Wednesday, May 26, 2021

VK Parthasarathy Tennis TNTA VP

After losing the first two sets playing in a canvas shoe, he came back barefoot and won the next three to win the Stanley Cup in 1959. Blood Stains marked the entire path when he came up to receive the trophy – N Sankar, Chairman, Sanmar Group

He was a lovely man, extremely nice, soft and gentle with a good sense of humour – Vijay Amritraj, President, TNTA

A True Gentleman on and off the court – N Kumar, Former President, TNTA

Former Tennis Player and VP of the TNTA VK Parthasarathy passed away on Monday aged 82. In the l950s, he trained under the great TK Ramanathan and was his favourite pupil. During his prime, when he also moved into the top 10 in India, he won the South India Hard Court Junior Singles title won the Stanley Cup on barefoot, Captained the Madras University and the State team.

In 1961, tennis legend R Krishnan picked him as his doubles partner for the tour of Pakistan and won all the matches on tour. Parthasarathy also reached the finals in the singles tournament losing predictably to Krishnan who swept all the titles on that tour. 

In 1989, he was handpicked by N Sankar (now Chairman of the Sanmar Group) to don the role of Honorary Secretary of the TNTA, the year when Sankar took over as the President. It was he who suggested to Sankar that there should be prize money for the City Club Tennis League. The Sanmar Group has been anchoring the league since then with sponsorship of the tournament. He was also involved in the process of laying the first synthetic court in South India at the Madras Club. He later became the Vice-President of TNTA when he also worked with N Kumar, now Vice Chairman of the Sanmar Group.

He began his corporate career at EID Parry and towards the fag end of his career worked with Sankar in the finance group at Sanmar. 

Topspin Backhand – A Beauty
Chairman of the Sanmar Group the 75 year old N Sankar(Jolly Rovers Sankar@ 75), who also runs the famous Jolly Rovers cricket team, had known Pachu as a good close dear friend since 1958. He recounts those early years “Pachu and I went to TK Ramanathan’s courts together. He was Ramanathan’s favourite student. TKR would use him as a demonstration model. Pachu had the perfect tennis strokes. He was an absolute exponent of the net game and would always be at the net for the volley. His topspin backhand was a thing of beauty.” 

Winning the Stanley Cup Bare Foot
Sankar was just 14 when he watched Parthasarathy in action in the final of the Stanley Cup Final played at the Loyola College Tennis Court “The court was one of the best in the city. Pachu played the first two sets against Dr. S Srinivasan Ratnam with Bata Canvas shoes that had thin soles. It looked like he was playing on ice. He often slipped in the canvas shoes and lost the first two sets. Frustrated at this and in an angry gesture, he removed his shoes, played bare foot, won the next three sets and lifted the cup.”
The Vivekananda College Physical Director was so upset after the first two sets that he left the court in a hush, only to be called back a little later by Sankar and his friends when Parthasarthy was making a sensational comeback. Sankar recalls “The PD had to defend himself in front of the boys and said that he was confident of his ward coming back to win. And that was the reason for him leaving the court.”

Sankar remembers to this day the blood stains that marked the entire path when Parthasarthy went to receive the Cup.

A bystander with legendary Krishnan in action in Pakistan
By this time, R Krishnan was already making waves both in India and overseas. He was already seen as the all time great tennis player from India. Repeatedly Parthasarathy would lose to Krishnan. In 1961, when the team was to go to Pakistan to play in tournaments there, Krishnan picked Parthasarathy as his doubles partner. While Parthasarathy did make the finals of one of the tournaments, he was thrashed by Krishnan. In the doubles he had better fortune as he won all the matches on tour. Sankar recalls as to how Parthasarathy saw the funny side of things in those doubles matches “All he had to do was to serve properly and then watch Krishnan take over. When he was to receive the serve, he had to get the ball back into the opponent’s court and Krishnan would manage the rest. ‘Except for these two activities, his role was to watch all the matches almost from the sidelines – such was the domination of the legendary Krishnan.”

Opponent was not ready, you have two more serves!!!
He began his corporate career at EID Parry and then later towards the end of his career, he worked with Sankar in the finance group at Sanmar.

Lovely  Man with a good sense of humour
Former tennis legend Vijay Amritraj remembers playing with Pachu when he was a sub junior. Talking from his home in Los Angeles, he said that Pachu was always generous with his help and comments “He was a lovely man, extremely nice, soft and gentle with a good sense of humour.”
This lighter side of Parthasarathy was seen in full bloom in doubles match when he partnered with Parry's Chairman.  Sankar recounts that funny incident, one that the Chairman of Parry did not find amusing “He was then a young executive at Parry. Chairman of the firm HVR Iyengar took a liking for his tennis and once the two of them played together in a doubles match. When the Chairman served a double fault, Pachu turned around and said ‘Sir, the opponent was not ready, you still have two more serves.’ The Chairman of Parry did not find this funny!!!” 

When Sankar took over as the President of TNTA in 1989 (by this time he had already made a big impact in city cricket with Jolly Rovers, under the managership of Bharath Reddy - Chemplast Bharath Reddy-, winning the Palayampatti Shield thrice in succession in the 1980s), he roped in Parthasarathy as the Secretary “The two of us did a lot of reorganization over a period of 6-7 years. We brought in the Tennis league and he did a lot of the developmental work there in that phase in the 1990s.”

He was in the next rung in Tennis
Sankar’s brother and Vice Chairman of the Sanmar Group N Kumar, whose daughter was a national champion in Swimming (Mayura Kumar), was instrumental as the President of the TNTA in the mid 1990s to bring the ATP tournament to Madras from Delhi. He too knew Parthasarathy for over half a century “Pachu was older than me and I used to look up to him, both at TK Ramanathan’s courts and when he played Regional and National tennis tournaments. He had lovely strokes. As a player, he belonged to the next rung of stars that were good but could not make the grade to greatness.”
"He was a true gentleman both on and off the tennis court.  When I went to the US in the 1960s, he was in Delhi and helped me."

Much later after he settled down, Pachu played regularly with Kumar at the club courts in the city spending the evenings together discussing the development of tennis in the city “As an administrator, Pachu always was perfect and would never do anything wrong and got along very well with people. He would go the extra mile for the game” says Kumar.

Vijay Amritraj says that in his post playing days, Pachu was extremely helpful and supportive of tennis in Tamil Nadu “We will all miss him”.

Sankar saw him as one of the finest human beings He was warm hearted and never once lost his temper. He was a person I really liked.”

Thiruvahindrapuram Malola Kannan

Back to roots – Covid's Second Wave drives renowned Prabhandham Presenter to his hereditary home at the historical Divya Desam

After 27 long years, Malola Kannan has packed his bags for good and headed back this month to Deiva Nayakan Divya Desam in Thiruvahindrapuram where his forefathers had performed daily service for several centuries

I am looking forward to offering my daily service to Devanatha Perumal and Hayagrivar for the rest of my life - Malola Kannan
In a sudden and unexpected development, the intense second wave and the consequent lockdown in Madras has driven 45 year old Malola Kannan, a world renowned Prabhandham presenter back to his roots at Deiva Nayakan Perumal Divya Desam in Thiruvahindrpuram to perform service to Moovaraagiya Oruvan and Hayagrivar at the historical temple. While reverse migration is currently being spoken about in the corporate world, this one is probably the first in the temple circles of a renowned full time city based Vedic Scholar returning to his hereditary temple town with his entire family. His father, TE Krishna Desikan, now aged 86, was a renowend scholar at this Divya Desam in his hey days and performed service till recently. However, his health has suffered in recent times, is currently immobile and needs personal care. It is great delight to the father that his son has returned to their hereditary home and is now commited to performing daily service at the temple for the rest of his life.

