Neither gentleman, nor player
At Chepauk for the third one-day international against England in late January this year, MUKUL KESAVAN took the opportunity to focus on the issue of cricket as a livelihood in Chennai.
LATE January. My excuse for being in Chepauk was the third one-day international against England. The first two matches had been split between the sides and I was present at the ground to bring us luck. My last time in Chepauk was nearly a year ago when I helped India win the decider against Waugh's Australians. The venue had become even better than I remembered it: there was a giant replay screen cum scoreboard opposite us at the other end of the ground and though the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) stand was sibilant with Chinese whispers about the six crore rupees it had cost despite being second hand, I thought it gave the stadium a wonderfully up-to-date air. It looked even more glamorous under lights, which came on after the English finished their innings.
Around the time the lights took hold, a thuggish looking man and his unkempt friends, in seats not far from mine, began hammering out a tattoo using Bisleri empties. When he wasn't drumming, he was pulling faces at television cameras and shaking his body in suggestive ways. ``Can't be a member,'' said my neighbour disapprovingly for we were sitting in the Member's stand where the seats had individual member's names pasted on them. I had to agree. ``The police must have let him in,'' said someone else because there were more people than seats in the stand and many of them didn't look genteel enough to be members of the TNCA. In Madras, where a middle-class commitment to civic order is still discernible, the yob's inconsiderateness and the policeman's complicity heralded anarchy.
The outsider who didn't belong became a kind of theme over the three days that I spent in Chennai after the ODI, interviewing cricketers in a bid to understand the culture of cricket in Chennai.
I spoke to the great leg break bowler V. V. Kumar who, but for Chandrasekhar, would have played regularly for India, to the distinguished C. D. Gopinath, who batted for India in eight test matches in the 1950s and to that fine off-spinner V. Ramnarayan, who had the misfortune of reaching his prime for Hyderabad in the 1970s when all the spinning slots in the Indian team were taken. What I gathered from my conversations with them would fill a short book; here I want to focus on what I learnt from them about cricket as a livelihood in Madras from the 1940s to the present time. I was curious to know how cricketers had traditionally made a living, playing cricket in India in general and Madras in particular. The English categories of amateur and professional didn't seem to fit the Indian context. In English county or League cricket you were paid for playing if you were a professional while you played for nothing if you were an amateur. In colonial India, the only amateurs in the English sense of the word were princes like the Nawab of Pataudi or the Maharaja of Patiala or, more rarely, men like Vijay Merchant with a private family income. Everybody else, middle class or otherwise, needed financial help. The trouble was that, for the most part, there wasn't a structure of professional club cricket that could employ the talented cricketer and pay him for his services. Ruling princes like Patiala and Udaipur sometimes employed whole teams of cricketers, but this was not the rule.
To a degree that is difficult to imagine, Indian cricket was sustained by arbitrary, sporadic and unorganised patronage. In Madras, there was a flourishing system of League cricket in place by the 1940s. There were a dozen first division teams, nearly a hundred clubs in all and over a thousand people playing league cricket. This system was supported by enthusiasm and benevolence; the enthusiasm of players like V. V. Kumar and the benevolence of patrons like C. R. Pattabhiraman, barrister, Balu Alaganan, planter, J. P. Thomas of A. V. Thomas & Co., M. A. Chidambaram, C. P. Johnstone, of Burmah Shell and many others.
``Livelihood wasn't an issue,'' said Kumar. What he meant was that no one in his time went into cricket thinking of it as a career. But money was an issue. How could it not be, when an autographed bat cost Rs. 150? He can remember players having to beg and cringe for patronage. They had to wear flannels in the wet heat of Madras and Kumar tells of the time when he took five wickets against Hyderabad on first class debut and was gifted a set of flannel shirts and trousers by Balu Alaganan in recognition of his achievement. M. J. Gopalan, the great double international, who represented India in hockey and cricket, had a lowly job in Burmah Shell, courtesy C. P. Johnstone, a Cambridge blue who was somebody in Shell besides being the captain of the Madras Presidency cricket team. So Gopalan cycled from petrol station to petrol station and one of his duties was measuring how full or empty their tanks were with a dipstick.
Burmah Shell, Philips, Parrys and some other companies pioneered the practice of commercial firms giving cricketers jobs and salaries but, in colonial Madras, such patronage wasn't company policy; it was a function of the enthusiasm of individual managers. After independence, public sector enterprises like the State Bank of India in the 1960s began employing cricketers on a large scale. Their example was followed by enterprises like India Cements and from the early 1980s, private sector companies began paying players impressive salaries. Contemporary cricket in Chennai is largely underwritten by firms such as India Cements, TVS, MRF, Chemplast and others. Not only do they field teams in inter-company tournaments, they also sponsor first division clubs in league cricket and effectively take them over.
Gopinath disapproved of the corporate take over of league cricket. He thought it was unhealthy because companies had begun to recruit cricketers from outside Chennai and Tamil Nadu to help them win league tournaments. Kumar reckoned that of the 12 first division teams, 11 were, to all intents and purposes, company teams. Club loyalties and the enthusiasm of neighbourhood cricket were being corroded by corporate money. The Madras Cricket Club, for example, competed in the III division of the league. The M.C.C. is Gopinath's club and he attributed its decline as a cricket power in Madras to its inability to compete with the large corporates who could buy their talent. This distaste for the corporate habit of importing players on fat contracts, for the explicit commercialisation of cricket, is partly generational and partly rooted in a colonial preference for white-collar work. The good thing about patronage in the old days was that the fiction of employment outside cricket allowed the cricketer the respectability of amateur status on the field and the reassurance of a salary off it. Had the cricketer been playing for wages as players like Mankad did in the English league cricket, then cricket would have been his job and his wages would begin to seem remarkably like money for manual, labour, skilled labour, but labour nonetheless. Given the upper-caste profile of Madras cricket historically, it's not surprising that there should be nostalgia for the middle-class gentility that shamateur sport makes possible.
I tentatively suggested to Ramnarayan that a possible solution to the problems of league and first class cricket was more professionalisation, not less. The way to do this is, I suggested, was to radically re-organise the game so that clubs become commercial entities attentive to the menace of the bottom line. This would mean doing away with the territorial principle altogether and freely allowing the import of players as professional league soccer did all over the world. He was properly sceptical about the financial viability of such a league given the fact that no one seemed to watch league or first class cricket any more, but he welcomed the idea in principle. As a player who had migrated from Tamil Nadu to Hyderabad to find opportunities to play first class cricket, he recognised the importance of a league that would create a market for talent that would replace patronage with professional employment.
Paradoxically, it is because Madras has an old and lively sporting culture rooted in clubs and gymkhanas, that its middle class sporting establishment resists the idea that money should be used to buy talent. That a club should enrol professional players as members simply to win tournaments seems distasteful when clubs have traditionally chosen teams of gentlemen from within the existing membership. The fear often is that the sporting yob, once enrolled, will lower the tone of the club. It is an unworthy fear: not so long ago, white colonials who founded many of these clubs fretted in the same way about the social consequences of admitting Indians.
The writer is novelist and historian based in Delhi.
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