Signing off in style

FOR 19 seasons, he rolled his arm over — sometimes menacingly, at times innocuously.

V. V. SBURAMANYAM

Venkatapathi Raju admits that he enjoyed the role of a support bowler to Anil Kumble. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

FOR 19 seasons, he rolled his arm over — sometimes menacingly, at times innocuously. But his spirit was indefatigable come what may. Be it the absolute batting tracks at the Hyderabad Gymkhana or the few occasions when the brains-trust decided to have spin-friendly pitches. But cricket can never be the same again, at least in Hyderabad, as Sagi Laxmipathi Venkatapathi Raju has called it a day. The timing itself has a significant message. That all is not well with Hyderabad cricket.

Yet, no one can take the credit away from this 35-year-old spinner who was a product of self-discipline and was a willing learner. By his own confession, Raju was never a strike bowler but clearly enjoyed the role of a support bowler — in Tests to Anil Kumble and in Hyderabad to the off-spinner Kanwaljit Singh till last season.

Destiny deemed him to be a left-arm spinner, so it seems. For during one of those routine sessions during his school days, his English teacher T. S. R. Anjaneya Sastry suddenly found this then right arm bowler having a very good powerful left-hand, natural throw. Quick to spot something special, he immediately advised the sixth standard student of Hyderabad Public School (Ramanthapur) to switch over to left-arm spin.

The rest is now acknowledged history as Raju who announced his retirement from first-class cricket on December 15, 2004, has become the highest wicket-taker for Hyderabad with a tally of 361 from 102 Ranji matches. Raju never really got the name and fame he should have got in Test cricket. The statistics reflect that he was a modest performer with 93 wickets from 28 Tests with a career-best haul of six for 12 against Sri Lanka in Chandigarh in 1990. A bowling feat which he still recalls as his most satisfying haul. But it is an indisputable fact that Raju formed an important cog in the wheel of spin which contained the silent assassin Anil Kumble and Rajesh Chauhan in the famous game plan of the then Indian coach Ajit Wadekar.

This trio clearly enjoyed the privilege of bowling on spin friendly tracks. But, what stood apart in the brief Test span of Raju was his 20-wicket haul in the three-Test series against West Indies in 1993. A line-up which included the likes of Richie Richardson, Carl Hooper and Brian Lara. "That was a dream series for me. But again, I thought I was not given a consistent lease in Tests despite that performance," he regrets. Call it a combination of factors or fate, Raju was constantly in and out of the Indian team. Yet that he played in two World Cups in 1992 and 1996 besides 53 one-dayers with 63 wickets was itself a tribute to Raju's efficacy that he did figure in the scheme of things. What is most impressive about Raju was his fitness level. He did not gain even an extra kg in weight over the last 20 years or so.

The easy smooth short run-up and the quick roll of the arm over to tease the best of the batsmen was what made Raju earn a name for himself in the history of Indian cricket. An interesting sidelight in Raju's Test career is that his first wicket was New Zealander Martin Crowe and the last one was Australian Mark Waugh. Arguably two of the best stroke-makers of their time.

More importantly, Raju played his last Test in 2001 in Kolkata against the Steve Waugh-led Australians. A match where another Hyderabadi V. V. S. Laxman played the innings of his lifetime with an epic 281 which not only changed the course of the series but that of Indian cricket for the next 12 months to follow. "That was great batting. We always knew he had the talent and it was time Laxman came up with special effort," recalls Raju. What exactly was his experience during that fabulous knock? "Honestly, we didn't move out of our seats when Laxman and Dravid were at the crease during that record stand. Every stroke of theirs bore the stamp of class. I would not hesitate to state that I am fortunate to witness such a turnaround and that too when another Hyderabadi was there in the thick of it," recalls Raju.

Venkatapathi Raju will now have a lot more time to devote to his wife and two sons. -- Pic. Md. YOUSUF-

Another strange coincidence! Raju's Ranji career began in December 1985 against Andhra and culminated in December 2004. A staggering 19 years of sheer hard work and commitment. "See, I look at the issue this way. I virtually ran into a dead-end in international cricket and nothing worthy is happening on domestic front too. We had our chances to win the Ranji Trophy in the last four seasons reaching semi-finals. With no chances of qualifying this year, I thought it was the right time to call it a day," explains Raju. The wily left-arm spinner is in no mood to face the flak of blocking another youngster's chances by going on and on. "I ask you this way. Did I stop the selectors from picking any youngster who promised to be a better bowler than me? I was in Hyderabad team by the sheer weight of performances and not because of anybody's mercy," was his counter. It may look like one of his typical armers — a pretty straight reply. The Hyderabadi's guts and gumption are now part of history for he stayed at the crease for more than three hours after being nastily hit on the bowling arm, by West Indian Courtney Walsh when the Indians were playing Gloucestershire in 1990 summer, a season when Azharuddin virtually set the Thames on fire with his vintage batting. "That was unbearable. Then I thought my career was over," he recalls.

Most importantly, Raju doesn't have any regrets except for the disappointment of not completing 100 wickets in Tests. "I am what I am because of the support from Hyderabad Cricket Association, my parents, my wife Uma Maheswari, friends and all the Hyderabad teammates," acknowledges the affable character.

Finally, what Raju cherishes most from the cricketing action is the way he dismissed Mark Waugh twice — once in a one-dayer in Sydney and the other in the Kolkata Test when he trapped him lbw with an armer. "On both occasions I beat him in the air and off the pitch. That was a great joy," he says with satisfaction. And being a member of the 1987 Ranji squad that won the championship, though not in the playing eleven. The experience of bowling with Kanwaljit Singh and playing under Doc (M. V. Sridhar) is something he says he will surely refresh his memory to slip into a different world. "Kanwal's bowling in the Ranji Trophy semi-final at Gymkhana when he almost bowled us to victory was something I can never forget," was Raju's compliment to his long-time spin partner.

The following are his favourites: Grounds — Sydney and Wankhede Stadium (Mumbai). Priceless souvenir — The man of the match (a Charminar Challenge Trophy — the one he got for his six-wicket haul against Sri Lanka).

"Being a Hyderabadi, it was truly special and even now I look at it with awe," he says honestly. Cricketing pundits can go on debating whether Raju ranks as one of the best left-arm spinners but what is unquestionable is that he carved history for being part of the spin trio which helped Azharuddin to become a successful captain. A feat on which Raju can always fall back and look up with a sense of pride. What about life after cricket? "I am planning to play golf seriously as I am already a regular at the Army Golf Course (Bolarum) after a trip to the United States," he says. Maybe, cricket's loss can well be golf's gain. Who knows!