Bollywood and Cricket. The two lifelines of the World's Largest Democracy, India.
On the Western Coast of India lies Mumbai, an agglomeration of islands, known for the glitz and glamour of its Bollywood and its Cricket.
Over the years, Mumbai has forged an indelible alliance with both Cricket and Cinema, with the early 1970s being the pinnacle of Mumbai's dominance on these two fronts. Amitabh Bachchan and Sunil Gavaskar gave Indians a new reason to cheer. Soon enough, the arrival of Sachin Tendulkar ensured that Mumbai and Cricket shall forever go together, hand in hand.
As we come down the Malabar Coast, round the peninsula, and go up the Coromandel Coast, there lies another city based around its port- Chennai. Formerly known as Madras, Chennai is the Southern Mumbai (no offence, Chennaites). And much like Mumbai, or Bombay as it was previously known, Chennai and its folks have had a long association with both Cricket and Cinema.
Chennai has been home to World Champions, Commonwealth Gold Medalists, Asian Games Medalists, Arjuna Awardees, World No.1's and a host of other achievers whose exploits in the sporting arena have given the city name and fame throughout the World.
India's only Arjuna Awardee in Carrom, Maria Irudayam is from Chennai. India's only ATP Tour Event, the Chennai Open, is staged here. The Krishnans, Ramanathan and Ramesh, along with the Amritraj, brothers are from Chennai. India's greatest non-ball sportsman, or maybe, the greatest of them all, Vishwanathan Anand, is from Chennai. A host of paddlers, the likes of Achanta Sharat Kamal, S Raman, V Chandresekhar, are from Chennai. Dipika Pallikal and Joshna Chinnapa, India's medal hopes in the forthcoming Rio Olympics in Squash, are from Chennai.
Yet, it is Cricket, a game developed by the Britishers and brought to this country by the British East India Company, that has had an inexplicable bond with the city and its people.
Chennai and Cricket….
These days, if someone hears the abovementioned words, the immediate thought that floods the mind would invariably be of the Chennai Super Kings, the most successful franchisee in the most popular T20 league in the world. But then, Chennai and its Cricket is much, much more than that.
Everything in Chennai begins early, and cricket practice begins earlier.
Much before the voice of MS Subbhalakshmi awakens the lazy teenager, the grumpy uncle, the over cribbing housewife or the workaholic husband, the batsman takes guard, preferably one around the off stump, thereby giving the boy a better chance to play it on the leg side.
There is nothing quite as beautiful as an amateur cricketer, mostly of ages from single digits to the late teens, taking guard in the Marina. The early morning blues subdued, the young batsman positions himself to face the bowler running in who, more often than not, would be flexing his arm way more than 15 degrees.
The earliest uncle arrives a bit later and even after dozens of walkers finish their daily routines at the Marina, the cricket lingers on.
Marina isn’t the only place where cricket is played year round in Chennai. A mile away lies the M A Chidambaram Stadium, home to the Tamil Nadu Ranji side and the Chennai Super Kings.
The MAC, or Chepauk as it is more popularly known, has woven its name permanently into the fabric of Indian Cricket. It gave India its first test win; it hosted the first ever match of its domestic competition, the Ranji Trophy way back in 1934, still 13 years before India became a free nation; and in 1986 it also provided cricket with the second test match in history that ended in a tie.
Chepauk has been witness to some of the finest displays on the 22 yards. Gundappa Vishwanath’s virtuoso solo performance against a rampaging Andy Roberts in a fiery Chepauk track is still rated as one of the finest examples of batsmanship. Then there’s the 136 that Sachin Tendulkar scored against a Pakistani attack that was at its peak.
Chepauk has given cricket aficionados many a memory. Memories which shall stand the test of time and memories which shall never be forgotten.
It is not the test matches alone that constitute Chennai’s association with the Gentleman’s Game. The city is home to one of the best city leagues in the country, if not the world. Sponsorship and quality are aplenty. And the competition is fierce to say the least. The Chennai league matches have seen some of the finest exponents of the game ply their trade. Cricketers from all over the country have come in their off seasons to play in the leagues in Chennai.
To see that the state side has won the Ranji Trophy, just two times, last in 1987, is inexcusable.
Over the years, the Tamil Nadu sides have been excellent examples of having all the resources, yet being unable to win. The last time the team reached the Ranji finals was just a couple of months ago. Playing against a formidable Karnataka side with Vinay Kumar on fire, the Tamil Nadu outfit folded for a meek 134 .
They then spent the better part of the next two days chasing balls hit by two players- KL Rahul and Karun Nair- each outscoring the entire opposition 1st innings, with Karun scoring more than twice the TN side and in the process registering the highest individual score in a Ranji Trophy final.
Karun could’ve even scored a quadruple century if not for Rahul’s injury which didn’t allow him to take many singles. And Rahul, despite his restricted running, himself scored 188. They weren’t just defeated. They were annihilated.
Something very similar happened in the Ranji final of 2012. The only difference was that Rajasthan were the opponents. They plodded their way to a total exceeding 600 with a run rate of two and a half runs per over. Tamil Nadu didn’t even amass half their opponent’s total. The fact that Tamil Nadu had home ground advantage just added insult to injury.
The aforementioned matches speak volumes of the Tamil Nadu side and how they perform in big match situations.
While all other big cities in India have had their fair share of big players emerging from them, Chennai has had surprisingly few come by. Mumbai has had the Gavaskars and the Tendulkars. Kolkata has had the Gangulys. Delhi has had the Sehwags and Bangalore has a host of them; Gundappa Vishwanath, Brijesh Patel, Anil Kumble and Erapalli Prasanna just to name a few. Chennai? The only person to have even played in excess of 50 tests is Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan. Ravichandran Ashwin and Murali Vijay may well eclipse the old pro in terms of appearances but the three mentioned in no way possess the aura of players such as Ganguly or Kumble. They just don’t.
Tamil Nadu, and Chennai in particular, have been craving an identity of their own.
Almost a decade ago, the Indian Premier League was formed. Since then, the IPL fever has gripped the minds of the people in its full intensity. It has given players a great platform to perform and excel and has done a lot for the players and for the fans.
It has also given an identity for the city of Chennai.
The effect of the league has been profound and even more so in Chennai, as Chennaites feel a sense of pride every time the Chennai franchise plays. After all, they are the only team to qualify to the playoffs in every IPL to date.
The players, most of whose roots are quite far away from the port city, have gained cult status. MS Dhoni has become a honorary citizen of sorts. Michael Hussey, Matthew Hayden, Brendon McCullum, Dwayne Bravo and even journeyman Doug Bollinger have had very successful stints with the Chennai franchise and are much respected throughout the city.
It isn’t the identity that Chennai Cricket deserves, but it is an identity that it needs right now.
Sans the identity, the CSK have revived the fortunes of many a player, the latest being Ashish Nehra. And coupled with the breathtaking shot making, gob smacking catches and splendid bowling, Chennai Super Kings has reinvigorated the Chennai cricketing scene. No more does a spinner wants to be a Venkatagraghavan or a VV Kumar, he wants to be Ravichandran Ashwin. A batsman doesn’t want to be someone like a TE Srinivasan (purveyor of some of the greatest back foot playing seen in Indian cricket), he wants to be like Mahendera Singh Dhoni and wants to play the helicopter shot every single time. And once a bowler takes a wicket, it is only natural that he performs a jig like Dwayne Bravo.
It’ll take a long time for Chennai to become like Mumbai, but more and more cricketers are being unearthed and one day, Chennai and its Cricket may well be the focal point of Indian Cricket.