Javagal Srinath's big heart
As he now exits the Test arena, there is no doubt that Srinath must be doubly pleased first, because he has served Indian cricket admirably, and secondly, because he is secure in the knowledge that the tradition of Indian pace bowling will be carried forward by the likes of Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Ajit Agarkar, Tinu Yohannan and other young hopefuls.
Srinath's sudden decision to quit Test cricket, even while he has made it clear that he would be available for one-day internationals, did come as a surprise. True, he did not have a very successful series in the West Indies, but there was nothing to suggest that he would be calling it a day so soon, especially with the tour of England round the corner.
After all, if anything, his tremendous showing in the Test series in England in 1996 should have encouraged him to carry on. But perhaps he was taking a leaf out of Vijay Merchant's book, which advocated that a cricketer retire when people ask "Why?" and not "When?" Indeed, it is generally felt that Srinath, even in his 33rd year, still has much to offer Indian cricket.
Perhaps the true value of this lion-hearted bowler will be realised only now. In his absence, is there a fast bowler who can regularly provide the early breakthroughs? Is there a fast bowler good enough to take eight wickets in an innings and 13 in a match? Is there a fast bowler who can win Test matches for India? Srinath did all this and more. Taking well-deserved breaks in between, he reserved his best for the big occasion and, in the ultimate analysis, emerged as a dedicated and disciplined spearhead.
Not to forget intelligent. When he arrived on the scene in 1991-92, he was a bit of a tearaway. But that tour of Australia was educational. The learning curve continued in South Africa, even as he still came on after Kapil and Manoj Prabhakar had shared the new ball. A fiery spell of four for 33 off 27 overs in the final Test at Cape Town the victims were Hansie Cronje, Kepler Wessels, Daryll Cullinan and Andrew Hudson did not mark any upward change in his fortunes, and back home, he was not considered for the series against England.
By now, though, Srinath had added cut and swing, greater control over length and direction, as well as judicious use of the bouncer and a well-disguised slower delivery. By 1993-94, when Kapil played his last Test, Srinath was ready to take over as the country's number one pace bowler.
Since then, Srinath has been the bowler to whom the country looked for great deeds. While statemate Anil Kumble carried the spin fortunes on his shoulders, Srinath was the one to make the initial breakthroughs, break a troublesome partnership, or polish off the tail.
Some of his feats have been special indeed, the kind that will live in memory for long. Can anyone forget the manner in which he routed South Africa at Ahmedabad in 1996? The target was just 170, and while South Africa were the favourites to win, it was reckoned that Indian hopes rested on the spinners - Kumble, Narendra Hirwani and Sunil Joshi - who had shared eight wickets in the first innings.
Instead, Srinath took minimum time to strike, dismissing Hudson and Cullinan without a run on the board. He came back to dismiss Jonty Rhodes for a duck as well as the obdurate Dave Richardson, and then, in true fast-bowling tradition, bowled Allan Donald and Paul Adams to polish off the innings. His figures were six for 21, and the result was a 64-run victory.
A little over a year later, he was at it again. This time, against Australia at Kolkata, he dismissed Michael Slater and Greg Blewett with successive deliveries in his first over to leave Australia gasping for breath at one for two. Within half an hour, he had Mark Waugh leg-before, and Australia were 15 for three. Srinath again dismissed Slater and Blewett in the second innings, and his match haul of six wickets got him the Man of the Match award. All this on an amiable pitch that let India score 633 for five declared. But then, Srinath had an ability to produce extra bounce from a good length, and he was never one to get discouraged by a benign wicket.
India won that match by an innings, but a year later, another outstanding performance could not produce a victory. In the opening match of the Asian Test Championship at Kolkata, Pakistan were groggy and seemingly on the ropes on the first day. Srinath (four) and Venkatesh Prasad (two) took wickets fast as Pakistan slumped to 26 for six. How they recovered from that position to win the match by 46 runs is now part of history, but Srinath's performance did not go unnoticed or unrewarded.
His first-innings bag of five for 46 was only a prelude to a gallant show in the second innings. Srinath scythed through the top, middle and tail, taking six wickets in nine overs with the new ball on his way to career-best figures of eight for 86 and a match haul of 13 for 132 the best-ever return by an Indian medium-pace bowler. Sure enough, he got another Man of the Match award even if he had to share it with Saeed Anwar, who carried his bat for 188.
Another Man of the Match award came his way in the first Test against Zimbabwe at New Delhi in November 2000. Even on that placid Feroze Shah Kotla surface, Srinath extracted enough pace and bounce to have a match-haul of nine wickets - the decisive factor in India's seven-wicket victory.
If he did so well on the comparatively unfriendly Indian pitches, Srinath served the country even better abroad, where conditions were better suited to his mode of bowling. In England in 1996 and in South Africa on both tours, he was a model of consistency. About half of his overall haul of 232 wickets were taken overseas, a truly commendable feat. An average of just over 30, covering 64 matches, speaks volumes about his ability to carry the Indian seam attack on his tall frame and broad shoulders.
While Srinath has an excellent record in limited-overs cricket indeed, it is heartening to know that he will be around to represent India in the World Cup next year - there is little doubt that Srinath will be remembered most for his big-hearted exploits in the Test arena.