The revival of the Gopalan Trophy tournament puts the cricketing spotlight on Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.
DESPITE the scant media attention given on both sides of the Palk Straits to the recent Gopalan Trophy clash in Colombo, its revival after a gap of 17 years is a time for nostalgia and for reflection on the state of the game in Tamil Nadu and in Sri Lanka. A bi-annual tournament that began in 1952 as a contest between Ceylon and Madras has now become a contest between the Colombo District Cricket Association (CDCA) and Tamil Nadu. While Tamil Nadu is one of the major sides in the Ranji Trophy, the CDCA is as contrived and artificial as the Board Presidents' elevens that fill the gap in the schedules of international sides. First-class cricket in Sri Lanka is not played on a regional or district basis, but is played among about a dozen clubs.
Not many people realise that the Gopalan Trophy is probably the only contest of its kind. Unlike in football, ice hockey and now rugby league, cricket does not have international contests involving regions or cities.Great Heritage
In its heyday, the Gopalan Trophy was a passionate contest involving some of the fabled cricketers of the subcontinent. Much has been written and said about M. Sathasivam, the flamboyant figure, who is considered the patron saint of Ceylonese batting. "Satha" was jailed for the murder of his wife. Folklore has it that he was such an exalted figure that Sobers and Worrel visited him in jail, during one of their short tours to the island.
There was A.G. Milkha Singh, a cultured left-hand batsman who was Tamil Nadu's mainstay for over a decade. Sadly, Milkha Singh made his four Test appearances before the age of 20. He played energetically and manfully for Madras and his employers, the State Bank of India. In the collective consciousness, he is overshadowed by his Olympian namesake - the Flying Sikh.
Some of the others went on to greater heights beyond the cricket field. G.Parthasarathy of Madras, a wily leg-spinner and hard-hitting batsman, became a celebrated Indian diplomat. More recently, the swashbuckling Duleep Mendis, the winner of the highest individual score in the Gopalan Trophy, who went on to be the manager of Sri Lanka's rags-to-riches World Cup triumph in 1996.
The 1983 ethnic pogrom in Sri Lanka leads to a severance of ties
The ethnic violence in Sri Lanka and the ensuing crass hostility of the Sri Lankan public towards India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular, were the principal reasons for the interruption of this colourful tournament. Recently elevated to Test status, Sri Lanka dominated the last two editions of the tournament with outstanding performances from the likes of Duleep Mendis and the Ashantha de Mel. But soon after the last edition of the tournament in 1983, the ethnic pogrom in the month of July of that year put a dark cloud on the future of the tournament.
Under the backdrop of a charged political environment, cricketing relations between India and Sri Lanka ceased to be a sporting contest but an orgy of sectarian hatred. The Sri Lankan umpires, under pressure from the country's politicians, conspired to deliver the island nation's first Test victory in the 1985 tour by Kapil Dev's World Champion side. Some of the more ridiculous decisions meted out by the Sri Lankan umpires was the curious case of the head umpire ruling a batsman lbw followed by the square leg umpire ruling the batsman stumped. Another was when umpire Vidanagamage rewrote the etiquette of the game by reprimanding Indian 12th man Maninder Singh for shining the ball during the drinks interval.
The two Tamil members of the Indian touring party were singled out for special treatment - K. Srikkanth by the umpires and L. Sivaramakrishnan by the crowd. Srikkanth, a frank and forthright customer, was not even spared in the side games. "Siva", who did not appear regularly in international cricket after this tour, was heckled by the raucous Sri Lankan crowd solely on the grounds of his ethnicity.
The torturous tour ended on a predictably bitter note with Kapil Dev's angry and ultimately erroneous denunciation of Sri Lankan cricket: "Sri Lanka will never win a Test match abroad." It is just as well that today, apart from Zimbabwe, India has the worst overseas Test record. Cricketing relations between the two countries in any form seemed doomed, when India boycotted the 1986 Asia Cup held in Sri Lanka on political grounds. The Gopalan Trophy was furthest from the minds of the game's administrators of India, Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu.
Tournament ignored as Sri Lankan cricket reaches great heights
The return of international cricket in Sri Lanka in 1992 sparked a chain of events which has made Sri Lanka one of the best sides in international cricket. The thoroughly memorable World Cup victory in 1996 and series of Test victories at home and abroad has made Sri Lanka a cricketing powerhouse. Its over-reliance on the genius of Muttiah Muralitharan notwithstanding, Sri Lanka is consistently ranked in the top half of the Wisden Test Championship.
Sri Lanka reaped the benefits of intense contact with the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai. Chaminda Vaas, Sri Lanka's prime fast bowler, is among the most distinguished of the Academy's products. The other Sri Lankan MRF Academy prodigies, namely Pushpa-kumara, Zoysa and Wickremasinghe, are known more for their promise rather than their performance.
However, it would seem that Sri Lanka has benefited much more from the Academy than India, whose Academy products - Vivek Razdan, Salil Ankola and Atul Wassan - are confined to obscurity. Judging by his performances in the Asia Cup, Thirunavukarasu Kumaran, another young man from the MRF Academy, seems destined to join them.
Tamil Nadu's emergence despite India's mediocrity
If Sri Lanka has emerged as a world power, Tamil Nadu has emphatically enhanced its cricketing reputation in India. During the 17-year hiatus, Tamil Nadu's cricketing fortunes have moved decidedly for the better. The 1980s and early 1990s were a lean period in Tamil Nadu cricket. K. Srikkanth was the only member of the Tamil Nadu side to command a regular place at the all-India level. The eminent off-spinner S. Venkatraghavan was in the twilight of his career. Tamil Nadu's inspirational victory in the 1988 Ranji Trophy went unrecogonised by the powers that be. Players such as Robin Singh, V.B. Chandrashekhar, B. Arun and W.V. Raman made fleeting and unremarkable appearances for India.
In the early 1990s, international hopefuls such as Senthilnathan, S. Sharath and Sunil Subramaniam became victims of the bewildering regional selection policy. In India, each zone nominates a national selector. There was a lingering perception in Tamil Nadu cricket circles that Karnataka stalwart Gundappa Vishwanath had a strong hand in ensuring the selection of nearly a dozen Karnataka players - much to the detriment of the Tamil Nadu hopefuls. There may be some merit in this perception. There can be no question of the class of the Kumbles and Dravids of this world. But other Karnataka players such as D. Ganesh and David Johnson were selections made with a sense of adventure.Different scene
Today's scenario is very different. At least a dozen players are serious contenders for places in the Indian team. In fact, this is probably the most internationally capped Tamil Nadu team ever. Robin Singh, S. Ramesh, T. Kumaran, S. Sriram, Aashish Kapoor and Hemang Badani have all donned the Indian cap. Apart from the stature of the players and the quality of the coaching, the facilities in Chennai are some of the best in the country. The Tamil Nadu Cricket Association is on a sound footing with A.C. Muthiah in the limelight as president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
The revival of this tournament may seem an anachronism in this age of an expanding and ceaselessly active Test fraternity, satellite television and offshore one-day tournaments. But, one of the things the great game lacks is an opportunity for regional first-class sides to lock horns. This factor, the shared passion for the game and the venerable history of the exchanges between the sides will hopefully make the Gopalan Trophy tournament a much-sought-after annual event.
The Colombo-based Nirgunan Tiruchelvam is a contributor to TheWicket.com, an online cricket magazine.