Sivaramakrishnan, the enigmatic magician
Laxman Sivaramakrishnan was perhaps the classical example of a bowler whose talent was not channeled positively in the right direction and the precocious leg spinner failed to develop into a long term prospect for India. His fleeting days as a matchwinner for India encompassed the home series against England in 1984-85 when he bemused a succession of batsmen with his leg breaks, googlies and top spinners. The shy, slim youngster was also a key soldier in the victorious World Championship of Cricket campaign in Australia soon after. Here he introspects on his career and the factors that emerge in his mind as contributing to his abrupt downswing, including lack of proper handling by his captain and the absence of continuity in the coaching structure in the days when a coach was merely a short term appointee with the team. Siva also ruminates on the alarming decline in spin bowling in India and his own commitment to the game in the future. So over to him.
On his sensational Ranji Trophy debut against Delhi in 1981-82
Looks as though it was yesterday because it was a great game. We'd prepared a wicket that would assist the spinners. In Venkataraghavan and Vasudevan we had two quality spinners. I was initially not supposed to play in that match. Sunil Valson and Bharath Kumar were to open the bowling. What actually happened was Valson reported unfit on the morning of the match. We had no choice but to go in for the extra spinner and Srikkanth opened the bowling. It was a great moment for me. Though I was not mentally prepared I was able to rise to the occasion. We fielded first and I bowled reasonably well in the first innings, 27 overs for around 2/70, which I thought was a good effort considering Delhi had a very very strong batting line-up. In the second innings it all happened. It was like real magic. I took 7/28 in a matter of 11 overs. When I came on to bowl, Delhi were about 90/3 and they were all out for 117, so that was a great spell. Though the wicket helped me a lot, it was a good effort.
On the images that are still imprinted on his mind of the heady days of 1984-85.
Certainly plenty of images. In 1984-85 against England though I was Player of the Series, it wasn't too convincing a team effort because we lost the series. But that series helped me gain a berth for the World Championships in Australia. The grounds were big there and Gavaskar thought we could have a leggie in the team. Moreover I was getting wickets at regular intervals. The feeling was that in a limited overs match, if I got wickets in the middle overs, you have the tailenders playing in the slog. So that was a crucial phase of the match and Gavaskar had a lot of confidence in me. Australia was one big experience, the best experience as far as cricketing knowledge is concerned. You play on lovely grounds and the atmosphere was excellent. We worked really hard as a unit knowing fully well that most Indians had written us off after the series against England. We went out for dinners as a unit. The whole team spent a lot of time together which eventually put us on the right track to win the World Championship.
On the factors for the decline of leg spin and the way to go for its revival
It's not necessarily true that one-day cricket is a negative influence because you see Shane Warne picking up wickets in all varieties of the game. Unfortunately what's happened over the years is that the quality of spinners has gone down. The spinners are beginning to get defensive. A leg spinner if he gets defensive is not going to take wickets and it becomes a problem for the team. He needs a good captain to handle him. A leg spinner is an attacking bowler. He needs to be used as a matchwinner and the only thought that should be in his mind is to take wickets. Unfortunately over the years its a combination of factors where the captain hasn't handled the leg spinner very well and there's been a fall in the quality of spinners. In domestic cricket, most of the teams get above 500 runs. And when you have 500 runs to play with, if you're going to use the leg spinner just to contain, it's very negative cricket. You need to identify potential and work on them, tune their mind to bowl for wickets. Playing on turning tracks in Indian domestic cricket is certainly not going to help. That's not what you're going to get outside of India. You need to be able to turn the ball on any kind of track. For that, I think you need to play on good wickets. Then your ability will come out.
On the captains who handled him and the contrasting styles of Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev
Well, I enjoyed playing every bit under Sunil Gavaskar because he would always ask me what I had in mind. He wanted to keep me thinking all the time. A few other captains had their own ideas and wanted me to bowl accordingly. Which doesn't mean they were bad captains but over the years if you bowl to different ideas, then you kind of don't settle down. It's always better to work things out, what's the best approach for the individual. It would have been good if we'd been thinking along lines where both the captain and the spinner feel comfortable. Kapil Dev has been a fantastic cricketer over the years, India's greatest all rounder. He had his own ideas as far as captaincy went which sometimes worked out but sometimes didn't go his way. My own ideas and Kapil's didn't go together. He would have intuitive ideas. As a cricketer you need to work things out in a general format. Once you go in with a certain plan, you need to follow it through. Instincts don't always work out. They do sometimes but it can't rule your mind.
On the coaching he underwent as a youngster and his preference for developing his own natural style
Oh yes, we had a very organised format at that point of time. We used to have summer coaching and MR Baig from Hyderabad would come over. There were summer camps in Bangalore also. We were under proper guidance all the time. As youngsters we learnt a lot. That particular batch of India U-19 schoolboys were a very talented lot because we had to compete very hard for a place in the junior India side. Most of them who played at that time have gone on to play for the country with great distinction. I haven't really modelled myself on any bowler because I think you need to play cricket the way it comes to you naturally. You're comfortable with whatever you're doing naturally and it brings out the best in you. If you model yourself on someone else and if you have a problem, then you don't know what to do.
On whether he intends to take up any coaching commitments on a sustained basis
At the moment I'm still playing a little bit of cricket. But I've tried doing TV commentary which I really enjoy. Basically I'd like to get into coaching only at a time when I have full energy and time to concentrate on it. If I'm not going to be present some of the time, I think the boys would lose out on the continuity. I'd certainly like to do some coaching over the years but I'd like to find the right time.
On the one thing about his career he would have liked to change if he could go back in time
I'd have loved to play longer that's for sure. The current set of cricketers have a coach who works with them for 1-2 years, so there's a continuity. In our time managers were appointed by the tour or by the Test. If I had a technical problem, we didn't have too many people coming out to correct us. As a youngster things came naturally to me and I was able to do well but over the years, when something in the technique was lacking, we didn't have people to come and help us. I'd have liked to play in the set-up as of now with the same talent I had when I started playing.
On the two dismissals that he cherishes the most
One of them many would have seen on TV. It was in the World Championship of Cricket final when I had Javed Miandad stumped. Miandad was a fantastic batsman and at that stage of the final it was very important to get his wicket. That ball I really enjoyed bowling because the minute the ball left my hand I knew something magical was going to happen. The second one was in my first Duleep Trophy match against West Zone when I had Sunil Gavaskar not offering a shot and getting out leg before. I think that's when he realised this young boy's got talent and he really backed me to whatever extent he could. Those two dismissals were the best.