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By Suresh Menon
At the Kovalam Literary Festival recently, a gentleman asked me “Whose autobiography (cricket) would you love to read?”
It was an intriguing question. The autobiographies of most players are played out in public or on television screens. Sachin Tendulkar is his cricket. It was said of Len Hutton that behind his mask was another mask.
I didn’t need to think for too long to come up with my answer. “I would love to read the autobiography of S. Venkatraghavan,” I said. Years ago, even before he became a successful international umpire I had told Venkatraghavan this myself. Few who have played for India have his breadth of knowledge of the game, his remarkable experiences, and yet struggled as much as he has for no fault of his own. In the pre-Rahul Dravid days, he was the Test cricketer the cricket board most loved to jerk around.
He was a world class off spinner whose finally tally of wickets – 158 in 57 Tests – did not do justice to his talent. When the Fabulous Four, the spin quartet, Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, besides himself, was ruling cricket, he was never sure of his place in the team. Tiger Pataudi preferred the more classical off spin of Prasanna, a more attacking bowler, and it must be said, a superior exponent of the craft. Venkat came into his own under Ajit Wadekar, whose Mumbai school of captaincy had a slot for bowlers who could keep one end going while more attacking bowlers took wickets at the other end.
Prasanna captured the popular imagination especially after tours of Australia and New Zealand where he had 49 wickets from seven Tests. But – as I have argued in a recent biography of Bishan Bedi – the real choice, from a team’s perspective ought not to have been between the two off spinners. With Chandrasekhar the attacking wicket-taker and Venkatraghavan the bottler-up, the third slot ought to have been rotated between Bedi and Prasanna for team balance.
But it wasn’t just his place in the team. Venkatraghavan was easily the best captain of the lot, Wadekar included (after the Pataudi era). He had a sharp, cricketing mind, was tactically better aware than most, and in the ideal world would have been a long-term Indian captain. He led in the first Two World Cup, when India didn’t think much of the one-day game, and earlier in a famous Test against the West Indies when Pataudi was injured.
This, after half the team turned up at the venue on the morning of the match hoping to lead! In the end, Chandra had to be dropped to make way for Venkatraghavan, and when Pataudi returned to lead in the next Test, Venkat was demoted from captain to 12th man. That he did not complain, but bore the change with professional grace speaks of a player who was rather more than the sum of his statistics.
Wouldn’t you love to read about the thoughts and feelings of a man who went through such trauma? Or about the time when, after a decent tour of England as captain in 1979, he was on the flight back home with the team, when the captain of the aircraft announced with great sensitivity that Venkat had been replaced by Sunil Gavaskar as India’s captain? How did he cope? What manner of man is this who can absorb so much punishment and still carry on with his sanity intact, his instincts just as sharp and with his skill at the service of the country?
There was too Venkat’s life outside cricket. He was a regular at the classical concerts in Chennai and was fond of testing my knowledge of ancient Indian history by quoting Dr Vincent Smith. He was the lone player to visit Mohenjo-daro on a tour of Pakistan.
And then the second phase of his career – after a brief stint in the commentary box and media work. As the only player to have played for his country, led them and then umpired at Lord’s (and other centres), he has been at the centre of world cricket for almost half a century. He made his international debut in 1965, and was still playing in 1983 in the company of L Sivaramakrishnan who wasn’t born when he made his debut!
A half century in cricket. A lead role in the transition of the game. Wouldn’t you love to read his story in his own words?