From Venkat to Ashwin – Of three generations of cricketers from Madras

Written by  //  April 23, 2011  //  Sport  //  1 Comment

For a generation that grew up on a staple-diet of televised cricket in the 1990s, Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan represented the man in the white, coat and hat – a top-class umpire respected across the cricketing world. But Venkataraghavan – or Venkat as he is fondly known – has donned many a hat before the role for which he was most recently cherished and almost all of them with grand success.

Venkat was, to begin with, a cricketer of great renown. He wasn’t the first from Madras to play Test cricket for India – the honour belongs to M.J. Gopalan who played a game in 1934 – but he is easily the city’s most celebrated modern-day cricketer. An off-spinner of classical virtues, Venkat bowled with an elegant side-on action, relying on traditional weapons of flight, drift and turn for his wickets. Boasting unerring accuracy in addition to his considerable powers of spin, had Venkat not had the misfortune of sharing the stage with Erapalli Prasanna – one of the greatest off-spinners of all time – and the rest of the famed spin quartet – Bhagwat Chandrashekar and Bishan Bedi – he would have surely gone on to play more than the 57 Tests he played for India and amassed more than the 156 wickets he scalped.

But statistics, as is so often the case, fails to tell the whole tale. Venkat was an astute thinker of the game, an outstanding close-in fieldsman and a man of unimpeachable integrity. His international career spanned 18 years – evincing his supreme fitness – in which he captained India in five Tests and in both the 1975 and 1979 editions of the World Cup. Upon retirement, he enjoyed success in the various jobs that he partook in, including in roles as manager of the Indian team for its tours to Australia and the West Indies in 1985-86 and 1989 respectively and as national selector in 1991-92. As the only man to have both played and umpired in over fifty Tests, Venkat will remain the jewel in the crown of Madras cricket.

Venkat’s Test career coincided for a brief two year spell with that of Krishnamachari Srikkanth, but their roles and their personalities couldn’t have been more starkly different. Srikkanth was an opening batsman of thrilling yet flawed substance. His record scarcely did justice to his potential, but such things were only trivial in the exhilarating world that he lived in. He was an entertainer extraordinaire – impudent and cheeky the bowler’s reputation rarely mattered to him. Gifted with wonderful hand and eye coordination, his strokes weren’t always orthodox. Slashes over point and swishes over mid-on were executed with ease and insolence – all of which made for particularly invigorating viewing.

It was in the shorter format of the game that Srikkanth made his most telling contribution. The newer fans of cricket credit the Sri Lankan openers of the 1996 World Cup – Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana – or the Kiwi, Mark Greatbatch for his role during the 1992 World Cup as proponents of attacking batsmanship in the opening phase of a One-Day innings. It was Srikkanth, though, who was the first to consistently deploy lofted strokes at the launch of an innings. What may seem routine now, however, wasn’t always so. It required a trend setter and Srikkanth was that man.

Between Srikkanth and the most recent lot from Madras – including Ravichandran Ashwin and Murali Vijay – there have been many fine cricketers from the city to represent the country. Yet, they have been unable to make a sustained impression at the international level. Laxman Sivaramakrishnan – a leg spinner of prodigious talents – played no more than nine Tests for India. Woorkeri Raman and Sadagopan Ramesh, two graceful left-handed openers lacked the temperament, if not the talent to cement their places in the team. Neither Hemang Badani nor Sridharan Sriram, both southpaws, was able to translate his domestic form into consistent run-making for India. L. Balaji, a swing bowler capable at one stage of producing deceptive pace, undone by injuries, has seen his career plunge. Likewise, wicketkeeper-batsman, Dinesh Karthik, unlucky in some people’s opinion to have had his calling coincide with M.S. Dhoni’s, has fallen by the wayside. Subramaniam Badrinath, a technically accomplished middle order batsman also seems to have missed the boat – although, perhaps not down to his own doing.

It is left then to Ashwin and Vijay and perhaps a promising young brigade, which includes Abhinav Mukund, a classical left-handed opening batsman, to carry forward Madras’s baton. Vijay, particularly at the Test level, when he has deputised for either Virender Sehwag or Gautam Gambhir has looked like he belongs. Ashwin, yet to play Test cricket has impressed on almost every occasion when he has played for India – including during the recently concluded, triumphant World Cup campaign, and it is only a matter of time before he earns a Test cap.

(A modified version of this  – one that was sans many details – appeared in the Times of India dated April 23, 2011)

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