A bowler’s story

Print edition : June 26, 2015

V. Ramnarayan. He played for Hyderabad in Ranji Trophy and South Zone in Duleep Trophy. Photo: M. MOORTHY

Ramnarayan at a practice session in 1977. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Recollections of a first-class cricketer on growing up with the game and learning from India’s legendary spinners.

Informative, well-written books on cricket and cricketers are few and far between. V. Ramnarayan’s Third Man consists of his recollections as a first-class cricketer in the 1970s.

It begins with his growing passion for the game as a schoolboy in Madras (now Chennai) and chronicles his journey through university and club cricket, his debut for Hyderabad in Ranji Trophy and his representing South Zone in Duleep Trophy, probably very late, indeed at the climax of his cricketing career—no mean achievement this, considering that he made his Ranji debut at the age of 28. Why a Tamil Nadu-born man made his debut for Hyderabad (now in Telangana) in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh is another story. It was S. Venkataraghavan, the Madras and India off-spinner, who kept him out of the side at home.

So, after being recruited by the State Bank of India as a probationary officer, Ramnarayan headed for Hyderabad where he played highly competitive club cricket for his employers for some years, until his friend and rival, the talented off-spinner Noshir Mehta, made way for him in the Ranji Trophy team.

In those days, it was at the Ranji Trophy and Duleep Trophy levels that talent for the Indian Test team was discovered. The Indian Premier League (IPL) and other professional leagues, which offer huge sums of money to cricketers to play the 20-over version of the game, were nowhere on the horizon. Even the 50-over games played between cricketing nations had not come in. Ramnarayan’s abilities as a genuine off-spinner were kept on hold. He could turn his off-breaks sharply, bowl them in a lovely arc, being too tall to exploit the advantages of the classical flight available to a shorter man, and bowl a deceptive ball that left the right-hander perplexed as it moved away from the bat and a cunningly concealed straighter one as well. E.A.S. Prasanna, one of the finest ever off-spinners in international cricket, and Venkataraghavan, who was already a successful Test bowler, were just that crucial step ahead of the Hyderabadi Test aspirant.

Ramnarayan was not the only first-class cricketer of substance who was denied the honour of representing India. He speaks glowingly of his gifted colleague Mumtaz Hussain, who died of cancer at the age of 52. In his playing days, Mumtaz Hussain was a canny exponent of left-arm finger spin and wrist-spin as well, which he bowled to considerable advantage when the mood seized him. But there was one man just a bit ahead of Mumtaz Hussain and two other really talented left-arm finger spinners, Padmakar Shivalkar and Rajinder Goel. He was none other than Bishan Singh Bedi, arguably the finest bowler of his type in the history of cricket.

For the record, there was one other bowler like Mumtaz Hussain. He was Johnny Wardle of England, whose fights with the English cricket administration in the late 1950s curbed his highly promising career.

This book is not all about disappointment. Ramnarayan, apart from being a shrewd player and observer of cricket, is also a fine raconteur. He has a nice sense of humour. He says about C.R. Rangachari, a fairly good fastish bowler for India (1947-48) who was the manager of the South Zone team for the Duleep Trophy and [the 60-over] Deodhar Trophy matches in the 1978-79 season: “I asked him if he was quicker than Kapil Dev. ‘Have you seen Wes Hall? Same speed!’ was Rangachari’s response. Only it sounded like ‘shame shpeed’, thanks to the tobacco he was chewing. The resultant giggles and tittering were understandable as the young listeners had never seen him in action or even read about his sterling deeds in first-class cricket. Those who actually did, remembered him as a speed merchant, tireless and persistent, even on dead wickets. He was a brave soldier of Madras cricket” (pages 190-91).

In the Duleep Trophy match against Central Zone, Ramnarayan was carted for 100 runs without a wicket in the first innings but came back well with three for 34 in the second. Central Zone, however, won the match. In the limited-overs Deodhar Trophy, he performed really well. He took three wickets for 42 runs in 12 overs against the Central Zone. Against the [tough] West Zone, he did even better by taking four for 35 in 12 overs. He was dropped for the next match, the final, against North Zone. “My career figures of 7 for 77 in 24 overs in the Deodhar Trophy must be some kind of record, if it was any consolation to me” (pages 190-91).

The author does not lose perspective, but also sees the sadness behind other high-calibre bowlers not considered for the Indian team. He recalls: “Central Zone had two fine spinners in Suresh Shastri and Rajinder Singh Hans. Both were quality bowlers, and Hans was distinctly unlucky to miss out on India selection, as he was in the middle of some great bowling form when selectors plumbed for the more experienced Dilip Doshi while picking the team to face Kim Hughes’s Australian team that toured India in 1979-80. With Doshi succeeding straightaway and going on to take more than 100 Test wickets, Hans, later a national selector, never made it.” Ramnarayan cherishes Hans’ act of kindness to him during the Central Zone vs South Zone match in Nagpur. “... he ran on to the field when his side was batting with a supply of spare studs for my cricket shoes, when I desperately needed them” (page 190).

Ramnarayan’s wit and humour possibly helped him tide over the disappointments fate meted out to him during his cricketing days and later. He recalls how lesser versions of cricket were played in his boyhood. “The local league was then relatively informal. No registration of players by the clubs was required, and you could walk in a few minutes before the toss and join the eleven. There was much banter and fielders and batsmen often traded jokes or gossip, with the umpires sometimes joining in.”

