“No helmets – no poha”. It’s the latest safety campaign floated by the Indore RTO to ensure that the colossal number of bike-riders in the city don’t get away with donning no headgear. As it turns out, helmet sales have gone up ever since. Obviously this was a non-negotiable predicament for most.
The people of Indore after all don’t just love their poha. They swear by it. An average Indorean can and often does have the flaky beaten rice savoury dish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. On an average you’ll find a minimum of 5 kg of uncooked poha stored in every household. On a daily basis, the city of Indore consumes a staggering 200 tonnes collectively.
That’s more than the rest of the country put together. The statistics of poha consumption here are Bradmanesque.
When they aren’t busy swallowing spoonfuls of their beloved treat — which is slightly sweeter than the type you find in Maharashtra and is laced with sev and other add-ons that include dry fruits and rogue pieces of pomegranate — they’re raving about it.
The gushings on food are comparable only to the effusions on the other love – cricket. CK Nayudu’s city still boasts the cricketing swagger when the sport gets incessantly discussed.
History and food is what Indore thrives on. And they are both decorated and celebrated with equal vigour. And there’s no shortage of people to wax eloquent about the city’s royal and culinary pursuits. If you’ve heard of Indore then you’ve definitely heard of Sarafa — the jewellery centre that transforms into the only food bazaar in the country that never sleeps — initially a security venture for all the gold and silver but later as the food identity of the whole of Madhya Pradesh. Then there’s Chappan Dukan, which true to its name, is a series of 56 shops selling Indore’s finest street food though some of the items tarnish the exoticism of the place, pasta alfredo and Manchurian, in particular. And it’s at Madhura, the most popular of the shops at Chappan that you start your journey with a bowl of what else but poha with close to 50 around you doing the same. And it’s just 7.30 am.
The connection between food and history doesn’t end there. You find it of all places inside the canteen at the Holkar Stadium. Cricket being as much a part of Indore’s history as any part of the country, it’s apt that the venue that hosts the first ever Test in the city is named after the rulers of the erstwhile princely state. The Holkars had their own Ranji Trophy team in the 1940s, which won the title on four occasions between 1946 and 1953 no less. It doesn’t end there. The first captain, CK Nayudu, came from Indore and so did the first Indian to face a ball in Test cricket-Janardan Navle — and the first batsman to score a century overseas, Syed Mushtaq Ali.
Padmanabh Rao Guddu was never a cricketer. But he is still very much a part of Indore’s cricketing folklore. For, he’s the only man who’s been present for every international match that the city has hosted to date — both at the Nehru Stadium and over here.
Guddu has owned and run the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association (MPCA) canteen at both venues from 1978. It’s a family business that he took over from his father Narayan Rao, who came here from Mangalore, and catered to the likes of Mushtaq Ali among others. But according to Guddu, even some of the slightly more contemporary Indian cricket luminaries got a fair taste, literally, of Indore long before they became stars.
You just have to look at the picture that hangs proudly on the wall behind Guddu, who rarely moves from his spot behind the counter. It’s a sepia-hued image of a bunch of fresh-faced teenagers with two faces encircled. You don’t have to even ask before Guddu starts recalling the summer of 1985-86 season and the tough time he had with one diminutive cricket aspirant.
“Sachin (Tendulkar) would come in and start throwing all the lemons at the other boys. Or on days when there was mutton, he would chew the piece up to the bone and start throwing it at the others. He was a menace,” Guddu recalls, still shaking his head. When he couldn’t take the ‘indiscipline’, as he puts it, anymore a complaint was lodged with manager Vasu Paranjpe, who had organized the under-14 camp. “Arey yeh chhotu hai na, ek din India ka sabse bada star banega dekh lena,” is the response he got. Guddu was made to admit his lack of foresight by Paranjpe when Tendulkar scored a century in an ODI against Australia in 2001.
It’s the Ganguly brothers, Sourav and Snehasish, though that Guddu remembers more fondly. “They were from a rich family and back then paid Rs 17,000 and came here in a flight via Bombay. Their grandfather accompanied them and wasn’t happy with the lodging facilities at Nehru stadium. But he was asked by the secretary to not interfere,” he recalls. To make sure that the boys didn’t feel out of place, Guddu would take them on his newly-purchased moped to a Bengali sweet shop for sandhesh. Last year Ganguly was called to Indore as a chief guest by the MPCA and he made it a point to seek out Guddu and tell the people gathered about the wonderful hospitality he’d been shown by this complete stranger three decades ago.
