India in England, 1936. Back, from left: Baqa Jilani, MJ Gopalan, LP Jai, Lala Amarnath, Amir Elahi, Cotar Ramaswami. Middle, from left: Vijay Merchant, Mohammad Nisar, CK Nayudu, Vizzy (captain), Wazir Ali, Phiroze Palia, Syed Hussian. Front, from left: Mushtaq Ali, Dattaram Hindlekar, Shute Banerjee, Khershed Meherhomji © Getty Images)
India in England, 1936. Back, from left: Baqa Jilani, MJ Gopalan, LP Jai, Lala Amarnath, Amir Elahi, Cotar Ramaswami. Middle, from left: Vijay Merchant, Mohammad Nisar, CK Nayudu, Vizzy (captain), Wazir Ali, Phiroze Palia, Syed Hussain. Front, from left: Mushtaq Ali, Dattaram Hindlekar, Shute Banerjee, Khershed Meherhomji © Getty Images

MJ Gopalan was born June 6, 1909 or 1906 (the dispute with regard to the year is explained in the article). Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a man who had represented India in both cricket and hockey and was a pivotal character for cricket in Madras.

Had things gone his way, MJ Gopalan might have turned out to be a household name. He was talented enough to represented India in both cricket as an all-rounder and a hockey centre-back. It was a blunder in 1936 that eventually cost him his career.

Living in 2013, it is difficult to fathom Gopalan’s status in Indian cricket. He was not merely a sportsperson — he was an icon in the true sense of word. His personality, raw talent, perseverance, and work ethics made him a hero among commoners. In an era when sport — especially cricket — was the pastime of the patricians, Gopalan rose through the ranks based on sheer ability and made it to the top level in both sports.

It should be remembered that Gopalan played in an era when both cricket and hockey were more about art than efficiency, and hence his numbers would probably not tell the story. His tall, broad frame, his front-foot drives, the nippy pace and both-way movement off the pitch generated from a rhythmic run-up, and the athleticism on the field — possibly a by-product of his hockey experience — set him apart from the rest.

Of his batting, NS Ramaswami wrote: “Gopalan’s art takes the senses by assault by its bravura. As the off-drives thunder over the grass pursued by an unavailing fieldsman, he elevates the game to the highest regions of thought.”

Gopalan played 78 First-Class matches, scoring 2,916 runs at 24.92 with a hundred. He also took 194 wickets at 24.20 with 9 five-fors and 3 ten-fors, and additionally held 49 catches over a career that spanned 26 years. He was a stalwart of Madras cricket in every sense of the word.

He was a modest and humble man. His greatest achievement (including his on-field exploits) was perhaps to receive accolades from CK Nayudu — a man never known for his generosity when it came to showering compliments: “His modesty may not have attracted the heights of advertisement in sports jargon, but like solid gold, which in comparison to copper makes less noise, he always did the best.”

It was one of the rare occasions on which Vizzy had actually agreed with The Colonel: “Modest by nature and unassuming as he is, scores and analysis never figured in his thoughts. All that mattered was unalloyed loyalty, and whenever called upon to play, either in India or abroad, he gave his very best.”

Of his image work ethics and image in general, Professor DB Deodhar said: “The present day generation of players will do well if they copy Gopalan in his regular life, clean character and devotion to work undertaken. He rarely wasted his time and energy in any vain and loose talk of the games, action being his watchword.”

Early days

Gopalan’s cricket talent was first discovered by CP Johnstone — the Good Old Man of Madras Cricket. Johnstone found him a job with Burmah Shell so that Gopalan could pursue his talent uninterruptedly. Soon after the appointment, Gopalan moved to the Triplicane Cricket Club, and grew in stature.

He made his First-Class debut in a Madras Presidency match in the 1926-27. Playing at Madras for the Indians against the Europeans (led by none other than Johnstone himself), Gopalan was given the first over in each innings by CK Nayudu. He picked up 5 for 104 and 5 for 49 on debut, and never looked back from there.

It was the two matches against Vizzy’s XI in the 1930-31 seasons that brought Gopalan into the limelight for the first time. Playing for Madras, Gopalan took 2 for 24 and 2 for 72 in the first match, but he managed to dismiss Jack Hobbs in each innings, making.

In the second match Gopalan took what was possibly his most famous wicket: the leg-cutter pitched on the leg-stump, beat Hobbs’s bat, and moved enough to take the off-bail on its way. Hobbs did not bat in the second innings —and hence Gopalan ended up dismissing Hobbs thrice in three innings.

Gopalan also took the first hat-trick at Chepauk. In a match against Ceylon at Madras in 1932-33, Gopalan hit the middle-stumps of George Hubert, Neil Joseph, Sargo Jayawickreme, and Vernon Schokman with the first, third, fourth, and fifth balls of his eighth over. He finished with 6 for 16 (5 bowled, 1 leg-before) and 7 for 57 to rout Ceylon.

Test cricket

Gopalan played for an Indian XI against the visiting MCC in their tour match at Calcutta in 1933-34. He took the first 4 wickets to fall in the match, and the tourists were saved only by an unlikely 91 not out by Hedley Verity. Even then, analyses of 4 for 67 and 1 for 32 were good enough to earn him a Test cap for the second Test of the series at Calcutta.

After Douglas Jardine won the toss and decided to bat, England were down at 55 for 2 but recovered to 185 for 3. This was when Gopalan removed James Langridge, who eventually top-scored with 70. England scored 403, and requiring 254 to save the follow-on, India were bowled out for 247, Gopalan hit a boundary and scoring an unbeaten 11 batting at number ten.

