Ven-kat Above The Rest
By H Natarajan
Last week, April 20 to be precise, a man whose contribution to cricket has no parallels completed his 60th year on this planet. There can be few better moments to remember the man who, in my opinion, is the finest example of a sportsman giving back ‘something’ to the sport that gave him everything.
Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan - Venkat to the cricketing world - is like Amitabh Bachchan. The thespian’s excellence spanned a wide gamut – hero, villain, comedian, drag, voice-over, etc. In cricket, one cannot think of anybody who comes even remotely close to what Venkat has achieved, and achieved with distinction – India player, India captain, Indian team manager, National selection committee, state association secretary, ICC match referee, ICC umpire, television commentator, newspaper columnist….
Umpiring is the least favoured job of a retired cricketer. The work is very hard, very long, sustained, extremely demanding and the remuneration not commensurate for the effort. It’s also very thankless; there are no bouquets for great decisions, but there will be plenty of brickbats for wrong verdicts. And pitted against the omnipresent cameras, freeze shots, super slow-mos, snick-o-meter, Hawk-Eye, it’s an unequal battle of a human against technology. Yet, Venkat commanded respected and was widely acknowledged as one of the best, if not the best, in the game.
Venkat’s intimidating reputation as a fiery man meant players did not dare to hustle him unless they wanted to risk a public ticking-off. The image of the “angry young man” is another similarity he shared with Amitabh – though in the former’s case it was an on-screen persona.
I still remember attending the press conference when Venkat was picked for the 1983 tour of the West Indies – a team that had the likes of Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Maninder Singh, two players who were not even born when Venkat made his Test debut in February 1965. Kapil Dev was the captain of the Indian team to the Caribbean, but his trepidation – and respect - of having Venkat as a team member was unmistakable.
Like most South Indian Brahmin families, Venkat’s parents ensured that he got a sound academic background – a degree in engineering. He was just 18 when he made his debut against New Zealand in the home series - a series in which he hauled 21 wickets from four Tests, including 8-72 (12-152) at Delhi. Those figures were the best in Test history by a bowler so young - 18 years, 335 days – and it stood as a record for 20 years.
With Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekar and Bishan Bedi, Venkat not only made up the famous spin quartet but was also a key element in the success of his spin partners with his sharp catching in the close-in cordon. Venky, however, had to play second fiddle to Pras for the most part of his career. It was only after the exit of Tiger Pataudi as captain that Venkat’s stocks rose in Indian cricket.
Ajit Wadekar, the man who succeeded Pataudi, had immense faith in Venkat. And Venkat, now the Indian team vice-captain, did not let Wadekar down. He was one the architects of the historic 1971 series win in the West Indies where he took 22 wickets in five Tests, far more than any bowler on both side and almost half the number of wickets the rest of the Indian bowlers got together in the series.
India wrapped up the series 1-0 by virtue of winning the second Test at Port-of-Spain, where Venkat got 5-95 in the second innings. He also scored 51 to rescue India in a crisis situation in the final Test.
On the tour of England that followed the same year, where India scored another historic series victory, Venkat took 13 wickets and shared the bowling honours with Chandra.
After 18 and a half years as a player, Venkat was back again in the middle as an umpire for another 11 years. Almost three decades! Of course, it’s not surprising considering that he has been one of the fittest cricketers in international cricket.
His mastery over the game was such that few had the courage to get involved in debates with him. He is the kind of man who would call a spade a shovel.
As Wadekar once told me: “Venky is a misunderstood person because of his short-tempered nature. But he is a 100% team man and a good thinker of the game. I also liked the fact that, unlike so many players, he never allowed his morale to drop when the opposition held the upper hand.”
Each member of the spin quartet was a joy to behold in action. Venkat, for his part, came in off an easy, short run-up, flopping back a thick mop of hair with his left hand, and pegged away accurately. He bowled flat and fast, in sharp contrast to Prasanna. No less a batsman than the legendary Garry Sobers said that Venkat was a very difficult bowler to score off.
He faced two humiliations as captain: in 1974-75 he was demoted to 12th man after captaining the previous Test, and in 1979 he heard that he was sacked from the pilot on the flight’s PA system while on the flight back home. Despite his unparalled contribution to cricket, even the Padma Shri came only in 2003. But Venky, who finished with over 1000 first-class wickets, including over 500 in the Ranji Trophy, did not allow these things to upset his work ethics and went about his work with a tunnel vision.
Venky is truly one of a kind.