Raman Subba Row: OW who saved Surrey and changed cricket

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Raman Subba Row: OW who saved Surrey and changed cricket - Inside Croydon

There will be a strange, sad, empty space on a bench near the boundary of the Old Whitgiftians’ Croham Road cricket ground in South Croydon this summer.

It is a spot where Raman Subba Row used to sit in the shade, half a pint of cool cider in hand, watching the Old Whitgiftians -OWs – team play and happy to chat with any who happened to pass by.

For Subba Row, former Surrey and England batsman, Northamptonshire captain and one of the great reforming figures of cricket in the late 20th Century, has died. He was 92, and was England’s oldest surviving Test player by the time of his death this week.

Born in Pendennis Road, Streatham, in January 1932, Subba Row forged a lifelong association with Croydon when he attended Whitgift School.

It really was a lifelong association, since to his great good fortune, and that of anyone who had the pleasure of his company for an hour or so on a warm afternoon in the cricket season, he settled his family home in one of the large, comfortable houses that back on to the cricket ground. With a little gate in the fence at the end of his garden, in his later years, Subba Row would emerge and slowly stroll towards the club house, where he’s get a drink, have a chat and let the hours pass by watching the generations of his successors.

Few, even of the hand-picked talents that attend the school these days, are likely to achieve the heights of the game, on and off the field, that the unassuming Subba Row managed.

Born to an Indian father, Panguluri Venkata Subba Rao, and English mother, Doris Pinner, in suburban south London, young Raman was a left-handed batsman and occasional leg-spin bowler who, after attending wartime Whitgift (at a time when it was a grammar school), went to Cambridge University, and in the era of “gentlemen and players”, was an amateur on the books of one of the greatest county sides ever known.

Subba Row played for Surrey in the 1950s, where first under captain Stuart Surridge the county title was won eight years out of nine by a team that included all-time cricket greats such as Alec Bedser, Jim Laker and Tony Lock, Peter May and Ken Barrington.

His first-class debut for Surrey came in 1953, but he never really established himself in the side and in 1955 he switched to Northamptonshire, where they made him captain in 1958. He proved to be a prolific run-scorer, setting several county record scores, and got his England call-up in 1958, and was included in that winter’s Ashes tour to Australia under May.

He was one of the last amateurs to represent England. According to his obituary from The Oval, “By 1961 he was established at the top of the order, scoring centuries in the first and last Tests. But the latter, at The Oval, proved to be his farewell appearance… As an amateur, he needed to earn a living.”

In the Telegraph, cricket writer Scyld Berry noted: “Subba Row graced his last Test at The Oval with 137, his third and last Test century, which saved England from another defeat. The crowd rose as he walked off for the final time. To retire aged 29, having cracked Test cricket, was quite something even then let alone now.”

Subba Row played in 13 Test matches, with an impressive average of 46, while he scored 14,182 first-class runs, at an average of 41, including a triple century top score for Northants. At 29, after the end of the 1961 season, he retired from cricket and embarked on a career in public relations, joining a Holborn-based ad agency.

But Subba Row’s second cricketing career, as an administrator, was even more influential.

As Richard Spiller’s obit for Surrey CCC notes: “It’s doubtful that anyone has had more influence in shaping Surrey and England cricket than Raman Subba Row over the past 60 years.

“Subba Row saw a game which had barely changed for much of the 20th century and knew that it had to face up to the realities of modern times.”

A game that had been run by a private club, the MCC, from Lord’s for almost 200 years was in no fit state to become a modern, global sport of the television era. Subba Row led the way in creating the Test and County Cricket Board, which he chaired from 1985 to 1990, before it became the current governing body, the ECB.

Bernie Coleman, one of the Surrey administrators who worked behind the scenes with Subba Row, remembered: “Raman understood, way ahead of anyone else, that we couldn’t have a private club running the national game. He devised the Test and County Cricket Board set-up, to rescue the game from total poverty.

“Once the board was established, the counties had a say in how things were run, which was important because they were all skint.

“Raman was the man who had the vision and put it down on paper – it was a magnificent document. He was a visionary because he could see how it should be and how we could stay solvent. He was years ahead of the rest.”

At The Oval, as chairman of Surrey CCC, he took a club and ground which had barely altered since the Second World War and saved it from going bust, transforming it into a thriving, modern sports business.

One anecdote from the Torygraph illustrates how cricket remained fiercely resistant to even modest change. “’This place looks like a dog-track!’ guffawed Gubby Allen, the eminence grise of English cricket, when he visited The Oval after Surrey had taken the revolutionary step of selling advertising to stop the old ground falling apart. ‘Gubby, without the advertisements, it would be a dog-track,’ Coleman replied.”

Surrey club cricket also owes much to Subba Row, his having organised and chaired the inaugural meeting of clubs in the winter of 1966 which led to the founding of the Surrey Championship in 1968.

He would preside over open evenings in the Long Room for Surrey’s junior members, inspiring their love of cricket by meeting players like John Edrich and Robin Jackman, and learning all aspects of the game from knowledgeable figures like groundsman Harry Brind.

As The Oval obit records: “Subba Row took over the chair of Surrey’s general committee in 1974 but his most potent years were in running the club’s executive board, from 1979-1992. His desire to be involved in every facet of the club’s activities did not please everyone and led to some skirmishes. But over time an ageing cricket ground, which had been patched up after the Second World War and progressed little, became brighter, cleaner and more suited to the modern-day needs of players and spectators.

“With close colleagues such as Coleman, Derek Newton and Brian Downing – and staff members who respected him enormously but knew the message ‘Raman is on the rampage’ might mean fireworks – the club was transformed.”

His involvement in the game was wide-ranging. He was England’s tour manager in India in 1981-1982 tour, when his Indian origins came in useful when relations between the teams became frayed. He was one of the first match referees when they were introduced, officiating in 160 Tests and one-day internationals in different parts of the world from 1992 to 2001, as well working as an ECB pitch inspector.

He was awarded the CBE for services to cricket in 1991. As his obituary on the Surrey website says, “Raman always found a moment to talk about the game or the people within it, brimming with bright ideas and having the ability to see new horizons invisible to others. He enjoyed having time to watch the new generations of Whitgift pupils and make new friends at the OWs.”

In a tribute on his old school’s website, his son Alistair has written: “From his school days Raman dedicated his life to the development of the game of cricket, enjoying the warm cricketing friendships created from the Caribbean to New Zealand and everything geographically in between.

“He believed that the game of cricket should be enjoyed by everyone everywhere.”

Raman Subba Row CBE (Jan 29, 1932-Apr 17, 2024) is survived by his wife Anne, daughter Michele, son Alistair, eight grandchildren and a great-grandchild. A private family funeral will be followed by a memorial service later in the year.

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