Moving on to part 8 of the series- From CK To VK. Indian Skippers In England, its turn of the next Indian Skippers In England.
Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan has had the longest active cricket career. He debuted for Tamilnadu (Then Madras, as the team was called then) at the age of 18 in 1963. He represented the country in 57 Tests from 1965 to 1983, was captain in five Tests and the first two World Cup competitions, a manager who doubled as a coach on the tours of Australia in 1985-86 and West Indies in 1989, was secretary of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association from 1986 to 1989, a national selector in 1991-92, a regular and respected columnist for newspapers and magazines for many years, expert commentator for television for innumerable Tests and one-day internationals, ICC match referee in the 90s, and ICC panel umpire from 1993 till 2004.
He was a very stingy off-spinner, miserly yet penetrative, could bat when the situation demanded, was a live-wire fielder even in his late 30s, and was an astute student of the game. Maybe his engineering education had imbibed a constant pursuit of perfection and precision in him, and he expected the same from his team-mates. This was good for a cricketer individually, but it made him a very grumpy and short-tempered captain. He was always the fittest player in the team, and as a captain, expected the entire team to match up to his very high fitness standards. The portly Prasanna, beer-loving Vishwanath, and the reluctant Vengsarkar were not exactly comfortable with this.
After the 1978 home series against West Indies, Sunil Gavaskar was mysteriously removed from Captaincy and Venkat was appointed the captain for the Prudential World cup 1979 and the subsequent test match series against England in England. Venkat had earlier captained India in the inaugural 1975 world cup too. Indian Performance in 1979 world cup was similar to that in the 1971 world cup. Disappointing. The Indian team just hadn’t matured to play one day cricket till then. In the test series that followed, India fared much better.
Of course, they started with the customary heavy-first-test-loss in Edgbaston. England scored 633 for 5, riding on two centuries of polarly opposite natures. Geoff Boycott’s 155 was painstaking for the batsman himself, and painful for the spectators to watch, and David Gower’s 200 not out was one of the most beautiful innings one could ever see, laced with 24 delightfully effortless 4s. A budding batsman called Graham Gooch made 83. All the five wickets to fall were taken by the 20-year-old Kapil Dev at the cost of 146 runs, and Ghavri, Venkatraghavan, and Chandrashekhar all ended up wicketless and conceding more than 100 runs. Barring Kapil Dev, the rest of the bowling attack was rendered impotent by the English wickets, and this sorry state of affairs prevailed for most of the series. Indian first innings was worth 297 (Gavaskar 61, Vishwanath 78), and England promptly imposed follow on. In their second essay, India could muster up 253, with only Gavaskar (68) Chauhan (56) and Vishwanath (51) resisting. India lost by an innings and 83 runs. Ian Botham took 5 for 70 and began a dream series for himself.
In the second test, the Lord’s wicket continued its angry spell on Indians. India were shot out for 96, and only Gavaskar (42) made a substantial score. Ian Botham took his second five-for (5/35). England made 419/9. Gower (82), Miller (62), Randall (57) and Bob Taylor (64) being the mainstays of batting. India was again staring at a huge Lords defeat, but the epic courageous display by the two most stylish Indian batsmen Vishwanath (112) and Vengsarkar (102) denied England the victory. These were the second and third hundreds scored at Lords by Indians after Vinoo Mankad had scored 184 27 years before. Gavaskar made 59. Gavaskar had made good scores in all the innings in the series so far, yet had failed to convert them into a big one. It might be an awesome display for an average player but was way below Sunny’s own lofty standards. He was the best opening batsman in the period and would deal in hundreds. However, the hundreds were just not coming. But it was a most honorable draw secured by Indians, nevertheless.
The third test began at Leeds, and Botham spanked a blistering 137 in 152 balls in England’s modest total of 270. India responded with 226 for 6 riding on Gavaskar’s one more non-hundred score of 78, Dilip Vengsarkar’s unbeaten 65 and Yashpal Sharma’s gritty 40. The match was very interestingly poised, and heavy rains washed out any possibility of further play.
India had to win at Oval in the fourth and final test to avoid losing the test series. Much was at stake. England elected to bat first and scored a respectable 305, Gooch and Peter Willey scored fifties. The captain, for once took 3 for 59, and Kapil Dev took 3. India, in reply, were all out for 202, only Vishwanath (62) and Yajurvendra Singh (43) offering resistance. India had conceded a lead of 103 runs in the must-win game. The probability of Indian victory now was next to nothing. England pounced on this and scored 334 more runs at the loss of eight wickets. Geoffery Boycott presented another insomniac’s delight by scoring 125 runs in 7 hours. David Bairstow (Jonny’s dad) scored 59. India was to score a small matter of 438 runs in four and a half sessions to win the match and square the series. What followed was an incredibly astonishing display of the greatness of one single man. Sunil Manohar Gavaskar.
