Chennai Super Kings fans smile for the cameras
© Getty Images


Chennai rules

Srinivasan's kingdom and Dhoni's adopted home is at the centre of cricket's universe, but what has that meant for the fabric of the game in the city?

Suhrith Parthasarathy  |  

Have you ever seen Shahrukh Khan bat?" a senior colleague of mine, M Rajasekar, asked me one day as we waited endlessly for our case to be called in the Madras High Court, where we practise law. I looked at him incredulously.

"You should come with me one day," he continued. "This boy is still in his teens. But his game says nothing of his age. Incredible wrists, crisp drives, he's got it all."

And then it struck me: "Do you mean M Shahrukh Khan?"

"Yes, that's him. Masood Shahrukh Khan."

This July, from atop a heavy roller parked beside the crude Southern Railway Ground on the periphery of Chennai, I watched Shahrukh bat. You often hear of the view from the top of the sightscreen, but this - behind midwicket - was the better seat.

Shahrukh made for a gangly sight - he was still clearly growing - but when his bat met ball, he looked a dream. Playing in the First Division of Chennai's cricket league for Grand Slam, one of three teams owned by N Srinivasan's India Cements Ltd, Shahrukh cracked 18 fours and four sixes in his 164. Many of his strokes were technically perfect, even if languorously executed. "He is almost Laxmanesque," the Hindu's Arun Venugopal, an ace purveyor of stories from Chennai's local cricket scene, later told me. "There's almost no question that he is one for the future. It shouldn't be too long before you see him playing for the state."

The state selection committee's chairperson, Sridharan Sharath, a prodigious run-maker for Tamil Nadu, agreed. "Shahrukh is an excellent young player," he told me. "It's one of the great things about this league. It allows players like him, who are 18 and 19, with great potential, to play with the big boys, to compete with them at a certain high level."

For many of us satiated by the excess of cricket on television, the sport is less a game and more what the Economist's James Astill described as the great tamasha. But Chennai's club cricket, corporatised as it may be, retains an inner charm. Here, unlike at the higher levels, the role played by sponsors isn't as much anathema as it is fundamental to the survival of the game.

If you were to believe fans from a certain generation, you would think there were hundreds of thousands of people at Chepauk on the day Vishy bravely cut the West Indians to ribbons

N Srinivasan is a much maligned figure in cricket. He survived a roasting from the Supreme Court of India and emerged as the chairman of the ICC. There is substantial merit in the criticism levelled against Srinivasan: during his time as the secretary of the BCCI, and later as president, he continued to own an IPL team through his company. What's more, in spite of his son-in-law being embroiled in a betting fiasco, Srinivasan refused to step down, insisting that he had done no wrong.

But for all his transgressions, Srinivasan is revered in Chennai's cricket circles. At any rate, India Cements wields too strong an influence for the main patrons and players to say anything resembling an ill-considered word about him.

"He is like the Sachin Tendulkar of the cricket administration world," Sharath told me. "For us he is a very important figure, an inspiration who has done so much for cricket in the city. You look at the facilities today and compare it to 15 years back. We have everything now. The league is structured brilliantly. The grounds are great. We've got gyms, physical trainers, we are all in steady jobs. So much of this is down to Srinivasan sir. He is a living legend."

There can be little argument that the cricket facilities in Chennai are among the best in India. "At the grass-roots level, everything is taken care of," said the Hindu's Venugopal. "You've got a good supply of young talent constantly coming through. I'm not sure cricketers growing up in the city can really ask for more."

He points out, for instance, the role played by Chemplast Sanmar Ltd, India Cements' chief competitor, in promoting cricket in the city. "The company values the game so much that one of the incentives for their teams is a tour of England if successful in the First Division."

This patronage has substantially strengthened the city's local league. Club cricket here, as a consequence of corporate benefaction, is played not merely as an amateurish pursuit but at an exalted, professional level.

Starring role: Grand Slam's Shahrukh hones his fielding chops

Starring role: Grand Slam's Shahrukh hones his fielding chops © Suhrith Parthasarathy

I was speaking with Sharath a day after watching Shahrukh bat. We were sitting close to an old-fashioned scoreboard at the Pachaiyappa College Ground, home to the Globe Trotters Sports Club, owned by Madras Rubber Factory Ltd (MRF).

