"I have no regrets whatsoever"

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

THE image of a skinny fast bowler from Mysore making waves with his pace is vivid. Word had spread fast on the domestic circuit, later in international cricket too, that India had at last found a bowler who could support Kapil Dev. Well, Kapil was beginning to rely more on his guile than speed by then and Javagal Srinath had just announced his entry.

Javagal Srinath waves to his fans at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore after announcing his retirement. -- Pic. AP-

Now, at the end of more than a decade of demanding cricket, Srinath has decided it is time to give way to some youngster — there are plenty of them around and for most of them this affable Karnataka speedster is the pace guru.

It would be difficult to describe Srinath, an unpredictable, and yet a reliable cricketer. His close friends from the cricketing world, Anil Kumble and Venkatesh Prasad, are still discovering new facets of his lively personality. Srinath may not be a mystery, but he sure is one fascinating character, who brought laurels for himself and the country and enjoyed a highly distinguished career.

A fast bowler. Well, Srinath was one indeed, but with a remarkably contrasting character when compared to those fuming and fretting personalities from his tribe. He was aggressive but was always within the limits, never once transgressing the rules.

Here are two examples. Srinath once hit a South African tail-ender with a vicious bouncer. As he finished his follow-through, Srinath was confronted with the gory sight of the batsman bleeding with a broken nose. It took some time before Srinath could recover to bowl the next ball, so disturbed was he for injuring a fellow-cricketer. Most unlike a fast bowler.

Srinath receives a memento from the BCCI President, Jagmohan Dalmiya, as the Indian skipper Sourav Ganguly applauds. -- Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

On another occasion, Srinath, obviously cross with the young Bhupinder Singh (Jr), who was repeatedly putting his front foot out to whack the ball during a Challenger Series match, dug one short and the ball climbed to smash through the helmet, leaving the Punjab batsman with a blurred vision for some time. Bhupinder was never the same batsman as he lost confidence and soon gave up the game, unable to drive away the scars of that blow. But more than Bhupinder, it was Srinath who was hurt.

This goes to illustrate the attitude of a very different fast bowler. He had the speed to rattle the best of the batsmen but often he sacrificed direction in trying to whiz the ball past the opponent. Nothing summed it up better than a remark by Middlesex seamer Simon Hughes, now a distinguished cricket writer. During a conversation, Hughes said to me, "with half of Srinath's talent, I would be the best bowler in the world.'' What Hughes, again a pleasant character like Srinath himself, was wanting to drive home was that Srinath never did justice to his potential. He was worth much more in terms of wickets in the kitty than what came his way.

Ask Srinath and he dismisses any such suggestions. "I think I've done justice. It depends on how you look at things. First, I must say, I gave my hundred per cent to the team. And then at the end of it all I have no regrets whatsoever.''

He always gave the impression of being laidback, at times disinterested in the proceedings. Srinath shot back, "That's what I mean when I say it depends on how you look at things. I've been accused of being a slow learner. But I've always been a learner. Or else I wouldn't have played so long. I was always committed and that's why I say I have no regrets and no complaints against anyone. I enjoyed my cricket right through. I know it was tough playing on Indian pitches but, I couldn't have played for any other country.''

Srinath, like most players, did make sacrifices, and compromises in his quest to become the best. Such as his decision to eat meat. It was probably as tough a decision as the one to hang up his boots, but then it was driven by sheer need. Srinath could not waste time at the end of the day searching for a vegetarian eatery when on tours. The transition was tough but he did not give up.

Just as Srinath did not give up his desire to lead a bunch of fast bowlers. He took upon the task and became the guide for any youngster wanting to make it big as a fast bowler. Speed thrilled Srinath and he shared his experience with the newcomers, most of whom held him in very high esteem.

Srinath does realise the folly in his formative years of bowling fast without working on the most important aspect — direction. "I was inexperienced and it showed in my bowling. But also remember that I was bowling on slow pitches and in trying to bowl fast it was obvious that line and length would become a casualty. I knew you can't reap rewards without working hard and that's what I did. I had a strong belief in myself and the motivation came from within.''

