Not many would have pulled big Merv's moustache and got away with it. But then Venkatapathy Raju did and that's because he is different. Refreshingly different. Few will misunderstand this friendly, modest cricketer.
Raju believes there is more to life than the six hours on a cricket field. He loves to meet people, make friends. And he is modest to a fault. He is the senior most among the present trio of Indian spinners, and had a match haul of 11wickets in the last Test that India played. Yet he underplays his achievements.
Indeed there is more to ‘Mr. Muscles’ than fun and frolic. In his own way, he is a tough competitor,having survived in the Indian team for over four years now. No laughing matter in a country where left arm spinners are dime a dozen. Not many Indians have taken 10 wickets in a Test match. Raju has accomplished this.
Again no laughing matter, right from the moment Raju played in the youth Tests against the tough Australian squad which had the likes of Tom Moody in it, in the mid 80's, he was tipped as one who would hit big time. To an extent Raju has lived up to his promise.
And along the way the cheerful Raju has had to fight his own battles. He had to return home from the tour of England in 1990 due to an injury to his bowling arm. But Raju fought his way back into the team.
During the tour of Australia (1991-92) one saw a different Raju. One particular dismissal, that of Mark Waugh, stands out in memory. Waugh was done in by the flight and turn. The Hyderabadi was now flighting the ball more, though he had lost his arm ball, his main wicket-taking weapon early on.
In the home series against England, though Kumble was the strike bowler, Raju and Chauhan gave him excellent support. Raju. toocame up with a superb spell on the opening day of the Bombay Test. It was a victory for India's new spin trio, which worked as a team. But Raju resents any comparisons with the greats of the past.
The new boys have their place too. With Maninder Singh on the wane, Raju is the No.1 left-arm spinner in the land now. A position for which he had striven hard and which he justified in the Wills Triangular World Series final against West Indies recently. Indeed the story of a boy from rural Andhra Pradesh making it to the Indian team is quite fascinating. And Raju still retains some of that rustic charm.
It's but natural that a blithe spirit like him is in demand while on tours. He has so many friends in the opposition, like Brian McMillan of South Africa.
Every cricketer has his own way of living, playing. Raju too has his own style. Original. As this chat with Sportstar exemplifies…
How did you take to the game?
My dad was the head of a village in Andhra. When I was young, I was put in a boarding school, St. John's, Gannavaram. There I used to play soccer and some other games. I used to play cricket on Saturdays and Sundays for fun's sake. The real cricket started when I came to Hyderabad. I was in a Public School. We had big grounds and more facilities. I, being in the hostel, used to watch a lot of league matches. Saturdays and Sundays we had nothing to do. Got more time to practice. We used to have inter-college matches. That way I slowly developed my cricket. My father also sold his lands and came down to Hyderabad.
You made it to the Ranji team quite early…
My advantage was when I played for my school there was no left-arm spinner. In fact there were few left-arm spinners in Hyderabad. Hyderabad is famous for off spinners. When I made my debut Narasimha Rao used to bowl leg spin while Shivlal and Arshad Ayub were off spinners. So my entry into the team was quite easy.
Any early influences?
I used to play for Jaisimha's team MCC. And he is one of the shrewdest captains. I was lucky to play under him for a couple of years. When you play under him, you get to know what you are. He would come and give you useful tips, analyse with you. I really developed as a spinner here.
Your Test debut was quite eventful, wasn't it?
My debut was in New Zealand in 1989-90. My first wicket was that of Martin Crowe, The first ball I faced in Test cricket was from Richard Hadlee. I took three wickets in the match and scored some 30-odd runs as a nightwatchman. We lost the match but my performance was all right.
Then, on your next tour, to England, disaster struck just when you were beginning to come good.
I was not having a good tour. But in that particular match,against Gloucestershire, I was having a good game and had chances of getting into the team for the second Test when I broke my hand while negotiating a short ball. It was my bowling hand too.
But your comeback Test for India saw perhaps one of your best performances…
It was against the Lankans at Chandigarh. The wicket was damp. It was not an under-prepared wicket, but a slow one with low bounce. It was not a sharp turner. I had a couple of good days, good spells and picked up eight wickets in the match. Most of the Lankans tried to play shots on a wicket of low bounce. They fell into the trap. Actually I was lucky that immediately after my injury, I got a good spell in an Irani Trophy match. Shastri, the captain, gave me a long bowl. So I could get into my groove.
