Cricket, a sport that enjoys the status of a religion in our country is undoubtedly one of the most significant legacies left behind by the British in India.
The game was introduced in the country by the soldiers, merchants and the sailors of the East India Company. The first recorded cricket match in India was played by sailors of the East India Company in Cambay, Gujarat in 1721. The credit for the oldest organised cricket club in the country however belongs to the Calcutta Cricket and Football club, said to be in existence earlier than 1792, as the Madras Courier reports of cricket matches played between Calcutta and Barrackpore and Dum Dum in this year. Bombay’s recorded cricket history began in 1797.
The earliest reference of the sport being played in Madras is in the year 1792, as seen from an oil painting of a match in progress produced by the famous uncle nephew duo of Thomas and William Daniell. Though titled “Cricket in India”, it is presumably a representation of cricket being played in Madras, as the duo was then based in the city. The painting depicts a match in progress at The Island, a venue that would continue to play host to the sport for a long time.
The organised cricketing history of Madras began in 1846, with the formation of the Madras Cricket Club. The founder was Sir Alexander Arbuthnot, the famous civil servant who for a brief time also served as the Governor of Madras. The association of the Arbuthnot family in Madras was a notable one, the most famous link (later to attain notoriety) being that of Arbuthnot & Co., the leading bank whose crash in 1906 was one of the Presidency’s most shocking scandals. Sir Henry Pottinger, Governor of Madras was elected the first President of the club.
By the 1860s, the Club was well established and cricket became a regular weekend activity. The matches were played at The Island, where makeshift pitches were laid close to the Cooum River and across from what is today the Medical College. With a view to establishing a more permanent arrangement, the Club sought the permission of the Chief Secretary to the Government to make a cricket ground and enclose a portion of The Island for the purpose. The permission however was not forthcoming. A couple of weeks later, Lt.J.Pennycuick, the newly elected Secretary of the Club wrote to the Government again, this time requesting that a portion of the ground on the premises of the Chepauk Palace be granted to create a cricket ground. The Government, which had acquired the Chepauk Palace and grounds in 1859 saw no objection to this proposal and handed over the land to the Club, which thus shifted from The Island to the grounds of the Chepauk Palace. The ground was levelled and the Club moved to a permanent abode. A pavilion built to the design of the legendary Robert F.Chisholm was built at a cost of Rs.3700 and was inaugurated in 1866. This served as the pavilion for a quarter century, before being pulled down in 1891 to make way for a new pavilion that was built to the design of Henry Irwin. This was inaugurated in 1892 and served as the pavilion for nearly 90 years, before being pulled down in 1981 on the grounds that with the new stadium that was coming up would no longer provide a view of the cricketing action.
In the meantime, Madras played its first match in 1862 versus Bangalore. Unfortunately,there are no details of that game except that it resulted in a win for Madras. The match, which was played at Guindy became an annual home and away fixture, being played well until the 1890s.
For nearly 90 years after its founding, the Madras Cricket Club remained the exclusive preserve of the Europeans. In 1935 however, Kumararaja M.A.Muthiah Chettiar was admitted as the first Indian member. The distinction for being elected the first Indian President of the MCC belongs to A.M.M.Arunachalam, who was elected the President in 1959.
Two decades after the birth of the MCC was born a man who would go on to earn the moniker “Father of Madras Cricket”. Born in 1868, Venkatamahipathi Naidu, or Buchi Babu Naidu as he was more popularly known was adopted by his own grandfather Modhavarapu Dera Venkataswami Naidu, who had no male progeny. Venkataswami Naidu was a wealthy man who made his fortune working as the Dubash of Parry and Co. Buchi Babu took to cricket at a young age, the tennis courts and long verandas at their family home Lakshmi Vilas in Luz, Mylapore serving as pitches and the servants of the household playing the role of the bowlers.
Struck by the fact that the doors of the only organised facility for playing the game the MCC were open only to Europeans, Buchi Babu took upon himself the task of starting a club that would admit Indians and raise teams to play the game. His efforts bore fruit with the formation of The Madras United Cricket Club (MUCC) in 1888. It would not be far-fetched to say that the formation of this club that was situated on the Esplanade laid the roots for the birth of Indian Cricket.
Thanks to Buchi Babu’s untiring efforts, the club developed excellent facilities and was much sought after by keen players of the game. His finest moment however was when the MCC invited the MUCC to play a game against their team. This was made possible thanks to the efforts of Mr.Partridge (of the famous law firm King and Partridge) who was then the captain of the MCC team. Buchi Babu agreed on the condition that his team would be allowed to lunch in the MCC pavilion. Mr.Partridge was faced with the unenviable task of convincing the other members of the MCC agree to this. But they did relent to it and the game between MCC and MUCC became a reality. It was a fixture that would become a regular feature.
Buchi Babu passed away in 1908. His legacy was carried on magnificently by his three sons, M.Venkatramanujulu, M.Baliah and C.Ramaswami, all of whom played the sport with distinction. His legacy extended to other sports too. C.Ramaswamy was a double international, representing India in both cricket and tennis. Later generations of the family too made a mark in various sports.
Organised League Cricket came to the State in 1932. Eighteen teams took part in the Championship, which was conducted by the Indian Cricket Federation (forerunner to the BCCI). The winners, Triplicane Cricket Club were presented a trophy donated by the Rajah of Palayampatti. It is a practice that continues to this day, with the teams in the First Division competing for the Rajah of Palayampatti Shield. The success of the first edition of the tournament saw the addition of more divisions. Today, 5 divisions constitute this very strongly contested league.
Madras took on Mysore in the first ever Ranji Trophy game. Played in November 1934 at Chepauk the game finished in just a day, with Madras winning by an innings and 23 runs. Madras scored 130 runs while bowling out Mysore for 48 and 59 runs in their two innings. It is a matter of regret of keen followers of the game in the State that despite this auspicious beginning, the Tamil Nadu side has won the trophy on just two occasions, in 1954-55 and 1987-88.
The formation of the Madras Cricket Association in 1935 was yet another significant milestone in the history of the sport in the city. It was renamed the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association in 1971 and to this day remains the apex body for the administration of the sport in the State.
Given the city’s strong connections with the sport, it was a fitting tribute of sorts that India recorded its first ever test win at Madras. Captained by Vijay Hazare, it defeated England by an innings and 8 runs. The star of the game was Vinoo Mankad who took 12 wickets in the match, including 8 wickets in the first innings.
The Corporation Stadium (Nehru Stadium) played host to test matches for nearly a decade, between 1956 and 1965. It was at this ground that Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy put on a partnership of 413 runs for the first wicket against New Zealand in 1956, a record that stood for more than 50 years before being broken by the South African pair of Neil Mckenzie and Graeme Smith in 2008. The “Pongal Test” was yet another integral part of Madras cricket, with more than 10 tests being played during the harvest festival season. With the weather being at its most pleasant, crowds thronged from all over the State to watch these games. It is a tradition that many old timers wish to be revived.
This article was published in the latest issue of Namma Chennai, the bilingual monthly dedicated to the city.