January 23, 2001

A second coming for Sunil Subramaniam

What does a bowler, who has been the state's leading wicket taker for ten years, do when he is unfairly dropped while still having much to offer? Well, there are a few options and these could be any of the following. (a) He can either accept his fate stoically. (b) He can do his damnedest to fight his way back into the side. (c) He can go into coaching or administration. (d) He can turn his back on the game for good. (e) In a bid to forget unpleasant memories and prove that he is still good enough to play the game, he can represent another team.

Sunil Subramaniam faced these choices last year. After being the most successful bowler for Tamil Nadu in the period 1988-1997 with a bag of 245 wickets, he found himself discarded. As the players assembled for the 1998-99 season, the tall left arm spinner was just about recovering from a serious injury to his shoulder and back. He spent six months recuperating but then started physical training and net and match practice in real earnest. By the start of the 1999-2000 season, he was fit and raring' to go. But to his astonishment, he discovered that he was not even in the list of 32 Ranji Trophy probables.

Sunil has never been one to hide his feelings or to mince words. In the mid-nineties, when not selected in the South Zone team for the Duleep Trophy, he is known to have gone straight to the TNCA secretary's room and questioned him on his non-selection, armed with facts and figures. He found it hard to swallow that he was not considered good enough to command a place in the list of probables when in his view, he was still good enough to play for the state.

For more than a decade since the retirement of S Venkataraghavan, Sunil along with Diwakar Vasu and M Venkatramana, had carried the state's bowling fortunes. By the end of the 90s however, with Sunil having been dropped and Vasu and Venkatramana towards the end of their first class careers, the accent in the Tamil Nadu attack had shifted to pace, thanks to the presence of T Kumaran, S Mahesh, J Gokulakrishnan, D Devanand and Robin Singh.

But whether he was in a position to make a comeback to the Tamil Nadu side or not, Sunil made one thing clear to the authorities. In keeping with his outspoken reputation, he made it known that he was not interested any more in playing for the state. "They have a solid structure for the game, a planned edifice but there is no respect for the cricketers," says Sunil.

But what could he do? He still loved playing the game and sincerely felt he was good enough to play first class cricket. After all, at his peak in the mid 90s, he played six Duleep Trophy games and represented the Rest of India in the Irani Trophy game against Mumbai. And he had made his first class debut in 1988 against the touring New Zealand team, led by John Wright. Moreover, he was one of those who, as the cliche goes, ate, drank and slept cricket. He very much wanted to be in the thick of action and just playing for his club side, India Pistons, was not what the cricketer with a boyish enthusiasm for the game was satisfied with.

Well, opportunity came knocking from a most unexpected quarter. Late last year, there was a call from an official of the Assam Cricket Association. They were interested in hiring an experienced spinner as a professional and inquired whether Sunil would be interested. Sunil hesitated just to find out whether it was a good offer - both from the monetary angle and the cricketing viewpoint - and took the plunge.

Making a fresh start at 33 wasn't going to be an easy experience especially in far off Assam. For one thing, the culture, weather and the standard of cricket is very different from that prevalent in Chennai. ("Sometimes I felt I was not in India," says Sunil). Secondly, there was no guarantee that Assam would qualify for the knockout stage from the East Zone or that Sunil would be picked for the Duleep Trophy squad. His playing could then, at most, be restricted to the four zonal games. Viewed from this angle, it was a bit of a gamble.

But Sunil was determined to make good, to prove that his left arm spinners still carried a lot of sting. And in his limited opportunities, he did well enough taking 12 wickets at an average of under 15. This included a five wicket haul against Bengal and another against Tripura. Sunil loves bowling long spells but never got them as the Assam skipper Z Zuffri preferred to rotate his bowlers and the matches were generally marked by low scores. In the process, Sunil crossed the 250 wicket mark in the national competition and, most important, played a prominent role in helping Assam to qualify for the knockout phase. Assam meet Karnataka in the pre-quarterfinal at Guwahati in March.

The current stint with Assam has renewed Sunil's faith in the game. "I have enjoyed my cricket with Assam and will play for them as long as I am fit," he says. He missed making the East Zone Duleep Trophy squad by a whisker, there being two other left arm spinners in Utpal Chatterjee and Sukhbinder Singh. He is confident that he will be invited to play for Assam next year. At the moment however he is back in Chennai, content in turning out in a couple of tournaments for India Pistons and is looking forward to the game against Karnataka. It is indeed a second coming for Sunil and the garrulous left arm spinner, who has come up through hard work, is making the most of it.