Walking into Sadagoppan Ramesh's house, the first thing that meets the eye is opulence. There is attention to detail in every corner of the plush, spacious, contemporary, breezy 11th-floor apartment in Chennai's upscale MRC Nagar. An arrangement of bamboo shoots resting on white pebbles greets you near the front door. Not the sort of home you'd expect a cricketer who didn't quite make it to have. Then again, this is the home of a player who has put behind him the disappointments of an aborted career to start afresh in another field, which has kept him in the limelight - show business.
Ramesh looks almost exactly the same as nine years ago, when he last played a Test for India. The prospect of meeting a Tamil movie actor often conjures up images of a larger-than-life personality, but Ramesh, new in the field, doesn't fit the prototype yet. He has just finished shooting his latest movie, Patta Patti 50-50, a cricket-centric comedy where he plays the lead role, appearing as himself. He's eagerly awaiting its release in May to gauge how he has been accepted in his chosen field. After more than three months of hectic shooting in Tamil Nadu's Madurai district, Ramesh has been using his spare time to catch up with family and friends and also take off to the hills.
Since 2001, Ramesh's life has been a rollercoaster ride, having endured the pain of being dropped not only by India but also his home state of Tamil Nadu. In between, he got married, moved states during a Ranji Trophy season, and dabbled in commentary and television before slowly finding his feet in the movies. Where did things go wrong? Could he have done things differently? How did he deal with rejection?
When he made his Test debut at his home ground in 1999 and left everyone spellbound with pristine drives off Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, it seemed as if India had finally unearthed another fearless opener. At the end of the Sri Lanka tour in September 2001, where a majority of the batsmen failed, Ramesh had respectable returns of 223 runs at 37.16.
It all started to go wrong when a back injury ruled him out of the South Africa tour. It was the start of a farcical revolving-door policy at the top of the order, where India tried out as many as 10 different opening combinations over three years. Though he had scored a half-century in his last Test, Ramesh was already a forgotten man.
After more than two years off the radar, he had another opportunity when he was picked for the 2003-04 tour of Australia as a third opener. What went on in the background is still shrouded in mystery, even for Ramesh himself, who wasn't given an opportunity in any of the four Tests despite performing decently in the side games.
The puzzling events started on the morning of the tour matchagainst Victoria. "I didn't even know I was playing until I sat down for breakfast that morning," Ramesh recalls. "Andrew Leipus [the physiotherapist] told me I was replacing VVS Laxman, who had the flu. I said, 'Are you kidding?'
"It wasn't the captain or the coach who told me, and I was really surprised that they didn't. Sourav [Ganguly] asked me to bat at No. 3. I had no batting practice before the game. I had to ask one of the crew members, Ramky the analyst, to give me throwdowns. Sachin and I had a big partnership. I scored 87."
For the next game, in Brisbane, Ramesh was inexplicably pushed to No. 7, giving Deep Dasgupta a chance at the top. It was obvious that India were experimenting to find the perfect foil for Virender Sehwag, but on the eve of the first Test at the Gabba, Ganguly decided to revert to the combination of Sehwag and Aakash Chopra - which turned out eventually to be successful. But Ramesh was a casualty, a victim of a lack of clarity on his position in the side.
When he returned from Australia, Ramesh got the disturbing news that he wasn't needed with Tamil Nadu either. A selector explained that they were building a younger team and that Ramesh didn't fit in their scheme of things. The timing couldn't have been worse, because Ramesh was trying to make his comeback.
Like many other Tamil Nadu players, he found work elsewhere and represented weaker teams like Kerala and Assam. Though it was a climbdown, playing for Plate teams, Ramesh enjoyed better stature among his new team-mates and bosses, who treated him with more respect. But despite scoring over a thousand runs for Kerala one season, there was no national recall in sight, and the writing was on the wall that his Ranji career was stagnating.
Ramesh describes the dark days of 2004 as the worst phase of his career. Dealing with rejection tests the strongest characters, more so in sport than in any other field. With such a large pool of players to pick from, and a bad performance around the corner, a sizeable number of professional sportsmen are bound to be left behind - especially in a system like India's, with its lack of transparency. Ramesh didn't have someone to put an arm around his shoulder to explain why exactly he was rejected and what he could do to revive his career.
Indian cricket has had its share of sob stories, of cricketers who couldn't come to grips with handling fame or being dropped, and going on to endure wretched periods in their personal and professional lives. Players like Sadanand Viswanath, Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, Maninder Singh and Vinod Kambli were notable among them; some even had rough times with alcohol and drugs.
Fortunately, Ramesh had a strong family net to help him through the dark days.
"My father-in-law watched my debut in Chepauk, and he was a fan of my batting even before he met me. They dreamt of me making a comeback. In 2004, when things didn't work out, I actually had to console them."
He was making runs, but the frustrations ran deep - hidden though they may have been. Being cynical over your fortunes is one thing, but expressing it is another. Ramesh doesn't belong to the same category as a Sreesanth or a Harbhajan Singh, whose approach to giving free rein to their emotions often leaves them poorer in the pocket.
Ramesh had his own ways of dealing with disappointments. He told himself that he had been luckier than a thousand other players, who'd chop off an arm or leg to play for India. Whatever little he had achieved was still more than what plenty of players could dream of.
"When I went through a bad patch, the best thing that happened to my life was my daughter. She was like my medicine, she helped me get over it. I used to keep my feelings to myself, and my wife, Aparna, used to ask me many times, 'How are you are not angry?' "
Did Ramesh's soft-spoken, nice-guy image work against him and make him a pushover?
"I sometimes wish I practised harder. I was never a Rahul Dravid. People like him and Kumble live and breathe cricket. South Indians rely a lot on talent and not much on big scores. Dravid is a typical West Zone player, who can bat for long hours"
"It's there in the Indian system, where more than your performance, people see how you behave on the outside," Ramesh says. "If you are very emotional, people think you are a very aggressive cricketer and more serious about your game. Having said that, there are some really quiet cricketers who are very aggressive when it comes to the crunch. Unfortunately I was not made that way. But I had the fire to perform."
Ramesh can now look back at his career objectively. Critics were sceptical about his lack of footwork, which they said would expose him on bouncy surfaces. While Ramesh doesn't entirely agree, he does say he wishes he had employed a better work ethic.
"I sometimes wish I practised harder. I was never a Rahul Dravid. People like him and Kumble live and breathe cricket. South Indians rely a lot on talent and not much on big scores. They are happy with a 40 or a fifty. Dravid is a typical West Zone player who can bat for long hours."
Ramesh's advice to youngsters who wish to have long Test careers is to follow Dravid's discipline. What separates Dravid and Tendulkar from the rest, he says, is that they decided early in their careers they would not settle for anything less than a decade as a India cricketer. Ramesh is also worried about young players prioritising the IPL over Test cricket. He mentions the example of a player who wanted to play Tests before the IPL simply because his bidding price would be higher.
Ramesh hasn't retired; he keeps in touch with the game through first-division cricket in Chennai, where he is still among the runs. Looking back at the last nine years, he knows he could have scripted things better. But he was always destined to remain in the spotlight, and acting has opened new doors. At least now his scripts are written for him.