India began their innings with an intention to bat out the four and a half sessions of the match to at least salvage a draw. That was the best they could do with their backs to the wall. By the end of the fourth day, India hadn’t lost a wicket and posted 76 on the board. Both Gavaskar (42) and his most trusted opening partner, Chetan Chauhan (32) off to a decent start. On the fifth and the final day, yours truly, an eight-year-old but fast succumbing to the beautiful addiction of cricket was following the commentary on radio BBC. To me then anything that Gavaskar did was divine and had to be imitated. The memory of listening to the commentary and with a bat in hand trying to essay the shots described is one of my most cherished memories.
Gavaskar and Chauhan stayed together till the scoreboard read 213, and Chauhan, sticking to his habit of missing out on 100s, got out on 80. Gavaskar was joined by Dilip Vengsarkar, and the two took the score to 366, 72 runs away from victory and Vengsarkar fell to Edmonds, scoring 52. Gavaskar was going strong at the other end. And here, Venkat made a tactical error which cost India the win, if not the match. He changed the batting order, suddenly sending Kapil Dev in the place of the in-form Vishwanath, who had top-scored in the first innings. Kapil Dev was immediately removed by Willey and had failed to score. Still no Vishwanath. Yashpal Sharma came in, and looked to hold on the other end, but consumed valuable time in scoring 19 of 47 minutes. In the meantime, Botham, Gavaskar’s closest friend, and fiercest foe was introduced in the attack, and as he warmed up, Gavaskar called for water. I feel this was a grave error Gavaskar made. His innings was always built on concentration, and the distraction of taking a drink in the innings at such a critical gesture proved fatal, and in Botham’s first over of the spell, Gavaskar on-drove a half-volley uppishly straight in the hands of David Gower at Mid-on. India 389-4.
Finally, Vishwanath walked in to replace his brother in law. He gave it his all, scored 15 off 13 balls, but fell to Willey. India 410-5. Yajurvendra Singh, the last of the recognized Indian batsmen, walked in and walked out, scoring a solitary run. The captain tried throwing his bat around but was run out for 6 made in 4 balls, India were tottering at 419 for 7. After 4 runs were scored, Yashpal, who was holding one end up fell trying to up the ante, and India were 423 for 8. All Ghavri and Bharat Reddy could then do was to play out the rest of the overs, ensuring that India doesn’t lose. Winning was out of the question; so close, yet so far. What would have been a heroic win and a feather in the cap of Venkat, turned out to be a disgrace for him. Venkat was unceremoniously removed from captaincy and replaced by Gavaskar. The pilot of the aircraft carrying the Indian team back to Bombay from England made this announcement in the plane. How inappropriate! But that’s the Indian Cricket fan-hood for you.
Yet Venkat wasn’t the one to easily give up. He persisted, made a comeback in 1982-83, played for that entire season, and retired from playing cricket, yet didn’t retire from cricket. His stints as an administrator, Match referee, and Umpire speak volumes about his commitment to the noble game. Venkat’s cricket credentials stretch over a period of 40 years . Has any other cricketer in the game anywhere in the world and at any time during the last 141 years of international cricket run up a resume even half as varied and impressive?
All this can be achieved only by a man who thinks deeply about the game, is passionate about it, and is able to analyze issues objectively. Venkat’s transition from player and captain to match referee and umpire was quite natural. As a player and then as captain, he was always interested in the cerebral aspects of the game, and he made a close and careful study of the laws. He was a sound leader not only tactically, but also technically. Indeed, in the days when he was captain, I frequently saw Venkat pull up the umpires on a point of law! With this background, his taking to full-time umpiring did not come as a surprise, but few would have expected him to emerge as one of the leading officials in the world.
But then, for Venkat, there are no half measures. His attitude has always been that anything worth doing is worth doing not just well but very well. Of course, the initial study of the laws and the interest in the technical aspects of the game did come in handy, but Venkat also brought the stamp of authority to a rather lackluster job. He had played the game at the highest level for many years and had led his country. No other umpire in the history of international cricket could boast of these credentials, leading players to respect Venkat’s decisions something that today’s cricketers do not always do.
However, I haven’t seen any of the current cricketers caring to consult Venkat about anything. Strange. But our Cricketers are demigods. They need no Gurus.
But Venkat is still well and truly around, and accessible. It would only take the Indian cricketers to get rid of their IPL-inflated egos to reach out to this reservoir of immense cricketing knowledge and acumen. Hope the day arrives soon. Venkat is 73 now.
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