Tuesday, June 19, 2018

SVPB Udumalpet Soundararajan

The Industrialist who changed the face of cricket in the Coimbatore region 
His wards, M Senthilnathan  captained India in the Inaugural U19 World Cup and UR Radhakrishnan almost made it to the Indian Test Team in New Zealand
His Two Early picks  - S Sukumar and NP Madhavan - have remained loyal to him for several decades
For over three decades from the 1930s, the Udumalpet Cricket Club (UCC), one of the oldest cricket clubs in the Coimbatore district, languished at the bottom of the circuit. Time and again, they were thrashed by teams in the Coimbatore league that dashed the young dreams and hopes and led to a shattering of confidence and self belief.

And then arrived on the scene a young 20 year old visionary who was to go on to transform the way cricket was played in the region. He provided the local cricketers from Udumalpet with a cricketing exposure that was hitherto not seen in the region and helped local talent reach the summit.

The Grand Son of the legendary industrialist GV Govindaswamy Naidu (who had founded the Sri Venkatesa (Textile) Mills in 1933), M Soundararajan returned to Udumalpet in the early 1960s soon after graduating from Loyola College to head the newly launched Paper Mills (his grandfather was 80 years old then), an expansion that was driven by the then Industries Minister R Venkatraman.

Soundararajan was a University level tennis player. The sports lover in him could not accept the sad state of cricket in the district. There was very little help for these cricketers and the talent just did not blossom for want of exposure and guidance. Every time UCC went to play a match in the Coimbatore league, he would be disheartened to hear the story of yet another loss. At some point in that low phase in the late 1960s, the pain became unbearable. He was simmering inside to correct this anomaly.

He wanted to really break the shackles and prove to the world that cricketers from a remote village too could play as competitively as their city counterparts and villages too could produce outstanding cricketers.

The Tease that led to the transformation
In the early 1970s, his sister married the owner of Ramakrishna Steels, a company that was actively involved in the Senior Division league in Coimbatore. Through the early part of that decade, each time he went to his brother in law’s house, he had to hear the long story of how Ramakrishna Steels handed out a severe beating to the Udumalpet team and how incompetent his team was. This infuriated Soundararajan further. He just could not take it any longer. He promised to himself after one such meeting that he would revolutionise the way cricket is played in Udumalpet and went about it aggressively.

Ropes in Ram Singh to Coach Udumalpet Players
He roped in the legendary left arm spinner AG Ram Singh to coach the cricketers in Udumalpet one and a half months in a year. For the first time in their lives, the young cricketers of this remote village were closely monitored by a top cricketer who taught them the nuances of batting and bowling. 
Ram Singh was extremely good at initiating technical points into the minds of young cricketers and they clearly benefited. Soundararajan was delighted at seeing some improvement in the cricketers with some bright individual performances but the team continued to lose badly at the hands of the top teams in Coimbatore. He simply could not digest the fact that his team came back every time with the heads down.

The First Signing - From Salem to Udumalpet!!!
In 1974, on the suggestion of AG Ram Singh, he called on a young 17 year old college boy from Salem. The boy had just completed his first year B.A and his coach in Salem, Narayanan, spoke highly of him. After watching him at the nets, Soundararajan asked the young boy to continue his studies from Udumalpet. It was an improbable suggestion. For a teenager to think of shifting from Salem to Udumalpet just for the sake of cricket was something no parent could contemplate in the 1970s. However, Soundararajan was insistent on securing the boy and convinced him and his father. The boy’s coach Narayanan too endorsed the move. And indeed he shifted base to Udumalpet that same summer. Soundararajan provided him accommodation at a house on Ansari Street and enrolled him in the 2nd year in a college in Pollachi. 


He signed the boy for the SVPB (Sri Venkateswara Paper Boards) team for that season. That youngster played for combined districts and the University team in that phase also scoring a century on debut in the University match against Calcutta. Immediately after he completed his graduation a couple of years later, Soundararajan offered him a ‘cricketing’ job in the company in 1976. 
Opening bat S Sukumar was the first big signing of Soundararajan and remained one of his favourite cricketers. The signing of Sukumar was an indication of the aggressive intent of Soundararajan.