Gopalan came out to bat again in the dying stages of the Test. He came out to join Amar Singh with the score on 214 for 8, which meant India were only 58 runs ahead. Gopalan hung on, scoring only 7, but killed valuable time to be last out as India were bowled out for 237, only 81 runs ahead. But there were only 5 overs remaining in the Test.

That remained Gopalan’s only Test.

Ranji Trophy and hockey

The Ranji Trophy took off in the 1934-35 season, and Madras were scheduled to play the inaugural match of the tournament against Mysore at home. Gopalan bowled the first ball in the history of Ranji Trophy to N Curtis. After a wicketless first innings he picked up 3 for 20 in the second, and Madras won by an innings on the first day.

He played the Ranji Trophy and the Bombay Quadrangular Trophy on a regular basis, and it was about this time that he took to hockey seriously. His hockey talent was discovered by Murugessa Mudaliar, first sports journalist of The Hindu, who saw him play in a dhoti and a kudumi (Tamil for long tuft or lock of hair at the back of a shaved head), got him a proper hockey outfit, and made him play for YMIA against UTC in the SIAA final. Gopalan scored the only goal of the match.

Gopalan’s insatiable stamina meant that he played both sports simultaneously, while still carrying on his day job with relentless loyalty. S Thyagarajan later wrote in The Hindu: “His admirers marvel at how Gopalan used to cycle his way after a full day’s play at MCC, rush for a hockey tie at MUC or SIAA, and still be fresh for the next day’s game.”

Vijay Merchant also spoke highly of his stamina and his day job: “I well remember that quite often when representative matches were played in Madras, he used to cycle about 10 miles to get to the ground for a couple of hours practice and then go back the same distance to start work for the day. Once or twice, I appealed to the authorities to get the necessary leave for him the whole day but Gopalan would have none of it.”

Gopalan toured with the Indian team on their tour of Ceylon, Australia, and New Zealand. India were on rampage in the matches, winning all 48 matches and scoring 584 goals (12.17 goals per match) in the process. Gopalan played in 39 of the matches. The legendary Dhyan Chand wrote of him in his autobiography GOAL! – “I first thought hockey was his second love and cricket the first. He is a grand fellow.”

Dhyan Chand also mentioned Gopalan’s extreme religious nature: “On our return from New Zealand, Gopalan broke journey at Rameswaram to have a dip in the holy waters to wipe off the sin of crossing the seas. Gopalan was a high-caste Hindu from the South, where orthodoxy was severe. Gopalan joined us the next day in Madras after being purified of all sins, and we all had a good joke at his expense.”

MJ Gopalan (standing third from right). Standing fourth from left is the captain of the team, the legendary Dhyan Chand. Gopalan is the bowler who bowled the first ball in the history of Ranji Trophy. Picture courtesy: Bharatiya Hockey
MJ Gopalan (back row, third from right). Standing, fourth from left, is Dhyan Chand, captain of the team. Picture courtesy: Bharatiya Hockey

The blunder

Gopalan was selected in the Indian hockey squad for the Berlin Olympics of 1936 as well as for the Indian team to tour England in the same summer. He decided to go for his first love, and relinquished his spot in the Olympics squad. The Indian team won the gold medal, winning all 5 matches, scoring 38 goals and conceding only one — and is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest hockey teams in the history of the sport.

With Mohammad Nissar and Amar Singh in the squad, Gopalan had a limited role to play on the tour. He did not have a good tour with the ball anyway, picking up only 5 wickets from 6 matches, and with Vizzy in his pomp, he did not play a single Test despite the helpful conditions.

Later days

Though Gopalan continued to play First-Class cricket till as late as 1951-52, he never really got close to the Indian squad again. As age caught up with him, he became more of a batting all-rounder. Coming out to bat at 101 for 4 against United Provinces at Madras in 1940-41, Gopalan scored his only First-Class hundred, top-scoring with 101 not out.

Perhaps his greatest performance came for South Zone against the visiting West Indians in 1948-49 at Madras. After Gerry Gomez took 9 for 24 to bowl out the hosts for 46 and amassed 514 for 7, Gopalan, then leading South Zone, walked out to bat at 93 for 5. He played a critically-acclaimed 64 against a strong attack comprising of Gomez, John Trim, and Denis Atkinson.

Later years

After his retirement in 1952, a Silver Jubilee Fund was established to celebrate Gopalan’s 25 years as a double-international. The MJ Gopalan Trophy — an annual cricket match between Madras (later Tamil Nadu) and Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) was initiated, and it continued till Sri Lanka was granted Test status. The tournament was later resumed in 2000, and for one more time in 2007, when Tamil Nadu were led by a 21-year-old called Ravichandran Ashwin.

Gopalan served as a national selector in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. He remained a seminal figure in Indian cricket, and was respected by Indian cricketers of all ages.

Gopalan passed away on December 21, 2003 at the age of 94 years 198 days. At the time of his death he was the oldest living Test cricketer, passing on the baton to New Zealand’s Don Cleverley. He remains the oldest among Indian Test cricketers and the 10th-oldest — as of 2012 — among all Test cricketers at the time of their death (Norman Gordon was the only centurion among Test cricketers).

There is a small glitch, though. Till the late 1990s it was believed that Gopalan was born in 1909. However, his relatives later confirmed that he was born three years earlier. In an interview in 2001, Gopalan clearly mentioned: “I don’t know how the school where I studied listed my year of birth as 1909 but that stuck. It’s so long ago that I don’t know how it happened. But I can confirm that I am 95 today.”

If we go by Gopalan’s words, he had lived till the age of 97 years 198 days, which would move him to fourth on the list — after Gordon, Eric Tindill (99 years 226 days), and Francis MacKinnon (98 years 324 days).

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)