'I want Karnataka to be Ranji Champions' - C Raghu
Karnataka 301 for 6 (Naidu 84*, Raghu 62, Uthappa 56) v Haryana
Thirteen years ago, Chandrasekhar Raghu was just another gully cricketer. They come in dozens in India, rushing home after school, picking up a cheap bat and rushing to join the neighbourhood tennis-ball tamasha. It's all very simple: whack the ball, indulge in a bit of hit-and-giggle, and retire home at sunset to bury your face in homework. It doesn't happen to most young enthusiasts, but something changed, for the better, where Raghu is concerned.
When he was 11, a neighbour who happened to be the secretary for the local Hanumant Nagar Cricket Club, picked him out of the street cricket milieu and invited him to come and practise at the club. "I owe a lot to Balaji," Raghu told Cricinfo at the end of the first day's play at Mysore's Gangothri Glades Ground. From there his journey to state-level cricket started. Soon he was playing for under-13 cricket.
Was he afraid of the leather ball, having never played before? "No," he says with a smile, "I just used to go out and play." But that's where my transformation as a bowler happened. I used to be just a batsman but suddenly I discovered that with the leather ball, I could bowl pretty useful offspin." In fact, Raghu played in an under-19 tournament as a spinner.
Even though he found his touch as a batsman and became prolific at the league level, where he used to bat at No. 3 or 4, at the Ranji Trophy level he was still treated as a bowler. He admits, "I used to play at No. 8 for Karnataka, and they used to consider me as an ODI player." An average of 12.72 in 10 first-class matches is a proof of that. "I was very disappointed in those times. I used to bat at No. 3 or 4 in the leagues, but when it came to playing for Karnataka, I would be relegated down the order and treated as a bowler. I never used to get a chance to prove myself. It was very tough. I was stagnating."
Others' misfortune, as it would turn out, gave Raghu the opportunity he was looking for. "I was feeling very down but then suddenly two or three batsmen flopped last season and I got my chance." And he grabbed it. Two centuries and a fifty in the P Subbiah Pillai tournament in February 2006. He rates his 117 against Hyderabad in that tournament, as his best and the turning point of his career. All of a sudden the bowler was publicly recognised as an allrounder.
There were other innings that Raghu remembers fondly. "I got a hundred against Western Australia recently," he said. "I wanted to prove to the selectors that I can do well in three-day matches. Those knocks gave me confidence - and possibly the selectors too." It definitely did. Within months, he was picked for the Challenger Series where the best young talents in the country get a chance to play with senior cricketers.
Raghu is one of those batsmen that make the game look easy; lazy elegance seeps through his batting. Though he admits otherwise - "I don't think I am lazy, it looks like that to others" - Raghu has been a victim of his own fluent batting style. "Yes, so many times I have got out like that," he said. "When playing very well, I would think this bowler is easy to play and I have got out trying few things. I used to get 30, 40 quickly and then get out. I have matured now. That's why I maintain this is a mental game. Now I am learning to play to big innings."
His preference is to keep the ball on the ground but he remains a busy player, constantly looking for singles. While Joginder Sharma, who grabbed seven wickets in Haryana's match against Andhra - including a hat-trick - was troubling some of the other batsmen today with his bounce off a length, Raghu played him with ease.
So what does he think when he stands at the crease waiting for the ball to be released? "Nothing," comes the answer with a smile. "I keep my mind blank, I don't think about anything." Sensible ploy. Like many Indian batsmen, he makes his living off the front foot. Without disagreeing, he says today it was part of a plan: "I thought on this pitch - it was keeping low at times - it was better to get on to the front foot. I got out playing the wrong line though".
One other amazing thing about him is that he has never had a batting coach. So where did this pleasing stroke play come from? "There was no coach, I just play like this," he said. "No one taught me how to play. This game is played more in the mind. Its 70% mental. Venkatesh Prasad [the Karnataka coach] has helped to improve on the mental aspect. My aim is to score runs and I go about finding ways of doing that. I just play ball by ball, I don't think much."
For Raghu, each day is taken in his stride. "I am sticking to the present," he said. "I just have to do well in the Ranji Trophy as I want Karnataka to be the Ranji Champions. I want to score at least three centuries this season. I am not thinking too much ahead, just want to stick to the process."
Sriram Veera is editorial assistant of Cricinfo