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August 7, 2002
It was November 23, 1996 when Javagal Srinath ripped the heart out of the visiting South African batting line-up, taking six for 21 in the first Test.
It was a world-class display of express pace and this fact was not lost on the then Indian captain Sachin Tendulkar who said: "It was one of the greatest exhibitions of fast bowling I have seen from an Indian for a long time."
It is a long way back even to try and find an Indian bowler of the pace of Srinath, the 'Karnataka Express'. In a country of more than a billion people, Srinath has been a rare jewel. Perhaps the value that he held can only truly be appreciated now that he has departed the test arena.
Stories have emerged of genuinely fast Indian bowlers of the past, but I was not around to see the likes of Mohammad Nissar play his six tests in the 1930s. And I don't think anyone alive could truly testify to the pace of Mehallasha Pavri back in the 1890s. Of the Indian pacers in modern times, none could seriously be considered anywhere near the pace of Srinath. Even Srinath's predecessor, Kapil Dev, was considered by astute judges as merely a medium pacer who took plenty of wickets due to his guile and lateral movement.
Srinath was a genuinely fast bowler and in the period between about 1995 and March 1997 Srinath's pace was at times frightening. He was right up there with the fastest men in the game. Perhaps at times Srinath was even No 1 in the pace stakes but just how fast he was at his peak we will never know. What we do know is that following South Africa's tour of India late in 1996, India travelled to South Africa where speed guns were in operation.
Between December '96 and February '97 Srinath's speeds were timed in excess of 150kph and were comparable to those of both Allan Donald and South Africa's 'new' pace sensation Lance Klusener. Whilst Klusener's fastest ball came in at 154kph and he proved at the time to be faster than Donald, it has been brought to my attention on numerous occasions that Srinath pipped them both with one particular delivery measured at 156kph. This particular delivery was reported by a major Indian News service although the exact date and the match in question has not been confirmed. Some six years on, and all three of these men now struggle to reach 140kph on a good day.
In March 1997, when Srinath should have been at the peak of his powers, the rotator cuff problem which he had been carrying since September '96 flared and shoulder surgery became inevitable. Some questioned whether Srinath would ever bowl again, let alone rank along side the quickest men in the game.
In 1998, Australia toured India and for the first time on Indian soil the speed guns were to be a fixture.
The Indian press chose to give the speed battle between Glenn McGrath and Srinath top billing but most so-called 'experts' at the time found this to be bordering on the insane.
After all, Glenn McGrath was up there with Donald as the world's fastest bowlers, and that Srinath was never anything more than a 'military medium' bowler, right?
In their first encounter with the new speed guns, Srinath clocked 148kph while McGrath, although the fastest of the rest, was a whopping seven kph behind Srinath at 141kph. At the time, many people found these figures inconceivable and chose to dismiss them in error, but with the advantage of hindsight, we understand these speeds to be correct. Later on in that series, Srinath bowled a fastest ball of 149.6kph and was not far from his top pace before the shoulder operation.
Bowling speeds also received huge publicity in the lead-up to the 1999 World Cup when all eyes were on Shoaib Akhtar. The question was not 'who was the fastest' but 'who could come close to the Rawlpindi Express'?
Not much was known about bowling speeds at the time and some still rated McGrath and Donald fast enough to challenge Shoaib.
At the tournament's first match Srinath and McGrath went head to head once more. This time it was evident for all the world to see that Javagal Srinath was no medium pacer, but was a genuine speedster clocking up 149.6kph once again and bettering McGrath's best speed by some 9kph.
Srinath proved to be the second fastest bowler of the tournament next to Shoaib (154.5kph) while surprise pacemen Geoff Allott of New Zealand (146.5kph) and Jacques Kallis (146.4kph) left the pace of McGrath and Donald looking decidedly bland. Javagal Srinath could now lay claim to being the second fastest bowler in the world.
During the three years following the 1999 World Cup, Srinath's pace has waned and nowadays he struggles to exceed 140kph. It is ironic that the time which he has chosen to leave the Test arena is the time when he would have received the most help. If Srinath had been given some quality assistance in the pace department over the past 10 years then perhaps he would not have been so sorely over-used and he would still have another three or so years at 140kph left in him.
His recent speeds in the mid-130s(kph) gave proof that shouldering the burden of responsibility for so long at the head of the Indian attack had finally taken its toll on his body.
The current crop of Indian 'quicks' bowl at a lively pace with Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar all able to bowl above 140kph, the latter two able to crank it up to 145kph on occasion. But over the past three years, the rest of the world has gotten faster whilst India has lost it's spearhead. If the World Cup were to be held tomorrow then India would realistically not have one bowler featuring amongst the world's 10 fastest.
Srinath is almost definitely the fastest bowler India has ever produced. He was a rare jewel to be treasured while at the peak of his powers and all Indian cricket fans wait with bated breath for their next 'one in a billion' express paceman to emerge.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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