Here another wonderfully named cricketer, of a different vintage from Shahrukh, was in the midst of carving out a classic. Xavier Thalaivan Sargunam had batted through the better part of two days and was unbeaten overnight on 272. He would bat a further hour that morning to reach 300. Afterwards, between innings, while puffing on a sly fag behind the walls of a shabbily put-together pavilion, Sargunam told me how thrilled he was. "To get a triple-hundred against what is possibly the best attack in the league is just unbelievable," he said. "I'm told only Sadagoppan Ramesh and Dinesh Karthik have managed the feat before in the First Division."

In a different era, Sargunam might have given up cricket altogether. He is already 29, and hasn't played a single first-class game for Tamil Nadu. His only appearance at that level came in Colombo in 2008, where he played a match for the Badureliya Sports Club. "I had committed to cricket by the time and I just wasn't getting any opportunities here," Sargunam said. "I knew a few people over in Colombo, and I got to know that Badureliya was looking for a couple of players."

That Sargunam is still pursuing cricket as a career is almost solely down to the professionalism of First Division cricket in the state. The stability of a job with MRF allows him to train through the year and play for the company's team.

And it was his performance for the Globe Trotters that won him a contract with Sunrisers Hyderabad in 2013. In January that year, in the finals of the First Division's one-day tournament, Sargunam scored an unbeaten 74 that saw the Trotters, needing about 80 in the last ten overs with two wickets in hand, romp to victory. "That performance was clearly noticed," Sargunam told me. "As a result, I got to play in the IPL and benefited so much from it. It showed me that I could make a living out of this game. Sharing a dressing room and practising with [Dale] Steyn and [Darren] Sammy was a great learning curve."

As cynical as one might want to be about the IPL's razzle-dazzle, it is difficult not to be taken with Chennai's enthusiasm for its team

The IPL, though, is a poisoned chalice. It has placed Chennai at a curious crossroads. In 2008, the league's first season, there was an excitement about the rousing spectacle. Even traditional cricket supporters in Chennai, who grew up watching not only Test cricket at the MA Chidambaram Stadium - Chepauk to them - but also Ranji Trophy and First Division matches, were enamoured. But when I went to watch IPL games at Chepauk, the crowd was a strange mix. As a friend of mine pithily commented at the time, "a stylish cover drive means no more to some of these fans than a boundary off the inside edge. It is the result that matters."

This is possibly a hackneyed, even elitist, way of looking at how cricket in Chennai - and indeed the rest of the country - has changed. But the new fans, who make up a majority at an IPL game, perhaps form a new consciousness among the city's cricketing fraternity. None of these fans is as much a cricket devotee as a casual observer. For them, the sport is akin to any other form of amusement. Cricket need not provide any lasting memories. It only needs to entertain.

For the traditional Chennai fan, though, cricket is a sport best celebrated through memory: whether witnessed or through hearsay. Neil Harvey never scored prolifically for Australia in Madras, but for my grandfather - who was an ardent fan of the sport until he passed away recently - Harvey's batting was matchless.

Such is the lore of Harvey's skill that my grandfather spoke in reverential terms of a mere 37 made at the old Corporation Stadium decades after the event. Of course Harvey would make 140 in the next Test, in Bombay, but for a certain kind of fan in Chennai, even a cracking 37 - "a brilliant little cameo" in the words of former first-class cricketer and writer V Ramnarayan - could provide everlasting memories. In 1998, when the Sanmar Group declared open its new red-bricked pavilion at the picturesque ground in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus, it was Harvey who was invited to do the honours.

Before Harvey there was Everton Weekes, whose controversial run-out for 90 in Madras denied him a sixth century in as many Test innings. And after Harvey there was Gundappa Viswanath, whose unbeaten 97 against a rampaging Andy Roberts was a match-winning innings of unending legend. If you were to believe fans from a certain generation, you would think there were hundreds of thousands of people at Chepauk on the day Vishy bravely cut the West Indians to ribbons.

There are many more moments. Chepauk witnessed only the second tied Test in history; it happened the year I was born. There was Saeed Anwar's 194, made in searing May heat in 1997. And two years later, when India lost a Test against Pakistan after Sachin Tendulkar fell for an extraordinary 136, the full house at Chepauk stood as one to cheer a victory lap led by Wasim Akram. The act exemplified the spirit of the Chennai crowd.