இருந்தண்  மா நிலம்  ஏனம் அது ஆய் 
வளை  மருப்பினில் அகத்து ஒடுக்கி 
கருந்தண் மா கடல்கண் துயின்றவன் இடம் 
கமலநல் மலர்தேறல் அருந்தி 

இன் இசை முரன்றுஎழும் அளிகுலம் 
பொதுளி அம போழிலூட 
செருந்தி நாள்மலர் சென்று அணைந்து உழிதரு 
திருவயிந்திரபுரமே - Thiru Mangai Azhvaar

After early Vedic Initiation from his father, Malola Kannan left the Divya Desam as an eighteen year old to pursue higher Studies in Sanskrit. In the mid 1990s, he studied Mimamsa at the Sanskrit College in Mylapore. Later he pursued MA Sanskrit at the Presidency College and M. Phil at the Madras University. Currently, he is in the final stages of his P. hd at the Tirupathi Vidya Peetam.
                                          TE Krishna Desikan

Talking to this writer from his historical home a few yards from the Devanatha Perumal Temple, Malola Kannan said that till the end of 2020, returning to Thiruvahindrapuram had not been in his plans.

"While I had come to the city to pursue my Sanskrit education, the need for financial stability led me to continue my life in Madras in the 1990s."

However, the intensity of the second wave and the extended lockdown led him to this sudden decision to return ‘HOME’.

“Even in January and February this year, when things were seemingly returning to normal and weddings were back in full swing, I had no plans to return to Thiruvahindrapuram. But finally, the Lord of Thiru Vahindrapuram has used the intense second wave of Covid-19  and the stringent lockdown in Madras to instill the thought in me that it’s time I returned to my roots and performed daily service here.”

He says he is delighted to return to his home town after close to three decades and to now be able to perform every day service to Devanatha Perumal and Hayagrivar.

Malola Kannan belongs to the tenth generation of Vedic Service Providers at this Divya Desam. His daily service at the temple includes presenting flowers to the Lord, reciting the Vedas every morning and evening both at the Perumal Sannidhi as well as at the Hayagriva Sannidhi atop the hill and being present at Satru Murai. 

Popular Prabhandham CDs
Just over 15 years ago, it was Malola Kannan who roped in Navalpakkam Ranganathan (Rangappa) for the presentation of the Nalayira Divya Prabhandham and for its launch in CD format at that time. Prior to that, he had already rendered the entire Vedantha Desikar Stotrams in a solo presentation. He has also presented with Rangappa the now globally popular Desikar Prabhandham and launched in CD format.

Over the last couple of decades, he has also been a much sought after 'Brihaspathi' at Weddings and other functions.

While this section has in the past written several stories on original inhabitants leaving their hereditary towns seeking greener pastures in cities, this move of Malola Kannan to his home town to perform daily service at the Deiva Nayakan Divya Desam.                                                            
Interestingly over the last decade, his elder daughter, Chandmaye, has developed great interest in football and is currently pursuing a worldwide course in Football Analytics (Chandomaye Football). For many years now, his son, Kosagan, just into his teens, has been a full time resident at the Karpagambal Veda Gurukalam in Mylapore and is being initiated into the Vedas by Kannan Ganapadigal.
                   Bespectacled Kosagan is second from right

Malola Kannan has a huge clientele in Madras and says will continue to perform wedding ceremonies “I am only three hours away from Madras and will continue to serve those who have used my services over the last couple of decades. But it is a great feeling to be back at the home where I grew up in the late 1970s and 80s. While I had been here for all the big utsavams in the decades gone by, the opportunity to serve every morning and evenings at the Sannidhi is devotionally exciting.”

Thiru Mangai Azhvaar in his Periya Thirumozhi refers to the Lord of Thiru Vahindrapuram as ‘Moovaraagiya Oruvan’ (Thiru Vahindrapuram Divya Desam).

This move of Malola Kannan to Thiru Vahindrapuram is great news for historical temple towns. A few years ago, this section had written about original inhabitants of Therazhundur Divya Desam (Therazhundur) expressing intent to return to their roots. Hopefully, this move of Malola Kannan will lead a wave of traditionalists returning to their home town for good. 

This section will track the developments on that front.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Nirupama Vaidyanathan

A National Women's Champion at 14

At 17,  she took an unprecedented call to skip Collegiate Education and turned PRO on the World Tennis Circuit
The first Indian Woman to play in a Grand Slam was a Trendsetter and led the way for the NextGen of Tennis Players
Nirupama spearheaded the growth of Women's Tennis in India- Tennis Legend Vijay Amritraj
In the early 1980s, Nirupama would come to the Forest College Ground in Coimbatore to watch her father KS Vaidyanathan, a former Ranji cricketer play for LMW against SVPB and Ramakrishna Steels in the first division cricket league. She was an extrovert even as a 5 year old and would join this writer,  the sons of former Ranji fast bowler B Kalyanasundaram (who also played for LMW in the late 70s and early 80s)  and a few other boys for a game of ‘tennis ball’ cricket on the boundary edge near the Pavilion at the West End. While some of the boys graduated from tennis ball to red ball cricket, Nirupama continued her engagement with the tennis ball and took to tennis seriously in the second half of the 1980s under the mentorship of her father who himself had been a district level tennis player. She was a trendsetter for Indian Women in Tennis. Overcoming financial challenges, she went on to become the India Number One and stayed there for a decade, a period when she also became the first Indian woman to reach the main draw of a Grand Slam. She is also a bronze medalist from the Asian Games.  In November last year, this section had featured a story on a sporting father and daughter duo, where the daughter went on to become a national swimming champion (Mayura Kumar Swimming). This one is of another such duo with the daughter from a Tier two town middle class family without any sponsorship support rising to the top in India. Here is the story. 

The Cricketer Father
After taking to law and beginning his practice in Coimbatore in the early 1960s, KS Vaidyanathan (Vaidy to his teammates) moved to Madras to pursue his cricket motivated by extraordinary performances at the University level.  PR Ramakrishnan (Ramki), who was in the TN Ranji squad for nine matches in the 1970s but never got to play for the state, recalls Vaidhy’s century in a University match “Against Asif Iqbal’s Osmania University, Vaidy went in as a night watchman and bravely encountered a barrage of bouncers to survive the evening. The next day he topped 180 and the innings instantly brought him into limelight.” 
“Many a time Vaidy opened the bowling and provided the initial breakthrough for his team and then he would come back later with his left arm orthodox spin and bowl with teasing flight. He was a gritty batsman who at No. 6 or 7 would often provide support to the top order batsman and hang in when the team required him.”

VV Kumar(VVK), the legendary spinner from the late 1950s and 60s, who watched him closely in that phase, says that although he caught the selectors’ eye very early, he could not progress much “He was one competent leftie who dished out excellent performances year after year with the ball. On matting, he twice broke the seven wickets barrier in city vs districts match.”

A Thorought Bred Gentleman
Kalyanasundaram (Kalli), who played for Jolly Rovers and LMW with Vaidyanathan and who as Nirupama recalls later in this story was a regular at his Race Course road home in Coimbatore, remembers the cricketing acumen and the human side of Vaidhya “He was someone we all looked up to. In a match at the Loyola College ground, after he had opened the bowling and the opposition had got off to a brisk start in the first 4-5overs, he had no hesitation in going to the captain on his own and suggesting to him to bring me into the attack. I took seven wickets and the opposition was bowled out for under a 100. He had a strong cricketing acumen and could read the game well. This also showed that he always placed the team interest ahead of himself.”
"He was a thorough bred gentleman."

Ranji Debut and out soon, forever
Vaidyanathan took four wickets for four runs in his second match in Ranji Cricket but a 'selfless' cricketing incident in the next match meant he was never selected again (will keep the specifics out). He took up a job at India Cements and played for a few years for Jolly Rovers in the 1960s.

N Sankar(Sanmar Sankar), who became an integral part of cricket development in the city along with his father KS Narayanan after taking over Jolly Rovers in the second half of the 1960s remembers Vaidy as a pleasant personality who helped the team with his gritty batting “As a bowler, he could swing the ball at the start of the innings and then later bowl spin.”

Ramki, who had a four decades long association with Vaidyanathan in Coimbatore including spending time with him just ahead of his death last year, believes that Vaidy could have fitted into the state team despite the presence of VV Kumar and Venkat “He was a genuine all rounder and a terrific catcher who took many a good catch at slip.”

