Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Third Man - V. Ramnarayan

'Third Man' is written by a cricketer who many feel should have played for India - V. Ramnarayan. Ram of course feels that he was in the wrong profession at the wrong time, being the third off spinner behind E.A.S. Prasanna and S. Venkataraghavan during his time. Having Venkat ahead of him in the Tamil Nadu squad always blocked his way into the team as an off spinner, so Ram was fortuitous that his job as a young bank officer took him to Andhra Pradesh and then to Hyderabad where he first played for SBI and later on for Andhra Bank. More importantly he shook off some firmly entrenched off spinners - Noshir Mehta for one (who recently completed playing 50 years of league cricket - I envy him) who was very much a son of the soil. Ram forced his way into the star studded and highly glamourous Hyderabad side - M.L. Jaisimha, M.A.K. Pataudi, Abbas Ali Baig, Abid Ali, Jayantilal, Govind Raj, Krishnamurthi and young Narasimha Rao - all who played for India at about the same time by sheer weight of his performances. His obvious talent drew many die-hard supporters who predicted that he'd play for India even as he was still struggling to get a regular place in the bank side. What Ram did in those wonderful five years at Hyderabad after he made his Ranji debut at the age of 28, and was the highest wicket taker for all that time, was wonderful stuff.

Any cricketer worth his salt will know the import of the cover page - G.R. Vishwanath being caught and bowled by Ramnarayan - a mode of dismissal that only the greatest of greats in the off spinning craft can command through their control of the variations on the ball and the way they deceive batsmen in the air. Off spinners who take more caught and bowled wickets are considered to belong to the highest class and to take the wicket of one of the greatest batsmen India has ever produced in such fashion is ample proof of Ram's capabilities. That one picture puts all arguments to doubt. This man was a class act. 'He was magical,' say his team mates of those days with an admiration that they can hardly hide.

It's a tale of great talent, of opportunities lost and found and of life itself. Ram writes of his cricketing journey that began at his home, his many uncles and cousins and of course his father. I can only imagine how it must have been in his childhood with nuggets of cricketing wisdom floating about and much inspiration to be had from his cricketing family. Ram describes his early childhood and his days of playing with his cousins and brothers (his younger brother V. Sivaramakrishnan almost played for India too and was a good opening batsman who served Tamil Nadu and South Zone for a long long time) in the open grounds near his home. Its stuff that transports you to a Madras that you want to go back to. His school games and his college games, his associations with his co-spinner Dayakar, people who believed in him and those who did not, his budding competition with S. Venkataraghavan who played for Engineering College, his stint as a captain for his college, the many worthies who played alongside including N. Ram of The Hindu, the grounds, the lunch stops, the crowds (including the one who'd collect information of scores at other grounds), ah...lovely stuff. Characters like Don Rangan, umpire Murthy who refused to give batsmen out if he did not flight the ball and many others pop up in the book and  make you want to meet them, so interesting are they. Ram made it to the University side and performed well too.

But you see a rebellious side to Ram too developing on the side. In a time when administrators were perhaps not too open minded about players doing their own thing (as they do these days) Ram's free spirited nature caught the eye of a few people who did not appreciate this show of spirit. The tour to Bombay with the over aged Colts was one that could have gone in an entirely different direction but for the manager suspecting Ram's innocent indulgences to be bigger vices - 'he smokes, he drinks and he womanises' - was the verdict upon the teetotaller off-spinner (then).

The part in the book about his early days at Madras will remain one of the finest pieces of cricket writing in my mind - so good that I really wish I had a way of witnessing some of those moments myself. Thanks Ram for making it possible to glimpse them through the book.