All the world's a pitch: cricket on Marina Beach

All the world's a pitch: cricket on Marina Beach © Getty Images

In 2013, when I returned to Chennai after a two-year study break, the atmosphere around the IPL had visibly changed. Approaching Chepauk for Super Kings' match against Kolkata Knight Riders, it was startling to see hordes of women and men clad in yellow marching towards the stadium, shouting slogans, having a party. As much as supposedly classicist fans would like us to believe that the IPL is bound to end in failure, it seemed a new culture had seeped into the ethos of Chennai cricket.

The supporters in the stadium made for peculiar viewing. Few were concerned with the action on the pitch. They were interested in partaking of a larger gaiety. I quizzed one group of college students in the D Stand - once known for its "knowledgeable fans" - on why the actual cricket seemed to matter so little to them. "We are here to have fun," one of them said. "The cricket is merely incidental. But don't worry, if it does get close towards the end of the second innings, we'll be watching it all right."

There are many reasons to watch sport. This, though, at least in Chennai, was novel. The larger aesthetic had now come to represent an ordinary by-product.

Yet, as cynical as one might want to be about the IPL's razzle-dazzle and its over-the-top culture, it is difficult not to be taken with the city's enthusiasm for its team. The penetration of the IPL has seen cricketers from outside Chennai occupy a special place in its consciousness.

MS Dhoni has risen to the status of a cult hero, an honorary Chennai superstar. There are hordes of Facebook groups dedicated to his rising eminence as a Tamil-bred luminary, and to these fans it seems their captain can do no wrong. He is greeted to the wicket with rapturous applause and whistling, on par only with the noise that once greeted Tendulkar, and the perks extended to him include a vice-presidency in Srinivasan's India Cements.

To the local fan, Dhoni is their "thala" - a colloquialism referring to a leader-hero. "Enga thala Dhoni-ku periya whistle adinga" ("Belt a big whistle out for our hero Dhoni") the popular song goes. Other cricketers who play or played for Super Kings - such as Suresh Raina, Matthew Hayden, Dwayne Bravo, Michael Hussey, and even journeymen such as Australia's Doug Bollinger - have been embraced. The "Whistle Podu" song is now a part of the city's pop culture; it has been downloaded as a mobile phone ringtone, it has several Facebook pages dedicated to it, and it has transcended age and class.

When I was four, my grandfather first took me to the Marina Cricket Ground, located by the famous promenade abutting Marina Beach. Then a senior advocate of the Madras High Court, he would often wrap up cases by lunch and leave for a bit of cricket-viewing, which involved watching every ball with a keen sense of anticipation.

Cricket in Chennai has now mutated into a different kind of sport and the cricket culture that the IPL breeds has, in some ways, driven the traditional fan away

Wisden editor Lawrence Booth's axiom - presented in the introduction to his book Cricket, Lovely Cricket - rings particularly true to a fan of my grandfather's ilk: the next ball, delivered in whatsoever game, in whatsoever context, carries enormous weight. The IPL doesn't necessarily correlate with good or bad cricket. But for someone like my grandfather it was still important to find out what happened every ball. For the common fan at Chepauk today the next ball is rarely a matter of concern. Cricket in Chennai has now mutated into a different kind of sport and the cricket culture that the IPL breeds has, in some ways, driven the traditional fan away.

There was a time, said TS Mukund, Abhinav Mukund's father and a former First Division cricketer, when fans would swarm around the grounds to glimpse club cricket. "They used to say, when we were chasing, 'Mukund adipanya' ('Mukund will score') and I enjoyed that kind of adulation. Some of the old fans still recognise me. It's a more amateurish pleasure."

First Division matches today are sparsely populated - often there are only a handful of fans, if any. But for people like my colleague Rajasekar, for whom every ball still matters, First Division cricket can fill a void created by cricket's television avatar.

"I really feel it's only a matter of time before the traditional fan returns to the game's roots," Sharath said. "Look, the quality of the cricket here is pretty high. It's almost on par with the Ranji Trophy. There's still value in the conventional way of playing the game, of constructing an innings, and of bowling long spells, with patience."

The new Chennai fan has had much to cheer. The city's IPL team has moulded itself into a giant of the league. It has retained the same captain, Dhoni, for each of the seven seasons, and the core has remained unchanged. This stability has seen Super Kings make the playoffs every year and win the title twice.