Guddu’s narrative is interrupted constantly though. For, there’s a stream of cameramen and handymen walking in and claiming to have been asked by their respective bosses to have lunch at the canteen. And he has to repeatedly ward off the unexpected requests and turn them down.
Three days remain for Indore to brace up for a new chapter in its otherwise truncated cricketing folklore. Test cricket is on its way but the Indian and New Zealand teams will only be arriving later that evening. Not that the close-to-hundred locals who have shown up outside the stadium are aware of the teams’ travel plans yet.
“When is the team coming for training bhayya?” asks one kid tucking his backpack under his armpit. It’s obvious that a classroom somewhere nearby has a few benches without any suitors, one of them being the slender youngster who now has moved on to the next person he sees with an accreditation card around his neck with a request for ‘passes’. Tickets have been selling like hot cakes, or let’s say bowls of poha, ever since New Zealand’s Test tour schedule was announced a few months back. And there are barely a 1000 left and the match only starts on Saturday.
You’re then told by another college kid whose classes have conveniently finished early on this Wednesday about some of the other hangers-on in the crowd. “The people of Indore take life easy. Nothing starts before 11 here, even the coffee shops. And there are more people in this city who have nothing much to do during the day than in the whole of Madhya Pradesh,” he tells you. But there’s no malice in what he says. You realize the people of Indore love to talk up the city, even its sluggishness.
But the BCCI’s recognition last year of Indore as a Test venue finally was only a small part of the image makeover that the fastest growing city in the subcontinent has been experiencing in recent times. In some parts, unfortunately, it’s started taking the moniker of mini-Mumbai a bit too seriously especially in terms of the towers that have started appearing in the midst of the otherwise archaic landscape. It’s apparent in the attitudes of the young generation too. You’re soon approached by a young biker who has only request for you. “Can you please suggest what pills or shampoo I can use to grow my hair that long?” When asked about his reasons for the highly cumbersome exercise, pat comes the reply. “Indore mein bhi aaj kal style ka zamaana hai bhayya.”
The gully we’re on — the one you take to approach the main gate of the Holkar Stadium — incidentally is where the pitch used to be when cricket was played in the golden days of the Holkar empire.
The Yeshwant Club, named after the last king of the dynasty — Yeshwantrao Holkar — is located on the road adjacent to the stadium behind where the Tennis Association building stands today. Back in the day, the entire area belonged to the royal family. And it is here that the likes of Nayudu and Ali would hold audiences and their senses to ransom with their scintillating strokeplay. Ali in particular was the Virender Sehwag of his day or as the great Keith Miller referred to him, the “Errol Flynn of the cricket world”.
You meet Syed Gulrez Ali, son of the late Mushtaq, outside the tennis courts of the Yeshwant Club. Gulrez was an all-rounder who bowled left-arm spin and represented Madhya Pradesh in 74 matches in a career that spanned 20 years from 1964-85.
His mornings through the week are spent here playing tennis with the likes of veteran cricket administrator Sanjay Jagdale and others talking about the ‘good old days’.
He speaks about his Papa with the same awe as the rest of the cricket world has always done. But Gulrez insists that he can never start talking about his father before mentioning Col Nayudu.
They use the term ‘tuning’ a lot in Indore. It’s supposed to mean two people being on the same wavelength. And as Gulrez puts it you couldn’t have found two people ‘jiski tuning ek jaisi thi’ like the two names that are synonymous with Indore.
To the extent that when Sushil Doshi-the veteran radio voice of Indian cricket on whose name the commentary box at Holkar Stadium is called-on his first visit to Australia was asked which city he came from and he said Indore, his counterpart immediately replied, “Oh the land of Nayudu and Mushtaq.” But as Gulrez tells you his dad might not have taken to cricket if not for Nayudu, who played a father-figure to Mushtaq.
“We were just lucky to be neighbours. Tukoji Rao Holkar built a team by signing up players from outside like Nayudu sahib and others. It was like building an IPL team for him. And every morning the Colonel would ride his scooter past our house greeting my grandfather. One day he noticed my dad playing cricket on a nearby ground and the next day he wanted him, even though he was just 16, to come to Hyderabad with him,” says Gulrez. The rest as they say is well-publicized history. That chance meeting in many ways set off a chain of events that made Indore the first breeding ground of cricket superstars in India.
