Third Man: Recollections From a Life in Cricket

Published: 2015
Pages: 348
Author: Ramnarayan, V
Publisher: Westland
Rating: 4 stars

V. Ramnarayan, Ram to one and all is a modern-day Neville Cardus. While Sir Neville was the music and cricket correspondent for the venerable Manchester Guardian, so Ram comes from a family, including from his wife’s side, steeped in classical South Indian music and the fine arts and is the editor-in-chief of Sruti, a monthly magazine on the performing arts.

Ram was also one of the best off spinners in the land for a brief period in the 70s and could have walked into many Test sides around the world. But like a whole generation of Indian spin bowlers—Naushir Mehta, Rajinder Singh Hans, Padmakar Shivalkar, Rajinder Goel, et al—Ram could not break into the national squad due to the presence of the legendary quartet of S. Venkataraghan, EAS Prasanna, BS Chandrasekhar and Bishan Singh Bedi.

Indeed Ram’s account of his career—belated but most welcome—is one of tough breaks, hard luck, poor judgment, dodgy umpiring and simply bad luck in being born in the wrong era. But in his introduction he states his love of playing cricket overcame the disappointments and setbacks that marred his career.

For someone who had to wait till the age of 28 in the 1975-76 season to make his Ranji Trophy debut for his adopted Hyderabad he would emerge as the side’s leading bowler with 86 wickets in his brief career of five seasons.

The top South Zone sides of the 70s, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Hyderabad, were packed with quality spinners back then and despite his late debut, Ram did not pale by comparison. Indeed he managed to break into the South Zone team in the Duleep and Deodhar Trophy and the Rest of India side in the Irani Trophy and was chosen as one of the 30 probables for the 1977-78 tour of Australia, while all along knowing he had no chance of making the final cut with offies Venkat and Pras in his way. The title of the book comes from the fact that in the 70s Ram was the “third man” when it came to the off spinner’s slot in the Indian team with Chandra cementing the leg spinner’s and Bedi monopolizing the left arm spinner’s position.

The book will be particularly fascinating for anyone with an interest in Tamil Nadu and Hyderabad cricket. Having reported extensively on the ultra competitive Tamil Nadu Cricket Association first division league in Madras and First Class cricket in the South in the 80s for Indian Express daily, the stories recounted by Ram brought forth a wave of nostalgia.

I must admit though that I had no clue that Ram’s paternal uncle was PN Sunderasan, the doyen of Indian cricket writers. Or that a distant relative was one of the great characters of Madras cricket, the inimitable S. Annadorai who would regale us with tales of his favourite Australian Alan Kippax (pronounced ‘Kipp-aaax’ by Anna) who of course he had never seen!

It is rare in India that a non-international cricketer writes his story though there was still plenty of glamour attached to First Class cricket here till the 80s. Indeed, the book traces his career from college to club cricket in Madras and finally First Class in Hyderabad where he moved to in 1971 since Venkat blocked his place in the Tamil Nadu side. To his misfortune, his place was then blocked by another ace off spinner, Naushir Mehta. He had practically given up the ghost before injury to Mehta saw Ram force his way into the side and he made an immediate impact.

Ram had toyed with the idea of a book for many years and mulled over the title Autobiography of an Unknown Cricketer. But that was taken some 20 years back by the late Prof. Sujit Mukherjee who played a handful of Ranji games for Bihar in the 1950s and whose book remains my all-time favourite.

Hyderabad presented a whole new world of cricket for Ram. From the strait-laced world of Madras cricket he entered a city steeped in nawabi (royal) culture where club matches often did not start on time as players and umpires sauntered in and where elegance and grace (and apparently the ability to drink) counted above all.

The Hyderabad side of the 70s was the most glamorous in India with the likes of the charismatic ‘Tiger’ Pataudi (who moved from Delhi), the handsome Abbas Ali Baig and the dashing ML Jaisimha whose captaincy skills were such that ‘Tiger’ gladly played under his leadership both for Hyderabad and South Zone despite being the undisputed captain of the national team for a decade.

It was perhaps this very nawabi attitude that saw to it that they never made it to the Ranji Trophy finals despite being packed with Test players, falling agonizingly short to Bombay in the quarter-finals in ’75-76 in which Ram excelled with seven wickets in the first innings. As one of the players of that era has been quoted as saying: “we may never have won anything, but we certainly had the most fun.”

The rich vein of stories provides the fun side of the book, the expert technical analysis of his contemporary spin bowlers the serious side and the look back at some of his ex-teammates who are no more the poignant side.

It is a well-rounded book and a terrific read about an era that can never be replicated in Indian domestic cricket.      

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