By Bharath

Published: August 15, 2021 6:10 pm

“Balan Pandit used to say, For a batsman, any ball could be your last one; for a bowler, any ball could get you a wicket. That is the difference, Ramdas.”

Odayamath Kodoth Ramdas, better known as O.K. Ramdas, quotes his captain and his mentor, as he recounts his cricketing career.  

Ramdas’ Ranji career spanned over 13 seasons; from 1968 to 1981. By the time he retired, he had 36 matches and nearly 1700 runs under his belt. “I debuted in a match against Mysore and played my last Ranji game against Karnataka (previously the Mysore team). I was an opening batsman throughout my career and barring one match, which I missed due to a wrist injury, I was always a certainty in the team,” he says proudly.

Born in Kannur, Ramdas lost his father at the early age of 11. Ironically, cricket wasn’t even his first-choice sport growing up, he says. “I took up cricket pretty late by conventional standards, in 9th standard or so. I was more into football and athletics until then. My younger brother who had returned from Bombay where he had been studying, introduced me to the game,” he reminisces. 

In a couple of years though he was playing for Junior Kerala in the Ramachandra trophy and performing consistently. After a match against Andhra Pradesh which Kerala won and he scored well, Ramdas was drafted straight into the Ranji side in 1968. 

His mother wasn’t entirely sure about his career choice, since he was the eldest of the 4 children with his father’s absence a factor too. “But I managed to convince her.” 

Cricket can be quite harsh with its goodbyes. Many players in the history of the game, including some of its greatest, can vouch for that. It wasn’t any different for Ramdas either. 

“I was the top scorer for us in the last innings I played. But after that season, four of us – T.A. Mohammed Ibrahim, J.K. Mahendra and A. Satyendran being the others – were “dropped” to make way for younger players,” Ramdas recalls. 

L to R: Dilip Sardesai, Ramdas, K. Mohan and Sandeep Patil

Cricket in Kerala

Cricket wasn’t as popular as other sports like football, kabaddi, basketball and volleyball during that time, Ramdas says. That it was an “expensive” game to play, yet wasn’t much rewarding as a career, didn’t help matters either. Only those with a minimum financial stability could afford to play cricket back then and thus the socio-economic factors did influence one’s decision to take up the sport, he feels.

“I can think of so many talented players. Especially those who participated in the Pooja cricket tournament in Tripunithura, who couldn’t afford the necessary gear and didn’t have any sponsorship either. Even in Ranji, many dropped out of the game after playing for a few seasons due to the financial security concern,” he recalls solemnly. 

“In hindsight, the bank job that I took up straight after completing my degree, was an integral factor for my cricketing career. Having another regular job besides cricket mattered a great deal then unlike these days, where the remuneration from domestic cricket itself is good enough for a player.”

The concept of sponsorship was practically non-existent too during that time, Ramdas says. He recalls that at the time of his retirement in 1981, the player’s fees for a Ranji match used to be just Rs. 25! 

The facilities weren’t that great either, Ramdas notes. Kerala didn’t have many good quality grounds like the other states. Most of them were multi-purpose grounds being prepared accordingly before a match. The wickets were predominantly matting wickets here, compared to the practice of turf wickets outside.

“But the experience of participating in a tournament like Pooja was something special,” he looks back on those times. “The crowds that turned up to watch us were not only huge but so knowledgeable about the game too. The standard of such a tournament has still not come down I believe, but sadly, you will barely see many spectators these days.”

Even their train journeys for away matches were characterised by moderateness, Ramdas remembers. There were no direct trains to many places in those days. While playing against a team like Hyderabad, they had to first get off at Madras, take a couple of rooms in a small hotel for the whole team and rest there until the schedule of the next train. 

“There was a certain psychological disadvantage too when we saw the other team arriving refreshed after a journey in First Class A/C compartments. In that era, we could say with certainty that we played the game out of sheer passion,” he admits. 