The 2nd Batch - Peter Fernandez and S Srinivasan
A couple of years later, Soundararajan signed in Peter Fernandez from Madras. And soon after came S Srinivasan, from Bombay, a cricketer who had played alongside Sunil Gavaskar. With the hiring of these three, SVPB’s performance began to improve. By the beginning of the next decade, SVPB had become lot more competitive. But the big wins were still elusive. 
A young Soundararajan is seen standing third from right

Following AG Ram Singh, Soundararajan brought  in the revered Audi Chetty as the Coach. He was to enjoy a great relationship with the players for well over a decade and was an integral part of the team that won many championships in the 1980s.

Roping in a Ranji Player
In 1982, NP Madhavan (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2016/05/np-madhavan.html), who had already had a century under his belt in Ranji Trophy and was working with IOB in Madras mentored by V Krishnaswamy (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2016/08/krishnaswamy-v.html), came to Coimbatore to explore options with LMW, a strong cricket team in the Coimbatore First Division. However, former Ranji star B Kalyanasundaram (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2011/08/kalli-b-kalyanasundaram.html), who had moved to LMW at the end of his Ranji career, did not meet the financial expectations of Madhavan and was not ready to go the extra distance to secure Madhavan. And hence he returned quietly to Madras. However, in a dramatic turn of events, he was asked to come and meet Soundararajan within 24 hours. Madhavan took the Kovai Express in the morning and returned to Coimbatore. Soundararajan was so impressed with the stroke play of Madhavan as well as his conduct that he was inclined to hire Madhavan but the latter could not take an immediate call.

To leave a banking job and to move to a remote location such as Udumalpet was unthinkable in those days.  Soundararajan was determined, though.  Very soon, he met with Madhavan’s father and asked him to permit his son’s move to Udumalpet, in a way similar to how he had convinced Sukumar’s father the previous decade.

Madhavan’s father belonged to a middle class family and Madhavan had taken a housing loan from the bank for the construction of a house in Madras. These were points of worry as well for the family. Soundararajan assured Madhavan’s father that he would take care of his son and in return wanted a 3-5 year commitment from Madhavan. Not only did Soundararajan offer him more than double of what he was earning at that time, he also committed to taking care of the housing loan.

Madhavan’s father relented and Madhavan quit IOB to join SVPB in Udumalpet. It was Soundararajan’s biggest signing to date – An in-form Ranji player moving from a banking job in Madras to his team in Udumalpet. In his very 2nd match in Coimbatore that season, Madhavan slammed a century at the Forest College ground to secure SVPB a victory, leaving Soundararajan delighted.

Madhavan looks back at those few days in complete disbelief ‘I never had any plans to move to Udumalpet. Since LMW was looking for players, I came there along with another close cricketing friend but returned immediately as that did not materialize. My plan was to continue in Madras. The call from Soundararajan within hours of my return took me by total surprise. Only after my father was fully convinced that it was a good move for me and only on his direction did I accept the offer.”

The 1980s – The Big Turnaround for Udumalpet
Both Madhavan and Sukumar were terrific contributors for SVPB at the top of the order during the 1980s. 

That phase remains Soundararajan’s happiest moments in life. SVPB began beating the then star teams LMW and Ramakrishna Steels in the Coimbatore league, quite comfortably. They began winning Championships in Coimbatore. The team performed remarkably well in outstation tournaments as well and had become so strong that Soundararajan had a 2nd team (Sri Venkatesa Paper Mills) in the first division league in Coimbatore. Buoyed by the success, Soundararajan gunned for bigger roles for his players.
SVPB Under Brijesh after winning the Championship at the Forest College Ground

Just providing opportunities in the Coimbatore league for players from Udumalpet was not enough. He wanted the budding talent to blossom in the first division of the prestigious league in Madras. By the time he was in his 40s, Soundararajan had taken many big business risks in his life and he says ‘this was one such’. He wanted to prove that players from small town could achieve big if their talent was harnessed properly at the right time. And thus he took over the running of Globe Trotters in 1984. In the years that followed, he spent an unbelievable sum of money on cricket, a size that was unimaginable for a team from the districts but Soundararajan gave them the best of exposure and a platform on which they could learn and grow.

