January 30, 2002

The many avatars of Srinivas Venkataraghavan

To play one leading role in cricket is admirable. To shine in two or three different avatars is really praiseworthy. But when one well-known cricketing personality takes up nine roles and does full justice to all of them, one can only hail him as the Navaratna of Indian cricket. However, Srinivasraghavan Venkataraghavan's talents go beyond the realm of cricket in this country.

Srinivas Venkataraghavan
© CricInfo
In most of his roles, if not all, he has achieved international renown. As player, captain, manager, administrator, selector, columnist, expert television commentator, match referee and umpire, Venkat has achieved the kind of fame that has made him a durable and endearing cricketing personality. Certainly no one single personality in cricket history has served the game in so many categories and with such undisguised enthusiasm and distinction. Many cricketers after their playing days are over, turn to umpiring or coaching or administration or journalism. But their overall roles are limited to two or three.

Venkat's credentials stretch over a period of 37 years ­ and the end of the road is certainly still some distance away. He represented the country in 57 Tests from 1965 to 1983, was captain in five Tests and the first two World Cup competitions, a manager who doubled as a coach on the tours of Australia in 1985-86 and West Indies in 1989, was secretary of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association from 1986 to 1989, a national selector in 1991-92, a regular and respected columnist for newspapers and magazines for many years, expert commentator for television for innumerable Tests and one-day internationals, ICC match referee in the 90s, and ICC panel umpire from 1993 till date. Has any other cricketer in the game anywhere in the world and at any time during the last 125 years of international cricket run up a resume even half as varied and impressive?

All this can be achieved only by a man who thinks deeply about the game, is passionate about it, and is able to analyse issues objectively. Venkat's transition from player and captain to match referee and umpire was quite natural. As player and then as captain, he was always interested in the cerebral aspects of the game, and he made a close and careful study of the laws. He was a sound leader not only tactically, but also technically. Indeed, in the days when he was captain, I frequently saw Venkat pull up the umpires on a point of law! With this background, his taking to full-time umpiring did not come as a surprise, but few would have expected him to emerge as one of the leading officials in the world.

But then, for Venkat, there are no half measures. His attitude has always been that anything worth doing is worth doing not just well but very well. Of course, the initial study of the laws and the interest in the technical aspects of the game did come in handy, but Venkat also brought the stamp of authority to a rather lacklustre job. He had played the game at the highest level for many years and had led his country. No other umpire in the history of international cricket could boast of these credentials, leading players to respect Venkat's decisions ­ something that today's cricketers do not always do.

Venkat took the onerous duties of the umpire as seriously as he took his playing and his captaincy. He displayed all the attributes a good official needs ­ intense concentration, utmost dedication, a thorough knowledge of the rules and the happy knack of keeping things under control on the field when things got hot. Slow motion TV replays are harsh on umpires, exposing their ignorance or incompetence, but it can justifiably be said that, overall, Venkat has emerged as one of the umpires least scathed by this technology. He has won the respect of players, fellow umpires and administrators alike and, at the moment of writing, has stood in 50 Tests and 33 one-day internationals as umpire, and five Tests and eight one-day internationals as match referee.

If Venkat's transition from player to umpire was not surprising, his emergence as an administrator did raise a few eyebrows. There was never any hint that he was interested in sitting behind the desk in the secretary's office at the MA Chidambaram stadium and directing operations. But after being elected to the post of TNCA secretary in 1986, Venkat plunged headlong into his duties.

There were doubts initially whether Venkat would be up to his responsibilities in an almost entirely new field. But he surprised everyone by taking quick decisions, formulating plans for the welfare of the players, and striking up sponsorship deals for maintaining the stadium and the ground. He also proved to be a lucky secretary during his three-year tenure. A few months after he took over, there was the historic occasion of the second Tied Test at the Chidambaram stadium, and in 1988, Tamil Nadu regained the Ranji Trophy after 33 years.

It was Venkat's stature as a player and captain that saw him elevated to the post of manager. Indeed, when he was first appointed manager of the Indian team to Australia in November 1985, Venkat had announced his retirement from the first-class game only a few months before. This is why he was eminently qualified to double up as coach; in any case, this was before 1990, when the fad of appointing a former Test cricketer specifically as cricket manager or coach started. He was still a pretty handy off-spinner and bowled to the players at the nets, besides giving them the benefit of his immense wealth of experience and technical expertise. He was also an expert in analysing the pitches correctly. Venkat had a second stint in the post with the Indian side in the West Indies in 1989.

Following these varied experiences, it was but inevitable that Venkat should wield both the pen and the microphone. The combination of good English and his technical knowledge of the game made him the ideal candidate for a guest columnist or expert commentator. His lucid analysis of the players and various aspects of the game were closely followed and it was a pity that his innumerable interests kind of restricted his role in these two fields to a unhappily short time, even though he still comes out with occasional articles.

A rage for perfection was Venkat's hallmark in his playing days. There was no lack of concentration, dedication or determination on his part. To his inborn talent, he added the all-important quality of hard work. On the field, he gave his all, whether batting, bowling, fielding or captaining. Rightly or wrongly, he expected the other players to do the same, and he used to get upset when he saw young players wasting their talent by not willing to work hard, by displaying a lack of commitment, or being lethargic, cavalier or casual in their approach. He used to berate them and, in time, Venkat's temper became almost as famous as his playing ability. There were occasions when he used to fly into a rage, in the process alienating himself from younger teammates who resented his temper tantrums.

But Venkat could not help it. When he felt that he was not getting the utmost co-operation or that the players were not trying as hard as they should be, he gave vent to his feelings in unmistakable terms. Over the years, though, he has mellowed with age. Today Venkat, very much an elder statesman at 56, is an engaging conversationalist. He is still on the lookout for fresh fields to conquer, but is there anything left in the game for him to explore?