter-final, as both Uthappa and Manish Pandey chipped catches to short mid-off. At other times, it doesn't, as in the Chepauk quarter-final, where the batting team had lost only four wickets till around the 75-over mark. The last 25 overs were all going to be about hitting out, and the fielding captain was hamstrung by being able to place only six fielders in non-catching positions.
The organisers will need to continue to tweak the rules - whether it is the number of overs per side, fielding restrictions, or number of teams invited - as they try to keep the tournament relevant in the face of a jam-packed calendar.
The palatial ancestral bungalow of the Buchi Babu family used to be a landmark in Mylapore. Now, though, even on Balaiah Avenue, the quiet upmarket lane, named after Buchi Babu's son, that leads to the house, asking about Luz House and Buchi Babu only invite a quizzical expression, usually followed by "Do you know the door number?"
The family no longer lives there, after M Suryanarayan, one of Buchi Babu's grandsons who played in the Ranji Trophy around the time of independence, moved to Bangalore. The house was bought over by a British typesetting firm about a decade ago and refurbished slightly.
Even at the club that Buchi Babu founded, the Madras United Club, there is little recognition of him. A portrait of him posing with a bat was taken down a few years ago. With no stand or gate named after him at Chepauk either, you'd think the father of Madras cricket was only remembered by the relatively minor tournament named after him.
Still, for a man who strove to get more Indians playing cricket (and sport in general), the scene at Pachaiyappa's College ground would have brought satisfaction. Even as Uthappa discussed transfer of weight and other intricacies of batting with Amre, on the two other college grounds behind them, an army of amateur cricketers - all dressed in white - was busy preparing for and playing in a weekend tennis-ball tournament.
"Match-la full toss podadhe [Don't bowl full tosses in the match]," advised one cricketer as his clearly rusty team-mate practised a few deliveries. In another corner, more accomplished cricketers were having a serious net session.
In the city where Buchi Babu did so much to nurture cricket in its early days, the game continues to thrive, perhaps more successfully than he would have imagined.