Thursday, January 21, 2016

Sankapani VV

The dashing opener from Mylapore set city grounds ablaze in the 80s with cavalier Caribbean style strokeplay at the top of the order

He incurred the wrath of many a Mylapore Paatti breaking window glasses with unwavering regularity with his pulls into the neighbourhood homes!!!
He rejected tempting job offers and ‘cricketing deals’ from other 1st division clubs as the lure of being Cheeka’s exclusive opening partner kept him at Alwarpet for well over a decade and thus lived his cricketing life under Cheeka's Shadow
When the U15 national tournament was conceptualised and introduced for the first time in 1979-80, a young 14 year old from Alamelumangapuram, Mylapore instantly caught the eye with his dashing stroke play. He was not from a great financial background and used to stitch his own cricket gloves as a school boy!!! His first kit bag was made of ‘gunny’ bag.

He was one of the most consistent batsmen for South Zone in the inaugural edition of this inter Zonal U15 tourney.  

Spotting his genuine potential as a swashbuckling opener, his classmate at Vidya Mandir L Sivaramakrishnan suggested that he directly get into first division. And thus VV Sankapani in a rare move for a cricketer in Madras, signed up with first division team Globe Trotters as his first league team in the TNCA league in 1979 before he had touched 15years!!!

In those early years, he would board the bus from Mylapore along with L Sivaramakrishnan for the nets sessions at Chepauk. On the way back, LS would get him groundnut and lassi. Sanku is extremely grateful to LS for the support extended to him in that phase of his life. His mates from those days include WV Raman and M Sanjay.

A couple of years later, I looked forward to watching Sankapani in the U19 city v districts match in Coimbatore only for him to disappoint as he fell to a first ball duck playing for the city team against the Districts in November 1982. However, he made it up later in the month with a typically aggressive century at the Marina in the return match.

The string of big scores that season including a belligerent 73 against Central Zone helped him get into the U19 national summer camp alongside WV Raman, Sabha Karim and Chetan Sharma. But as luck would have it that U19 tour of Sri Lanka was called off due to the ethnic problem. That was the closest Sanku came to National Selection.

Long Association with TVS Alwarpet
After playing for Prithvi for a few years, Sankapani signed up for Alwarpet in the mid 80s in what was to turn out to be a long association with the TVS team. He was at his peak playing for Alwarpet opening along with K Srikkanth.

On many occasions, he led the batting onslaught leaving Srikkanth smiling at the other end. Sankapani once hit Harvindar Singh Sodhi of MCC for 32runs in a single over at Chepauk. In another match, he hit I Rajkumar (one of the fastest bowlers in the Chennai league at that time) for 21runs in an over on a matting wicket at the Union Ground with one six landing on the tennis Court at the far end and another that thudded on to the score board at the pavilion end. Twice Sankapani hit him out of the Stadium at Chepauk. He also hit Robin Singh on to the roof at Chepauk.

In a Chemplast Pasadena match, he hit the first two balls of the match of R Prabhakar out of the ground with the third that raced to the fence. During that phase, he also hit MRF trainees Shakti Singh and Vivek Razdan for 20+ runs in a single over.

Playing against J Gokulakrishnan at his peak, Sankapani, opening alongside K Srikkanth played yet another blistering knock getting out for 99 (not for the first time in his career) at the SPIC YMCA ground. He hit Niranjan Kumar on to the Cooum.

Gokulakrishnan who is currently the Tamil Nadu U19 coach says that many a time Sanku outscored Cheeka who would then funnily and sportingly acknowledge his partner’s achievement. ‘In a MCC Dyanora match, Sanku literally walked down the pitch to play our team’s new ball bowler (TNCA Colts) that the bowler was happy to not bowl again!!!!’

Talented but did not focus enough!!!
PK Dharmalingam was the coach of Vidya Mandir during the 1970s and later for Alwarpet in the 1980s. Through that period, Dharmalingam watched Sankapani very closely. He is of the view that Sanku was a great talent but failed to fulfil his potential. ‘Sanku was a brilliant bat and an outstanding talent. He was a gifted cricketer with a penchant for attacking stroke play. But he never seemed to know his capacity and hence did not quite reach his potential. Sankapani enjoyed his cricket but at times it was far too much fun.’

With Sanku, Dharmaji's toughness did not work and he just could not be controlled. He was always bubbling with joy making others happy. Dharma believes that if Sanku was a little more serious about his game and concentrated a little more, he would have played higher level for he was a truly gifted player. ‘When I compare Srikkanth and Sankapani when they were in their mid teens, I would say Sanku had the potential to be a much better player but Sanku did not do justice to his talent.’