When you started you had a very good arm ball. Somewhere along the line you seem to have lost it…
Yeah. I had a very good arm ball. But now it is not as deadly as before. I have lost it a bit. When I started I used to bowl flat and quicker through the air. Now I flight the ball more. In that way, I have changed. Basically it is due to too many one-dayers. In one-day games, your arm ball is bound to get hit.
You mean to say that one-day cricket affects spinners?
Sometimes it affects you, some- times it helps you. Basically in Australia, the grounds are big. That is an advantage to us. Many get caught on the fence. You can afford more risks. In India, some grounds are small and you get tonked a bit.
The tour of Australia in 1991-92 was a mixed one for you…
We had mixed luck. We could have won the third and fourth Tests but were unlucky.
You had a particularly good spell on the first day of the final Test at Perth…
The wicket was bouncy and I bowled to a good length. But the bounce can cut both ways. If the batsman is playing shots the bounce helps him too. In that Test, I was bowling well till Tom Moody came in to bat. He is 6 ft. 7 in. At the other end. Boon who is considerably shorter was batting. And Boon doesn't take much risks in Test cricket. He usually plays from his crease. Moody, on the other hand, was coming down and playing his shots. So I had to adjust my length. Moody played superbly.
The tour also saw you bowling splendidly in the WSC series…
My best game was in the Sydney game of the WSC series. I had two dismissals which I treasure most. I scalped Dean Jones and Mark Waugh. Jones who likes to attack jumped out, was completely beaten by the flight and stumped. But my next dismissal was even better. The best delivery I have ever bowled so far in my life. That ball had flight and it also turned and jumped.
Mark Waugh who stepped out had no chance of getting back. Getting wickets abroad in this fashion gave me a lot of satisfaction.
The World Cup match against Australia must still be giving you sleepless nights…
Ah! Off the last ball, I thought Srinath had hit a six and went to congratulate him. I am sure a couple of Indians must have died of heart attack. India's population would have come down that way!
The series against England saw you, Kumble and Chauhan developing into a lethal combination…
Before Chauhan came, Kumble and myself had played together for some time. Chauhan added to the variety. Basically he is a tight bowler. Kumble used his height and speed ahd was the strike bowler. He not only kept one end tight but also got wickets. The batsmen were under pressure. Myself and Chauhan too chipped in and contributed. Kumble was our main wicket-taker. So there was less pressure on us.
You had a great spell on the first day of the Bombay Test.
The wicket was damp early morning and the ball was turning and jumping. I got Gatting with one such delivery as he followed it. I like to bowl when the wicket is damp, has moisture. I remember my dismissal of Chris Lewis also in that series. He was bowled round his legs. It was a memorable series for us.
Some say Indian spinners strike only at home...
Now we have more fast bowlers. When you go abroad they get more chances to bowl. Anyway Kumble bowled superbly in South Africa. If you bowl a good spell in India, they expect miracles from you. There are a lot of factors when we play abroad. In England, we play with Kookaburra balls which are soft and have a smaller seam.
In India, we play with balls with bigger seam, the ball jumps and kicks. So abroad it takes some time to adjust. Because of the seam, gripping the ball is also not that easy.
Lot of comparisons are made too…
One thing I don't like is comparing us with other great spinners of the past. It doesn't make sense. Myself, Kumble and Chauhan have played about 10 Tests together and are doing well. Kumble has about 80 Test wickets, I have about 60 and Chauhan about 30. And at this stage, comparing us with other greats puts more pressure on us. They played in more matches and took more wickets.
There is no question of comparison. The times are different. Now we have a lot of one-day games and even the tail-ender can come and tonk you with a heavy bat. They were a great set of bowlers. I don't deny that. But when we were coming up, they were at the fag end of their career. We saw little of them.
Our style is different, their style was different. At that time, there were no fast bowlers. They could bowl long spells. Nowadays India has more pace bowlers. And we also have to adjust between one-dayers and Tests.
So the comparison hurts...
It hurts us sometimes. It doesn't make any sense. After a good match, if you are compared with someone like Bedi, it isn't fair. They were great bowlers of their time. We too are doing our job.
