The perpetual bestman
c Martin b Bhoite 0. Seven balls, thirteen minutes, offbreak padded away, bat nowhere in the picture, umpire raises finger, end of a 15-year career. It wasn't the best way to bid adieu, but it was probably the most symbolic. For nearly a minute, Sridharan Sharath stood transfixed, glaring at the umpire and repeated a question that's haunted him through his career: 'What did I do to deserve that?'
Just five were needed for victory, one that would ensure that Tamil Nadu, pitted against Baroda at Chennai, escaped the ignominy of relegation. It made for an ideal script - Sharath, a rock-solid presence in the side for the last decade and a half walks in, calms the nerves, shrugs off the mini-collapse and guides Tamil Nadu home. The early signals were promising: he judged the devilish pitch and was comfortably negotiating the vicious turn. But it took one dubious decision, one fatal error of judgment that ruined the plan.
At the end of the game, one where Tamil Nadu scampered home, Sharath didn't hide his displeasure at the decision; yet he wasn't willing to dwell too much on it. He'd turned up for the last time in a first-class game - his 102nd match for Tamil Nadu - and he wished to savour the moment.
"I'd like to be remembered as someone who was consistent, someone who never let his team down," he told Cricinfo. Surrounded by a few admirers who reminisced about his fine innings, he looked back on a career where he proved himself to be a domestic giant, yet never got the chances at the higher level. "It was tough being an Indian middle-order batsman in the last decade. We had so much of talent - Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Mohammad Azharuddin, Vinod Kambli - that the competition for spots was too intense. I was not as talented a player as any of those I've mentioned but I think I had the scores to get a few more chances."
Sharath wasn't as flamboyant as few of the names he'd mentioned but mastered the art of putting runs on the board. He didn't possess an immaculate technique, was disproportionately built - with clumps jutting out at the waist - and made batting look like hard work. In many ways he was Indian domestic cricket's Arjuna Ranatunga - the man for a crisis, the cool head under pressure, the hardworking artisan in a side packed with artists. But what an artisan!
For 15 seasons since 1992, he had amassed 8390 runs at an average close to 52. In seven seasons he'd averaged more than 50 - most first-class cricketers would be delighted with two or three - and acted as the cement in a talented but fickle middle order.
Sharath will probably look back at three games where he missed out - the tour game against the South Africans in 1996, when he managed 26, the tour game against the visiting Sri Lankans the next year, when he fell for a duck, and the Irani Trophy against Karnataka in 1998, when he endured another 26. Selectors will tell you that he was a player who could toy with domestic attacks but struggle at a higher level. Sharath respects their judgment; all he wished for was a fair trial. "It was always a case of one match, one innings. It's very tough for a player to go into a game knowing it might be his last chance. Even a player of the quality of Dravid took 14 innings before he notched up a Duleep Trophy hundred. It's not easy, people must realise.
"I think I deserved a few more A tours. That was what really shocked me - I might have not been good enough for internationals but I cannot accept the fact that I wasn't good enough for India A. I'm happy I could contribute for Tamil Nadu, though I couldn't manage a Ranji Trophy title. It's nice to see talent coming through and there's no point in hanging around much longer. I also want to spend some time with my newly-born daughter."
A veteran scorer at TNCA - Shankara Subramanium - once christened a spot in the old press box at the Chidamabaram Stadium as 'Sharath's corner'. He'd insisted on sitting there and scoring when Sharath walked in, convinced that his shift played a role in Sharath's big knocks. Sharath's corner will be vacant from tomorrow but Subramanium will have no regrets. Because Sharath did enough and much more. His legacy will live on.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo