(Our friendships with teammates and rivals are what most of us cherish long after our playing days. I was distinctly lucky in this department. Here’s an example of selfless friendship from my cricketing years).
“Why don’t you play for us, as anyway you are not a regular in the full SBI Hyderabad eleven?” The man who put this question to me was the captain of the SBI Secunderabad team, a poor cousin of the star-studded SBI Hyderabad ‘first XI.’ “Good cricketers like CR Chandran play for us as guest members of the team,” he added. Fresh out of college, Chandran was a talented medium pacer all rounder, who was freelancing for the bank’s second team. This was a couple of years before Andhra Bank started recruiting cricketers and Chandran joined them.
Chandran and I hit it off straightaway, one reason perhaps being that I am called Chandran at home. We were to become Ranji Trophy teammates in later years, and in a minority of two as vegetarians amidst a bunch of carnivores. He was a great fan of Amitabh Bachhan, styled his hair and wore clothes and shoes to imitate his hero, but I found him to resemble Vinod Khanna much more, especially after he started wearing glasses to correct his myopia. He was a natural ball player, an attacking opening batsman who loved to entertain, risking his wicket just to set the spectator’s blood racing. A showman, in short. He was also a more than useful medium pacer who became quite an expert swing bowler in time. He had surprisingly small hands, which meant he frequently injured his fingers batting or fielding. Towards the end of his twenties, he started putting on weight, but when I first met him, he was quite an athlete. Off the field, he was a very gentle person, soft spoken and somewhat introverted. He enjoyed a good joke with close friends, but rarely laughed out loud, doing so silently with his shoulders heaving. He was the perfect companion of an evening, especially when accompanied by Mr McDowell, our preferred beverage. He was a smoker, too, like many of us misguided cricketers of the era. The habit proved prematurely fatal as he simply could not give it up even when it meant his only hope for surviving a dread disease in his forties, but we are going ahead of our story here.
The late Murtuza Ali Baig, an Oxford blue and Abbas Ali Baig’s younger brother, was Manager, Personal Banking Division, at SBI Secunderabad, where I was serving part of my training period in the bank. Baig knew me as a very dispensable bit player in the bank’s first XI, and had no hesitation in allowing me to turn out for the B team, which was a motley assortment of Secunderabad staff plus guest players like Chandran.
Our first match that season was against Nizam College, which included the likes of K Jayantilal and Abdul Jabbar. By this time, Chandran and I were thick as thieves, and I wagered him I would get Jayanti’s wicket. I won that bet dismissing the former India opener quite cheaply, and even started dreaming of routing the rest of the college XI. Unfortunately, the lefthanded Jabbar had other ideas, and I have never forgiven him for that. He launched a savage attack against our meagre attack, scoring 176 in about 150 balls, until, leg-weary and demoralised, we were ready to plead for mercy.
As I said earlier, Chandran soon joined Andhra Bank, and I continued in SBI for four or five more years, achieved belated recognition, and became a Ranji Trophy player, things really looking up for me. But, as Bertie Wooster repeatedly assures you, fate has this nasty habit of having a go at you when you least expect it. My boss and my boss’s boss took an intense dislike to my face, and launched a merry campaign of psychological harassment against me. Picture this scenario: Superboss wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, and reads the gloomy news of the Prime Minister’s disappointment with his bank’s progress in her 20-point Economic Programme, and asks himself, ‘What can I do to brighten my day today?’ Two cups of tea later, he has a brainwave, and calls his underling, the Boss. “I say, when did you last send a nasty memo to that cricketer-blighter Ramnarayan? Last week? No, no, this won’t do at all. Draft a juicy one today, no two, better still let’s send him three today. And if and when he replies, fling counter no. 123 at him. Use words like unsatisfactory and unacceptable. What, spelling? Ask your steno Venkateswarlu. Spelling was never my strong point.” This game went on for a year, and wonder of wonders, miserable as I was, I could do nothing wrong in cricket. My first season in first class cricket was quite successful, and with help from my all rounder friend Jyotiprasad and his boss CS Shamlal, I joined Andhra Bank as a senior officer after answering a newspaper advertisement. Amazingly, I reported for duty at the Osmania University ground, where the bank’s team was playing a visiting Ceylon Tobacco Board XI, which had quite a few Sri Lanka players in its line-up. You know by now that I rarely miss a chance to do some self-promotion, so you won’t be surprised when I tell you I took eight wickets that day.
The match was made equally memorable by our batsmen, openers Chandran and Inder Raj, both champion hookers (in a strictly cricketing sense) and pullers, not to mention their ability to drive on the up, and their devil-may-care attitude to batting. One of CTB’s new ball bowlers, Ranjan Gunatilleke, was genuinely quick, but ‘Inder and Chander’ were unstoppable. They hammered him and the other bowlers including left arm spinner Anura Ranasinghe to all parts of the ground, taking advantage of the pace and bounce of the matting wicket.
Chandran and I met every day for the next five years, as we worked in the same department of the bank in its Central Office. Both of us reported to Shamlal, who managed the affairs of the bank’s cricket team, one of the strongest in our part of the world. Our work kept us busy but the load was manageable, and we could leave for net practice at 3 pm. We also enjoyed doing crossword puzzles together and, with his husky voice, Chandran entertained the cricket team with a very decent imitation of John Arlott’s commentary.
We were involved in two traumatic experiences connected to cricket. In the first of them, we were both on the same side, and Chandran’s team spirit and steadfast friendship came to the fore. Andhra Bank was given entry into the Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup, but with the proviso that we must field four Test players. With Narasimha Rao, our only Test cricketer, away playing league cricket in the UK, ‘importing’ Test players was the only way we could meet the HCA’s requirement. Our management was very keen on participation, but the players were not, as it would mean dropping four of our regular players. Vijay Paul was our captain in the absence of Narasimha Rao. Our protests went unheard, and the bank went ahead and invited S Venkataraghavan, Aunshuman Gaekwad, Surinder Amarnath, Duleep Mendis and non-Test cricketer Ved Raj to turn out for us. The whole experience was eminently forgettable, with Paul yielding the captaincy to Venkat, and Chandran, the vice-captain, opting out of the playing eleven, after we originally decided to discard one of our pacemen—who opened the bowling for South Zone in the previous season, but was out of form and unfit now. It was one of the most wretched days in our cricket, with plots and sub plots being hatched against a team merely wanting to play cricket, with a well known journalist playing a prominent role in uncalled for interference in the strictly local issue of Andhra Bank’s team selection. I tried my best to dissuade Chandran from dropping himself, offering to stand down myself instead, but he refused to be swayed by me. He warned me that as an off spinner, I could easily be misunderstood to be protesting against India off spinner Venkat’s appointment as our captain in place of Paul. It was one of the noblest gestures I had come across in my cricket career.
The whole mega plan bombed. All our guest batsmen failed against an attack in which Shivlal Yadav was prominent and Andhra Bank collapsed for below 150, with the last wicket partnership the highest in the innings (D Meher Baba 38, V Ramnarayan 18 not out) against a Hyderabad XI led by P Krishnamurti, who smashed a spectacular 125 or so, snuffing out any hopes we might have entertained of a fightback.