‘Thought Dravid will never play for India’

V. B. Chandrasekhar once out-scored K. Srikkanth on a dusty Chepauk pitch on the fourth day of an Irani Cup game. The former Tamil Nadu batsman, now a television commentator, talks to P. K. Ajith Kumar about his cricketing journey.

Years back, when there was no T20 hara-kiri on view, young batsmen were taught to be patient, to spend time in the middle and take the shine off a new ball. In those days of copybook cricket, Krishnamachari Srikkanth was an oddity, a batsman who went after the bowling from the first ball. Bowlers were left aghast and batting partners watched the blitzkrieg from the other end, often resorting to evasive actions to sway away from the path of a well-hit shot.

But on a memorable day at Chepauk in October 1988, Srikkanth was the spectator, in an Irani Cup game, as his opening partner, V. B. Chandrasekhar, went on a rampage, scoring a hundred in just 56 balls. It was the fastest first-class hundred by an Indian, scored against a very good Rest of India attack — which had spinners like Narendra Hirwani and Gopal Sharma — and on a fourth day pitch.

“There was a decent turnout at Chepauk as the crowd wanted to see Srikkanth bat. But the people who mattered, the selectors, did not stay back for the final day,” recalls Chandrasekhar, who went on to play seven One-dayers for India. The yesteryear opener sat with Sportstar at the Wayanad Cricket Stadium in Krishnagiri (Kerala) for this interview.

Question: Do you remember that incredible knock against Rest of India?

Answer: Quite vividly! I got out for a duck in the first innings. Rest of India had a good bowling attack — medium-pacers Sanjeev Sharma and Rashid Patel and spinners Gopal and Hirwani. Rest failed to score much in its second innings after skipper Arun Lal decided to not enforce the follow-on. We had a limited time to chase 340. When we — Srikkanth and I — walked in, the pitch was dusty. It actually didn’t even look like a pitch. The first ball I faced, from Sanjeev, was short and I hooked it and got a top edge, which sailed over for a six, hitting the sightscreen. From then on, I seem to middle every ball and ended up hitting 11 boundaries and four sixes.

The selectors were supposed to pick the team for the Champions Trophy in Sharjah right after the game, but, unfortunately, they did not stay back — except Naren Tamhane (then a national selector from the West Zone) — for the last day’s play, and thus failed to witness my innings. I was in good form and was high on confidence and might have done well if I had found a spot in that squad.

You did eventually play for India, though just a handful of games…

I never got the chance to play a Test match and till date that’s my biggest regret. Contrary to what people say, I was not a limited-overs batsman. I did like to play my shots, but I was still a classical, orthodox batsman. I enjoyed batting in the longer format. Sunil Gavaskar has always been my favourite batsman, not Srikkanth. I never wanted to copy Srikkanth, rather I always tried to emulate Gavaskar. I am also a big admirer of his writing. His ‘Sunny Days’ is the first cricket book I ever read. I could never bat with him, but I have been lucky enough to share a commentary room with him. My father V.R. Biksheswaran, a well-known lawyer in Chennai, was also a great fan of Gavaskar.

You studied engineering. When did you first seriously consider cricket as a career?

I made my Ranji Trophy debut at 26. In my family academics always came first. Kripal Singh, my coach in the Chennai League, spotted my talent and once said I was the one of the best openers he had come across. He said, I was as good as — or even a better batsman than — Srikkanth.

You were part of the Indian squad that toured New Zealand in 1990. The selectors flew in Dilip Vengsarkar, a middle-order batsman, after N. S. Sidhu, the regular opener, got injured. Sportstar had a cartoon of Vengsarkar parachuting down on a cricket ground in New Zealand. Was it a hard time for you?

Yes, I did see that cartoon. I was hurt as I had batted well during the Tour games. I had scores of 92 and 71 and had also hit six sixes in an innings. But, I wasted the opportunities that came my way and paid the price for being too audacious. I perhaps didn’t value the talent I had. Unfortunately, I never got a second chance.

You have been a coach, a national selector and now a commentator…

I enjoy being a commentator. I used to listen to a lot of cricket commentary on the radio when I was a student. I had followed the 1983 World Cup on BBC radio; there was only one television in my hostel at the Coimbatore Institute of Technology. In recent years, I have covered a lot of domestic matches and have been fortunate to see the transformation of a lot of young talents. I saw Virat Kohli playing for Delhi against Karnataka at the Feroz Shah Kotla in 2006 and Chetan Chauhan was consoling him. I enquired with Chetan later and was told that the boy had lost his father the previous night. Virat scored a match-saving 90 and I knew, then and there, that he’ll play for India.

I had similar inklings about players like V. V. S. Laxman, (Virender) Sehwag, Ishant Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Umesh Yadav and M. S. K. Prasad. But, I got it completely wrong with Rahul (Dravid), and thought he will never play for India. He was scoring his runs far too slowly. He played under my captaincy for India Cements in the Chennai League. He had offers from other clubs but wanted to play in my team. I was fond of him and he even stayed with me in Chennai, back then. His greatest strength was his concentration and he improved a lot over the years.

And any cricketer you think should have made it to the Indian team…

Kerala’s K. N. Ananthapadmanabhan should have played Test matches for India. He was a terrific leg-spinner. Teams like England would have had no clue against his bowling.