Venugopal Rao: 'I could have played more'

Y. Venugopal Rao reminisces his making his first-class debut almost two decades ago in this interview, where he speaks about playing for India, doing TV commentary in Telugu and more.

Venugopal Rao, who's playing the KSCA Dr. (Capt.) K. Thimmappiah Memorial Tournament, is 35 now, and closer to the end than the beginning.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

It was nearly 20 years ago that Y. Venugopal Rao made his first-class debut, but he has vivid memories of the day. How can he forget, he laughs, running into a fiery Dodda Ganesh at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium? “Of course he was sledging me. You know how Dodda is. I got out to him: I pulled and was caught at deep square leg.” Rao was only 16 but he did not, he says, hold back. “I was a bit aggressive, actually. I used to give it back. When I look back, maybe what I did was wrong. I keep saying to the kids now, 'Whatever happens, leave it on the field. Say sorry, and forget about it when you come back.'”

Some two decades later at the same ground, Rao is now the elder statesman in the Andhra side as it battles Gujarat in the final of the KSCA Dr. (Capt.) K. Thimmappiah Memorial tournament. “So much has changed,” he smiles. “Today's generation is very systematic: off the field, these kids know how to manage their fitness, their diet. We were a bit rusty there. Because of the IPL, they talk to a lot of world-class players; even I learnt a lot.”

Financially, the changes have been immense. “When I started my Ranji Trophy career, I was getting 3500 per match. That was a big sum those days. I came from a lower-middle-class family. My father's salary was 7000 per month and we were five brothers.”

 

VENUGOPAL RAO'S FIRST-CLASS CAREER

Matches

Runs

Highest Score

Batting Average

100s

120

7078

228 not out

41.15

17

 

“I never played for the money but I was able to save a bit and it helped the family. All five of us brothers played for Andhra at some level. Cricket is an expensive sport. My younger brother Gnaneswar Rao (who later was India U-19 captain) and I shared the same bat sometimes as kids. When my father retired from Hindustan Zinc, his colleagues were incredibly happy for him because they saw how much he had struggled. Life was hard.”

Rao is now a veteran of 120 first-class games, a wise head in the Andhra dressing room, but he once looked set for greater things. His gigantic appetite for runs in domestic cricket earned him an India call-up in 2005. He played 16 ODIs over the next 10 months, and although there was a valiant half-century against Pakistan, the selectors saw nothing remarkable in his performances. Rao never played for India again.

“I definitely feel I could have played more,” he says. “Sometimes I still feel that regret. Somewhere along the way I didn't make the most of the talent I had. I can't pinpoint one reason. Maybe I didn't push myself. Maybe I lacked proper guidance. There were a few personal things that really hurt me. I had to overcome all that. But I can't blame anybody. It's your own journey. But then again, when I look back, for someone who came from a small town 30km away from Vizag, whatever I achieved was huge.”

It is a matter, he says, of perspective. “How many crores of people want to play for the country... and I was able to do it. Only few people get the chance to do what they love for a living. Playing against Pakistan was good. My debut was in Dambulla; Suresh Raina got out first ball and I came in. I had to face (Muttiah) Muralitharan first up. I was expecting a doosra, but I got a normal ball. I got out for 38, caught behind. For a small-town boy to share the dressing room with Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, V. V. S.  Laxman — who has been like a big brother to me — and Rahul Dravid is a great feeling.”

Venugopal Rao (second from left) with Sachin Tendulkar, R. P. Singh and Harbhajan Singh during a training camp in 2005.   -  K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Rao's final appearance for India came in May 2006; no cricketer from Andhra has since represented the country (ignoring Ambati Rayudu, who only turned out for the team for one season). “It's been more than a decade, and it really hurts. I tell these youngsters like K.S. Bharat: 'Please work hard, you have all the facilities. When we went to camp we struggled for food, stayed in dormitories, ate whatever we could find. We travelled second-class in trains. These days you have all the facilities, get the best food, stay in the best hotels, travel by air. If you get runs, you will be in the IPL. So work hard and make the most of it. Don't have regrets when you're close to retirement. Do it now.'”

Rao last played in the IPL in 2014, but he has since been a part of the tournament in a different way, doing TV commentary in Telugu. “It was difficult the first year,” he says. “It may be your mother tongue, but it's not easy speaking it fluently on TV. And also, you have to keep your audience in mind. Telugu is not just spoken in one place. The producer was telling me, 'Venu, Telugu is spoken from Madanapalle to Karimnagar.' So you have to know what words to use. After the first year, I began to enjoy it.”

He did receive feedback. “I got abused on Twitter,” he laughs. “But you have to accept it. You can't be right all the time. In the first year, even my family said certain words sounded awkward. They've always said things to my face, right from my playing days.”

Rao is 35 now, and closer to the end than the beginning. “I'll maybe play for two-three years more. A coaching role perhaps. But I will be in cricket. I don't know anything else. I've done nothing else since I was 10.”