Gulrez is carrying a heavy album with him, one that was maintained by his late father, who passed away in 2005. It is a window into a fantasy land of cricketing legacy and has pictures of the who’s who of the sport’s Hall of Fame, many of them being dwarfed by the towering Mushtaq. It also contains pictures of all his fans that ranged from Bollywood stars Ashok Kumar, Johnny Lever to Madhubala and also future Pakistan prime-minister Zulfiqur Ali Bhutto.
“They simply loved him. One day KL Saigal the great singer turned up at CCI, in rather high spirits, to see Papa bat. He had already gotten out though. But Saigal sahib kept insisting that since he had come all the way to see him bat he would convince the umpires to give him a second chance before being asked to calm down,” says Gulrez, his wide frame bouncing with his laughter. “Papa always stayed with Bhutto whenever he went to Bombay. During partition, Yeshwantrao Holkar kept my entire family in the palace for a month so that we were safe. Bhutto kept asking my father to come to Pakistan promising him any position he pleased. But Papa said he’ll never leave his Hindustan, Indore or his fans,” he adds.
The fans and their love were the teetotalling Mushtaq’s intoxicants and Gulrez insists that his Papa would have scored many more centuries had he played for himself like many batsmen of that period.“He was the only batsman who would charge down and stand pretty much at half-crease while facing a fast bowler.
He started playing T20 shots 70 years in advance. When he scored his century in Manchester, the English were sniggering at the start when he started hitting balls from off-stump to midwicket. Then suddenly he was in the 90s and they realized that he was redefining batting,” he says. Gulrez adds that his father was a style icon back then and all his teammates would come to his room to indulge in his collection of perfumes.
“The joke in later years was that if ODI cricket had existed back then, Papa and Vijay Merchant would have opened with Lala Amarnath padded up. The rest of the team could have gone to Connaught Place to shop,” he says with a guffaw.
It was Nayudu’s brutal assault on the MCC bowlers at CCI in 1926 that paved the way for India to get Test recognition.
And though the second World War didn’t allow mentor and protégé to play much cricket together, they remained great friends before Nayudu passed away in 1967. The two now are side by side at the Holkar Stadium with the two pavilions rightfully named after Indore’s famous sons. To their credit the MPCA has ensured that one side of the ground is dedicated to all the other stalwarts who won titles during the Holkar Era.
“His greatest regret was not seeing Madhya Pradesh win a Ranji title. We came closest in 1998-99 when Abbas my son was the main batsman and we lost agonizingly to Karnataka,” says Gulrez.
Ironically, Mushtaq was also the last player from Madhya Bharat to represent India before Narendra Hirwani shocked the world with 16 wickets on Test debut in 1988. Guddu for one can never forget that dream debut.
“Hiru had come to Indore in 1985 as this rotund Sindhi boy with specs. Because he was an outsider we kept him at our house and we grew up like brothers. The day before his debut I called Taj Coromandel and said only one thing, ‘Get Viv Richards out’. He did it in both innings,” says Guddu almost jumping out his seat.
Like with most things in Indore, every event has a multitude of additional anecdotes attached to them. Take the Holkar Stadium. Once Usharaje Holkar, daughter of Yeshwantro, decided to gift one part of the land to the MPCA, they converted the open space into a cricket ground. Even the likes of Tendulkar have come and practiced here back in the day when there was dump on one side and cows grazing on the other. It was only at the turn of the century that the MPCA decided to construct a spanking new stadium. And though they haven’t always had their own homegrown stars to cheer for, the Indoreans haven’t left their traditional interest and knowledge of the game slip. Cricket coverage is vast and extensive in the large number of newspapers, both English and vernacular. Visiting journalists are constantly prodded with doubts and even interview requests. Thousands have turned up to see the teams practice. Even the Kiwis were surprised to find close to 500 for their nets. Now they’ll get a chance to soak in their own maiden experience of Test cricket, a format that two folk heroes from their own land helped popularize in a country still looking for its own identity under the colonial rule.
So much so that, even the otherwise reticent Guddu is excited. He takes pride in not having watched a single ball live at either ground despite his envious work location — he has not left the canteen premises during matches.
“India and West Indies played the first ODI in Indore and I got to see and meet heroes, from Clive Lloyd to Richards to Gavaskar and Kapil Dev. I’d got my heart’s worth and never felt the urge to see anymore,” he explains. But as Indore readies to add a new chapter to its fabled history — not to forget the supplementary narratives that will emerge from it— Guddu is thinking of breaking his self-imposed exile.
He says, “Ok fine it’s Test cricket after all. I might actually go and see a ball or two.”