S. Venkat: A victim of circumstances

Apoor victim of circumstances. This is how one might describe Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan, better known as Venkat in cricketing circles across the world,the most unsung member of India’s famous spin quartet.Venkat just could not emerge from the enormous shadow cast by Erapalli Prasanna throughout the best part of his otherwise long career. It was as if there was an open competition between them for a place in the Indian team till Prasanna called it a day after a nightmarish series in Pakistan in 1978.The quick-footed Pakistani batsmen, led by Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad, simply massacred the Indian spinners, not just Prasanna.

In the competition between Prasanna and Venkat the former was the winner in nine cases out of ten because of his obvious match-winning ability. This does not mean, however, that Venkat was mediocre in comparison with Prasanna. Far from it. Venkat, too, was a champion off-spinner in his own right. After Prasanna’s superlative performance in Australia and New Zealand in 1967-68, when he took 49 wickets in only 8 Tests, and in the reverse series against the two a year later in India, when he further consolidated his position with another rich bag of 46 victims in just 8 Tests, Venkat was relegated to a third or fourth spinner in the XI. It was as though Venkat’s main role was to give rest to Prasanna and Bishen Singh Bedi, or Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, when they seemed fatigued.

And yet Venkat would do his job manfully, never allowing the batsmen any liberty off his bowling. After a handful of such Bapu Nadkarni-like tight overs he would make room for the other spinners to strike some crushing blows! “To my mind, this is where Venkat lost out to Pras in the largest interest of the side,” observed Sunil Gavaskar.

During their chequered international careers both Prasanna and Venkat experienced many ups and downs, the latter clearly a bit more. They would surely have taken many more wickets than they did if they had been assured a regular place in the Indian team and given more opportunities to represent the country in the heavyweight division of cricket.

There was no doubt about Venkat’s class and his outstanding record in first-class cricket suggests that he would probably have added more scalps to his kitty had he been playing regularly for some other country. Indeed, you cannot help feeling that Venkat was either born in a wrong country or he was born at a wrong time. For a player of his calibre deserved a better deal and success.

Venkat also had the natural loop and lovely flight when he appeared on the Test scene 45 years ago. Doubtless he was more economical than Prasanna ever was. But he had to sacrifice his loop and flight and to bowl tidily so that Prasanna could get wickets from the other end. That was perhaps the only way for the tall Venkat to claim a place in the Test team after Prasanna’s amazing exploits in the late 1960s. The two did not play together in too many Tests, though.

It was only when Prasanna was over the hill that Venkat started giving plenty of air to his deliveries which tempted the batsmen to play their shots. It was this kind of bowling which had fetched him 21 wickets at 19.00 in his maiden Test series, against New Zealand in 1964-65, including 8 for 72 in the first innings at Delhi.Venkat never tasted such remarkable success again his career, although he would take a couple of key wickets at vital junctures at times. He was what you can call a conventional off-break bowler with a high action.

Even Venkat himself had perhaps not expected when he was elevated to the vice-captaincy of the Indian team after Ajit Wadekar was appointed captain for the West Indies and England tours in 1971. But he shouldered the responsibility quite well and played an important part as a player in the two series. He was India’s highest wicket-taker, 22 at 33.81, against the West Indies. It was his fine spell, apart from Salim Durrani’s two crucial wickets, that helped India register her first ever victory against the Caribbeans – in the second Test at Port of Spain in Trinidad.

Although he took 13 wickets at 26.92 against Ray Illingworth’s all-conquering England side, it was his accurate bowling in the hosts’ second innings in the third and final Test at The Oval which came in for much appreciation. He paved the way for Chandrasekhar to run through the much fancied English batting line-up by keeping a tight leash on the willow-wielders,dismissing the dangerous Alan Knott to a breathtaking catch by Eknath Solkar. Besides his economical bowling, it was his fielding and catching that made Venkat very important in the Caribbean and England.