Dhamalingam once umpired a Hindu Trophy match at Chepauk where Srikkanth and Sankapani opening the innings. He says that they matched each other stroke for stroke. When Srikkanth hit a four, Sanku would come down and tell him that he would strike one too. And the ball then went souring over the fence. Huge crowd gathered wherever Alwarpet played just to watch the two of them bat together. And there would be discussions on who would outshine the other that day. And on many occasions, Sankapani won that battle.

He had a quick eye and was very instinctive in his stroke play. As a cricketer, he was very well behaved. As a batsman, he had no inhibitions and would take on and hit out at the fastest of bowlers.  He always had a smiling face and was a jovial cricketer. He was a happy go lucky cricketer and was one of the big entertainers in the city league cricket in the 80s.

Taking on TA Sekar
TA Sekar, one of the fastest bowlers TN has seen, was at the top of his pace and one morning, at the Vivekananda College ground, playing for Jolly Rovers, he ran in right from the Sight Screen. It was a breathtaking sight to watch and it would have sent jitters in the opposition ranks just seeing him run in from that distance. But not Sanku. Batting fearlessly with just a cap, Sankapani took on Sekar that morning even daring to come down the pitch. 

R Madhavan’s role
During his long stint at Alwarpet, it was the advice of R Madhavan, who he rates as the best captain, that had a great impact on his game. His instinctive style and an over aggressive approach led to his string of inconsistent scores. It was Madhavan who helped him convert some of his rapid starts into centuries. Sanku scored over ten centuries for Alwarpet besides having almost a similar string of scores in the 90s .

Madhavan instilled the importance of patience and egged Sanku to take a single when the hands were itching to play the lofted shots. Madhavan would run many short singles to get Sanku off strike to allow him time to regain his composure.

I was in awe of Sanku
Murrays Auction's Hemant Srivatsa, a team mate at Alwarpet in the late 80s says that he was always in awe of Sanku's talent and his stroke play. ' We are talking about a guy who as a teenager hit a six over cover at Eden Gardens in the early 80s. Anything that Sanku did on the cricket field was extremely natural and he was one guy who most coaches would have broken their brains over. He was three years my senior at Vidya Mandir and I was always in awe of him.' 
He was a brilliant fielder at any position. I have seen him take some brilliant catches and also effect outstanding run outs. His game was ideally suited for limited overs cricket. I always felt he had the Caribbean spirit about him - absolutely cavalier and enjoyed the game to the hilt. He should have certainly played for TN. Probably staying in Srikkanth's shadows ruined his chances. He was certainly a far more talented cricketer than Srikkanth.

Once I came up against him a Chemplast Pasadena match. He was finding it quite hard to pick the movement and was beaten quite a bit in the first balls of my over. I managed to peg him on to the back foot. Looking to finish off with a maiden, I bowled what according to me was a perfect left arm bowler's delivery to a right hander - short of length pitching middle and off seaming away towards the slips. This guy rushed down the wicket and pulled the ball of the front foot depositing it outside the University Union ground. This one over has always stayed in my mind. I have always been petrified bowling to him ever since. I am sure many bowlers have felt that way when Sanku walked into bat. 

One of the most dynamic openers 
Another Alwarpet team mate K Ravishankar played together for many years with Sankapani right from his Vidya Mandir school days. In fact in the final of a Buchi Babu Trophy tourney well over two decades ago, it was Ravishankar who replaced Sanku in the playing XI at the final moment after recovering from illness in the previous match (that was the closest Sankapani came to selection in the Buchi Babu Trophy).

Ravishankar has the highest words of praise for Sanku. ‘He was probably the most dynamic and aggressive openers that I have seen in the city. In an inter-zonal U 19 game dating back to the 1980s, Sanku hit the first ball of the innings bowled by Chetan Sharma with effortless ease out of Eden Gardens.
Ravi remembers another match when Sanku came down the pitch to TA Sekar and hit out at him in a way that only he could. ‘On many occasions, Sanku outscored Srikkanth in the early part of the innings much to the delight of the huge crowd that used to come to watch him bat.’ Sanku would often jump out to the fastest of bowlers with least of fears.

He played at a time when there were top class openers like Srikkanth and VB and hence he probably lost out on opportunities to play higher grade of cricket, says Ravi with a tinge of sadness for Sanku.