Kalli and Vaidy - The English Conversations at Forest College
However, once he knew that the prospects of a Ranji recall was out of sights, he returned to Coimbatore to pursue his legal profession. His father had also taken ill and was confined to a wheel chair. It was Vaidhy who took care of him while he continued his legal practice in Coimbatore. He played for LMW as a guest player and was easily the best spinner on view at the end of the 70s and the early 80s in the Coimbatore league. His command over the English language was outstanding as this writer watched him and 'REC Engineer' Kalli engage in conversations on cricket sitting in that old styled pavilion at the Forest College ground.
A Gifted Sportsman
Former RBI off spinner NS Ramesh played the early years of his cricket under the captaincy of Vaidyanathan “I began my cricket in Coimbatore both for LMW and the Districts under the captaincy of Vaidy. He was a natural cricketer and gifted sportsman. In addition to cricket, he was also good at Tennis and Billiards.”

Won many matches for Tirunelveli 
In the early 1970s, he won many matches for Tirunelveli with the ball, recalls dashing opener KR Rajagopal "We played several matches together. Vaidy was instrumental in us winning many matches as he would take important wickets at crucial moments. It was rare in those days for someone to bowl left arm with the new ball and later spin as well. He was a very good Tennis Player and also participated alongside Ramanathan Krishnan and Jaideep Mukherjee in the All India Tennis Tournament organised in Tirunelveli by KS Raman."
Guile even in his 40s
After having played for Bombay in Ranji Trophy Cricket in the late 1970s, S Srinivasan came back to Madras and played for the state. In the early 80s, he joined SVPB, Udumalpet and was involved in a few battles with Vaidyanathan  "Even late in his Cricketing career,  Vaidy was in his 40s by then, he showed his guile as a bowler with the new ball (Swing ) & old ball (Orthodox Spin). As a batsman, he was gritty & never ever gifted his wicket contributing useful runs."

"I found him to be a calm and composed competitor and human being."

Polished in Conduct
State off spinner from the 1960s R Chandrasekaran (SBI RC) who celebrated his 85th birthday this Friday (May 14) had two stints in Coimbatore in the 1980s first as an AGM at the main branch of SBI. It was a period he built a close friendship with Vaidyanathan “We both played together for RS Puram club and went to the Tripanathura tournament. Though he should have played more matches for the state, he never displayed his frustration at the unjust treatment meted out to him. He was always polished in his conduct. He was a disciplinarian and played a great mentoring role when he initiated his daughter Nirupama into Tennis at the clubs in Coimbatore. 

While he had been a cricketer for over two decades and continued to play for LMW till he was into his 40s, the cricketing experience had probably left a sour taste in him and led him to initiate his son and daughter into tennis, where one could come up through individual performances and not be dependent on selection. 

The Best Allrounder from Coimbatore
Ramakrishnan played for YMA in Madras and later Ramakrishna Steels in Coimbatore and has had many a cricketing battle with Vaidy in both the cities “He was the best all rounder Coimbatore has seen. He was the kingpin of LMW. He was a popular and highly respected cricketer and a HERO to the cricketers growing up in the 1970s. In those years, it was not easy for a districts sportsperson to make a mark in Madras. While he felt the pinch in cricket, his daughter faced issues in Tennis with not too many sponsors forthcoming to support her endeavour.”

Motivational Coach
For a few years, Vaidyanathan conducted summer coaching camps at the Forest College ground. Rajesh, the elder son of Kalyanasundaram was Ganesh’s classmate at Mani’s school and watched many of the matches LMW played in the late 70s and early 80s. He recounts the two years he was at the camp “Vaidy uncle was a great team player and leader.While he was a very good left arm spinner, what stayed in my mind for a long time was the way he encouraged the players. He was motivational.”

"When he started the summer coaching camp, I joined the camp and learned a lot in the two summers that I spent. The lessons he imparted were invaluable." 

It was those motivational abilities and clear communication that led him to tap into the potential in his daughter and create a champion tennis player.

The early 1980s – Tennis ahead of Cricket
The fact that he had been given a raw deal by the state in cricket was always at the back of his mind. Even though her elder brother Ganesh was a diehard cricket fan in his school days, she remembers her father keeping both of them away from any thoughts on playing the game. He was of the belief that in an individual sport, one could slog and achieve success where as in a game of cricket, one had to depend on the mood of the selectors and probably also had to be in their good books. Also, the fact that her elder cousins, KG Ramesh and KG Suresh, were already into Tennis and doing well tilted the scales towards that sport.

Dominating the Tennis Scene in Coimbatore
His has always been a sporting family. Younger brother, KS Natarajan, was a cricketer while elder brother KS Ganapathy too played for the district. The latter’s two sons, KG Suresh and KG Ramesh, were into tennis very early on. Vaidhyanathan himself was also a tennis player and a districts billiards champion in Coimbatore. While Nirupama spent a good deal of the weekend at Coimbatore’s cricket grounds, once it was time for her to take up a sport, her father initiated her into tennis.

Follows Tennis Legend Krishnan's advice
They resided in the Race Course area with easy access to multiple tennis courts. Her father was a member of the Cosmopolitan Club that was just 400 meters from home and he was playing a lot of tennis in Coimbatore. Tennis facilities were also available at City Club and Association Court.

Vaidyanathan was a great fan of Krishnan, the Tennis Legend. He had heard him say that to aspire to be a tennis player, one needed to have a court to play “One of the first things my father did was to identify a court that we could use at all times. While there were many clubs in Coimbatore with tennis courts, there were restrictions on timings and that meant courts were not always available for us to practice and not at our convenience. My father took care of the maintenance of the court for four years at Pierce Leslie and we were allowed to use it all times that we wanted. For the next six years, my father used another individual court (Mandradiar’s home) where we practiced undisturbed” Nirupama told this writer in a conversation from her home in Florida.

Vaidyanathan began coaching Ganesh in the early 1980s and initially his entire focus was on the son. Nirupama accompanied her brother to the club and spent a majority of her time watching him play. She could not be a bystander and very soon pestered her father to allow her to have a few knocks on the tennis court and gained entry into tennis aged 7, in the summer of 1983, one when India won the Cricket World Cup.

The First Motivating Words from her father
While her father’s tennis attention continued to lay with Ganesh, she slowly began to get more court time. More importantly, almost unnoticed, she seemed to be quietly listening to all the coaching tips of her father.  One evening when her father returned home, she heard him tell her mother that the daughter was grasping the nuances of tennis very fast just by watching her brother play and absorbing his conversations with Ganesh “Those encouraging words from my father motivated me a lot and was my first big boost in tennis and spurred my early interest in the game.” 

A Unique Tennis Problem
Within the first year of her entry into Tennis, Nirupama encountered a unique problem. While there were 25 budding tennis enthusiasts at the City Club, not one was a girl (other than her). And thus right from the beginning she began to play with the boys her age. Her pickup in Tennis was so fast that very soon she began to play against the bigger boys as well and even surprised them by picking up a set.

KG Ramesh – Her Tennis Hero 
While her father was number one in her life, her cousin KG Ramesh was her Tennis Hero through her childhood days. Ramesh, who is now a tennis coach in Coimbatore, swept all tournaments on sight in those years and was someone she looked up to in her growing years. She practiced a lot with him in her formative years.

Ind v Swedan 1985 - Watches her first big match
In 1985, her father took her to Bangalore to watch the Davis Cup Quarter Final against Swedan, the best in the world at that time. It was a team that included top ranked Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg. She remembers that as the first big international match she saw in Tennis.

Into her early teens, in the second half of the 1980s, she was winning inter club tournaments competing in the U14 boys category travelling to Madurai, Dindigul and Salem among other cities!!! The fact that girls were so far away from tennis that decade was best illustrated in the inter club tournaments in the districts. The announcer would often call out the list of U12 and U14 BOYS and shout out her name in that boys list. 