When the Tony Lewis-led England team came to India in 1972-73, neither Venkat nor Prasanna got enough opportunities as Bedi and Chandrasekhar were  among wickets in the five-Test rubber, which Wadekar and company won 2-1. In 3 Tests, Prasanna took 10 wickets at 20.20. It was a decent performance, considering that his bowling was not given much importance in the series. On the other hand, Venkat claimed just 1 wicket at 158.00 in 2 Tests. This was the beginning of some noticeable decline in Venkat’s performance. Just look at these stats: 0 wicket in 2 Tests in the very next series in England in 1974 despite bowling 222 balls and giving away 96 runs.

With Wadekar stepping down and eventually announcing his retirement,Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was recalled to lead India against the powerful West Indies at home in 1974-75. To many, Venkat should have been made captain as he had been Wadekar’s deputy. As if that were not enough, Gavaskar was appointed vice-captain, much to the surprise of the master batsman himself.

But there were more dramas on the cards. Venkat played in the first Test in Bangalore with moderate success. Pataudi got injured and was not available for the second Test in Delhi. Gavaskar, too, was hors de combat as he broke his index  finger while playing for Mumbai against Maharashtra on a matting wicket in Nasik.

Nobody knew, till the morning of the opening day of the second Test, who would actually lead India in the absence of both captain and vice-captain. The selection committee chairman himself was reported to have turned up at the venue only in the morning. The suspense was such that many punters placed bets on India’s new captain. Some thought it could be Farokh Engineer, given his experience, but no one was really certain.

Then, of a sudden, Venkat was asked to wear the thorny crown. He was not prepared for that and India was  given a good thrashing by the visitors with young Vivian Richards going berserk and scoring an explosive 192 not out (in only his second Test) after being dropped off Venkat very early in his innings.

The anticlimax came soon enough. Venkat was made the 12th man in the very next Test, at Kolkata, with the return of Pataudi! Not only that, he did not figure in the team in the remaining two Tests as well. Just for record, in the first 2 Tests, which India lost, Venkat took 7 wickets at 37.28. Prasanna regained his old touch and re-emerged as a match-winner.

India virtually did not need Venkat’s services so long as Prasanna was taking wickets. In New Zealand in 1976, Venkat figured in a solitary Test and took 1 for 91. The three-Test series was dominated by Prasanna. In 3 Tests in the West Indies, Venkat claimed 7 wickets at 52.85. He played in all the 3 home Tests against the Kiwis in 1976-77 and bagged 11 wickets at 28.00. He played in just 1 Test in the following series against Tony Greig’s England side and took 2 for 92.

Wickets continued to elude Venkat even in Australia in 1977. With Bedi and Chandrasekhar reaping a rich harvest, both Prasanna and Venkat were more or less ignored almost throughout the series. Venkat got to play in 1 Test and took 2 for 141. Although Prasanna failed miserably in the first 2 Tests he played  against Pakistan in 1978, as mentioned earlier, Venkat did not figure in the third and final Test, at Karachi, which India played without an offie. One wonders why Venkat was not given a single chance against Pakistan when not only Prasanna  but Bedi and Chandrasekhar were also treated with disdain by the rampaging Pakistani batsmen.

It was clear as crystal after the disastrous Pakistan tour that Prasanna’s days were numbered. He was in his late 30s and not in the best physical condition either. Venkat played in all the 6 Tests against a weak West Indies team at home in 1978- 79, taking 20 wickets at 24.75. It was after ages that he got to play in a full series.

Venkat had played under Gavaskar against the Caribbeans but, when the great opener showed unwillingness to be at the helm, the Indian selectors appointed him captain for the 1979 tour of England – for the second World Cup as well as for the 4-Test series against the hosts. (Incidentally, Venkat had led India in the inaugural World Cup, in England, in 1975.)