Securing Brijesh Patel for SVPB
Soundararajan had a business relationship with India and Karnataka star Brijesh Patel and his family for his textile business. In one of those business meetings, he asked if Brijesh could play for his team and thus he secured for SVPB, the biggest outstation signing in TN cricket at that time. Brijesh was a big brand name in national cricket having amassed runs a plenty in Ranji Trophy and to sign him on for SVPB was a coup that Soundararajan struck.  Brijesh was a father figure in the team and he mentored many of the upcoming players in Udumalpet helping them graduate to the next level in the 1980s. 

“Brijesh Patel was the greatest inspiration to all our cricketers in the 1980s. He molded the entire set of players into a strong unit and brought us many trophies” says the 75 year old Soundararajan as his eyes light up recounting those memories of signing up Brijesh.

Beating a strong SPIC team captained by Venkataraghavan and winning the MCC Dyanora Trophy beating Chemplast remains etched in Soundararajan’s memory.

Big Hopes on Two Local Boys
It was also the phase when he signed up the upcoming VB Chandrasekar (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2016/01/vb-chandrasekar.html),who had come to Coimbatore to pursue his collegiate education at CIT , teenagers UR Radhakrishnan and M Senthilnathan (both local boys in Udumalpet). It was Soundararajan who signed up the teenager Robin Singh in the mid 80s and also supported his college education through that period. It was he who gave the big early exposure in Indian cricket to Robin Singh.

Soundararajan had big hopes of the two local boys whom he had seen from their school days. He was confident that Radhakrishnan and Senthilnathan would scale the peak. 

Within a couple of years, Senthilnathan (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2013/10/cricket-stories-of-1990s-torturous.html) had elevated to the national level captaining the India U 19 team to Australia much to the delight of Soundararjan. Senthilnathan was part of the Ranji Trophy winning team in 1987-88. But it was downhill for him since and did not quite meet Soundararajan’s expectation of him. 
“Senthilnathan was immensely talented and it was a great moment for all of us when he captained the India U19 team in Australia. He was fit as a fiddle in those early days and his fielding was a delight to watch. But somehow his attitude changed after that, he put on a lot of weight and was never the same again. He should have definitely played higher grade of cricket for the talent he possessed” says Soundararajan as he looks back at Senthilnathan’s downfall with a tinge of disappointment and sadness. 

UR Radhakrishnan (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2018/03/ur-radhakrishnan.html) was signed up as a young teenager in the early 1980s after a casual stint at the open cricket ground in Udumalpet. By the end of that decade, he was on the verge of selection for the Indian team in New Zealand. He scored a double hundred and a century in Ranji Trophy as well as big hundreds in Duleep Trophy. Radhakrishnan was desperate to play for India and fulfill Soundararajan’s vision of producing a player for India from Udumalpet. He knew that the industrialist had pinned his biggest hope on him and he tried to give his best. That unfortunately did not materialize though Radhakrishnan’s non inclusion was not necessarily on merit!!
Radhakrishnan looks back at not being able to make it into the Indian team as his one regret “It was Soundararajan’s dream that I should play for India. He was confident that I would. He encouraged and backed me all the way through my teenage phase. For his sake, I wanted to play for India. The fact that I could not fulfill his dream remains my big regret in life.”

Off Spinner M Subramaniam (Idly Subba) and AP Suresh Kumar too made significant contributions for SVPB in that phase. Kerala Ranji players such as K Jayaraman and Balachander and Karnataka stars such as Prakash and Sanath Kumar too played for SVPB in the 1980s.

