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A cricketer and a gentleman

RAMACHANDRA GUHA

No Indian cricketer in recent times has been as underrated as Javagal Srinath, who has successfully challenged three stereotypes. He is a vegetarian, a South Indian and a gentleman, and a world-class fast bowler.


Javagal Srinath

ABOUT 12 years ago, I was watching a Wills Trophy match at the Karnail Singh Stadium in New Delhi in the company of the cricket administrator Amrit Mathur. The opening bowlers for the sponsors' team caught our eye. One bowled late outswing with fine control; the other brought the ball back in at a lively place. Enquiries were made, and their names revealed. They were called Venkatesh Prasad and Javagal Srinath and, we were told, they played for Karnataka. It was this that stunned us: the combination of how they bowled and where they came from. Tall, slim, hostile fast bowlers from Karnataka? Was not that the State that specialised in the production of short, squat and unauthentic slow bowlers?

Later that year one of these men, Srinath, was chosen to tour Australia with the Indian team. He bowled first change, after Kapil Dev and Prabhakar, but made an immediate impression, troubling the great Allan Border with his movement in the air and his bounce off the pitch. However for the next three years he was in and out of the Test team, selected overseas but relegated to 12th man at home. It was only after Kapil Dev retired that Srinath came to feel secure about his place in the side.

When Srinath first played for India he was painfully thin. He had pace, admittedly; but could he sustain it in the hard world of international cricket? To make certain the coach and trainer of the Indian team worked to convert him away from his vegetarian diet. Chicken soup and lamb chops, he was told, maketh the fast bowler. Srinath reluctantly acquiesced on tour, when he was under their suspicious eye. At home, however, he relapsed into his shakahari ways. I am told that off the field some of his happiest moments are spent eating dosa and wada in a favourite little eatery in his home town, Mysore.

Early in his international career Srinath relied on the big inswinger. As he filled out physically, swing gave way to seam, to late movement off the wicket. The man had control and he had heart. A lovely line, just outside the off stump, balls coming in an inch or two but sometimes six inches, the odd one holding its own. His victims were mostly leg before or bowled, or caught by the wicket-keeper. Sometimes a rising ball took the edge and flew to slip, where it was rarely held. The dropped catch was met by the bowler with an expressive show of hands, and a mild — very mild — imprecation uttered more-or-less under his breath.

Once, when the target West Indian fast bowler Courtney Walsh had to take leave of absence from his county, Gloucestershire, he recommended Srinath as his replacement. The recommendation, one suspects, had something to do with cricketing ability and something also to do with character. Indeed, with Walsh's retirement, Srinath remains the sole gentleman bowling fast today, the only new ball bowler now playing who does not regularly swear or glare at the batsmen opposite him. Indian slip fieldsmen, however, are another matter; their chastisement is, on the whole, richly deserved.

I write this days after having watched Srinath take four top order wickets in a Test match played on a Bangalore track without grass and without life. For a day-and-a-half, as England batted, he looked the only bowler likely to take a wicket, probing intelligently around the off stump, the bumper sparingly but judiciously used, the additional variation coming in the shape of a newly developed leg break. When England were finally all out, the fast bowler should, as of right, led his side off the field. But he insisted on allowing the honour to the leg-spinner Anil Kumble. Kumble had bowled indifferently throughout the innings, and the only wicket to fall to him was that of the England number 11. But this was the 300th wicket of his career, a coincidence which inspired Srinath to direct his team-mates to stand back, and to himself lead the applause for Kumble as he walked into the pavilion.

The gestures was characteristic. How characteristic we may judge when we consider this letter published in The Star of Mysore 12 months ago. It was written by one T. Meera, and in part it read:

"Sir, on Sunday, January 7, my daughter, who is doing her Masters in Computer Applications ... was proceeding to the city on her TVS Scooty. Near the Jayanagar railway gate she met with a freak accident with a cyclist and fell on the road unconscious with bleeding ear injuries.

Javagal Srinath, the ace cricketer, who happened to pass by stopped and saw to the safety of my daughter. He also had the courtesy to come all the way to our residence by noting down the address in the identification slip of my daughter and took my husband to the hospital. He even spared his car and driver too ... . My daughter ... is now out of danger. The kindness and courtesy shown by the great sportsman is highly commendable and our whole family thank him for his gesture."

I owe these details to the writer Krishna Prasad, who grew up playing cricket with Srinath in Mysore. It was he who recently persuaded the Mysore municipality to name a key traffic intersection after the fast bowler. Much earlier, in 1994, Krishna Prasad presented his friend and fellow townsman with a book of mine, Spin and Other Turns, writing on the fly-leaf that he hoped one day Srinath's deeds would inspire the writing of a book to be called "Pace and Other Swings": its theme the brave, gifted but insufficiently appreciated men who have taken the new ball for India.

There is indeed room for such a book, and I hope Krishna Prasad will author it. Here, he can reconstruct through historical research the careers of Mohammed Nissar and Amar Singh, Dattu Phadkar and Ramakant Desai, not to forget that courageous left-handed all-rounder Karsan Ghavri. Kapil Dev he can write about from experience and with insight, and Srinath through experience, insight, and — that critical ingredient for a cricket writer — empathy. For no Indian cricketer in recent times has been so selfless or so underrated. This is a man who has successfully challenged three stereotypes. He is a vegetarian, a South Indian, and a gentleman, and yet-a world-class fast bowler.

Srinath, like Kapil Dev, has bowled magnificently on Indian tracks generally regarded as unsuitable for quick bowlers. Overseas, when the likes of Kumble and Harbhajan never look like taking wickets, Srinath always does, his control and bounce and seam movement a threat to the best among his opponents. Some great modern batsman, such as Border and Ranatunga and Michael Atherton, have looked pretty ordinary against him.

If Srinath had Mark Taylor and Mark Waugh catching for him instead of the butter-fingered Indians, he might very well have had close to 300 Test wickets himself. As it stands, he commands far less respect on and off the field than is his due. Cricketers who cannot match him in skill or achievement generate more banner headlines and garner more — many more — commercial endorsements. But the historians of cricket will, I am certain, in time reverse these judgments. If you wish to know the true measure of the fast bowler's achievement, consider this: of the cricketers playing for India today, only Srinath and Sachin Tendulkar could ever be candidate for an all-time Indian Eleven.

The writer is the editor of the Picador Book of Cricket.

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