Describing the amenities available at such matches, he observes, with droll humour: “On most grounds, the shade of a large tree served as the dressing room and facilities were generally primitive. Lunch involved a hurried dash to Ratna Cafe, Udipi Sukha Nivas, Shanti Vihar, Udipi Home or Dasaprakash and back, depending on the venue of the match. The effects of the blazing sun were countered by glasses of unboiled, unfiltered and often multi-hued water stored in mud pots or brought in buckets that resembled relics dug out by archaeological expeditions” (page 75).

Selected for the Madras Cricket Association Colts team, Ramnarayan toured Bombay (now Mumbai) in the 1963-64 season. He was all of 17. He remembers playing against the Cricket Club of India (CCI) led by former Test star Vinoo Mankad, along with some Ranji Trophy players and Arvind Apte, a prolific scorer in first-class cricket who played in a Test in England in 1959. “Winning the toss, CCI batted first. I came on to bowl when the new ball was barely ten overs old, as was the practice in those days. With the ball still shiny, I was getting quite a bit of bounce and frequent away movement while bowling my off-spin at a slightly quicker pace than I would with an older ball. With my brisk run-up, high arm action and attempt to impart sharp finger spin, I was proving quite a handful to the batsmen. Arvind Apte was one of them, and he was all at sea, not knowing which of my deliveries would turn and which would go the other way. I was finding the edge and hitting him on the pads frequently, and feeling quite on top of the world. It was so exciting to know that a Test batsman was struggling against my yet unproven spin bowling. I was thrilled that I seemed to belong at that level’’ (page 69).

A test prospect

It was too good to last. His captain S.V. Narayanan, a man with set notions about orthodox spin bowling, asked him to bowl slower and flight the ball. Predictably, he was walloped. He was promptly taken off and practically never bowled again during the tour. It was some time before Ramnarayan learnt from experience and became his own man. He learnt his craft assiduously and proved to be so good as to have V.V. Kumar call him a Test prospect. Kumar knew the craft of spin bowling as well as anyone in the country. At the Test match against Pakistan at the Firozshah Kotla stadium in New Delhi, Kumar took five wickets for 64 runs in the first innings and two for 68 in the second. Ramnarayan was present at the venue, thanks to his father’s bank posting him to Delhi; and so was this writer, who saw Kumar dismiss Javed Burki, a fine batsman, with a low catch off his own bowling when Pakistan was struggling in the second innings.

The Madras leg-spinner played in one more Test, against England, led by the mercurial Ted Dexter. On a dull Brabourne stadium pitch in Bombay, with little support in the field, he gave away 70 runs in 27 overs without taking a wicket.

Ramnarayan pays tribute to Kumar: “He did not believe in exaggerated flight, but tossed it up in a tantalising arc, varied his pace, bowled two different types of googlies and bowled an effective flipper, though it was not known by that name. He was accuracy personified as was his younger spin partner in the State team, S. Venkataraghavan” (page 272).

There are many interesting and warm-hearted observations about cricketers he had played with. There are lovely vignettes about M.A.K. “Tiger” Pataudi, the most charismatic Indian Test captain ever and, when in the mood, a scintillating batsman; his nephew Saad bin Jung, hugely talented but distracted by the trappings of early success; the masterly spin trio in Indian Test cricket, Prasanna, Bedi, and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar; M.L. Jaisimha, his giving mentor in Hyderabad cricket and a Test batsman who played well below his potential, as did Hanumant Singh and Abbas Ali Baig, both of whom feature in the book along with Salim Durrani, another unfulfilled genius. Other colleagues and friends from first-class cricket who find mention in the book include Abdul Jabbar, Hari Gidwani, Venkat Sundaram, V. Sivaramakrishnan, Michael Dalvi, Sanjay Desai and P. Krishnamurti.

Without bitterness

Ramnarayan’s book is refreshingly without bitterness. His style is cool and detached, with a nice sense of irony and wit. He has bowled with distinction against really fine batsmen, among them, the great Test stars G.R. Vishwanath and Sunil Gavaskar. He describes his feelings for these two batsmen with elegant economy. “G.R. Vishwanath was my favourite batsman, but I had to concede that Gavaskar was the master batsman without equal, for his superb technique, immense powers of concentration, unflappable temperament, and astute cricketing brain. I would go so far as to say that purely as a Test batsman, he was superior to Sachin Tendulkar” (pages 250-51).

This is a rare book. It has a sense of history and of the passage of time. Ramnarayan tells the lay reader what it was like growing up in the Madras of the 1950s and 1960s, with its adoration of cricketers and cricket, where even club matches in the first, second and third divisions were enthused over, as were inter-college matches, and of course, first-class matches. The crowds for Test matches were well informed and ecstatic about the nuances of the game. In a sense, Ramnarayan gives glimpses of the cultural history of Madras and how cricket impinged upon it, and later in the story, when he migrates to Hyderabad, reveals certain aspects of the Hyderabadi culture through its attitude to cricket. In conclusion, one small caveat: a book of this quality should benefit from an index. It is hoped that it will be included in the next edition.

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