The day after Priya Govind and Akhila Ramnarayan asked me to write on cricket and music—unfortunately not as separate topics, and therefore complicating my life no end—came a telephone call from Carnatic vocalist Unnikrishnan, a call that straightaway lightened my burden considerably. As many of you know, Unni is a good sportsman who continues to play recreational tennis but also someone whose cricket is of a very decent standard. His phone call had nothing to do with either cricket or music, but my thoughts immediately went back to the time some years ago when our paths in these two fields intersected. Unni and I played some cricket and less tennis together. He is of course much younger than I, so much younger that I have also played cricket with his father Radhakrishnan, who, besides being a qualified Ayurvedic physician, was a pretty useful batsman in the 1950s and 60s, even into the seventies.
To cut a long story short, Unni’s quite promising cricket career started when mine was already over, though I continued to play from memory, to enjoy the perverse pleasure of competing with men half my age. By the time we first played against each other, I for Alwarpet CC and he for Madras CC, I had heard him on the concert platform, starting with a recital at the wedding reception of a fellow cricketer. I still remember the pride with which Radha informed me that the singer of the evening was his son, and the resemblance I noticed in the early Unni voice to that of Yesudas. Later, by a strange quirk of fate, I was invited to first play for and later captain the Parry’s Recreation Club when well into my 40s, though I had nothing to do with the Parry group. Unni, a business management graduate, was by then a management trainee in the company, and a leading member of the cricket team. During one of our matches, I told Unni how much I enjoyed listening to his first film song (a fairly straightforward rendering of Venkata Kavi’s Alai payude in a Malayalam film). Unni’s response was quietly modest: “I’ve sung some 50 film songs already, Ram.”
My most memorable Unnikrishnan experience was to follow in about a year’s time after this episode. I had organized a chamber concert of his at home (the second or third such occasion) one Sunday, when we came to know that the programme was clashing with a league game for Parry. As captain, I could not relieve Unni from the match, nor did he, as a competitive sportsman, want any such privilege. I toyed with the idea of postponing the concert, but too many people had already accepted our invitation with great anticipation, as Unni was at the very peak of his popularity. Domestic discord was a serious possibility, even a probability, if I did anything so foolish as to call off the performance. To complicate matters more, it turned out Unni had a wedding concert at Nagercoil the previous night.
The match was at distant Pallavaram, at the English Electric ground, which proved to be a small mercy, as Unni was able to get off the district bus (after travelling all night) very near the ground. I lost the toss, and the good soldier he was, Unni fielded in the hot sun with the rest of the team. He was a dependable no. 3 batsman, perhaps our highest run-getter that year, but I asked him to open the innings—a role to which he was not a complete stranger—so that he could go home early and rest after his batting. Unfortunately, Unni was dismissed for zero or thereabouts, but simply refused to go home, waiting for us to complete the match in the evening. We happened to win the match, so we all went home in a happy frame of mind, but poor Unni had to go all the way to his Royapettah home, shower, change and come to my Kottivakkam home on the East Coast Road. We started the concert half an hour late, but it was a superb performance by Mr. Dependable.
Unni was not quite the first professional classical musician to have played competitive cricket I personally knew. That honour went to the late Ravi Kichlu of the Hindustani vocal duo the Kichlu Brothers. Ravi often entertained me with snatches of alap standing next to me in the slips on the maidan of Calcutta. We were both playing for Rajasthan Club in the 1969-70 league season. I almost forgot wicket keeper Sivakumar my Mylapore Recreation Club teammate, mridanga vidwan, son of DK Pattammal and father of Nithyashree Mahadevan.
At the national level, I knew or knew of a few musically inclined cricketers. The great Vijay Manjrekar was a good singer and so is his son Sanjay. Padmakar Shivalkar was another Bombay player who gave vocal performances on stage. Some of us have heard Bapu Nadkarni do a more than passable imitation of KL Saigal. The late ML Jaisimha, under whose captaincy I played for Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy, had an impressive voice with which he belted out popular songs. He brought the roof down at a restaurant at Bangkok back in 1978 when the resident band handed him the microphone and he gave a few lusty samples of his Frank Sinatra repertoire and Louis Armstrong’s When The Saints Go Marching In.
Also seated at the same table was an accomplished vocalist in Shanti Hiranand, disciple and biographer of Begum Akhtar and sister-in-law of former India captain GS Ramchand. Mr and Mrs Ramchand were the gracious hosts that evening and Jaisimha, Ajit Wadekar, Murtuza Ali Baig and I the lucky guests during a Hyderabad Blues cricket tour (Thailand has some cricket and on our way back from Australia, we played a game at The Royal Bangkok Sports Club). We even got Ms Hiranand to sing a song for us.
Jai was the life and soul of the party during cocktails after my brother V Sivaramakrishnan’s benefit match in 1993, which was between two star-studded teams of veteran India players of the past. After my daughter Akhila sang a few songs at the request of the family, Jai took over totally from the band of the evening at the Connemara that night. My own personal highlight was to be part of an improbable trio of MLJ, Sunil Gavaskar and I. Only cacophony resulted, but nobody in the audience seemed to mind.
