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By Peter Della Penna (on Twitter)
After recognizing USA’s standout performers on the field of play at the international level with the third annual New Inning Foundation USA Cricket Awards, DreamCricket.com and New Inning Foundation are continuing a commitment to recognize other members of the USA cricket community who have made an outstanding contribution to the overall fabric of cricket in America. The recipient of the 2012 Bart King Award for Lifetime Achievement in American Cricket is KCS Rao. This honor is bestowed posthumously to Rao, a longstanding cricketing figure in the Los Angeles area from 1974 until his death last December at the age of 78.
“He was one of the transitional figures and one of the first door openers for the Indian community when they first started coming in,” said David Sentance, U.S. cricket historian and the author of “Cricket in America, 1710-2000”. “He was also one of the Indian guys that was in the SCCA at a time when it was predominantly West Indian and Brit.”
Image (right) - KCS Rao [Courtesy: Sheama Krishnagiri]
“There are few people in Southern California who we consider pillars of the association,” said Nazim Shirazi about Rao, who was known by most people around Woodley as "KC". Shirazi, vice-president of the SCCA as well as a current Pegasus CC and former Bangladesh batsman who came to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, rarely went through a weekend without seeing Rao at the ground. “Woodley Park was his second home.”
Krishnagiri Chennakesava Seshagiri Rao was born in Vellore, Tamil Nadu on October 15, 1934. Rao grew up as a leg-spinning all-rounder whose skills took him around India playing company cricket in Hyderabad, Calcutta, Assam and Andhra Pradesh. His passion for cricket was so intense that even on his wedding day he could not be pried away from a game.
“Indian weddings are long,” said Sheama Krishnagiri, Rao’s daughter. “He did the two-minute important stuff and then he said, ‘Hey can you do the rest of it later?’ because he went and he played a game and then came back in the evening for his reception. That’s how fanatical he was.”
By his late 30s, Rao’s cricket career playing for company teams was dying down. In the early 1970s, he was working for the U.S. Educational Foundation and the U.S. Consulate in Calcutta and managed to secure a U.S. green card. After a brief time spent in New York, Rao came back to Calcutta before going to Los Angeles for the first time in 1974. It didn’t take long for him to scope out where the cricket grounds were and cater his living arrangements around them.
“When we first moved here, he went around talking to whoever he could find and he found out cricket was going on within the first couple of months after arriving without knowing a single soul,” Sheama said. “Then he found his way around there and when we were ready to buy a home about two or three years after we moved here, he really looked at this area because he wanted to play all the time.”
Although Rao was most recently associated with United Cricket Club, Sentance has fond recollections of playing with Rao at University Cricket Club in the 1970s.
Image (above) - In his competitive playing career, KCS Rao was a leg-spinning all-rounder who sometimes opened the batting. [Courtesy: Sheama Krishnagiri]
“I first met KC on an England tour with UCLA in 1976,” Sentance said. “He was just a fun guy to have on tour and that particular time we played in Bristol and around London. I remember on the plane back from England, Tony Verity and Jim Reid started chatting about the [US National] team they were going to select for the 1979 ICC Trophy and KC’s name came up as a spin bowler.”
Shortly after arriving in southern California, Rao got a job in the Los Angeles Mayor’s office where he worked for more than 25 years. In the late 1970s, the cricket grounds at Griffith Park were set to be turned into an equestrian facility to be used for the 1984 Summer Olympics. Although he was never an SCCA administrator, several people have credited Rao for playing a key role behind the scenes with city government to help secure Woodley as a new venue for cricket.
“He was one of the pioneers in obtaining the Woodley fields,” said former SCCA President Veman Reddy. “He worked for the city for a while and his passion for cricket was outstanding.”
Over the years, KC and his family hosted touring players and teams from India, the West Indies and England. According to Sheama, the likes of B.S. Chandrasekhar, Sunil Gavaskar, Tiger Pataudi, Kris Srikkanth and Everton Weekes all made their way through southern California to play exhibitions.
“I remember as a kid getting my driver’s license and driving these guys to Disneyland,” Sheama said. “They’d come and play a couple of friendly matches and then do all the sightseeing. A lot of the teams that came in the 70s, we as a family hosted them and would put them up, from the Madras Occasionals to some Indian Test teams and English Test teams. Some of them we did ourselves as a family, others the SCCA hosted and would put up in hotels.”