Favourite son: Chennai have claimed MS Dhoni as one of their own

Favourite son: Chennai have claimed MS Dhoni as one of their own © Getty Images

For the long-time fan, though, following the state's cricket team has been perforated with disappointment. "Tamil Nadu cricket," wrote V Ramnarayan in Mosquitos and Other Jolly Rovers, a wonderful chronicle of the state's cricket, "is an enigma in a riddle wrapped in a mystery." Tamil Nadu last won the Ranji Trophy in 1988, only their second title since the tournament's inception in 1934. In the last decade or so, the team has admittedly fared better, reaching the final on three occasions. But each of those matches showcased a tendency to bottle it on the big stage.

Take the final in 2002-03. Mumbai were bowled out for 260. In reply, Tamil Nadu were 202 for 3 - the opener Ramesh and the elegant middle-order batsman Hemang Badani had compiled a lovely partnership. But Ramesh's wicket sparked a collapse. As always, this brought a sense of déjà vu. What should have been an insurmountable lead turned into a slim advantage. Mumbai piled on the runs in their second innings, and Sairaj Bahutule spun them to victory. On paper, Tamil Nadu were much the stronger team, but the players, it seemed, were never too far from a choke.

Tamil Nadu's loss in the 2011-12 Ranji final in Chennai cannot be described as a choke; they were defeated by a mammoth 257 from Rajasthan's Vineet Saxena. But in the two campaigns since, Tamil Nadu have not even qualified for the knockouts. Given the structures that are in place, this is unfathomable.

"We've got everything going for us," TS Mukund told me. "Maybe the boys are just too eager to win the Ranji Trophy, probably taking too much pressure. But there are some things that I hope will change. In the last 20 to 25 years, we rarely seem to retain the XI for two matches. There's perhaps too much chopping and changing. And even the captain is changed every year."

The allrounder Suresh Kumar, who last played for Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy in December 2012, echoes Mukund's views. "If you look at the selection last year, many of the better performers in the First Division weren't picked for the Ranji team, and some of the established players who played Ranji hardly played the First Division.

"We still see the First Division as the main competition. But we would like to be rewarded a bit more for how we do here. Players who play for the national team come back to [play] the Ranji and you've got to probably question their attitude too. When we're playing Ranji, maybe some players are looking to get into the national team more than winning the competition."

Today, perhaps more than ever before, Tamil Nadu's players increasingly find themselves in the national fold. M Vijay and R Ashwin are relative mainstays in the Test squad, while Dinesh Karthik and Abhinav Mukund have both had runs in the Indian team.

Watching the supporters in the stadium made for peculiar viewing. Few were concerned with the action on the pitch. They were interested in partaking of a larger gaiety

In the past year, the MA Chidambaram Stadium's "B" Ground has undergone vast improvements. A new set of practice pitches will help players prepare for different conditions.

"The state is doing everything it can to improve its facilities," said Mukund. "But it's an enigma why we aren't winning."

In 2011, KB Arun Karthik smashed a last-ball six against South Australia Redbacks to take Royal Challengers Bangalore to the Champions League semi-finals. "Where have you come from, Arun Karthik!" screamed Harsha Bhogle as Virat Kohli and Chris Gayle embraced the unlikely hero.

Karthik was born and raised in Walajapet, a small municipality about 30 minutes from the town of Vellore, but he made his name in Chennai's club cricket. Spotted when he was a fresher at the Guru Nanak College in Chennai, Karthik, 28, has now played in the First Division for ten years.

Since hitting that six, which topped what Bhogle described as "one of the most extraordinary run chases you will ever see", Karthik has played on and off for the Ranji team but failed this past year to secure an IPL contract. "The IPL has had an immense impact on my life," Karthik said. "It brought recognition and helped me cement a place in the sport. It's unfortunate I couldn't secure a contract, but the opportunities it has given me have been great."

Karthik was speaking to me at the Guru Nanak College Cricket Ground, where Vijay CC were playing their fellow India Cements-owned club, Grand Slam. Karthik had regaled his team-mates by carrying his bat for an unbeaten 255, a knock that exhibited a virtue quite distinct from those in his IPL stint. He lasted 140 overs and batted 380 balls, precisely choosing the deliveries that needed putting away.

Cricket is a spectator sport. But here Karthik was compiling a masterpiece in front of mostly his team-mates, and perhaps the odd selector. "It would be great to have fans watching you play, of course," he told me. "But ultimately, as a cricketer you play the sport because you like being in that zone. You enjoy the thrill of watching the ball closely and meeting it with the full face of the bat."

