By Nikhil Raghavan
While cricket has a very illustrious history in India, thanks to world class cricketers and several stadia drawing millions of spectators during matches, not many know that the origins of the game could very well have been in a nondescript town in Kerala. Tellicherry, or Thalassery as it is known now, is where the game originated around year 1800.
Fifty years of Ranji
Partab Ramchand, a professional sports journalist, writes in his book, Underdogs to Challengers, The Story of Kerala Cricket, which he and Ranji Trophy player in Kerala, J. K. Mahendra brought out in 2005, to commemorate the State’s fifty years of participation in Ranji Trophy matches, “The history of Kerala cricket too is almost as fascinating as the state’s coastline, a very interesting tale, marked by dramatic stories and engaging personalities. The home of Kerala cricket has been the town of Thalassery of the British Malabar area. The game originated around the year 1800. It is said that Sir Arthur Wellesley – later the Duke of Wellington who was stationed at Tellicherry as it was known till not too long ago, regularly played the game. It was at his initiative that The Town Cricket Club, one of the oldest cricket clubs to be established, became a hub of cricket activity drawing its members from the elite of society. Tellicherry, famous for export of pepper and other spices, soon became a nursery of the game. Former England captain Colin Cowdrey, who was born in Ooty, had his baptism in the game on the grounds of Cannanore. His father used to play for Cannanore Cricket Club.” (Cannnanore, incidentally, is a neighbouring town to Tellicherry).
From Madras Miscellany
In his weekly column, Madras Miscellany (The Hindu, Metro Plus, April 15, 2002 – Chennai Edition), historian and ‘Chronicler of Madras’, S. Muthiah, writes under the heading Remembering Wellesley:
The Tellicherry Town Cricket Club, founded in 1860, gave Thalassery a chance to demonstrate that all’s well with cricket in this little corner of Kerala, thanks to Arthur Wellesley, who brought the game to the Malabar town.
When Thalassery in Kerala — that I’ve always known as Tellicherry — recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of cricket in the town, Arthur Wellesley was recalled for everything, from being a Sub-Collector to the Hero of Waterloo, apart from his contributing the game to the Malabar town. Never mind that the Tellicherry Town Cricket Club was founded only in 1860 — and that’s certainly old enough — but it did give Thalassery a chance to demonstrate that all’s well with cricket in this little corner of Kerala — thanks to Arthur Wellesley.
Cricket, as with other sports like football and hockey, prospered in Cannanore thanks to the presence of elite schools like the St. Michael’s European (later converted to Anglo-Indian) Boys High School. The school spawned the first schoolboy to be part of the Indian Schooldboys Team which toured England – J. K. Mahendra who later went on to play in the Kerala Ranji Trophy team for several years/matches.
Here is an extract from www.kannurcricket.com, the official site of cricket in Cannanore:
The Thalassery Stadium, located close to the sea, hosts the Ranji Trophy cricket matches quite often. Lord Arthur Wellesley is believed to have introduced this game in Kerala in the 18th century for the British soldiers who were garrisoned in the Tellichery Fort India’s first Cricket Club, which was later renamed as the Town Cricket Club, was formed in 1860 at Tellichery. The Tellichery Cricket ground was the hub of cricket activities those days. It has been reported that an exhibition match was conducted in this ground to raise funds during the World War I. Famous English cricketer Colin Cowdrey’s father was a tea planter in Thalassery and he used to play cricket in Thalassery during 1890s, and is credited to have laid a decent cricket pitch here, in the early 1900s. Colin Cowdrey played in Thalassery during the British regime. Thalassery Cricket Ground celebrated its 200th birthday in 2002 by hosting a match between the former cricketers of India and Sri Lanka. In 2008 a new stadium only for cricket was inaugurated in Conor Vayal near Venus Junction in Thalassery, as a project of the Kerala Cricket Association.
When India became free in 1947, Kerala was made up of two princely states, Travancore and Cochin and Malabar which was under the direct administration of the British. Later, with the reorganisation of states in 1956, Travancore-Cochin and Malabar were united to form the State of Kerala.
One of the great legacies left behind in India by the British has been the glorious game of cricket. Though football is the first love of most Keralites, there were a few pioneers who patronised the willow.
More from Anand Krishnan
In his recent column, S. Muthiah mentions of an input received from a reader Anand Krishnan who says that: “Arthur Wellesley – Wellington was stationed in Tellicherry C.1805 and he and his troops introduced cricket to the town, which claims to have hosted the first cricket match in India. A Tellicherry Cricket Club was founded in 1866 and the two became the centre of cricket in Travancore.”
When approached for some more information on this topic, Anand Krishnan writes:
For your query – would I have authentic information about Arthur Wellesley and his part in the formation of cricket in Tellicherry; I must admit that my mother Cheruvari Vijayalakshmi (a native of Tellicherry) used to talk about it and the introduction of cricket in Tellicherry by the British. She had the privilege of watching Cowdrey Sr. playing cricket at the Tellicherry maidan; which is there even now opposite to the Club.
India Today published an article by M. S. Radhakrishnan in its issue dated May 20, 2002 about Thalassery Kerala 200 Not Out, A Coastal Town Celebrates the Bicentenary of its Cricket Tradition wherein it is mentioned that “It was in 1800 that the formidable Colonel Wellesley was made the Commander of Malabar, South Canara and Mysore by the East India Company to combat the fierce anti-English warrior princes of the region. He made Thalassery, then called Tellicherry, his base. Wellesley and his colleagues played cricket in the town maidan, often watched by curious bystanders, whose help the English officers sought whenever they were short of players. Of particular usefulness were the exuberant dhobi youths, who used to launder clothes at a well located in a corner of the maidan, and the fishermen who lived along the beach. It was such part time rolling over of the arms that allowed local talent to blossom. The game blossomed especially after the formation of the Tellicherry Cricket Club in 1930.”
The late distinguished civil servant, fighter pilot and former cricketer of Tellicherry Murkoth Ramunni said that “this was the unique aspect of Thalassery’s cricket tradition. Although cricket was played by the English in Cambay, Seringapatnam and Calcutta before, it was here for the first time that poor Indians from the fishermen and the washer men communities played together with them”.
The earliest surviving written record of a cricket match held in Tellicherry is a report in Malayala Manorama of 1890. It is about a match between Tellicherry and the neighbouring town of Cannanore. “My father played that match. His team walked 21 km to Kannur and returned by midnight accompanied by a large crowd,” remembered Murkoth Ramunni who had led a National Defence Academy XI against the touring Commonwealth team captained by Sir.Frank Worrell in 1950.
I draw your attention to the book by Outlook Traveller titled KERALA wherein it is mentioned “The historical sites are connected in the east of Thalassery, bound by Logans and Gundert roads. At one end is the famous maidan which hosted the first cricket matches played in India, and where the father of the famous English cricketer Sir Colin Cowdrey also played. The first cricket club was founded here in 1866. Apparently the Duke of Wellington introduced the red cherry to these parts in 1805 and his mates included faithful retainers, dhobis and butlers who formed the team.”