“He had a helping nature. Whether it was related to cricket or not, he would lend a helping hand whatever their needs were. He knew his cricket inside out. He was able to talk to them at a level that they understood that he knew his stuff so I think they also had respect for him as a cricketer and respected his opinions.”
Rao’s friendship with Chandrasekhar was particularly special. When Chandrasekhar got into a serious accident in the mid 1990s, Rao set out to raise funds to help for his treatment.
“We organized a get-together in my home in Simi Valley, Rao sahib and I organized, and I remember we collected something like $3500 from various people who came to that lunch and we gave that money to Chandrasekhar,” said Ramesh Srinivasan, a teammate of Rao’s at United CC. “Those kinds of activities Rao sahib always used to be at the forefront to figure out how to help people. A lot of cricketers, whether simple things like giving them food in his home or putting them onto the right people so they could find jobs, whatever little he could Rao sir always used to be at the forefront of that.”
Rao kept playing matches at Woodley until the mid 1990s, but even after he stopped stepping onto the field of play he was determined to maintain a presence at Woodley. He was known to the younger generation for lining up at the nets, even in his 70s, to bowl loopy leg-breaks. When practice nets were first constructed a few years ago at Woodley, the top of the nets were adjusted specifically so that Rao’s flighted deliveries would not hit the top of the netting. He was also a keen observer of matches on the weekends whether they involved United CC or other clubs.
“Definitely he is someone who was most observant and would watch everybody’s game,” Shirazi said. “Although he was involved with United CC, he would work with youngsters. He brought me someone last year, Aman Lobana, who is turning out to be one of the best bowlers that we have in our league.” At the time, Lobana was playing for a fourth division club. Shirazi says that Rao’s opinions were held in such high regard that he gave Lobana a chance with his first division Pegasus side based on Rao’s recommendation alone.
“[Rao] just walked up to me and said, ‘This guy wants to play serious cricket. He has ambition. Can you give him an opportunity?’ I said certainly and we signed him right there and then only because it was coming from Mr. Rao.”
Those who knew him best also say that Rao was quick witted at the cricket ground as well, always looking to make jokes to lighten the mood for amateur players who sometimes took their games a little too seriously.
Image (left) - KCS Rao as a young man. [Courtesy: Sheama Krishnagiri]
“He was full of knowledge,” Reddy said. “He was always willing to share his knowledge to everybody around him. He was a very fun loving person and more than cricket he was actually a comedian. He was always cracking jokes about cricket and life in general, always very happy.”
“In terms of off the field, always a great sense of humor to the last day,” Srinivasan said. “One of his famous lines about United batsmen always used to be ‘United batsmen are outstanding. They get out quickly and then are standing outside.’ He used to say, ‘All batsmen are motivated but United batsmen are mota-vated.’ Mota in Hindi means fat. That was his way of saying you don’t keep yourself fit.”
Rao, who at one time worked as a journalist for Voice of America while stationed in Calcutta, pursued cricket journalism stateside when he started up a publication called “Weekend Cricket” in 1993. Rao self-published the magazine for two years before funding ran out. In the last few years, Rao started a blog called “KC’s Weekend Cricket” where he provided his views on local cricket in LA as well as topics revolving around US Cricket and international cricket.
“He loved the game enough to stay up all night and follow it no matter where it was going on in the world,” Sheama said. “He thought it was really important because it builds character.”
According to Sheama, her father also enjoyed writing poetry in English and Tamil. Rao was originally trained as a stenographer and was fluent in seven languages: Bengali, English Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu. In addition to Sheama, Rao has another daughter Kumudini and two grandchildren, Kavitha and Nikitha. He died just a few days short of what would have been his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife Lalitha.
While this will be the first cricket season without Rao in Los Angeles for almost 40 years, he’ll continue to be remembered by those who cherished his presence at Woodley. Several people have suggested naming one of the SCCA’s seasonal tournament trophies after Rao as a way to memorialize him.
“He put the fabric of the game above individual personalities,” Sentance said. “He gave a good perspective and wise counsel especially to the young Indian guys who were coming in and were probably looking out for a father figure in a foreign country. He went from cricketer to breaking down doors to multicultural to being like a grandfather for the young Indian guys.”
In recognition of his contributions to the American cricket community, KCS Rao’s family will receive a memorial plaque. In his memory, New Inning Foundation will also donate a $250 DreamCricket.com Pavilion Shop gift certificate to a youth development program in the greater Los Angeles area.