The second part consists of more familiar turf and many known names. Ram moved to Hyderabad as an officer with SBI, and was posted to Anakapalle. Since SBI needed some players to bolster its side which lost many players to national duty, Ram was summoned to Hyderabad and he hit gold. Many in the Hyderabad bank circle, notably Krishnamurthi the India wicket keeper, took an instant liking for him and showed him off as a prodigious talent to all concerned. Ram's performances were almost always match winning. When I asked him what his strengths were he said - 'I had immense confidence in my abilities. I always backed myself to win games.' Not many can say that. But there were some detractors too and Ram being sensitive again shied away only to be 'kidnapped' by his team members, prodded  by Mr. Manohar Sharma. Another match winning performance and then the Ranji Trophy debut in the team many would have liked to be a part of. Jaisimha, Pataudi, Abbas Ali Baig, Abid Ali, Krishnamurthi, Govind Raj, Jayantilal, Narasimha Rao and other equally charismatic and talented cricketers were part of this team. Ram soon became the match winner for this team too, topping bowling in terms of wickets for Hyderabad for the next five seasons and going as far as the Indian probables. Hyderabad almost beat Bombay but lost a semi final which they should have won - they just lost the plot against Ashok Mankad's desperate team (it was a case of 'not wanting to lose' as against 'wanting to win'.). That heartbreak ended the aspirations of some seniors and the golden days of cricket in Hyderabad were over with Jaisimha and Pataudi retiring soon after. Ram got involved in some unwanted situations with the HCA thanks to some typically underhand and spineless work by some of the senior players that we also got used to in later years, and then he hung it all up. Ram's account of Hyderabad cricket is completely believable and it gave me a fair understanding of what must have gone on in those days from within the dressing room. It also threw up many names we knew and played with - Mumtaz Hussain. Abdul Jabbar, Chandran, Inder Raj, Wahab. Sainath, Jyothiprasad, Shivlal Yadav.

'I could not bear to watch the game for many years after I quit,' he says. I can imagine. Just looking at the performances, his match winning capabilities, his passion for the game and his irrepressible spirit - you can feel him wanting to go out there and do something special in each page, makes you wonder how he took this roller coaster ride. But he did and well too. Ram moved back to Madras, quit the bank, worked at various things before settling down as the editor of India's leading performing arts magazine 'Sruthi'. Gowri, his wife, is a playwright, theatre personality, singer (she accompanied M.S. Subbulakshmi for 17 years on stage), noted writer, and they make a delightful pair. I invited them to speak to the students at the Department of Dance, University of Hyderabad when they were int own for the Hyderabad even and they spent two wonderful hours at the University.

Ram's description of his craft is worth a read for any off spinner. How to bring down the arm faster without pushing the ball - the arm speed is such that you whip the ball as if you were spinning a top and the arm comes down fats but the ball travels in a parabolic loop - taught by Rajamani, his senior at Presidency College. How a medium pacer knew so much about the art of off spin bowling is worth pondering but it shows how knowledgeable cricketers were in those days. The finish, the ram rod straight left leg, the right arm coming down the left of the leg and the pivoting action all add to make the bowler do things with the ball that make them formidable. Hanumant Singh's advise to him at the Fatehmaidan Club should have been recorded - whatever variation, whatever change in crease - the ball must land in the same place. Length is mandatory, line is optional is another gem from Prasanna. Ram himself tells me how he bowled for three hours everyday, a practice that he said every spinner must follow. In fact he scoffs at any off spinner who has not bled from his fingers - such was the stuff they were made of. 'Do any Tamil Nadu spinners seek your advise?' I ask. He shakes his head. No. 'But I believe Ashwin bowls for three hours every day,' he says.

'Third Man' is a must read for all cricket lovers because it gives you a whiff of cricket that was played in days when the game was still amateur. As with all things amateur there is an innocence one can feel throughout the book. Its a story of days that won't ever come back, a dream-like tale that will haunt the reader. Ram writes honestly, confidently and embellishes his tale with great detail - scores, people, situations, incidents - and it all adds up to making 'Third Man' a worthy read. Not many cricketers can write well and Ram is an exception to that rule. Not many cricketers do not get to express their sensitive side because they do not have the crafts of expression, so its refreshing to see someone who can both write extremely well and who understands the game at different layers and who has played at a very high level of competitive cricket reveal so much of himself and his understanding of the game.

I am glad Ram wrote this book. It will remain at the top of the few books on cricket written by Indian writers that I will wholeheartedly recommend. Well done Ram and well done KSDevulapalli, our common friend, for prodding Ram to take up this effort after a gap of thirty years and produce such vintage stuff.


Ramnarayan said...


You are so kind. I appreciate your praise all the more because of your extensive and intensive homework. If only every critic took as much trouble!

You know I am an admirer of your work and your positive energy. Though you have dome a great deaal of praiseworthy work, I am still waiting for the big one, maybe your magnum opus. All the best.


Harimohan said...

Thanks Ram. You deserve it all and more.
Yes. Hopefully the big one - and soon!