There was a time, decades ago, when club cricket was the backbone of the game in the Garden City and elsewhere in the state. These clubs went on to produce many big names. Those years are long past but a bunch of memories still remain. Krishnendu Banerjee and Ashim Sunam explore these stories...
Central College ground ellide?” (Where is the Central College ground?)
“Ida adu? Sundaravagiruthe antha bhavisidde.” (That one? I thought it would look beautiful).
“Eega irodu heegey” (That’s what it is now).
This conversation, between a parent who wanted to watch a football game his son was playing in and a passerby, illustrates the sorry state the Central College ground is in these days. It is difficult to imagine that the same place was once upon a time the focal point of Bangalore cricket. More than 50 first-class matches were played here over three decades till 1972 and the ground brewed cricketers like fine beer. This is where Karnataka’s spin wizard BK Garudachar once rolled up his sleeves to bowl a googly and where Sir Gary Sobers once pulled one over deep-midwicket. One could say that had the ground not existed, cricket in the erstwhile Kingdom of Mysore and later, in the state of Karnataka, would probably never have flourished the way it did.
But now, that very idea seems farfetched. Barring a few Bangalore University matches, the ground near the bustling Gandhi Nagar marketplace sports a near-deserted look. Two football posts are visible from a distance with a muddy playing surface, masked by weeds. The only presence of cricket at the ground are three practice nets.
Though the history of cricket in the state dates back to the time when it was still the kingdom of Mysore, the sport in Karnataka took a long time to evolve. Like all other places, the Englishmen brought the game to Karnataka and received the Maharaja’s blessings (especially that of Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV), but the royal family was never directly involved in promoting the game. The people of Bangalore (now Bengaluru) and Mysore (now Mysuru) rather helped the sport grow, playing it, getting involved in it.
Before clubs were formed, Central College (part of University of Mysore then) was the place where cricket started taking shape.
The Central College ground was formerly with Jail Authorities and was transferred to the institution with the help of Sir Mirza Ismail, the Dewan of Mysore. The college principal during that time, JG Taite, played a huge role in promoting cricket. The Englishman with the help of three other college staff — Dr Pitchamuthu, MG Vijaysarathi and BV Ramakrishnappa — nurtured talent in the college and the city. Soon, the state team would be made up of Central College students.
There was a time when the ground used to draw big crowds for Ranji Trophy matches. Cricketers were often nervous playing in the presence of such large gatherings, as every misfield, bad ball or wicket was greeted with abuse.
“The contribution of the Central College ground to Bengaluru cricket is massive. Central College was the focal point of Karnataka cricket those days. Not only did cricketers come from there, but it was also the place where cricket was nurtured. Only after a falling out with Central College did the Parade ground, now known as Chinnaswamy Stadium, come into being,” said veteran journalist Vedam Jaishankar, who wrote Casting a Spell – The story of Karnataka Cricket.
Before that, European Gymkhana (now RSI ground) was the only ground available in Bengaluru. But the venue, which hosted the first first-class match between Mysore Cricket Club (Mysore State Cricket Association) and Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), was controlled by the army. Hence, it was not available for the general public.
With the Central College ground facilitating the growth of cricketers, clubs slowly started to grow. Private clubs in the city even became one of the topics of discussion over breakfast. However, club matches were something else early on, as they would capture the imagination of the then-staunch club supporters. Net sessions of some big clubs, including Bangalore United Cricket Club (BUCC), Friends Union Cricket Club (FUCC), Bangalore Cricketers, City Cricketers and National United Cricket Club were extremely popular. Even now, there are more than 400 clubs registered with the KSCA.
The strict work culture, which existed in these clubs, helped produce world champions such as Roger Binny and Syed Kirmani, and legends like BS Chandrasekhar, GR Viswanath, Erapalli Prasanna, Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid. It was not just about scoring runs or taking wickets, maintaining discipline was also a must. Swastic Union, known for their brilliant work culture, threw some players out of the club during their earlier days after they failed to report for training. BUCC players had to come on time for nets in whites and polished shoes.