A Tennis Family
The entire family played tennis and once there was even a joke if this family would leave anything for others after they knocked off all the titles – a unique record- cousin KG Ramesh won the Men’s title, he and Ganesh the doubles, her brother picked up the boys’ singles title, she won the girls’ singles and her appa won the veterans title.

When she visited Madras for the first time for a tournament she beat the highly fancied and top ranked Aarathi Venkatesh and went up to the Semi Finals. In her first ever nationals in Hyderabad, she again reached the Semi Finals aged 12!!! ‘At that point, I knew I was not far behind’ recounts Nirupama of that tournament.

Despite her early success, the plan was not to make Tennis a career “Appa wanted us to play for fun, for the discipline it brought to one’s life and he wanted youthful energy to be channelized towards something that was engaging. At that stage in life, being in a sport helped me in setting goals and also created a daily routine for me in life” recalls Nirupama on how her appa wanted her to look at Tennis.

Don’t forget the role of your amma – Vaidyanathan to his daughter
Through that entire period till the turn of the decade, every morning her amma would have a glass of milk ready for her before the clock turned seven “Appa was intense in everything he did. Every morning we would be at the tennis court for about an hour. In the evening, he would pick me up from the St. Josephs School on Trichy Road and we would directly go to the tennis court. It was real fun and we never felt the pressure. At the end of the tennis sessions, there were lots of people at the club and we would engage in chats.”
“Very early on in my life, appa would often talk about the role of my amma and her silent contribution. She was the source of nutrition for us. When I came back from the morning practice, the breakfast would be ready. And in the evening, the hungry girl would be welcomed by the smiling amma holding a tiffen plate in her hand. It is a contribution that often goes unnoticed. But she played a vital role at home each day of my life in that period.”

Brother Ganesh who had been skinny till his mid teens became a bit more muscular and began winning many tournaments beating every player in Coimbatore. But after he graduated, he took up a job in Income Tax and a life away from Tennis. Once her brother went into college, her father turned his tennis attention on her. At 14, she won the National Women’s title and by 16 she was playing in ITF tournaments and Satellites. She had jumped to 30 in Junior World rankings. 

First Time in India - No College, A Girl turns Pro@17
When she was into Class XII, a debate arose on pursuing academics and a possible collegiate education in the US or turning pro in tennis. KG Ramesh remembers those months ahead of her Class XII exams “As with middle class families, we placed a great deal of importance on academics. While she practiced a lot and participated in many tournaments as a teenager, she continued to do well in studies. Finance was clearly a challenge for Tennis Players. When I won tourneys in India, I used that prize money to fund my overseas trips for my tournaments in Europe. But soon after playing in a few tournaments, I would have exhausted the prize money and had to return to India to compete in local tournaments. Despite these potential financial challenges, her father gave her the freedom to take a shot at Tennis and that was a brave decision from my uncle.”
And for the first time in an Indian middle class family, a decision was taken for a teenage girl to turn ‘Tennis Pro’ at 17.

Nirupama says that they were definitely not financially well off for Tennis when she started playing. "When I competed in the ITF tourneys, there was no prize money. I only got some points for every win. Accommodation was provided but the air fare and all other expenses had to be borne by me.”

One off Financial Support from CDTA
One of the earliest financial help came from the Coimbatore District Tennis Association “They provided Rs 40000 which was a big deal for them but for me even that big money helped cover the expenses of just one trip.”

Prize money in Indian State Ranking Tournaments that were in the order of Rs. 10000 to Rs. 50000 helped cover some of the overseas expenses. In an all India invitation tourney, when she won the women’s tournament (Ramesh Krishnan won the Men’s) and secured Rs. 50000, she immediately went and participated in a tournament in Japan.  

The first and only corporate support
The biggest corporate support came from Indian Bank. The Bank sponsored 10000 dollars for her overseas trip but that was about the only corporate deal she had in that entire phase even though she had been India’s Number One Women’s player since the time she was 14 and had won almost all the tournaments in the country. It seemed to her that being in a Tier two city like Coimbatore was a clear disadvantage. 

As Nirupama looks back almost three decades after she began to dominate the Indian Tennis Scene, she is hugely disappointed that the TNTA did not help her even a wee bit in that entire phase “Indian Bank was the only organization that supported me. The TNTA could have done a lot but failed to do so. Even today I wonder why they did not support me in any way.”

In fact the current TNTA President Vijay Amritraj has been in talks with her to see if she could help girls’ tennis in Tamil Nadu and is hoping that some progress can be made after the Pandemic is out of the way.

It was the then Sports Secretary DV Sundar who pitched with the sports loving Chairman of Indian Bank, M Gopalakrishnan, to offer her a job at 18 that he thought would provide her some financial security. Talking from his home in Thoraippakam, Sundar showers lavish praise on Nirupama on her contribution to Tennis  “She was already the Number One in Tennis in India and had begun to do well on the Pro Tour. I thought a job in the bank would provide her financial security and that she would be able to pursue her tennis career with confidence. When I pitched the idea with our Chairman, he readily agreed.  She was the best player at that time and brought laurels to the country. We just wanted to do our bit for a sportswoman from Tamil Nadu.”

She participated in Junior Wimbledon and French Open but did not have money to go to the US and Australian Open.She remembers her appa writing letters to several corporates for sponsorships but there was no light at the end of the ‘Tennis Tunnel” that seemed dark for women’s players of that era. 

As she looks back at those disappointments in the mid 1990s, she thinks that she was at least 10 years ahead of time. Much later, with the technological developments, communication became a lot easier and sponsorship became better for those who succeeded her in Indian Tennis.
It was during the junior tournament in Wimbledon that a coach handed his visiting card and promised to train her in Luxemburg.  As a teenager she was all excited at this unexpected opportunity to be trained in Europe. Her Appa instantly approved and decided that amma would accompany her on the trip. “Within a week of our reaching Luxemburg, we found the coach missing. He had gone into hiding after a financial mess with his other students and we were left in the lurch.”

When she was in Luxemborg, a story featured in The Hindu that a Sardar in Europe had agreed to sponsor her and take care of her entire expense. It turned out to be a faux pas. “Everyone congratulated me on a non existant sponsorship”!!!

Having left Coimbatore in great excitement, it would have been embarrassing to return home and she stayed back contemplating on the next plan of action. An Indian family in Luxemburg came forward to support her for three months providing accommodation. A Swedish Tennis School came forward to train her free till the time she started earning “The typical fee was Rs. 1000 an hour but they believed in my potential and backed me” says Nirupama. 

All alone on Scary European Nights!!!
To save on the costs, amma returned home. Nirupama was all of 18 and travelling all over Europe, all alone. In this phase she travelled to Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Spain and Italy “Sometimes I would board a train at 4am, other times I would be all alone in a railway platform at 2am. There were no phones, no ATM cards. It was a scary life for a teenage girl and was not something that those back in India could have visualized. Everyone thought that I was leading a glamourous life but tennis on the pro tour is anything but that. You are running from the station to the court and then again back to the station to head to another city. You are always short on money. It is a very rough life. You just get tired and burned out. While the financial aspect was definitely a dampener and the consequent inability to hire a coach and a physio affected my performance and growth, the absence of my parents meant I was all alone for long periods of time. The emotional impact on a young woman is hard to tell.Thankfully I survived that phase.”

Away from the family and without a coach - The psychological impact for a young girl 
For the first 17 years of her life, she was always with her parents and that meant a great psychological support. The biggest challenge for her after turning pro was the amount of time she spent away from the family. International calls were very expensive and her parents would talk for a few minutes once a week, mostly on a Sunday. The typical mode of communication was through a fax message “My appa would send hand written motivational messages in the first half of the page while my amma would write out recipes to cook for that month. Yes, I also had to cook my own food!!! 

By the end of 1995, she had become a top 300 player and a year later had jumped into the top 200 which meant she could enter the qualifying draw for the Grand Slams. By this time, she was also beginning to make some money out of Tennis. Reaching the semi finals of challengers got her $700-$800. Youth travel in Europe got big discounts in those days. But financing the tours continued to remain a big challenge. After she lost in the 2nd round of the qualifier in the French Open, money ran out. She had got into the main draw in Uzbekistan but did not have money and had to return to Coimbatore without playing.

