Kookaburras in Kariavattom

In the cricketing map of India, Thiruvananthapuram was never a serious landmark. However the city was witness to some memorable contests in the 80’s, including a couple of international matches. The University Stadium in Palayam with a seating capacity of 20,000 is the closest to a cricketing ground that it has. The focus shifted to the Nehru stadium that came up in Kaloor in Kochi in the late 90’s where 6 ODIs have been staged. But since that ground is plagued by an intrinsically flawed design causing water seepage issues in the outfield, the Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) is forced to look out for better alternatives. In this context the upcoming stadium in Kariavattom in Thiruvananthapuram assumes importance. It is a fitting tribute to the memory of the late Colonel Goda Varma Raja of the Travancore royal family, a great patron of cricket and other sports in Kerala.

The West Indians are said to have come and played a match in the city as far back as in 1961. Their legendary opening batsman Conrad Hunte hit Kerala’s fastest bowler out of the park such that the ball is yet to be retrieved, fifty years on. I was a sixth grade student at St. Joseph’s school when England under Keith Fletcher toured India in 1981. It was a dull series of 6 Tests where the only remarkable event was a double century by Gundappa Viswanath at Madras. At the fag end of the tour the Englishmen visited Thiruvananthapuram to play a friendly one-day match against the state team. Seeing the news headline screaming ‘MCC vs. Kerala Chief Minister’s XI’, I in my innocence believed that the CM E. K. Nayanar would actually pad up and play! Kerala captain Jayaram clouted Ian Botham, star visitor and one of the finest all-rounders to have graced the game yet, for boundaries at will. The farcical match ended in pandemonium as the beefy Botham, fielding in the deep, lit a cigarette and casually tossed the butt. The dry grass caught fire on that summer day. Fire force had to be summoned.

1983 saw India progress from also-rans to world champions. Riding the crest of this wave they won a few ODI tournaments in the subcontinent but everybody and his uncle knew who the real champions were. Late that year, West Indies under a 40 year old Clive Lloyd came to India and humiliated us 3-0 in Tests and 5-0 in the short format to avenge the loss at Lord’s. Midway through the tour they came down to Thiruvananthapuram to take on India Under-23. Windies rested Greenidge, Lloyd and keeper Dujon. India’s wrecker-in-chief in the Tests and the fastest hurler of the red cherry on the planet at that time, Malcolm Marshall, played twelfth man.  Indian youth were led by Manoj Prabhakar (who went on to open the batting and bowling for India before long). Sadanand Viswanath kept wickets. Batting first our cubs ran up a tidy score, thanks to a century by opener lad Jignesh Sanghani. (He was later inducted to the Bombay team but did not go far). Windies started their reply on the second morning, Haynes and Richardson going hammer and tongs. Gomes and keeper Pydanna, a cop by profession, contributed well. Mike Holding got on his knees and casually flicked a bowler over the ropes. Comic relief came in the form of Marshall running to catch it from outside the boundary. (Fifteen years later this lovable speedster from Barbados was surrendering to colon cancer). The much awaited batsman, the Captain Courageous, gum-chewing King Richards of the famous swagger, came in 6 down, minus his trademark maroon cap. He did not last long as the spinning guiles of a skinny 17 year old Iyengar boy called W.V. Raman got him for a beggarly 1. (Raman who took five wickets that day later made a mark as a first class batsman and wore the country’s cap. Sheer laziness prevented him from having a longer India career).  Fireworks for the day came from the lanky Winston Davis who hit three consecutive sixes off a clueless bloke called Avinash Kumar. The crowd was on its feet. Davis offered front-footed defensive prods to the next three balls. The match ended in an anti-climax as the visitors, leading by 80, hurriedly left to catch their flight to the next venue.

A Wills Trophy one-dayer quarter-final between Haryana and Baroda was staged here in Feb ’84. Haryana led by the medical practitioner Dr. Ravinder Chaddha and boasting of Chetan Sharma and Rajinder Goel (45 years old and with 600 domestic wickets. Sadly, never played for India as his prime coincided with that of the famed Quartet) in their ranks beat Baroda (with bespectacled veterans in Captain Anshuman Gaekwad and Surinder Amarnath as well as to-be India stumper Kiran More) by 17 runs. Sharma bowled Amarnath and a deep-rooted stump broke in two. He also Mankaded an impetuous non-striker in a Wadkar, who was backing up too much. Saad Bin Jung top scored for Haryana with 84. A nephew of Tiger Pataudi, he later gave up cricket for wildlife conservation.

