Subash Jayaraman: You came up as a middle-order batsman but due to circumstances became an opening batsman. Your debut was at home against perhaps the finest and most varied bowling attack in the world. What was the step up from playing first-class to international cricket against such an attack like?
Pakistan, at that time, had probably the best attack in the world. You had Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, Saqlain Mushtaq and Mushtaq Ahmed. It's a complete package for any captain to have such a dream attack. So the only thing I thought was, "I'll just give my shot against them."
I was actually a lower middle-order batsman and then I moved to the opening slot because one of the other openers got injured. They made me the opener for one of the Under-22 games, in which I got 190, so then people started looking at me as a potential opening batsman. That's why you won't see too much of the copybook-style opening batting in me. But still I had some of the strengths, like eye-hand coordination.
That you play for your country itself was a huge motivation. You become a very confident batsman once you have that tag.
SJ: In your 19-Test career, you faced some of the fastest and finest bowlers to play the game. When you take your stance and look up at them running in, what is in your head and what are you consciously trying to do?
SR: Your mind just has to be blank, because if you try to play a predetermined shot or wait for a particular ball, you move before the ball is bowled. You cannot afford to do that against the quick bowlers, because to go back and adjust to the ball being bowled, there is very little time.
When Shoaib Akhtar was bowling to me at Calcutta I never looked at his run-up. He is almost running from the boundary line. I cannot concentrate for so long. So what I used to do was look down and keep tapping my bat, so I can calculate the time he is coming near the stumps.
I feel the best thing is for a batsman to concentrate little until the ball is about to be bowled.
SJ: What did you think about your own game after your debut series?
SR: I can proudly say I am one of the guys who scored runs against Wasim Akram and Co. If you look at that time, India was in tension with the Kargil War against Pakistan, so there was a lot of pressure in that series from the fans. They didn't want India to lose. I remember the first match was supposed to be in Delhi and they dug up the wicket, so it was shifted to Chepauk. There was so much tension and a lot of protests about Pakistan playing in India.
I remember as the new kid, they were testing my character not only with bowling but a lot of sledging. Despite all that, I'll always be proud of the fact that I am one of those guys who got runs against Wasim Akram. He's got so much variety as a fast bowler, and every ball would be different from him. And he was still so consistent.
"When I got to 30 not out on the end of the first day, I came back in and Azhar hugged me and said, 'I've never seen any youngster or anybody bat against Wasim like this'"
I remember, a policeman at the hotel tell me, "Thambi [Brother], you have to get runs. You are from Chennai. We want you to get runs. Hammer them." I don't know whether that was a request or an instruction!
Playing at home is an advantage, because I have played so much in Chepauk, and it's also a disadvantage, because in domestic cricket you don't have 50,000 people coming into the stadium and wanting you to perform. And against Pakistan!
I didn't think of the crowd. I used the advantage of having played in Chepauk and being used to the wicket. I did well, and even though it's not a big score - 43 - I got a standing ovation when I went out, which really motivated me.
SJ: There is a question from a listener, Anantha, who calls himself an S Ramesh super fan: The late '90s was a period when India experimented quite a bit with a number of openers. But you got a pretty decent run from 1999 to 2001. What were your experiences from the inside? Did you feel you were put on notice a bit?
SR: I went through a lot of pressure. I knew that if I'm going to not perform for three innings, there is going to be a sword on the neck. I feel, especially because it was so hard to find a good opener, maybe when someone is doing well they need even more protection and motivation. When I did well I wasn't really getting that kind of support, which would have made me much more confident. I had the performance. In the last tour, in Sri Lanka, where I consistently got 40s and fifties, with the right kind of support I probably could have gone to 100 or 120, we'll never know.
SJ: These days the captain, the selectors and the team management are a lot more patient with the players. Would you agree with that assessment of the current Indian set-up? I'm assuming you would have liked that to happen during your playing days as well?
SR: It depends on who has been given the longer rope. If you have good talent there is no harm in giving them a long rope. The question is: where do you stop?" I remember [Rahul] Dravid, when he was playing domestic cricket, was given a long rope in South Zone matches. But he justified that by becoming one of the best batsmen in the world. How many did that?
I always feel that there has to be a little pressure on the cricketers and that you don't compromise on the consistency. That's what the Australians used to do.
SJ: You would have been a better player with stronger support?
SR: Definitely. In my last Test innings I scored a fifty, which makes me always question: why was I never given a series after that? I look at it like this: at least I was lucky to play those 19 Test matches. I have seen much better cricketers than me in domestic cricket who never got a chance to play for their country.
Certainly I feel I should have been a player who could have played at least 50 Test matches. I think I deserved a longer rope from the selectors.
SJ: You had two centuries in 37 Test innings. Do you think that was sort of held against you?
SR: Yeah, I agree that you have to convert your starts into big knocks. But if you look at the Sri Lankan Test series, I was India's second-highest run-getter. You can't say I failed in that series. We struggled to find good openers for the country and when you have someone who was consistently giving you 40s and fifties, why not stick with him?
I never got a hundred in the Pakistan series. But my contribution was very significant.
Hundred is the magical number. People always remember hundreds more than even 99. We were discussing the Delhi Test the other day and one of my friends was commenting on Anil Kumble's historic ten-wicket haul and he asked me, "Did you play that Test match?" I felt so bad because I got 60 and 96 in the Test match! Maybe another four runs would have made him remember that!
SJ: Mahesh asks: you had a good knock in the practice match on the 2003-04 tour to Australia, against Victoria, but you were not picked in the XI following that. Were you given any reason?