She says Tennis LegendVijay Amritraj did ask her to come to Madras to be coached in his academy but she was in Europe in that phase and hence could not benefit from the coaching at his academy. In the second half of the 1990s, she shifted to the US and found a coach Dave O’Meara of the Brittania Amritraj Tennis Foundation. But he too did not travel often with her for tournaments and only trained her in the US.

The Best Year in Tennis
1998 turned out to be the best year in Tennis. In January, she managed to enter the main draw of the Australian Open through a wild card entry, the first Indian woman to do so. Her coach was there with her for that particular tournament but given the financial constraints she missed her parents at the Grand Slam. She would have loved their presence but the finances simply did not permit. It improved her rankings but it was not enough to propel her into the main draw of the other Grand Slams and she continued to remain in the Qualifiers.
That year, she also bagged the bronze medal at the Asian Games in Bangkok “I was confident of going for the Gold but with Mahesh Bhupathi playing in every single segment, he was completely exhausted by the time he got into the mixed doubles. The playing of the national anthem while she was on the podium was a memorable moment in my life.”

Spearheaded the growth of Women's Tennis in India
Vijay Amritraj had just finished his career as a player in 1990 and had begun his commentary stint in 91. Talking to this writer from his home in Los Angeles, Vijay said that it was exciting to see an Indian woman on the professional tour that decade. "We still had a long way to go in women’s tennis in India. Nirupama spearheaded the growth of women’s tennis in India.  Given the circumstances of Indian Tennis at that time, I think she did as well as one could and came away from the tour as a great professional."
Couple of decades later after she had finished with her playing career, Vijay invited her to do commentary at the Chennai Open “I found her to be a great tennis enthusiast. She enjoys imparting with youngsters the knowledge she has garnered in Tennis over the decades. She has been coaching in the US, which is a good thing. But as the President of the TNTA, I have been keen to bring her to India on a coaching engagement. This pandemic has put everything in a mess and Sport has been affected quite badly. Once we get out of this, I am hoping that she will be able to associate herself with the development of Indian Tennis in some way.”

A return to Tennis after a decade
In 2010, she found that she was working harder than the kids in the academy. And felt the urge to get back on court as a player. She worked hard for several months and played in the commonwealth tournament. Just ahead of the Asian Games match, her daughter had pneumonia. She did not sleep through the night and went to the court the next day. The comeback was a big personal achievement for her and showed to herself that she could still compete on the tennis court.

KG Ramesh who has been running an academy in Coimbatore over the last 8 years says that she was talented as a teenager. She was tenacious, physically strong for her age and had an attitude to win. Her aspirations were also high. Her basics were strong and this resulted in her reaching the top in India by the time she was in her mid teens.

Miraculous to be 130the ranked without a coach and a physio
While I knew she would make it to the top in India, we were not so sure of international success. That was far away in our minds. In fact, I was surprised with the success she achieved on pro tours without a coach and a physio. She could not afford a coach. Her appa even sold lands to fund her tennis. There was very little corporate support or sponsorship. Without any of these, the success she achieved on the pro tour and the top200 ranking was miraculous.

Turns a Commentator
Last decade, she had a short stint as a commentator when Vijay Amritraj invited her for the Chennai Open “It was a great experience to be sitting alongside him and doing commentary at the Chennai Open and the Wimbledon. Vijay was simply amazing. He was supportive and gave me tips through the tournaments. He is a big ambassador for the game and the country.”

Top 100 Goal remained unfulfilled
Her Tennis goal of wanting to be in the Top 100 in the world remained unfulfilled right till the end. She managed to reach 130 in the rankings. One of her biggest professional challenges was that she could not afford a coach or a physical trainer to be with her after she had decided to turn pro. In 8 of the 12 Grand Slam Qualifiers she went into the third set of the final round, that was how close she came each time. She says that in those times, a physio or a coach could have made a big difference.

The Annapoorna Dosai 
She recalls with great delight the fun times with her father in the 1980s. The dosai from Annapoorna and the juice immediately after at Pazha Mudhir Cholai were outstanding. The beautiful weather, the water from Siruvani and the life in the race course and the inspirational drive of my father waking me every morning to take me to the tennis court are unforgettable memories from the decades gone by. Among the regulars for a sporting conversation was former cricketer 'Kalli Uncle'. Her brother Ganesh, with whom she has had a wonderful relationship over the last four decades, runs her Tennis Academy full time “He sacrificed a lot for me and has always been a perfect brother.”

Only my Appa knew my real struggles
Looking back on her career, Nirupama has mixed feelings “My appa was my biggest fan. He knew my struggles that not many others understood.  He was happy with what I had achieved. I had beaten a top 10 ranked player (Magdalena Maleeva) and other top 30 players. But there was a big push that is required in the pro circuit with support staff and 'I simply did not have that'. "

“He was disappointed that he could not give me the monetary push to have a personal coach and a physio that would have made a big difference in my career. In a non technology world, he tried his best to convince sponsors to fund my tennis ambitions but none seemed to be interested. However, both of us were thankful and grateful that I could do what I did. It could have been better but it was a great experience to be the first Indian woman to do what I did – getting into the pro circuit at 17, getting into the Grand Slam and staying there for over a decade.”

Nirupama counts her appa launching her book in Coimbatore as the Crowning moment of her life "My appa was the architect of my tennis life. Till his final breath, I was a super obedient student. For him to launch my book was the greatest feeling I have had in my tennis life. It remains the Crowning Moment of my Life.”
Till 2010 or so, Vaidyanathan had been actively involved in Tennis playing doubles at Coimbatore’s tennis courts. In the last decade, after his son and daughter had settled in the US, he led a rather quiet retired life in Coimbatore “His knee had given way a result of that old injury on Loyola College ground where he twisted his ankle. He did not play tennis in the last five years or so. He would often visit the clubs and read the newspapers but his health deteriorated quite badly. I called on him and visited him in January 2020 a couple of months before he passed away” recalls Ramki of the final months of Vaidhy’s life."

“He devoted almost his entire time to coaching Nirupama and spent his life’s savings on her tennis”. He could not have done anything more for his daughter, says Ramki. 

Vaidhyanathan had a painful final few days of his life, last year. Nirupama was by his bed side in those testing times. She remembers him for his cheerful attitude and says ‘he was never bogged by obstacles”. 
“His smile lasted till the last days of his life. His love for English Literature fascinated me. He would often roll out quotes from Shakespeare.  Those final few days, he was in big pain. I would start a sentence from Hamlet and his passion was so high that even in those painful moments, he would complete the sentence with a smile.”

Those were the memories he passed away with, that of creating a first in India. Hailing from a middle class family in Coimbatore to be able to motivate your daughter to turn PRO at 17 and giving your everything for her - all his financial resources, the physical properties, the psychological motivation through faxed letters, the physical presence around the world when the finances permitted - all in an effort to see her succeed in her tennis career. 

He himself could not reach his potential in Cricket but ensured his daughter reached the top in Tennis and laid a benchmark for the next generation to emulate. 

Srirangam Temple Naidu Venkatesan Passes away

The ‘Nel Alavu’ man of Ranganathaswamy Temple
The Srirangam Temple lost, last evening, one of its most sincere and selfless service personnel in the last half a century
2012 Oonjal Utsavam Day 7 - photo taken by this writer

On 1st May this year, Naidu Venkatesan, who had been serving at the Srirangam Ranganathaswamy Temple for almost four decades called this writer to update about the Chitrai Utsavam and how devotees were not being allowed into the temple. The scenario, he said, took him back to the 1960s when there were no crowds and devotees could come and have darshan of Moolavar Ranganathaswamy as many times as they wanted each day of the year.

Praises New JC Marimuthu
In that telecon, he specifically praised the new JC of the temple, Marimuthu, who had taken over in January this year. He told this writer that the new JC had made it a point to attend the commencement of every procession and this took him back to 1984 to the JC of the time who too would be present for every procession at the temple. He said it was refreshing to see the JC come in traditional attire to be part of the utsavam.