A bouncer from Lillee that almost knocked him down!!!
Dennis Lillee watched Sankapani score a belligerent 60+ for Alwarpet against Port Trust at Pachaiappas B hitting the fast bowlers repeatedly out of the ground on to the Pachaiappas A ground where MRF were playing their league match. Soon after the match, Dennis Lillee called on him to have a nets session at the MRF ground almost throwing up an open challenge. The Australian legend bowled six balls to Sankapani each of which was real quick. After Sanku cut one with great power to point, an angry Lillee came up to Sanku and pointed to his forehead in his typical Aussie style. The next one was a real quick bouncer that almost knocked Sanku off the ground. That was the greatness of Lillee, recounts Sankapani looking back on that day when he just about managed to save his head.

Greatness of Greg Chappell
Another Aussie played a significant role in Sankapani’s career. It was 15minutes with Greg Chappell that helped him make a slight adjustment to the position of his elbow. While he originally was a strong player on the leg side, this correction strengthened his off side play. In the two games that followed, he scored a century and a 65.

Favourite Ground – PS High School
While he has delighted many residents in the Alamelumangapuram area who had the privilege of watching him bat at the PS High School ground right from their balcony, he has also been a reason for infuriating many grandmas in the region. Innumerable pulls on to the leg side ended up with a loud breaking noise as he shattered the glass panes of their windows in the first and second floor of the nearby flats.

Irreristable Sanku 'CHAKRA' Pani
For a period in the 80s, Sanku was spoken of in the same vein as Srikkanth for his dashing style of play. At the peak of his career, he had offers from leading organisations including MRF, Indian Bank, RBI and the Income Tax. However, he rejected each of those tempting offers preferring the partnership with his long time friend and India star Srikkanth.

There are many who achieve greatness with the number of runs and centuries they score. Many remember Sankapani for the sheer joy he gave the cricket fan in the 80s and 90s with his fearless style of cricket. Big names simply did not matter to him.

Over a decade ago, long after he quit first division cricket I umpired a league match at Vivekananda College. Sankapani opened the batting that morning for a fourth division team. Immediately after play was called at 930 am, the ball went thudding into the wall way beyond Long On. By the time, the 2nd drinks was taken at 11.30am, he had reached yet another blistering century. That day he once again showed glimpses of the gifted talent leaving the opposition clueless on how to control his stroke play.

Like many an innings throughout his career, it was finally his own indiscretion that led to his downfall that day. But by then, he had made the red cherry cry for a little bit of respite.

For the true cricket fans of Madras, all that mattered was to watch Sanku in action for 30-45 minutes and their day was made. And the famous groundnut walla of the 1980s would bid good bye to the fans in the D Stand at Chepauk once Sanku was out!!!!

People have almost always got his name wrong. To many, he is Sankupani. But there may be some truth to that. Like Krishna’s Conch (Sanku), he announced his arrival with a destructive blow dealt with his bat that most times had no answer (similar to Lord’s Chakra).


Anonymous said...

Hello Mr.Prabhu,
This refers to your other post over TN's failure to make the Ranji knockout this year. While I share your angst over the TN's exit, I am surprised why this is seen in most quarters as shocking. The past 3 years, TN's Ranji performance has been scratchy, whatever points they won had largely come from home wins on doctored wickets. Madras is a humid and hostile place to play for visitors and no wonder TN team had a vast advantage on that front as well.

At no time in 2014/15 did I believe TN deserved to reach the final. They were lucky to get a favorable draw and benefit of home pitch for crucial games.

Before this season started, I went to the Buchi Babu tournament. Most other teams had fielded their B teams with just a couple of Ranji players. The TNCA President's XI was studded with 6-7 State players. Yet they allowed the Andhra boys to get 351 from 24-3. And they capitulated to defeat after being 326-6 at one stage. They threw their wickets playing in overconfident fashion to an inexperienced Andhra side with barely a couple of Ranji players. The next day's Hindu called it a tragic defeat - Ridiculous! You say "tragic" when an underdog narrowly loses to a favorite, not when the favorite stupidly gifts victory to an underdog!

Predictably, our guys didnt have what it takes to make it to the knockouts.

Anonymous said...

Sankapani was a cult figure at Vidya Mandir – Very popular. I remember he had a opening partner by name Karthik and both rocked the scene.

Even after he left schoo, he was still a folklore kind of figure

Anonymous said...

Very good story as ever :)

But one recommendation / suggestion... This story doesn't have a END. I think you should have an END (in your words) for it instead of ending with what Ravishankar says.

Anonymous said...

Written very nicely. The narration is very gripping and covering 360 degree.

Keep up the good work and I am sure these revealings would be inspiring to the budding cricketers (and also Nostalgic to most of us).