Even for players like Karthik, who have played in the IPL, First Division cricket remains a crucial competition. "It's the stepping stone to the Ranji team," Karthik said. "I've played more than 30 first-class games and I've performed well. But I've also found myself out of favour at times. As an opener, I'm competing with Vijay and Abhinav. So I've got to keep performing for my club."

Had he been playing his cricket outside Chennai, Karthik, like Sargunam, might have had second thoughts about his career choice. It's the permanency of a full-time job and a monthly salary that allow him to continue. "The corporates have been amazing to us," Karthik told me. "It's not just the stability that they give us, but they've done so much for cricket in Chennai. In the ten years or so that I've been playing First Division cricket, the facilities have constantly improved."

There's plenty to cherish about First Division cricket; it retains some of the game's finest traditions and represents the surest link between schools cricket and professional cricket, easing the process of a player's development. But for a fan, there's even more on offer: the opportunity to spot a future star.

A Buchi Babu semi-final at the Murugappa Cricket Ground in Avadi, Chennai

A Buchi Babu semi-final at the Murugappa Cricket Ground in Avadi, Chennai © Suhrith Parthasarathy

A few years ago, when I was in the midst of a brief internship with the Hindu, I was asked to cover inter-school cricket matches. These are normally reported in a mundane fashion, and the paper often carries only a summary of the scores.

In one match I was particularly struck by the poise of a left-hand batsman, no more than 12.

"Santhome Higher Secondary School banked on a brilliant all-round performance by K Vishal Vaidhya to defeat PSBB (KK Nagar) in the final of the 13th Vidya Mandir-Sportstar Under-14 cricket tournament," I wrote in the draft I submitted. "A disciplined bowling performance from Santhome ensured that PSBB was bundled out for a total of 146… Santhome was never in any bother as they romped to victory with 7 wickets to spare. Southpaw Vaidhya, who opened the innings, compiled a fine 80 and remained unbeaten to guide Santhome to victory… "

On a recent weekday afternoon, having wound up my work at court early, I trekked to the Chemplast ground in the IIT's lush campus to watch the reigning champions Jolly Rovers. By the time I reached the ground, Rovers had declared on 523 for 6. Their opponents, Indian Overseas Bank Staff Club, had lost two wickets for eight runs. And just as I reached the ground, a third fell.

The new batsman, a left-hander of unerring elegance, weathered much of the early storm, playing the Kerala seamer Prasanth Parameswaran with admirable control. When he struck Parameswaran to the cover boundary with a spanking drive, I asked the scorers his name. "Vishal Vaidhya," came the reply. "He's only 16."

In spite of the all-pervading gravitational pull of limited-overs cricket, the First Division in Tamil Nadu has retained its quaint charm. In this year's league, several established outstation stars flocked to Chennai to make the best use of what is generally an off season. The former India legspinner Piyush Chawla, Maharashtra's dazzling young batsman Ankit Bawne, the Uttar Pradesh left-arm spinner Ali Murtaza, Saurashtra's wicketkeeper-batsman Sheldon Jackson, and the one-time Karnataka batsman Ganesh Satish, who is seeking to revive his first-class career, have all joined one Chennai club or the other.

But it is not only these players or the established local stars who make the city's club cricket interesting. On a mid-July Sunday morning, at the Guru Nanak cricket ground, there were several unfashionable virtues on display. The Indian Overseas Bank Staff Club had sent out a curious opening pair: 41-year-old Amit Pathak, a veteran of 76 first-class games for Andhra, and 16-year-old Aditya Barooah, who is still playing schools cricket. (Two years ago Barooah and his family moved from Guwahati to Chennai - about 2600km - when he was picked in the Super Kings junior squad.)

While the old-timer Pathak flayed away, seeking to attack the bowling at every opportunity, and ultimately fell for a 30-ball 26, Barooah batted with forbearance and care. He played 133 deliveries, most of them correctly, before being dismissed for 35.

It was an old-fashioned innings played by a cricketer of the IPL generation, in an old-fashioned league that continues to value the game's fundamentals. It is easy for young players, growing up on a staple of entertainment disguised as cricket, to take the easy route, but players like Barooah reassure us that there's still merit left in the traditional form of the game.

As Mukund said, "The game hasn't changed all that much."

Not yet.

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a Chennai-based lawyer and writer.