Naidu Venkatesan began his service at the Srirangam Temple in the 1980s and performed his duties as selflessly as one could over an almost four decade period. Sometimes he would carry the Thee Pandham, at other times he would look at the electrical issues. While he had designated work as a HR & CE appointee, he was a man for all seasons. He would never say NO to anyone and never complain about anyone. Such people, only a few in number, are always taken advantage of.  

Carrying a heavy Canopy all alone
Four years ago, it was the Garuda Sevai day in Thai. The procession that evening starts from Veereswaram on the banks of the Cauvery, near Amma Mandapam. Almost everyone these days uses vehicular service to reach the destination but not Venkatesan. Carrying the huge big sized White Canopy from inside the Srirangam temple, he walked over 2kms chatting with this writer through the 45minute trip to banks of the Cauvery. When asked as to why he would not use a motor transport, his response over the last many decades had always remained the same “God has given me a great opportunity to perform Kainkaryam at the temple. I want to do it as sincerely as possible and in as traditional a way as possible in the way I had done it in the year I joined.” And for this service on a hot afternoon, he would be paid Rs. 5 or Rs. 10.

The Nel Alavu man
He was always the man for measuring the Paddy in the Thiru Kottaram near the Garuda Sannidhi on the 7th day of the Utsavam, one that is referred to as ‘Nel Alavu’ event. The 7th day of the Dolotsavam for example is particularly special in that it is on this evening that Namperumal used to personally inspect the granary and witness the measurement of paddy that had accrued to him through gifts from Kings as well as from his devotees. The quantity of paddy also symbolises the prosperity or otherwise of the kingdom. When Namperumal, with his Ubaya Nachiyars reached Thiru Kottaram, West of the Garuda Sannidhi, it was always Naidu Venkatesan who measured and displayed to them the presence of 25kgs of Paddy. He would later shout out the next measurement as 250kgs and 2500kgs of Paddy thus informing Lord Namperumal that all was well in the region and that devotees were taking good care of him by gifting in plenty.

Never asked for Sambhavanai
In a world that is increasingly seeking financial glory, Naidu Venkatesan remained unchanged over four decades in the way he carried out his services. Not once in this period did he ask any devotee or donor for financial returns for the service. In all utsavams, he would always stand in a corner after performing his service and would not reach out to the Ubayadharar for Sambhavanai unless he was called. 

He was so silent and went about his service in such an unnoticed manner that he was not even part of the long ‘Sambhavanai’ list of TVS for a long time. Several hundreds of service personnel at the Srirangam Temple have been handed monthly Sambhavanai by Venu Srinivasan’s Trust. Till last year, Naidu Venkatesan was not one of them. The powers that be at the temple – the Archakas or the Maniyakaarar or the other powerful service personnel - did not pitch for him and include him in their list 7 years ago. But he never complained. He did not even let anyone know that despite being an integral part of the service personnel performing service every day of the year, he was not in that list. He simply did not pitch with anyone for financial rewards. 

Unflinching belief in Lord Ranganatha
He was always a contented man and did not seek additional financial aid “If God decides to give, it will happen” was the way he lived. It was that unflinching belief in God that finally led to him being included in Sambhavanai list without his asking. When Venu Srinivasan came to know about his non inclusion, he immediately added him in the list and provided him with Corona Relief aid as well as monthly Sambhavanai from the Summer of 2020.

Never said NO to service relating to God
When the service personnel of the temple asked for something from him, there was never a NO from Naidu Venkatesan.  Even at the end of a long and tiring day, he would accede to their requests and would cheerfully perform the service. On most of the utsavam nights, he would be one of the last to leave the temple for he would stay back right till the end.

Continues selfless service after retirement
He officially retired a couple of years ago but continued to perform service at the temple. Soon after the Maasi Theppotsavam this year, he suffered a Heart Attack and underwent an operation. Even at this post retirement stage, he did not ask for financial assistance following the attack. As has come to be expected of him to those who have known him over the last four decades, he came back to the temple to be part of the Panguni Utsavam. And performed service at the Kodai and Ramanuja Utsavam as well in April.

Following the call he made on the first day of the Chitrai Brahmotsavam, he did not call this writer again. And now, he will never call again.

With the passing away, last evening, of Naidu Venkatesan, the Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam has lost one of the most sincere and selfless service personnel of the last four decades. 

It will be difficult to find another like him.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Covid and A Game of Cricket, Overseas

Three cricketers from Madras are finding some relief on the cricket field in overseas locations in the midst of the Pandemic 
Sport brings out the competitive spirit and puts you in a zone which blanks the external world, momentarily - Scientist Balaji Ramalingam, Oxford Cricket Club, UK
Enterpreneur Promodh Sharma, Rising Stars, 1990s

In the last week of December 2020, after a break of over nine months, the TNCA reopened its doors to lower division league. And for a couple of months, the unfinished matches of the previous season (2019-20) was played out and completed. But the Palayampatti Shield has not yet been won and it may still be a while before one sees a closure to that season. The 2020-21 league season has been a wash out and it is likely to be called off without a ball being bowled. While this has been the scenario in Madras, three former cricketers from the city have been playing league and club cricket overseas and reliving memories of their hey days of local cricket in Madras. And cricket has helped them handle, mentally, the big challenges arising out of the Pandemic.

Top order batsman Promodh Nagaraja Sharma played for YMCA (TSR) Club, one of the earliest cricket academies in the city, in the 1980s and later first division cricket for Rising Stars (Kunal). During his time, he played against the likes of Anil Kumble, VVS Laxman, Yere Gouda and the stars of cricket in Madras. On many occasions, he forgot the finger injuries when he had a bat in hand and played big knocks especially for YMCA (TSR). Much later, in the 2000s, after he had set up his own firm in the garment industry, Promodh, then in his 30s, managed a lower division team in the TNCA league for a couple of years and played a few gritty knocks.

Cricket helps in relieving Life’s Challenges
What he has experienced this summer has surprised even the cricket crazy Promodh. He is touching 50, not an age when you would get on to the cricket field with a bat in hand facing fast bowlers who try to bounce you out. Promodh, the Chairman of  Fifth Avenue, a Global Sourcing Firm that is fighting the challenges of the Pandemic, believes playing a cricket game on the weekends offers life solutions that are not visible to the naked eye. He has been trying hard to get his family into Hongkong ( from India) but it has not been easy "You are losing millions of dollars everyday in business. The First wave, last year, and now the Second has hit us very badly. You are fighting your way each day engaged in discussions with your customers and your employees across the world. In such a depressing scenario, a day on the cricket field can provide a lot of positive impetus in facing up to the business challenges. Cricket has taught me a lot of life lessons and continues to, even during the Pandemic."

Like they did in the late 1980s, his fellow teammates TSR needle him and often test his fighting instincts on the ground. They repeatedly question his ability to face up to young fast bowlers. Never short on words, Promodh went to the nets and tested himself. At 50, the body does not listen to you as it once did three decades earlier but the love for the game meant he worked hard on his fitness. He told this writer from Hongkong that the mind is strong but the body has been a bit creaky “I have been trying to get ‘match’ fit and have a personal trainer who is helping me reach some goals vis a vis my fitness.”

Confident of putting up a good show, he took to the beautiful looking astro turf at GDB ground in the heart of Hongkong, from where he now runs his global sourcing business. 

Half Century @ 50!!!
On successive weekends, he notched up scores that left his teammates, and the opposition, stunned. One was not used to shorter formats in those years of his childhood when growing up under the watchful eyes of Rajan Bala, who he calls the best coach ever, he had to base his game on building a long innings. The world has changed over the last decade and with that, Promodh is experiencing a new found freedom. In his teenage growing up years, coaches would often ask him not to hit the ball in the air and not to play cross batted shots. And with them watching from the sidelines, a youngster was always under pressure not to play shots that the coach would not appreciate but at 50 Promodh has found the freedom to unleash himself on the cricket field especially at a time when the business environment is challenging often leaving him wondering as to when there will be the corporate turnaround “I love the game. It’s great fun to play formats like 20/20 which allow you to go for your shots from the first ball, which was not the case when we were younger. When I played the longer formats in the 1980s, you were expected to build an innings.”
And with every four that he struck, he received a big roar from his younger teammates. He actually struck fours and sixers with such regularity that it came as a pleasant surprise to his mates “What’s Great fun for me now is working with the youngsters and trying to build a winning team.”

