Cricket, a prayer for him

S. DINAKAR

THE window curtains were open, and even as a sliver of light came into the room, Javagal Srinath, eyes shut, visage a picture of devotion, offered his evening prayers.

This has been his routine for years and it would not change with the fact that he is now a celebrity. He has always been someone close to his roots.

For Javagal Srinath, the pain of not bowling India to victory in a Test series outside the sub-continent remains.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Cricket too is a prayer for him. Completely committed, fiercely passionate and supremely self-effacing, Srinath stretched every sinew for India as a paceman who could sting. He still wants to do that... in the ODIs.

Srinath's announcement of retirement from Test cricket might have caught many by surprise, but he had clearly hinted at his intention to bid adieu in an interview to The Hindu, during the Bangalore Test against England last December.

It was a rain interrupted fourth day, and Srinath, relaxing in the dressing room on a bleak, frustrating afternoon, had revealed he would have to "take a very important decision in the next few months. I would not carry on for a moment longer than required."

Yet, there was always the feeling that he would complete the tour of England before making up his mind one way or the other. The consistency in Srinath's "corridor" bowling in the Caribbean, never really reflected in his tally of wickets, suggested there was some more gas left in the tank.

Srinath alone knows what led him to end his Test career, yet his decision will have to be respected, for he has invariably put team over self. An honest cricketer whose pragmatic ways often masked the combative edge in him.

He is, however, available for the ODIs and this is obviously fuelled by a desire to have one final fling at the World Cup with the Indian team. One final dream for a simple man who dared to dream big.

And despite the selection folly of leaving him out of the side for the triangular ODI competition in England, the 32-year-old Srinath, given his steely determination, is bound to make a determined comeback bid.

He has already provided us with enough memories as a bowler of exceptional quality in Tests. Surely India's finest paceman after the formidable Kapil Dev. Strikingly, there is not much to choose between Srinath's Test strike rate of 63.7, and Kapil's 63.9.

With 232 wickets in 64 Tests, over a hundred of them on the often barren tracks of home, Srinath has a wonderful Test record. His has indeed been a tale of courage and character, that will to surmount daunting odds shining through.

To start with, forcing himself into the Karnataka side in the late 80s, hailing from Mysore, not really the hot-spot for cricket in the State, was a huge breakthrough for Srinath. The quest for glory had begun.

Recalled his Karnataka and India team-mate Anil Kumble about those early days. "Srinath was so quick. In fact, I remember batsmen having second thoughts about taking him on at the nets!."

There were several glittering performances in the domestic circuit, notably a blistering spell at Pune's batsmen friendly Nehru Stadium pitch, Srinath's speed in the air enabling him to crash through the defence. An India place beckoned.

Srinath was in the Indian side that toured Australia in 1991-92 and he made a distinct impression on a tough campaign, getting the ball to seam and bounce at impressive speeds.

Srinath troubled the Waugh brothers, and made life in the middle difficult for Allan Border. The new kid on the block had added teeth to the attack, making the ball buzz around from a whippy front-on action.

He sparkled on the tour of South Africa as well, producing a red hot spell of four for 34 in the third Test at Cape Town, a performance that fetched him the Man of the Match award. Yet, Srinath found himself out of the eleven when England toured India in 1992-93.

He had to bide his time in the periphery with Kapil and Manoj Prabhakar sharing the new ball. A frustrating period for a lean, young, hungry paceman, willing to let rip.

However, it was only a matter of time before Srinath found a permanent slot, with Kapil, in the last leg of a glorious career, clearly on the wane. When Kapil played last for India in 1994-95, Srinath was ready to take on the mantle.

He provided a very different dimension to the Indian pace attack, getting 'em to fly past the batsmen's nose, making the ball climb from just short of a length, with the leg-side cordon in place. He would soften the enemy, clearing the path for the others, and psychologically, Srinath's presence was a big boost to the side.

A predominantly inswing bowler, Srinath developed a handy straighter one over the years, seamed the odd ball away, and was quick enough to hustle the batsmen with his pace and bounce. A lion-hearted performer, he was seldom beaten by the conditions, and over a hundred of his Test scalps were snared on the demanding home surfaces.

Srinath's strength was his ability to fire out the top-order batsmen, open the sluice gates. On occasions, he made inroads into the middle-order. However, a lack of mastery over the yorker often prevented him from blowing away the tail.

Srinath has rendered yeoman service to India and he has been ably aided by leggie Anil Kumble. They hardly allowed the opposing batsmen to rest easy.

His partnership with another State-mate Venkatesh Prasad was a potent one too. Both complementing each other with contrasting styles. Srinath brought the ball in, Prasad took it away, Srinath surprised the batsmen with a nasty short ball, Prasad did that with the slower one.

It is ironical that Srinath's finest display for India - 13 for 132 in the '99 Asian Test championship match at Eden Gardens - went unrewarded. He breathed fire, steaming in, delivery after delivery, creating possibilities for India.

It had been a 'winning' story in Kolkata '97, when Srinath, in an inspired spell, removed Michael Slater and Greg Blewett in the first over of the crucial second Test, and before long, had nailed Mark Waugh as well. Australia never really recovered from these blows and India achieved a crushing series clinching victory. Interestingly, he was India's lone paceman for the Test.

Srinath was a match-winner, and his blistering six for 21, that provided India with a sensational victory over the Proteas in the Ahmedabad Test of '96, is surely among the most destructive spells by any Indian bowler.

And returning early from the West Indian tour of '97 following a rotator cuff tear was among his worst disappointments. It's a tribute to Srinath's resolve that he could bounce back from the career-threatening injury, and still bowl with venom. When Srinath operated in the Caribbean this year, it was thus a dream realised for him.

A clean striker of the ball, he underachieved with the willow, with a series of injuries sustained while batting, in the later stages of his career, not helping things either. However, it was one such occasion that enabled us to catch a glimpse of Srinath's indomitable spirit.

Srinath's five-wicket innings haul in the Galle Test against the Lankans last year dripped with courage. The Karnataka paceman came thundering in with his left hand in a plaster, the fractured thumb not preventing him from giving it his all with the ball.

In recent times, clearly relishing his role as the leader of the pace pack and the responsibilities that went with it, Srinath held his own with the younger generation of Indian pacemen like Zaheer Khan Ashish Nehra, Ajit Agarkar and Tinu Yohannan. However, the pain of not bowling India to victory in a Test series outside the sub-continent remains.

Ecstasy on one side, agony on the other, the journey from the lanes of Mysore to the famous arenas of the cricketing world has been an eventful one for the Mysore Express. There is one final destination - World Cup 2003. Javagal Srinath does deserve to leave in a blaze of glory.