The Kerala team was the underdog in pretty much every aspect compared to teams from the other regions. They barely stood a chance of qualifying, despite giving their best, Ramdas mentions. 

Photo Courtesy: Kerala Cricket Association

In the 1970-71 season, Ramdas and Suri Gopalakrishnan – his opening partner – put on one century and five fifty run partnerships. They were inarguably the most successful opening pair in the South zone during that period, despite many prolific players in the other teams, Ramdas recalls. 

“Had there been a better administrative system to back and give us a push upwards, we could’ve been in the South zone team. That was the next step towards reaching the national side.” 

Ramdas feels that there has been much progress in the cricket scene since those days. A lot of the advancement in the recent past has to do with S. Ramesh, the former Ranji cricketer, who is in charge of cricket development in Kerala right now. His cricketing experience and knowledge have proved crucial, something that was largely missing before at the administrative level, Ramdas adds.  

Reminiscing Ranji days

Ever since its inauguration in 1934, the Ranji trophy had been played with a zonal structure – consisting of the North, South, West, East and Central (which got added in the 1950s) zones – until the 2002-03 season, when that format paved the way for a two-division structure. 

“Our (South) zone consisted of 5 teams – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Mysore, Hyderabad and Andhra. The top two teams from each zone competed against each other in the knockout stages. We had only 4 matches within the initial league stage back then,” Ramdas elaborates.

Kerala was the weakest of the lot, he says. The other provinces had better infrastructure and national representation too. He remembers that almost 10 out of the 14 players in the Indian team used to be from the other four Southern teams at a time. These players came and played Ranji trophy dedicatedly, even right after returning from abroad tours. He notes that in the last couple of decades now, this has been missing in our “high profile” cricketers. 

“In fact, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, the then captain of India, used to play under the captaincy of M.L. Jaisimha for Hyderabad!” he exclaims. 

“You know, it wasn’t just about money for them back then. They gained important match practice too. And we all looked up to them! The 1700-odd runs I scored in my Ranji career was against the cream of the bowling attack – Venkataraghavan, Prasanna, Chandrasekhar, Abid Ali, Govind Raj, etc.,” he says, with a tinge of unmistakable pride in his voice.

Photo Courtesy: Kerala Cricket Association

Another fond memory he has is of playing a match in the Gopalan’s trophy against the Ceylon President’s XI.

“I remember facing this fast bowler who was quite a handful in that matting wicket in which the ball tends to zip around. I scored 39 runs against him. But the remarkable fact was that Geoffrey Boycott named him as one of the fastest bowlers he had faced in his career, which really was something coming from a batsman of his stature!” Ramdas recollects. 

“I was a defensive player who was extremely protective about my wicket,” Ramdas acknowledges. An opener’s job, he says, should always be that of seeing off the new ball safely for the team. “I used to bowl a little bit of medium-pace and was considered to be a safe slip fielder too,” he adds.

Those were the times when cricket was played with hardly any protective gear unlike these days, Ramdas says in a matter-of-fact manner. The concept of helmets hadn’t even arisen. The batters went in with just the security of batting pads and abdominal guards. “Sometimes, we would roll up a Turkish towel and keep inside our pyjamas as a thigh guard,” he adds with a chuckle. 

“And because of this, it was very important to watch the ball closely before ducking, leaving or playing a hook or pull shot. Sunil Gavaskar used to be a master at this art! But another brilliant player back then, Brijesh Patel, used to be vulnerable against the short ball due to this very reason. Had he played in the present times, he might have scored many more runs,” Ramdas says. 

Barring the one wrist injury he had, Ramdas feels that he was quite lucky to not sustain any major injuries in his career playing the likes of T.A. Sekhar, who were even more dangerous to face in the matting wickets. 

Even the bats those days had neither as much balance nor the “wood” to generate power. They couldn’t be just used straight from the shop as the present-day ones either, he remembers. Of the bats he owned, his favourite was a Stuart Sturridge one he bought for Rs.100 (a good sum in those days) which lasted for 5-6 seasons. 