Cricket throws up challenging scenarios
It may not be a high profile match, yet it is a competitive, one that throws up different scenarios during the course of the 40overs and gets you to act on your feet to counter the challenges thrown at you every moment on the field.

Over the last one month, he has relived some his favourite strokes from childhood – the cover drive and the square cut in particular. His pulls and hooks found its way on to the nearby fields. Unfortunately as is the batting rule in the league, he had to retire after passing a particular score!!!
Promodh says that playing cricket in such challenging times helps bring out his fighting qualities that help in business “Cricket helps me stay competitive. It brings out those fighting instincts which make me what I am. The game has taught me a lot and today when I play partly for the sheer joy helping me unwind and relax, it keeps my reflexes and mind sharp for the Monday @ work.”

A day after scoring the half century, Promodh was involved in an important discussion with a global customer but the sporting and competitive spirit of the previous day helped him navigate through the discussion in what he terms is a tough business environment.

“It was in cricket that he learnt a lot in terms of mental strength and application that continue to help him enormously during the testing times in business life. And he carries the learning from cricket on to his corporate life.”

Weekend Cricket away from High End Research
Thousands of miles away in the quiet and fortified town of Den Bosch, in Netherlands, a much younger 29 year old Mylaporean Vidhvath Viswanathan, who has a Professional Doctorate in Bio Process Engineering from Delft University, spends a large part of the week in serious research and development of a global life saving medicine working in Multi National Pharma Company. He too, like Promodh, finds cricket in the weekend relaxing and offering relief from the Pandemic.

With the uncertainty of the pandemic, Vidhvath, the Captain of the Concordia Cricket Club, was not sure if the 20-21season would be played. There was darkness all around in those early months of April and May last year and the whole scene was gloomy. But much to his delight and that of his team mates, the number of cases reduced drastically in Netherlands and restrictions on cricket was lifted in the country. The season started about 3 weeks later than usual and was a shortened one “For the first 4-6 weeks we were only allowed to play within our own clubs. So, we had a mini auction and divided ourselves into 4 teams and played an internal T20 competition."

Later, in the second half of 2020, when the rules were relaxed a bit more, he was able to play in the official 40overs league “We had a group of 8 teams in our league and played only one match against each other (usually it would be 2 matches against the same team, one home and one away).”  

A Dutch P.Hd - Cycling his way to a cricket match 
Much like the lower division cricketers in Madras, who travel a long way to play the 50 overs game, Vidhvath travelled over an hour by train and then cycled another 30minutes from the station to the ground 25-30 mins to cycle “The weekend provided an opportunity to meet friends over a coffee.” 

Interestingly, given the Pandemic, the cricket association announced very early that there would not be promotion/relegation for the year. Overall, Vidhvath played close to 15 matches in the 2020-21 season including in the internal competition leading up to the official league. There were dropped catches, a close match that his team lost, a dominating win and arguments with the opposition and the umpires leading to mixed emotions but at the end of the day it always led to a healthy chat among the team mates. A win meant a cheerful evening while a loss led to deep introspection but either way it engaged every member of the team into a healthy discussion on how a particular scenario was handled and how differently one could manage it the next time.  
P. Hd Vidhvath - Involved in Research Medicine

In his childhood days in India, Vidhvath did not play much of red ball cricket but he says he was ‘always up’ for a tennis ball game either in the backyards of Abhiramapuram, a few buildings away from the once independent house of former Ranji Trophy winning captain S Vasudevan (Ranji Captain Vasudevan). 

After his move to the Netherlands, he began playing serious ‘red ball’ cricket and began enjoying it. The captaincy of the club gave him a great experience of having to think for the team, handling the different mindsets of his team members and meeting their expectations and demands on the cricket field!!! "Pep talks within the team  and motivating the team to do better each time in terms of better temperament, patience and consistency led to a positive environment. I saw each player giving his best and almost everyone contributing one way or the other to the team’s cause. And that satisfaction at the end of the 20-21 season was rewarding." The green cricket ground, the trees in the background, the intensity of the game and the discussions before and after the game help in creating a positive mood around the players that they then carried and shared with those in other walks of life.

It was also an experience Vidhvath carried into his research work at the Multi National Pharma Company. For someone involved in high end research, the cricket matches and bonding with team members especially in such challenging times has helped get the mind away from the negatives and has raised the hopes for the future.

Interestingly, Vidhvath also performs other functions off the cricket field. He enjoys scoring and he travels on weekends when he does not have a match to don the role of a scorer. As part of the team bonding, the team ended the season with a dinner after its last game, one that has now become an ‘end of season’ tradition.
Cricket offers positivity amidst the gloom
The 2020-21 season gave the much needed relief to Vidhvath in the gloomy scenario. He and his teammates are now awaiting news for the new 21-22 season. Locked inside a house can lead to vitamin deficiency and this is quite common in the Netherlands especially in the winter when the days are much shorter. At work, being in medical research, it has been a good year for him and he believes cricket has played a role in creating positivity around him “We are hoping we can have at least half a season from June.”

Oxford Scientist on the cricket field
Balaji Ramalingam is an Artificial Intelligence Scientist at AstraZeneca in the UK. He and his team help in delivering AI tools that enable data driven decision making. A prodigious in-swing bowler, he played fifth division league in Madras just under a decade ago. While he too focuses on high stress work as a Scientist, the weekends are spent on the lush green cricket grounds. On Saturday, he played a full day match that helped him engage actively with sporting people and a breath of fresh air in a world that is full of negative news. 
Scientist Balaji Ramalingam involved in AI

Balaji played close to a dozen games for Oxford in the 20-21 season, a team that included a Pakistani international cricketer. He is just back from the home counties first division premier league match that Oxford CC lost by three wickets at the Wally Gage Memorial Ground. He provides an insight into what it means to play cricket in the current scenario “It’s a very different world that we live in and sport has been equally different. Players availability has been tricky!  Organising training session with the new protocols has been a big challenge for the clubs. Given all the new COVID safe playing rules from ECB (which make a lot of sense), games take slightly longer but once the game spirit kicks in, cricket is what it usually is – very competitive and instills a lot of life lessons.”

“Sport brings out the competitive spirit and puts you in a zone which blanks the external world (momentarily). I appreciate that aspect even more now given that it’s really hard to ignore the fact that we are living through a global pandemic.”
Playing cricket during the pandemic has helped him and his team members break the monotony in the socially constrained life that everyone is leading now “It has let us appreciate the social aspect of the sport (staying and engaging with the team / the spirit of playing/ the highs and the lows/ winning and losing) even more!” 

Friday, May 7, 2021

JR Madanagopal IPL Umpire 2021 and Beyond

Madan’s Qualities enhance the image of Umpiring – ICC Match Referee V Narayanan Kutti
At 46, it’s ‘Right Time’ for Madan to be ‘elevated’ to the International Panel – BCCI Match Referee P Ranganathan
The playing years strengthened his resolve in life. While his elder brother (J Gokulakrishnan) made his Ranji debut at 20, he could not break through into the team till he was 24. And when he did with a glorious one day domestic debut followed by successive years of topping the charts in domestic cricket, he was taken out of the scene, dropped unceremoniously by the State Selectors. He was not yet 30 when he made up his mind to pursue a serious career in Umpiring following a call made by RBI Cricketer Prabhu Balachandiran, who seeded the idea into him, similar to how TNCA Umpire Gururajan initiated KN Ananthapadmanabhan almost around the same time. While he got into the BCCI panel in 2006 years along with his former IOB teammate Ananthapadmanabhan and then into the fourth umpire’s chair in the IPL as early as the third edition, it has been a long and testing journey since, for the former South Zone batsman JR Madanagopal.

