Elder statesman among Indian pacemen

Published : Oct 13, 2001 00:00 IST


FAST bowling is a hard, uncompromising job. More so on the sub-continental pitches, making the strongest of men cry out in despair.

Survival is tough...in fact very tough. Several careers are nipped in the bud, some others are beaten back by the odds, along the serpentine path.

Into this often ruthless world entered Javagal Srinath, a slim, Mysore lad with an essential quality. He dared to dream and dream big.

Srinath wanted to unleash a cricket ball fast in a land where the merchants of speed were a rarity. A daunting thought in itself for he lacked the physical attributes of a pace predator.

It was the beginning of a story, which has taken him across several continents, several famous arenas. An enduring, endearing tale about a simple, self-effacing man, whose modesty can be touching.

Even in the cauldron of international cricket, there is a certain calmness about him that is all too rare these days. A cricketer on whom fame and success sit lightly.

Yet, do not mistake his humility for a lack of ambition. Beneath his rather pragmatic exterior lies a steely resolve that has managed to surprise people.

From a rookie paceman in Mohammed Azharuddin's side that travelled to Australia in 1991-92 to being the leader of the pace pack in the Indian team touring South Africa - it's been 10, long, eventful years.

Not too many gave Srinath a chance when he took his first few steps. He too would perish like the others they thought, sucked into the whirlpool of the featherbeds in the domestic circuit.

They were wrong. Srinath worked tirelessly, long hours at the gym were backed by lengthy spells at the nets, and the paceman from Mysore was well on his way.

Yet, it has not been easy. Injuries, a rotator cuff tear which surfaced in '97 and then broken fingers, have played havoc with his career, but Srinath has managed more than one successful comeback displaying the required strength of mind.

Today, Srinath is on the threshold of 200 Test scalps (197 from 55 Tests), a stirring achievement by an Indian paceman. Still, the sheer value of having Srinath in the side is not reflected in his tally of wickets alone.

Here is an Indian quick who is actually giving it back - with his pace and bounce, he does soften the enemy. For long, the Indian batsmen had been at the receiving end from the quicks.

This is the significance of Srinath; psychologically, it's a huge boost to the Indian morale as the team enters the arena. A factor that has often been overlooked.

He is the 'nice guy' on whom the responsibility of making the batsmen duck and weave is thrust upon. And he is the proof of the fact that fast bowlers need not always be mean and nasty.

Indian cricket has been desperately short of match-winners on the pace-bowling front ever since the departure of the great Kapil Dev, and Srinath indeed is a precious commodity.

If there was one spell Srinath would remember the most, it should be his six for 21 at the Motera Stadium in the Ahmedabad Test of '96, when he breathed fire on a crumbling pitch to provide India a sensational victory against South Africa.

Along the way, he formed lethal partnerships with Karnataka mates leggie Anil Kumble, and paceman Venkatesh Prasad, their contrast in styles, providing the cutting edge to the attack.

Although the Srinath of today might have lost out a wee bit in terms of pace, he was arguably the quickest Indian bowler till the mid 90s: making 'em whistle past the batsman's nose, bowling around the 150 kmph mark.

Old timers would still maintain that the fiery Mohammed Nissar was the fastest and then we had the little Ramakant Desai, who could be very sharp on occasions. Kapil Dev, in his early days, before he evolved into a complete paceman, worked up a fair degree of pace too.

The present day Srinath is perfectly capable of a quick burst from a whippy front-on action, but prefers to use speed judiciously. Rightly too - he is 32 now, and has to guard against injuries.

At his best he is a handful, getting the ball to reverse swing in the sub-continental conditions, making it climb nastily, straightening the odd one, apart from nipping it back.

However, he could have added more to his tally had he pitched the ball up in the 'corridor' outside the off stump, allowed it to swing, and nailed the batsman on the drive or the push.

Srinath has allowed himself to be carried away by the short-pitched stuff on certain instances, providing the batsmen the width for the cut or the pull.

And it certainly was a good sign when he spent a few days with pace guru Dennis Lillee at the MRF Pace Foundation prior to the South African campaign. It was a familiar setting for Srinath - he had learnt the tricks of the trade from the Aussie during the early days.

"In India we tend to bowl reverse swing with the old ball, and carry that habit with the new ball as well," revealed the Karnataka paceman, who is striving to move the ball away from the right-hander.

These days, Srinath is the senior citizen of the Indian pace pack and he relishes the role. Nothing gives him more happiness than speaking about Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Harvinder Singh, Ajit Agarkar and the under-rated Dodda Ganesh.

Watch him at the nets and he is only too willing to share his knowledge with the youngsters. He puts them at ease, and becomes a part of the group, which is how it should be.

Srinath himself has been through this situation before - he was a raw wide-eyed youngster who learnt much from watching the great Kapil Dev operate during the Australian tour of 1991-92.

He himself bowled with considerable hostility during the series, rattling the Aussie batsman including the indomitable Allan Border, although he picked up only 10 wickets in the five-Test series.

However, with Kapil and Manoj Prabhakar around, he found himself omitted when the home Tests arrived. He endured a frustrating period, and it took a fair while before he realised his burning ambition - bowl with the new ball for India.

Coming back to the present, the hectic cricketing schedule has taken its toll on his body and wisely Srinath has opted out of several one-day tournaments.

He came under flak from certain quarters for picking and choosing his matches, but at least he understood the need to conserve himself physically. A considerably better option than going into a tour with less than 100 per cent fitness and pulling out in the heat of the battle.

He still has several challenges ahead. The tour of South Africa is an important one, and Srinath will have a key role to play. He should be firing them in at the Proteas.

Well, each time Srinath walks back to the top of his run-up, and wipes the sweat off his brow, he strikes a huge blow for Indian pace bowling.

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