SR: Sachin [Tendulkar] and I had a very good partnership in that match. We lost Dravid, [Virender] Sehwag, Aakash Chopra and Ganguly. We went on to a 180 or 200-run partnership [128 runs]. Even in the second innings I got some fortysomething.
In the next side game, I was pushed to No. 8 [No. 7]! So where is the question of me going to play the Test matches? There was no reason given. Maybe they wanted to try the Sehwag and Aakash Chopra opening combination for the entire Test series.
When I came back after the series, I played in Deodhar Trophy matches. I got 97 and then 42, I think, and then in the Duleep Trophy match I got 57. These are the three or four matches I played between the Australian tour and the Pakistan tour. Even in Australian tour side games I did well. Suddenly, for the Pakistan tour I was nowhere in the picture, and Yuvraj Singh was picked as the third opener. At that time I felt so bad. I thought I should have played an individual sport where I can fight my own battles, you know? But cricket is a team sport. At that time, I decided that whatever my performances, they don't really matter, I am just going to be sidelined.
SJ: Shiva asks: Anyone who plays representative cricket wants to play for their country. What sort of effect does it have on you when you realise the doors are being shut on you despite good performances?
"Whatever depression or difficult times I had in my cricketing career, God compensated me with a beautiful kid and a beautiful family. I was able to see that life was larger than cricket"
SR: It was very depressing and disappointing. Steve Waugh told me a very important thing: "When you are going through a tough time, never be around people who tell you negative things like, 'You can't make it', 'They are going to destroy you', 'Whatever you perform, they are going to sideline you.' If you find those kinds of people, stay away from them. Be with people who talk positive things. Life is larger than this. So what [if you are not picked]? You have got nice things, you have a nice family. There is so much to look to on the other side."
When I went through those tough times, I was married and my daughter was born in 2004. Being dropped was like a breather for me. Whatever depression or difficult times I had in my cricketing career, God compensated me with a beautiful kid and a beautiful family. I was able to see that life was larger than cricket.
SJ: One aspect of your batting held against you was that you didn't have the footwork to be an opener, which is understandable because you were a middle-order batsman. Shahir asks: do you believe footwork is overrated?
SR: Absolutely! If you look at cricket today, how many cricketing shots are you looking at actually? If you talk about the 1980s, when you have to play a cover drive like this, your elbow has to be straight, you have to get behind the ball, blah, blah. But today, if you see the ball, you whack the ball. That's all. All those 1970s and '80s methods are outdated now.
Sehwag never had much footwork but he was the most effective opener India have had. He was never in the Sunil Gavaskar mould. He had brilliant eyesight, and was a confident and aggressive opener. Technique is a bit overrated.
When you have proper technique and footwork, it helps you get back in form when you are out of form. Other than that, I won't say that someone who doesn't have the proper footwork and technique is going to fail in international cricket, because they are not.
SJ: Can you share some memories from the Pakistan series in 1999 and Australia in 2001?
SR: The Pakistan series is the most memorable one because it was my first series and the first time I was able to interact and share a dressing room with a great cricketer like Sachin. It is still so vivid in my memory. In the Chepauk dressing room, I was seated between Sachin and Azharuddin. Imagine that! I was so scared to look at either my right or left. I used to keep my gloves in my kitbag, to make sure they didn't spill on either side. Azhar patted me and said, "You don't even talk to me. What is this?" But I was so scared. Then he started pulling my leg and Sachin started talking to me normally.
When I got to 30 not out on the end of the first day, I came back in and [Azhar] hugged me and said, "I've never seen any youngster or anybody bat Wasim like this." He gifted me a pair of shoes. That was one of the most memorable moments for me.
In the second innings, Sachin played one of the most brilliant knocks ever but unfortunately we lost that Test match. When he got out, he came inside and was completely pissed off. He didn't remove the pads till the end of the Test. It affected him so much that we lost that Test.
The Delhi Test was one of the most difficult wickets I've batted on in my career. It was breaking and crumbling. To get 96 against Saqlain and Mushtaq was amazing. When I got out, I remember it was to a full toss. I was shocked when I saw the ball zooming back to Mushtaq. I was praying he would drop it but he caught it. When I went in, I was almost in tears. Dravid and Sachin came and told me, "Those four runs don't matter. Your 96 speaks volumes about your character."
The 2001 Australia series was probably India's best ever Test series against Australia. On the fourth day in Calcutta, when we went to the ground, Dravid and Laxman were about to go in to bat, the whole atmosphere in the stands and in the dressing room was so dull, because we were looking at the inevitable.
At the first drinks break they were still batting. We thought, "Okay, well played, Dravid, well played, Laxman. At least we are not going to get beaten today and only possibly tomorrow." When they batted through lunch, we thought, "Okay, we are at least fighting back." We still didn't think we had the chance to bounce back. When we didn't lose a wicket till tea, that's when we started encouraging them for every run and every boundary. The noise was getting louder. There was something happening. There was a complete transformation from the morning. We were inspired that these two batsmen were battling it out for India. We started encouraging them for every single or even for a ball left well. At the end of the day when they came back, we knew the pressure had completely shifted to the Australian team.
The next day we came back and bowled them out, and again, I can proudly say that I am part of history when I took that catch [Shane Warne] at short leg.
In the third Test match, they were completely under pressure. The crowds were pushing us and wanted us to win the Test match. We were so glad that we were able to win that Test match and win the series.