Bedi was your first manager in the Indian team. Is it not?
Yeah. Even when he was manager, Bedi would bowl at the nets. He used to toss the ball up a lot more and had a very easy action. Even at this age, he could bowl for hours. That's why he is great. Took more than 250 wickets. We would just watch in awe at the nets. It was a good experience. I learnt a lot while watching him. The thing is nobody can deny the greatness of the four spinners.
Between them they took more than 800 Test wickets. What we don't like is the comparison because we are bowling in a different era.
So, who was the left-arm spinner who impressed you the most?
Dilip Doshi. He was a superb bowler who started late. But still he finished with more than 100 Test wickets at a very good strike rate.
How do you react to criticism during a Test?
Take this for instance. If you bowl well on a turner and if someone says he took wickets because he bowled on a turning track and he is a no good bowler then it is very unfair. Believe me it is not very easy to bowl on a turner.
In what way?
You know the ball is turning and you are more eager to get wickets. You spray a bit and a batsman who plays his shots can hit you out of the game. Sometimes you bowl something and after it pitches it turns into something else. It is very difficult to control the extent of spin. Usually on turners you tend to bowl more on the leg stump.
In the Bangalore Test against Pakistan, Maninder took seven for 27 in the first innings on a stark turner. But in the second innings there was too much pressure on him when he bowled. People expected too much. There are also some bowlers who are very good on flat wickets like Shivlal Yadav. He used to flight and deceive the batsmen. On a turner you just have to bowl a steady. You tend to get carried away on a turner.
In India, there are often allegations that the spinners put too much pressure on the umpire by appealing for everything. Are you really convinced when you appeal?
Look, on a turning track, you don't know whether it is coming off the pad or off the glove. If somebody is padding up you can't see whether the ball has brushed his bat or his glove, while it turned or jumped. His front foot is obstructing your vision. So you have to appeal. Your main job is to compete all the time. So you are appealing for a purpose not for the sake of it.
The umpire is always there and he is one who is going to judge. There are also times when you are trying very hard, you tend to get carried away a bit. But you cannot really blame us. Especially on a turning track. A Test wicket is a Test wicket, right? You don't get them often.
When do you like it - when the batsman steps out or plays from the crease?
It depends on the wicket. If he comes out on a turner, you know you would get him sooner or later if you bowl well. He might get away with one or two shots. Sometimes it is frustrating when the batsman uses his pads, then you try to shift your line and your rhythm gets spoilt.
Basically, the Australians use their feet very well. They play spin well. They also give you a chance. Martin Crowe is a great batsman too.
How do you gear up for a Test match?
You talk to your roommate before the match. Then the seriousness comes back to you. Test cricket is not like one-day cricket. Here you have to bowl long spells. You have to be focussed. How I prepare depends on the situation and wicket.
You had a great Test match against the Lankans at Ahmedabad…
Again, it was a damp wicket, not really a turner and basically the Lankans played too many shots. I like bowling on such wickets. I always enjoyed bowling against the Lankans.
You had a good final in the Hero Cup too…
Basically, it was Kumble who did most of the damage. It took some time for me to get used to the lights and all. When I came on, the match was almost decided. But still it was a happy experience.
Anyone among the contemporary left arm spinners who has impressed you?
Sunil Subramaniam is very good. He is an attacking bowler.
Till now, you have played under only one captain for India...
Yes, I am lucky, because Azhar understands me very well. He knows how to handle me. We both are from Hyderabad. He sets the field and then comes and talks to the bowler. We get along well.
You are supposed to be a lively person...
I enjoy life. Right from the beginning I have been like that. I like to make friends. When we go out on tours, I am not the type of guy who sits in the room. I go out to the bar, meet players from the opposition and just enjoy myself. While playing cricket, yoft must be serious. But afterwards, by sitting in the room, you don't leam anything. I like to see the country.
I still have friends like McMillan and Merv Hughes. When they came to India we went out for dinner. It was good fun. Whenever they come to India, they look out for me. When I was in South Africa, McMillan and myself got along very well.
Any funny moments?
Yes, I pulled big Merv's moustache once in flight. Later on, we became good friends. I like to have fun.
How do you take life?
I take it as it comes.
(This interview was first published in Sportstar magazine on November 19, 1994)
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