India came a cropper in the World Cup, lost the first Test by a huge  margin, saved  the second thanks to superb batting by Dilip Vengsarkar and Gundappa Viswanath, drew the third and came agonisingly close to winning the fourth after scoring 400-plus runs in the fourth innings on the strength of Gavaskar’s heroic 221.

Obviously, Venkat had failed as a captain in the five Tests and the two World Cups in which he led India. He could not get the best out of some of his most talented players. Nor did he inspire his teammates in an hour of crisis by putting up a stellar performance himself.

Gavaskar was reappointed captain and Venkat played in 3 of the 6 Tests against Australia at home in 1979. Shivlal Yadav ‘replaced’ him with a fair amount of success, though he was just incapable of holding a candle to both Venkat and Prasanna. By then Venkat had played 50 Tests, 1 more than Prasanna, and taken 145 wickets at 34.09.

Venkat’s consistent good performances in domestic cricket compelled the national selectors to pick him for the 1983 tour of the West Indies. But the decision quite boomeranged as he was completely listless against the terrific West Indian bat-ting line-up. He played all the 5 Tests, bowled as well as he could at that stage in his career and, as always, fielded brilliantly. He bowled 190 overs, 27 maidens, gave away 586 runs and bagged 10 wickets at 58.60.

This lion-hearted cricketer’s played 2 more Tests, against the Zaheer Abbas-led Pakistan in India in 1983-84, taking just 1 wicket at 104. He never represented India again, though he continued to dominate first-class cricket.

It was sad that Venkat almost invariably had to struggle to find a berth in India’s playing XI despite being so talented. But then this is usually what happens when you are a contemporary of an illustrious cricketer who plays for the same country and practises the same craft. However, it must be said that regardless of the inevitable competition between them, Venkat and Prasanna have always remained good friends with mutual respect for their respective talents.

“Whenever Venkat and I bowled, I knew and, I am sure he, too, knew that very soon we would be fighting for the same Test place. But, then, this has been the eternal problem with Indian cricket: too many worldclass spinners. Not that the comparison between Venkat and myself in any way affected our personal relations.We have remained good friends and, if either of us failed to get into a Test XI, we both knew that a good man was being kept out,” stated Prasanna in his autobiography, One More Over.

A gentleman cricketer, Venkat has always steered himself clear of controversies, on and off the field, both as a player and as an official. He was Indian team’s manager in the Caribbean in 1989 and, unlike Bedi in England a year later, did a nice job, endearing himself to one and all. After retirement he became a top international umpire and match referee and earned rich compliments from players, administrators, journalists and cricket lovers. He officiated in 73 Tests and 52 One-Day Internationals as an umpire; and in 5 Tests and 8 One-Day Internationals as a match referee.

Of the four famed spinners, Venkat  was decidedly a better batsman and a magnificent fielder at any position on the ground. In fact, he will always be remembered as one of the best close-in fieldsmen India has ever produced. Venkat, Abid Ali, Wadekar and, of course, Solkar used to make life terrible for the batsmen by their hawk-like presence close to the wicket.

Venkat was known as a bit of an allrounder in his early days. On several occasions he had played solid cameos for India in adversity. If he had zeroed in on his batting, Venkat would probably have become a very good batsman and allrounder. As a bowler he may not have reached dizzy heights like Bedi, Prasanna and Chandrasekhar, but he had his own sweet moments,  which he cherishes with the pride of a true performer. In addition to playing for Tamil Nadu and South Zone, he played for Derbyshire in English County Championship from 1973 to 1975. His career-best figures were for India against Derbyshire in 1971,when he took 9 for 93 in an innings. In a first-class career spanning 1963-64 to 1984-85, Venkat took 1,390 wickets at 24.14, including 5 wickets in an innings on 85 occasions and 10 wickets in the match 21 times. In 57 Tests and 96 innings, he claimed 156 wickets at 36.11 with 5 in an innings 3 times and 10 in a  match once.

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