He has not had opportunities coming his way as he may have visualized in those early years of umpiring. He was part of the ‘fourth umpires’ team in 2014 as well but then went out of ‘IPL’ action. In the 2016-17 domestic season, he umpired his first knock out match in the Ranji Trophy alongside Ananthapadmanabhan. Despite officiating in the Ranji Semil Final, IPL and higher accolades remained elusive. 

Former BCCI Umpire R Radhakrishnan was the one who mentored several umpires in the early 2000s before they took the BCCI examination in 2006. He recalls those days with Madan “Out of the all the umpires that I have helped prepare for the exam, Madan was the one who had the most thought provoking arguments with me. Even at that very early stage, he craved for perfection and did not accept unless he was 100% satisfied. He has that ability and inclination to learn everything in its absoluteness and thoroughly. His 'thirst to learn' was encouraging for me as a teacher. His focus as an umpire is something to be emulated. 
While the sharpness on the laws of cricket was visible, Radha was particularly impressed by his human side "He is a gem of a person. The humane character is rich in him. You do not find too many of those varieties in this world." 

Radha says that in the modern world, words like commitment and passion have come to be used too frequently and too loosely. But in Madan, he found that real ‘வெறி’ for umpiring "His match preparedness is such that he wants to do the best job on the field and that should take him right to the top."

It has been a long 15 year journey thus far for Madanagopal in Umpiring. It has been one that has many times tested his commitment and patience. It has also thrown within himself a lot of questions on his future. In the last 12-24months, he has internalized himself even more strengthening his mind to face the challenges of an uncertain life. Yoga has become an integral part of his life and it has helped his fitness. He is easily one of the fittest umpires around. 

During his playing days, Madanagopal had stayed under the radar and away from limelight and tried to do his best in the opportunities that have come his way. He has been so ‘silent’ and ‘off radar’as an umpire that no media even made a mention of his IPL debut, let alone featuring a story!!! 

Ride to the Top is not easy
Former Elite Panel Umpire S Ravi (Umpire S Ravi) had told this writer in March 2020 that things may not always go his way in terms of opportunities, but one (he) should continue to give his best when he is on field. “The ride to the top and staying up there is not easy and Madan will have to show a great deal of patience. But he will be richer for the IPL experience.”

Finally there may be some bright light at the end of what looked like a long tunnel. The hard work and commitment displayed over a decade and a half is beginning to pay off for him.  

The two years leading up to 2020 had been particularly good for Madanagopal that has seen him featuring in important matches in recent times. In March last year, he received a letter of posting for the IPL but as luck would have it, the Pandemic forced the postponement of the tournament to later in the year to the UAE. With a restricted contingent, he lost out on the opportunity to feature in that edition. He did well in the Syed Mushtaq Ali and Vijay Hazare tournaments in January and February this year. Following this, he received a surprise call, the biggest of his career so far.

International Fourth Umpire
The first few months of 2021 have seen new milestones in Madanagopal’s umpiring career. He donned the role of the fourth umpire in the one day match between India and England end of March this year. Soon after, he was informed of his appointment into the IPL umpiring panel for this year. 

IPL Debut- Holds his nerves
On April 22, he made his on field debut as an IPL umpire. Even though he had to reverse a decision on a very tight call within the first quarter of the match, his conduct over the rest of the match showed that he was able to keep his emotions under control and did not feel the nerves. The fact that S Ravi was his colleague would have helped him in terms of match management. 
A surprise 3rd umpire call ahead of schedule
While he was scheduled to officiate as a third umpire on May 2, he received another surprise call prior to that and made his debut as a TV Umpire ahead of schedule on April 30, a possible indication that he was getting into the considered set at the highest level. As a TV umpire, as against the usual DRS referral, Madanagopal faced different queries - decisions that do not usually come up in T20 cricket. He had to make calls on a ‘bump ball’, a ‘bowled’ decision and a run out - ¬‘crossing of batsmen’ - where his grip of the law was tested. All of these three decisions were different kind of calls for the TV Umpire. In addition to this, he also experienced auto no balls for the first time.

Excellent Body Language
His IOB team mate from 1990s and umpiring colleague over the last 15years Ananthapadmanabhan (KN Ananthan) who watched those matches says that Madan was outstanding in the couple of matches he did as TV umpire. “In the one match he did as an on-field umpire, his body language was excellent, and he was calm and composed. The one decision that got overturned was really tough with right arm bowler bowling over the wicket to a left hander and a shoe and bat involved. Despite this early overturn of the decision, he stayed strong through the match.”

Likely to be one of the finest umpires
Arjan Kripal Singh, who has been a match referee for a decade, has seen Madanagopal umpire in the domestic circuit during this period. He too sees Madan as an outstanding umpire  “Madan has been able to gain the respect of the players which is a very critical aspect for an umpire. He has good control over the game, makes very few errors on the field and his communication is extremely good. He's likely to turn out to be one of the finest umpires in the future.”

Madan is Highly Rated
Several years ago, the then Hony Secy of the TNCA (and now the CEO of CSK) KS Viswanathan (KSV) had said that Madan was one of the best ‘player turned umpire’ that he had seen. Speaking to this writer in March, he had said that Madan was highly rated and that he was confident of this former first class cricketer doing very well in umpiring.

When Madan umpires, there is no work for a match referee
TN fast bowler from the 1960s and 70s B Kalyanasundaram (Kalli) was a match referee till 2013 and watched Madanagopal closely. He says that Madan minimized the work of a match referee “His knowledge of the playing conditions and its interpretation was so thorough that when Madan umpired, there was no role for the match referee. Having played first class cricket for many years, he knows the nuances. I have never seen get ruffled. He communicated with supreme confidence and that came to the fore in the interactions he had with me as a match referee. There is a cricket intelligence that stands out in him.”

Right time to elevate Madan
India’s top match referee P Ranganathan, who played first class cricket for Kerala in the 1980s, told this writer from his home in Thiruvanthapuram that he had known Madan for decades and that he exudes confidence when he walks out on to the field as an umpire “He displays a great deal of confidence as an umpire. His communication skills are very good. In addition to decision making, what is important for an umpire is the match management. I have seen the manner of his interactions with players and officials to be very good. A clear advantage for him is that he has been a first class player and hence he knows the players’ psyche and the ways of taking control of a match.” 
“I have found his decision making on the field to be very good over a long period of time. It is the right time to get him promoted. Considering his age (Madan is 46 now) and his track record in recent years, he should be elevated to the panel (international panel). What is critical for him is to get the right exposure at this time and his elevation now will give him sufficient number of years to showcase himself at the highest level.”

Madan's Qualities enhance the image of Umpiring
International match referee V Narayanan Kutti, who too played first class cricket for Kerala in the 1980s, has seen Madanagopal from his playing days in the 1990s. He told this writer from Thiruvananthapuram that being nominated as an umpire in IPL 2021 is an appropriate recognition for Madan "He was an excellent cricketer in his playing days. I was happy that he took up a career in umpiring after quitting competitive cricket. Subsequent to making it as a BCCI umpire, he has made steady progress along the ranks and is now one of the top umpires in the BCCI umpiring fraternity. I found Madan to be someone who prepares well and strives to remain on top of the game whenever an opportunity comes his way."
"He takes an active part in discussions, is excellent with laws of cricket and in interpreting them. He understands the responsibility entrusted upon him and is an excellent team man.To me, he comes across as a person who strives to be updated on all aspects of umpiring and stands up for himself. These are qualities which enhance the image of umpiring."

In August last year, Ananthapadmanabhan (KNAP Intnl Panel) was inducted into the International Panel of Umpires from India. It has been a happy phase for Madanagopal in recent months and newer opportunities have come his way that had been hitherto elusive. The Big Question now is as to how soon he can make the next big leap in his umpiring journey to join his mate from his IOB playing days in the International Panel.

This section will track his progress.