Jaisimha’s friend and teammate MAK ‘Tiger’ Pataudi, whose last season for Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy was my first, had a keen ear for music, and could play the tabla, according to some of his close associates. I had this habit of whistling constantly in the dressing room, and Tiger caught me whistling a song from the film Jahan Ara—which had some exquisite music by Madan Mohan—and gave a stentorian interpretation of Phir wohi shaam in sharp contrast to Talat Mahmood’s dulcet tones. Another verse he was fond of bellowing in a voice that threatened to shatter the windows went Gulshan, gulshan, shola-e-gul ki. I was intrigued and curious to know the rest of the song, but I had to wait for quite sometime before I solved the mystery. It turned out, of course, to be the opening line of a gentle, romantic Mehdi Hassan ghazal, the first I was to hear from that master of the genre.The ubiquitous two-in-one dominated the recreational needs of the cricketers of the 1970s, and thanks to the great leg-spinner BS Chandrasekhar, the Hindi film songs of Mukesh were the most popular choice of a whole generation of cricketers. Chandra must have been all of 18 or 19 when he first heard a Mukesh song wafting in out of transistor radios in the crowd during a match. ‘Tu kahe agar’ I believe was the song to cast a spell on him, and he actually mistook Mukesh’s voice for KL Saigal’s. That Chandra became a diehard fan and later a close friend of Mukesh is part of the cricket lore of the period.
If the reader is left wondering why I chose this topic or what my credentials for the task of writing on it are, let me explain. I was an active, sometimes semi-professional cricketer for some 30 years, and have been writing on music and editing a magazine on the performing arts during the last decade or so. People sometimes ask me to explain how a cricketer like me took to writing on the arts, and I tell them that I was dropped on my head as a child—which sometimes causes startled, incredulous responses. The real answer is that if you were born in the Madras of the 1940s in a middle-class brahmin family (even if you are a bad brahmin like me), chances are that you grew up in the midst of much music and much cricket. This is probably still true of most households that come from similar backgrounds. Add to that a love of language and you can end up writing on both music and cricket, as I did after failing at several other vocations!
There have been a few—though all too few—great writers through history whose gaze focused on these two great arts and sciences. You may raise an eyebrow or two at my inclusion of cricket in the category of art and science, but you would then be indirectly doing that to possibly the first writer to excel at both—Sir Neville Cardus, who described the batting of Sir Garfield Sobers thus: His immense power is lightened by a rhythm which has in it as little obvious propulsion as a movement of music by Mozart.” Yehudi Menuhin once said, Cardus “reminds us that there is an understanding of the heart as well of the mind… in Neville Cardus, the artist has an ally”.
According to writer, broadcaster and biographer Robin Daniels, Cardus believed in the power of great art to change lives from within. “Genius is a miracle to be revered whether in fashion or not,” Cardus said, and he did revere genius in cricket as well as music. Daniels also said that Cardus fought the good fight for Gustav Mahler when the composer was largely unknown. He rated him as a great critic “because he combines deep feeling and imagination with an eye that saw symbolically”.
Cardus was known to exaggerate, even accused of writing on matches and concerts he did not attend, but he brought literature to cricket writing as much as to music criticism. “To go to a cricket match for nothing but cricket is as though a man were to go into an inn for nothing but drink,” he said
He described CB Fry, the great English all rounder, as “a national gallery and a theatre and a forum”. Of the inimitable KS Ranjitsinhji, the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, he said, (or was it AG Gardiner ?) “he never played a Christian stroke in his life”, in praise of his delightfully unorthodox ways.
One of the most remarkable personalities of English cricket was the radio commentator John Arlott, the man responsible for Cape Coloured cricketer Basil D’Oliveira’s entry into English cricket and eventual ascent to world fame. Arlott had an unconvetional voice for BBC, "a sound like Uncle Tom Cobleigh reading Neville Cardus to faraway natives", according to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, his drinking buddy.
Arlott was a most unusual all rounder whose career included stints as a policeman, in a mental hospital, as a wine-taster, poet and hymnist, and above all a humanist of the best kind. He was the epitome of the ultimate cricket person whose breadth of vision extended far beyond the boundary.
In more recent times, John Inverarity, former Test cricketer and chairman of selectors for Australia has such impeccable academic and artistic credentials that the John Inverarity Music and Drama Centre in the city of Perth has been named after him in honour of his sterling contributions. (A side story is that he was once recalled after being bowled by Greg Chappell, because the umpire realised the ball had hit a sparrow on its way to the batsman. Unfortunately the sparrow did not live to watch the rest of the match).
Tony Lewis, the last cricketer to captain England on his Test debut, and an ace rugby player, was also an accomplished violinist (he was once a member of the Welsh Youth Orchestra). He later distinguished himself as a man of letters and a broadcaster who came to be known as ‘the face of BBC’.
Did not CLR James, the West Indian author of Beyond a Boundary say, “What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?”
And indeed may we ask, ‘What do they know of music, who only music know?”