It was a golden period for SVPB. Many championships in the Coimbatore League, outstation tournament wins, solid performances in the first division league in Madras made it the happiest decade for Soundararajan in his life.  For some of the tournaments, he brought in big national stars such as Ashok and Rahul Mankad, Balwinder Sandhu and Ghavri to play for SVPB. Legendary Gundappa Viswanath too played for SVPB. It was a great experience for the local boys of Udumalpet to play alongside these legends.  

Madhavan at No. 10, Peter Fernandez bats No. 11 for SVPB
Sukumar remembers a match from that decade. With Ashok Mankad captaining that match, he asked as to how good Peter Fernandez and NP Madhavan were. Soundararajan told him that they were Tamil Nadu state cricketers. Ashok heard him out and told him ‘Okay. Good. Then Madhavan will bat at No. 10 and Fernandez at No. 11’. From losing to local teams in the Coimbatore league, SVPB as a cricket club had gained national recognition.

Sukumar almost had an offer letter on hand from RBI along with off spinner NS Ramesh but he refused to be lured leaving Selvakumar furious at this talented opener opting for an unknown club and corporate in Udumalpet as against the ‘Central’ Bank of India. “For many years, he did not talk to me angered at my decision to continue with SVPB in Udumalpet” says Sukumar looking back at his loyalty to Soundararajan. At that time, the salary at RBI would have been higher but in these four decades he has had absolutely no regrets for the treatment by Soundararajan and the management has been truly amazing.

We still cherish memories of playing alongside Brijesh, GRV, BS Chandrasekar and Ashok Mankad in that period in the 1980s ‘He has taken care of my happiness in a way very few others would have. Such has been the large heartedness of Soundararajan.”

Soundararajan’s drive was the prime reason for cricket to flourish in the Coimbatore region. There was a period in the 1980s when even big named players could not get into the Coimbatore districts team such was the strength of the team. It was Soundararajan who had made it so.

Cricket Support from his two brothers
His brothers - Velusamy and Amarnath too were very fond of cricket. The three of them never missed a single Pongal Test played at Chepauk in those decades in the 60s and 70s. Velusamy and Amarnath supported Soundararajan completely in his cricket initiatives. At different points of time, all of them played for in some form or the other for the teams from Udumalpet. Each of the brothers would take turns to be present for SVPB's matches and would encourage the team in taking on the bigger guns in those early formative years.
Amarnath flanked by Sukumar and Madhavan at the new temple under construction

If Soundararajan led the cricket initiative, it is Amarnath who is now leading the exercise to build the largest Perumal Temple in Udumalpet off Thali Road. Soundararajan is of the view that without the unflinching support from his two brothers he could not have embarked on such a large cricket initiative.

A Great Human Being as well
Sukumar also points to the great human side of Soundararajan  “While he did a lot for cricket in the region, all of us also learnt a lot from him on life. Even when he was well into his 40s, he would never sit in front of his father that was the respect he had for elders. The care he showed for his parents was something one had to see to believe."

"To actually spend in lakhs on cricket in the 1980s when the production was just upwards of 10 tons was a sizeable investment. But such was his passion for cricket and his vision to get district cricketers from Udumalpet on to the next level that he roped in high profile players to help the local players get the exposure of playing alongside top notch cricketers"

"He had the mind to spend a lot of money on cricket and clearly there were a number of cricketers who benefited immensely from Soundararajan and each of us are extremely grateful to him for his contribution to cricket.”
India's Fastest bowler from the 1980s TA Sekar (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2013/08/ta-sekar-fastest-indian-bowler-of-1980s.html) echoes Sukumar's sentiments "Soundar is a very good human being and encouraged a lot of cricketers from Udumalpet. He was a good friend of mine. When ever he came to Madras, he would call on me and we would meet at his guest house on TTK Road and have a long and engaging chat on Cricket."

It may be recalled that when SVPB wanted to hand over Globe Trotters after 4years in the TNCA First Division, it was MRF, of which TA Sekar (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2013/08/ta-sekar-architect-behind-worlds-best.html) was an integral part, that took over and has since been running the club for the last three decades.