Srinath fraternises with his old team-mates at the felicitation function. -- Pic. AP-

Often there is mention of Srinath's spell at Cape Town in 1992-93 when he bowled in anger, at being dropped in the previous Test at Port Elizabeth, on a lively track. And then there is his spell at Ahmedabad against South Africa, which Sachin Tendulkar rates as "one unforgettable experience. He was very quick and devastating.''

But I remember another spell, not match-winning, but one which brought out the combative instincts of Srinath as he shook a well-set Michael Atherton on a docile Trent Bridge pitch in 1996. It was one great exhibition of fast bowling as Atherton, before and after his century, hopped and ducked and struggled to survive. It is a tribute to Atherton's determination that he hung on, but Srinath was distinctly unfortunate not to have snared Atherton. There were more than 10 occasions when Atherton escaped being out.

I know Srinath still regrets missing the 1997 tour to the West Indies when he had to return within two days of landing due to a shoulder injury. He was at the peak of his career then, bowling with fire. It was a difficult time for him when he returned to big time cricket. "Everytime you miss cricket, and you return, you begin from scratch. I've missed two seasons because of injuries but with time I learnt so much even though my originality was affected. I bowled with a shortened run and had to curtail my speed as I concentrated on movement and accuracy. What I lost in pace I gained in direction.''

Srinath was not known to be demonstrative. Not known to indulge in sledging. "I had the ball to settle the issue with the batsman,'' was his opinion. Srinath was a very different fast bowler indeed.

The lion-hearted Srinath with `Leeuw' the Lion in South Africa. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

When most great right-arm fast bowlers struggled to bowl to left-handers, Srinath revelled in his battles with the likes of Brian Lara and Saeed Anwar, commanding the utmost respect in all conditions. Srinath sounded embarrassed as he admitted, "I know I could do well against them because I had that ball that leaves the bat. It's the best ball to possess. Kapil (Dev) had a great outswinger. I wish I too could have taken the ball away from the right-hander."

The last couple of years have been turbulent for Srinath. He was shattered when he was dropped from the Indian team for the one-day series in the West Indies. "I could've played a role,'' said Srinath, who was having a tough time as his personal life too was rocked. It was tough for him, to concentrate on his game, and take care of things on the personal front. But he fought on. He had the respect and confidence of the players around him and his presence in the World Cup team was a big factor as India played splendidly to reach the final. If one had a complaint against Srinath, it was his failure to contribute consistently with the bat. He could have been the all-rounder India was looking for so desperately all these years.

To retire, or give it another go. Srinath pondered over the subject for long. He wanted to continue, but his right knee would not give him the confidence to accept the challenge of an international tour. Being honest to himself, and the game, Srinath, in one little moment, decided he must say good-bye. It was not an easy decision. Ask Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri. They all had to make the decision when probably they could have given themselves a season or more. But Srinath insisted his timing was perfect. "See, you've to be honest and responsible. The desire keeps driving you, but then you can't allow emotions to control the facts. I would've loved going to Australia. It's one great tour. Playing Australia was my desire but I had to be a responsible man. I know my experience would've helped, but what about the body? The state of the body reflects the state of the mind. I was in a quandary, but then I realised that if I couldn't run well I wouldn't bowl well. I tried my best to get fit, but the injury would just not heal. I think it is the accumulation of 13 years of hard cricket,'' said Srinath, who did sound disappointed at having missed the tour to Australia when he could made one final contribution with his speed and spirit.

The team is missing him and as Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan noted, the guiding hand of Srinath would have been a great asset on the Australian tour. They have gained a lot bowling along with him and interacting with him after the day's play. Srinath really enjoyed sharing his wisdom with the youngsters, unlike many who keep their experiences to themselves. Srinath was not known to be insecure and he never wanted his young colleagues to fear for their places. "Performance is what will gain you a place,'' was his simple policy.

The fast bowler from Mysore, not skinny any more, now looks forward to playing a role in Indian cricket, possibly as a bowling coach, and a motivator. With his excellent reading of the game, and his rapport with the team, Srinath could make an ideal bowling guru. "I'm game,'' he says. So is the Board.

The Indian cricket team will miss this jovial, honest and performing cricketer. His smile was infectious, so was his inspired bowling, making the rest to give their best. We salute this true gentleman, who served the game with passion and played cricket the way it should be.