Before being blooded in Tests, Mohammed Azharuddin played for Hyderabad against Kerala in a Ranji trophy match and scored centuries in both innings at the Medical College ground.

Cricket fever reached a high pitch in the city as the first international match was announced between India and Australia. This was on 1st Oct 1984. India was led by Sunil Gavaskar and the Aussies by Kim Hughes. The umpires in that match were the portly Swarup Kishen (the only umpire to be honored with a Padma Shree, he passed away in ’92) and V.K. Ramaswamy. The University stadium is reputed to have a ‘pace’ pitch. This was exploited to the hilt by Carl Rackemann bowling from the Museum end and Geoff Lawson from the Church end. The opening pair of Ghulam Parker and Surinder Khanna (also the keeper, he was Man of the Series at the Asia Cup in Sharjah a few months earlier) found the going tough. Generally the batting struggled and we folded up in 37 overs. But one man had stood out like a majestic warrior and battled on.  A fine gem of an innings it was that flowed from the blade of Dilip Balwant Vengsarkar. Like an Ozymandias among the ruins the ‘Colonel’ prevailed. When he finally got out for a 77 that included two sixes, the whole stadium rose to a man and applauded.  Tears welled up in my eyes in a rare act of patriotic fervor. The second highest score in India’s 175 was Sandeep Patil’s 16. Azad, Shastri and Madan Lal fared poorly. Tom Hogan scalped four wickets. Post lunch, the Kangaroos’ reply started thunderously. Openers Kepler Wessels and Graeme Wood were on song. The match looked set to get over in no time. But the lucky break came as Kapil Dev trapped Wessels lbw. The crowd was now suddenly alive.  Allan Border joined Wood in the middle. A mix-up during a run had him flat on the pitch with his clothes completely soiled. The crowd hurrahed and cheered every ball that Kapil and Sharma bowled. The duo sent down maiden overs. And then the rains came in the 8th over with the visitors 29/1. Since at least 15 overs needed to be bowled for a verdict based on run rate, the match was declared abandoned. Poor Vengsarkar’s effort went in vain. (Exactly 30 days later he was stranded on 94 against Pakistan at Sialkot when the match was halted and the tour itself called off due to Indira Gandhi’s assassination).

The next year Hughes led a rebel tour to apartheid-ridden South Africa for lucrative money and was slapped a ban by Cricket Australia. Before that he had bid a disgraceful adieu to Tests. Border went on to lead his country to the ’87 Cup victory and beyond. Wessels retired prematurely in ’86. When six years later his home country South Africa was readmitted to international cricket, he came back to captain them and serve two more years.

A one-dayer finally did play to its full in Thiruvananthapuram and this was in ’88.  India, bolstered by Kris Srikkanth’s century (after being dropped off the very first ball) and Mohinder Amarnath’s fifty scored 239 in 45 overs but lost to the West Indies who surpassed it losing just Gordon Greenidge (who belted 84 with 5 sixes). The captains were Shastri and Richards. This was ten days after the Hirwani Test. Phil Simmons will always remember this ground as it witnessed his first ODI hundred. This time too, the rain gods showered their lavish blessings, but thankfully after the match was over. One of the umpires that day was Vikram Raju, who two years earlier had booked his berth in history by dubiously signaling Maninder Singh out leg before to herald a rare Tie in a Test at Madras.

Nearly a quarter century has passed since the city last hosted an international match.  As the sporting fraternity eagerly follows the progress of the Kariavattom stadium,  I cannot wait to see that day when Virendar Sehwag goes ballistic and make Malinga bowling from the Technopark end look like a clown in a bad wig (to borrow a quip from Shehan Karunatilake’s delightful cricket novel Chinaman).

(24 April 2012)

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One thought on “Kookaburras in Kariavattom”

  1. Amazing article. A fascinating mix of funky facts, story telling, live commentary and history.
    Great read even for those apathetic towards the sport!

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