For FUCC, mentor Doraiswami was a strict disciplinarian. “When I started playing, in the first few matches, I was not there in the playing XI. If practice was scheduled for 3:30 pm, we had to reach by 2:30 as we had to carry the mat, water, roll the pitch and all. Mr Doraiswami used to come and check if we had done everything properly before practice started. Only when he was satisfied, could practice begin,” said Sudhakar Rao, a former player of the club and present secretary of the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA), who played for the state with distinction.
The rivalries between these clubs were often legendary. For instance, when BUCC would play Bangalore Cricketers, the ground resembled a carnival. Families came over, with food packed, creating a picnic atmosphere. Former Bangalore Cricketers players recall how people used to stand on the road to watch them practice.
For most of the clubs, it was from the people that they raised funds as well. Cricketers used to go from house to house to collect donations and people would donate anything between `1 to 10 (this was back in the 1950s). The money thus collected was not quite a fortune, but players made do with what they got.
“If a bat was damaged during those times, we would get it reconditioned with parchment paper. We used to roll that parchment paper over the bat. When I used to play for City Cricketers in the 1960s we just had one cricket kit. It is different for cricketers today who have around 5-6 bats. The team had to manage with around 3-4 bats and four batting pads. We did not have access to much protective equipment like thigh guards, so we used to put small towels and fold it inside our pocket. At times, we put torn batting gloves in the pocket as protection. I used to also get my shoes made by the local cobbler,” said BS Vishwanath, who used to go by the name Curli when he was playing for City Cricketers.
The contrast between the packed stands of the past and the current scenario couldn’t be starker. Club matches hardly draw fans these days. The KSCA has several grounds, where these matches are held, including RSI, IAF and three grounds in Alur. The 4-5 matches that were held every weekend in the mid-twentieth-century has multiplied to 18 or 19, but one can hardly spot anyone at the ground, apart from players and officials.
“There were passionate people involved in these clubs. Unfortunately, changes in the system and the money that has come into the sport mean that is no longer the case. Earlier, there were people like Keki Tarapore (BUCC), Doraiswamy (FUCC) and Gopalaswamy Iyenagar Kasturirangan (Bangalore cricketers). Even more so, people used to be passionate and get involved. But, such people in cricket clubs have vanished,” former Karnataka captain Karthik Jaswant said.
Modern life too appears to have caught up with club cricket, as many players from a working-class background face problems getting leaves to play in weekday matches. It is getting difficult for clubs to get quality players. There is too much of cricket these days and not all top players from the city turn up for their respective clubs regularly. Money matters too — the first and second division matches have started and many big names are with their Indian Premier League teams.
This is a far cry from when players used to represent their clubs immediately after returning from away tours. Dravid, who considers his club BUCC as the founding stone to his international career, was disappointed to see them in the second division in 2012. He wore the whites again for BUCC.
“I would not say that club culture has diminished, but the value has come down a bit. Earlier, top cricketers of the state would participate in such kind of matches. It was massive. Now, the cream of the state’s players is involved in a higher level of cricket. It is basically a paucity of time. This is just one of the reasons. We cannot pinpoint exactly why and how. It is a culmination of various factors,” says BUCC’s secretary and umpire Shavir Tarapore, son of the late Keki Tarapore. The latter was one of the pillars of BUCC and nurtured many prominent players.
A large number of cricket academies have also mushroomed in the city and nurturing talent has become a business. Also, club loyalties are becoming a thing of the past. There is no sense of attachment as players are only looking to play in the top division. Earlier, rarely would they move even if their team was relegated.
After lasting for over a century, the club culture in the city is at the crossroads, thanks to an ever-changing system. One can only hope that their legacy will be kept intact when the baton changes hands.
While a lot of clubs relied on money collected from the public, there were exceptions to the rule. City Crescents Club, which was founded by RM Puttanna, who did not have much problem with money. In fact, Puttanna would provide bats to his club players if they made it to the state side. S Krishnamurthy, former Karnataka captain, was one of those who benefited from it.
Gopalaswami Iyengar Kasturirangan (of Bangalore Cricketers) was said to be one of the fastest bowlers during the 40s and 50s and with no proper equipment and torn matting wickets, batsmen had a tough time and some of them were scared to bat against him at the club nets. He was selected to tour the West Indies with India in 1952-53 but declined to go.