Although he didn’t get to visit outside the Southern regions representing Kerala, playing for the Associate Banks tournament provided him with that opportunity. He says that the place he enjoyed the most playing at was Kolkata (then Calcutta).

Veteran’s Goodwill tour to Sri Lanka in 2007.

Best of the Lot

Balan Pandit was the most influential personality for him, both as a captain and a mentor, Ramdas reiterates. They used to have a team manager and a coach who was assigned only for the training camps. This meant that the captain bore so many responsibilities, he adds. Pandit also played for Lancashire second XI briefly as a wicketkeeper-batter and was good enough to be at the highest level of the game, Ramdas reckons. 

Amongst the Kerala Ranji players during that era, Ramdas picks Dr. Madan Mohan, who he refers to as a “genius” in general, as the best captain he played under. C.K. Bhasker is another teammate that he rates quite highly. Bhasker did represent India in a match against Ceylon, he recalls, but as they didn’t have test status then, the match was only recognised as an “unofficial test”. Thus, it was only after Tinu Yohannan debuted for India in a test match against England a few decades later, a Kerala Ranji cricketer got to represent the national team. 

T.A. Mohammed Ibrahim is that one talent he played with that he feels could’ve certainly represented India and was unlucky to miss out. 

Mammu, as we used to call him, was a terrific left-arm pace bowler and a pretty handy batsman. But he had a way too “candid tongue” for his own good, which might very well have affected his chances.” 

Amongst those he played against, Ramdas admires Jaisimha greatly as a captain; Gundappa Vishwanath as an overall batter; Brijesh Patel as an attacking batter; and Syed Kirmani as his pick of amongst wicketkeepers. 

Discussing the game

Veteran’s Premier League

The veteran’s cricket league idea was primarily birthed in Kerala, which subsequently became popular across the country. The late Chetan Chauhan played a good part in boosting its status while he was the President of the Veteran’s Cricket Association in India, Ramdas notes. 

The premier league started later with a playing structure similar to the IPL. It had 6 teams, divided into two groups, with a round-robin – qualifier – final format. The innings used to be of 20 overs before but over the years got cut down to 15. The composition of the side had a lot of rules too, Ramdas explains. The players had to be picked on age-wise criteria as well as their cricket representation – state, district and club levels. 

With former Kerala opening batter Thomas Mathew at a Veteran’s match in Munnar

Ramdas had been playing until five years ago when he eventually “retired”. He last played for a team called the Malabar WarriorsThe tournament was held earlier this year in Goa with the next edition planned to be held in Sri Lanka. 

“There’s always that fierce competitive spirit during the games of course. But more than the results, it is about the excitement of revisiting the game and the get-together for us,” he says. 

Post-Retirement and Bank Careers

Ramdas joined the State Bank of Travancore in 1970 and retired as a Senior Manager. Since his retirement from the game in 1981, he continued to participate in the Associate Banks’ tournaments, as a player, coach, manager and a member of its selection committee. 

With former international cricketer and Indian coach, John Wright

He was closely associated with the Kerala Cricket Association (KCA) after he retired from the game as well, serving as a member of the selection committee and later as chairman of the same. He also held several other roles over the years, including that of team manager of the Kerala team, match referee in Ranji trophy and TV Commentator in veteran’s matches for Doordarshan. He is settled now in Trivandrum with his wife. 

“There were chances early on in my career to move out of the state and play, which may have brought me better exposure and I might have reached higher levels in the game,” Ramdas muses. While several factors like his job, family and the unpredictability of an injury kept him here, most importantly, it was the passion of playing for Kerala that influenced his decision.

But Ramdas hasn’t let those little regrets define his career. “There are times when I reflect on the what-ifs of course, but ultimately I’m happy when I look back and think about the way I embraced the sport.” 

By Bharath