I grew up in Chennai in the 1980s. It was better known as Madras back then. Then, as now, the phrase "super star" automatically meant only one person in the city: Rajinikanth. Ordinary stars were popular, but I cannot even begin to describe the crazed adulation reserved for the venerated super star. Yet, there was a phase in Madras when another man, in a totally different field, actually approached super stardom. That man was Krishnamachari Srikkanth.
Srikkanth was by no means the first top-flight cricketer from Madras. Indeed, his fellow Madras Iyengar, fellow College of Engineering, Guindy, graduate, and fellow tongue-twisting name bearer, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, took over 150 Test wickets. Including 35 wickets - more than anyone else in the world - in 1971, that most momentous year in Indian cricket.
But Venkat was a tidy off-spinner in an era before television became commonplace in India. In his book "Idols", Sunil Gavaskar used the adjective "patient" to describe Venkat. He was a highly respected figure in Madras cricket circles, and played club cricket in the city well into the 1990s, when not on ICC umpiring duty. But Venkat was no super star. He lacked the impetuosity, the eccentricity, the glamour, and the charisma.
In general, a batsman has a better chance of becoming a heart-throb in India. An attacking batsman who charged the likes of Marshall, Ambrose, Imran, Akram, and Hadlee, while being watched live by millions on the small screen, had little choice but to become a heart-throb.
He also had little choice but to fail more often than succeed, when employing such daredevilry against all-time great skill. Hence, the rest of India and the world saw Srikkanth as another in a long line of mediocre batsmen opening the innings with the great Sunil Gavaskar. Neither his Test nor his ODI average reached 30. But measuring Srikkanth's batting with an average is like measuring Rajinikanth's acting by number of Academy Awards.
What Madras saw, and what little kids in Madras tried to emulate, was the twirling of the blade, the sniffling of the nose, the recitation of Sanskrit slokas between deliveries, and the completely unique batting stance with feet spreadeagled 40 inches apart. Just like in Rajinikanth's movies, the plot was secondary. The twirling of his sunglasses, the brushing back of his mane, the lighting of his cigarette mid-air, was what people came to watch. Perhaps to the outside world, Srikkanth was the Little Master's understudy. But, to Madras, Srikkanth was taking the fight to the opponents, while Gavaskar was taking lessons.
In Madras in the 1980s, they spoke with broad grins of Srikkanth top-scoring at Lord's in the World Cup final of 1983 against Clive Lloyd's mighty West Indies, and of his Man of the Final innings at the MCG in the 1985 World Championship of Cricket versus Pakistan.
But they also spoke amid giggles of the utterly quaint things he did in his career. From being run-out while fidgeting about outside his crease on Test debut at Bombay in 1981, to nonchalantly replacing the bails after being hit-wicket (nobody appealed!), to forgetting his Sanskrit slokas for a minute as a streaker invaded the pitch at Lord's in 1986.
They marvelled at what a cricketing maverick he was, even while not batting. He took two five-wicket hauls in the same ODI series versus New Zealand in 1988, despite only taking 25 wickets in total in his ODI career. As captain, he sent Chetan Sharma in at No. 4 in the midst of a steep 250+ chase versus England at Kanpur in 1989. And in his final Test, versus Australia at Perth in 1992, he equalled the world record for the most catches by an outfielder in an innings. If Rajinikanth was adept at song, dance, romance, as well as martial art, then Srikkanth's versatility wasn't far behind.
Srikkanth was actually the most successful batsman in India's first two decades of limited-overs cricket. He was the first Indian to 4000 ODI runs, won more Man of the Match awards than any other Indian ODI cricketer of his time, and his four ODI hundreds were the most by any Indian, for a period of time. Navjot Sidhu eventually surpassed him when he scored his fifth hundred in 1994.
Srikkanth's Madras fanbase didn't care about any of that. A rousing square-drive off Andy Roberts, or a hooked six off Malcolm Marshall, could sustain the Madras cricket fan for a decade. Rajinikanth, after all, is not known as much for garrulous oratory, as he is for a quip here or a joke there.
The gossip magazines in Madras had more important things to talk about than run aggregates and hundreds. They needed to discuss Srikkanth's addition of an extra 'k' to his name, so he could make it 9 letters long, for numerological reasons. They felt the need to weigh in on his decision to marry an Iyer lady, across caste lines.
It is impossible for a matinee idol or a cricket star in India to leave home without being mobbed by fanatical followers. And so it was with Srikkanth in Madras. He was my grandfather's favorite cricketer of the era. My grandfather was thrilled to see him in the flesh at a Rotary Club charity event at the Chola Sheraton hotel, just before the Indian team left for Australia in late 1991. Despite the event lasting several hours, my grandfather didn't get a chance to talk to his favorite player. Undaunted, at the conclusion of the event, he followed Srikkanth into the men's room, where he then advised India's opening batsman to eschew the reverse sweep. Apart from that, his technique and shot-selection were immaculate, apparently.