After he joined SVPB, Madhavan struck a century for Tamil Nadu in the knock out of the Ranji Trophy in the mid 1980s and he too had several luring offers “I continued to get many exciting offers through the 1980s from various banks and corporates but Soundararajan took great care of me that I never felt like I missed anything in life. Not once since 1982 did I ever contemplate moving out of Udumalpet and the SVPB Group.”  


Both Sukumar and Madhavan have risen to the post of Vice President in the company and built large and beautiful villas in Udumalpet something that may have been unlikely in Madras. 
                      NP Madhavan's house in Udumalpet

The Cricket Revolutionary from Udumalpet
From being beaten by the smallest of teams in the lower rung of the Coimbatore league in the early 1970s, SVPB emerged as a strong competitive side giving the best of teams a run for their money in the TNCA 1st division, the prestigious Arlem and Tripanuthura tournaments in the 1980s. 

Now 75, Soundararajan closely watches Dhoni on the big screen from his sprawling house East of Udumalpet on the Madathukulam Highway and wonders if one or two from his team could have scaled that peak  in those decades gone by like the small town boy that Dhoni was!!! Two local boys from Udumalpet who studied in the Government school reached the top, well almost. M Senthilnathan captained the Indian U19 team in Australia in the late 1980s and UR Radhakrishnan was on the verge of selection for the Indian Test Tour to New Zealand.
Soundararajan has the greatest words of praise for the two boys who he personally went after – S Sukumar, the first cricketer he roped for his team and NP Madhavan, who he forced to quit IOB and join SVPB "Both have remained loyal and humble for four decades despite their achievements Their contribution, both to our cricket team as well as to our Group has given me great satisfaction.” 
Players from a remote and unknown cricket district of Tamil Nadu had an opportunity to share the dressing room with the best of Indian cricketrs in the 1980s, something that no player in that region could have dreamt of a decade earlier. Coimbatore became the most competitive district in Cricket in the 1980s.

One man was the sole architect of this transformation. The cricketing fraternity of Coimbatore remains ever grateful to him for he revolutionized the way the district cricketers thought and played. He made them dream and helped their dreams come true. He supported them all the way, treated them as his own family, took care of their education, their marriage and even their children’s education and marriage expenses.

He gave the cricketers in the district ‘a never before experienced’ confidence of taking on the big boys in cricket. M Soundararajan was a cricketing visionary who single handedly changed the face of Coimbatore cricket in the 1970s and 80s.

(The story has been subsequently edited for Headline and Content)

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Lovely article - heard of him. Very nice to know in depth. Great people. Very nicely brought about. Great work mate.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic man great work keep up the good writing

Rajesh

Dog said...

Wonderful Prabhu...did not know our coach MR Ram Singh was part of this initiative. I cant forget the days I would spend in his shop talking about our school cricket. He was a very loving and caring person.

Not to ignore the hero of the article people like him has made cricket what it is today....hope BCCI and TNCA recognize his contributions...

Covairafi said...

Grate job. Keep going.

Anonymous said...

Superbly Written Story.

( Former TN Cricketer)

Usha Sampath said...

Superb article. Udumalpet and cricket never thought so

Anonymous said...

Too good. Really superb piece of history from cricket away from Chennai.

Anonymous said...

Great one !! ������

Anonymous said...

Fantastic story about loyalties and bonds that remain for life: both in cricket and temples. Especially like the first image of Mr soundarajan with his pug, which also subtly symbolises loyality

Anonymous said...

Fantastic story and the super pic of a dog doing namaskaram to the hero of the story elevates it.

On another note, when will we ever stop bringing in a western equivalence to elevate ourselves ? Calling Sri Soundararajan the Packer of TN or whatever is just demeaning his contribution to Udumalapet / TN cricket. Why can’t we just leave him just be who he is and still celebrate his contribution ? Why do we need a western crutch ??

Unknown said...

Super