Last fortnight I was at Chepauk for a delightful evening of cricket – Pakistan vs South Africa. The weather was warm but not blazing hot and what was more, the sea breeze set in early and flowed regularly through the stadium. That bit of improvement was done a decade or so ago but I could not help reflecting that had it not been for one man’s drive and vision, this stadium itself would have never materialised. And that was MA Chidambaram. I think of him every time I visit the Chepauk Stadium.
The MCA vs The MCC
The third son of Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar was an industrialist and philanthropist and once Mayor of Madras but sport was his passion. He is best remembered for his contribution to horse racing and cricket. MAC as he was known to friends, became the President of the Madras Cricket Association at a crucial time. The 30-year lease of Chepauk, held by the Madras Cricket Club was coming to an end in 1966 and it was up to him to make sure that the Government made the MCA and not the MCC the lessee in future. This was logical, for the MCA represented cricketing interests of clubs right across what was then Madras State while the MCC was a private body with a limited membership. It was MAC’s influence, together with the tough negotiating skills of AMM Arunachalam, then the President of the MCC that ensured matters came to a satisfactory conclusion. The MCA was given the lease of the grounds and permission to build a stadium, while the MCC also remained occupying two acres of the leased land, with right to use the ground and also view the matches when played, from its clubhouse.
Chepauk without a Stadium
Chepauk historically had no permanent structure, for temporary stands of casuarina, planks and rope would be put up each time there was a match. This worked well in the old days but by the late 1960s, the demand for a stadium had gained ground. For almost a decade Chepauk was abandoned for tournaments, action shifting to the Corporation stadium. It was left to Chidambaram to bring it back.
Funding Chepauk Stadium’s construction
However the construction of the stadium was easier said than done. Budgets at the end of the 1960s came to Rs 1.75 crores, a mammoth sum for a time when cricket associations had hardly any money. The MCA by then had changed its name to TNCA, in keeping with the state’s name change. But MAC continued nevertheless as President. The foundation stone for the new structure was laid in 1971 by the then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi and the Government gave a donation of Rs 15 lakhs. MAC gave a matching personal donation. He also managed to get the Madras Race Club to donate Rs 5.00 lakhs. But the balance was a staggering Rs 1.40 crores that would never have been bridged had not MAC decided to approach the banks for a loan. As security he gave his personal guarantee. With that work began and concluded in stages in 1981 or so.
Naming Chepauk the MA Chidambaram Stadium
The TNCA, in recognition of MAC’s services was keen to name the stadium after him. But he would have none of it. He held out for five years and then, in 1986, while he was abroad, the TNCA held a meeting and decided on christening the structure as the MA Chidambaram stadium. He gave in with good grace but also ensured gates were named after sports veterans AG Ram Singh and MJ Gopalan, and also his trusted lieutenant and cricket administrator S Sriraman. And so MA Chidambaram stadium it remains, recognising the man who made it reality.
I have since been informed of the following:
The architect Sangameswaram took a very nominal fee for the design.
S Sriraman played an important role in getting the loan.
The name change debate between MAC and the TNCA took place between 1971 and 1976 and not as written by me.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated November 1, 2023 and can be read here
A video of this story is here
My book Chennai A Biography can be ordered here