Double internationals in sports are a rare species. Morappakam Joysam Gopalan, who passed away in Chennai on December 21, not only excelled in cricket and hockey but also represented India in the two disciplines. At 97, he was the oldest surviving Test cricketer. The mantle’s now passed on to Donald Cleverley, who played two Tests for New Zealand before and after World War II. The Kiwi was born on December 23, 1909.
Born in a family of astrologers in Chengalput in Maduranthakam district of Tamil Nadu, Gopalan's date of birth was given as June 6, 1909, by most cricket books, including Wisden. But Gopalan himself clarified a couple of years ago that he was indeed born on the same day but in 1906. "I don’t know how the school where I studied listed my year of birth as 1909. But it remained an accepted entry. It’s so long ago that I don’t know how it happened. But I can confirm I was born in 1906," he asserted.
Gopalan did his schooling at Kellet High School after his family settled down in Triplicane. Though he represented it in many indoor and outdoor sports, he distinguished himself in cricket and hockey. Not being affluent, college education remained a dream for him. But he was destined to scale dizzy heights in sports. Impressed by Gopalan’s excellence in two disciplines, C.P. Johnstone of Burmah-Shell helped him get a job in the multi-national company.
It didn’t take Gopalan much to establish himself as an icon once he turned out for Emmanuel Club in the Madras League. Apocryphal or real, tales of his exploits abound. He was a stalwart of the Triplicane Cricket Club for almost three decades and old-timers recall his stellar shows against arch rival Mylapore RC in particular. He was so talented that even experts were unsure whether he was a better cricketer or a hockey player.
As a cricketer, he was more than a handy all-rounder. Tall and athletic, he was a shrewd right-arm medium-pacer and a hard-hitting batsman.
Gopalan was a brilliant centre half in hockey who dazzled initially for YMIA and then became a kingpin for the Madras United Club. His stick-work was said to be as aesthetic as his bowling and batting were exciting. Wielding the stick or the willow, he was capable of sending the cognoscenti into raptures.
Gopalan, who made his first-class debut for the Indians against the Europeans in the Presidency match in 1927, and bowled Jack Hobbs with an outswinger, was to remain a tower of strength in Madras cricket, having carved a special niche for himself with his all-round skills and match-winning ability.
He had the distinction of bowling the first-ever delivery in Ranji Trophy against Mysore at Madras on November 4, 1934. He led Madras and South Zone for several years. He also captained South Zone against John Goddard’s mighty West Indies, the first foreign team to visit independent India in 1948-49.
In an impressive first-class career interrupted by the World War, he took 194 wickets at 24.20 apiece, scored 2916 runs (including one century) at 24.92 and held 49 catches.
Gopalan played his solitary Test against Douglas Jardine’s England team at the Eden Garden in Kolkata in 1933-34. He claimed a wicket (Jim Langridge), made 11 not out and 7 batting at No. 10 and took three catches in the drawn match.
A few months later, he was chosen as a member of the Indian hockey team that toured New Zealand under Dhyan Chand. It was the high-noon of Indian hockey and despite the presence of several stars in the side, Gopalan held his own by some spectacular performances.
In 1936, two major events beckoned Gopalan: the Berlin Olympics and India’s cricket tour of England. He was faced with a dilemma as he was a certainty in the cricket side and an automatic choice in the hockey squad following his splendid showing in New Zealand.
Gopalan opted for cricket, thus denying himself a gold medal which the Indian hockey team retained in Germany. He must have repented going to England where limited opportunities and some unimaginative, eccentric captaincy by the Maharaja of Vizianagaram never allowed him to play his natural game.
Always energetic and enthusiastic, Gopalan continued to play competitive cricket and hockey while into his 40s. He used to cycle a lot, moving from cricket grounds to hockey fields. The high, wide and handsome Gopalan was the sportsman for innumerable aficionados of his generation.
His retirement wasn’t less eventful. He served the BCCI as a selector, was chairman of the state selection committee and a vice-president of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. The main gate of the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai is named after him. From the 1950s to the late 1980s, Madras and Ceylon (later Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka) competed in the annual cricket match for the Gopalan Trophy. The contest always had the seriousness of a Test match.
Gentility and modesty personified, on and off the field, Gopalan was a highly respected figure in Chennai and elsewhere in Tamil Nadu. Unlike many old sportsmen, he was never critical or cynical of the modern players. Sunil Gavaskar always made it a point to touch Gopalan's feet whenever the two met at a public gathering.
He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1964.