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The other side of Venkat, the cricketer

S Giridhar | Updated on May 18, 2021

Tough sport: S Venkataraghavan, former India spinner and ICC Umpire, also had a reputation of being stern and formidable   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A toast to a spinner, a number cruncher and a man of his word

* Very early in that adventure, we met S Venkataraghavan — former India spinner, captain, ICC Umpire and administrator

* We invited Venkat and VV Kumar, Tamil Nadu’s very own spin twins, to be the chief guests; both agreed readily

* With his shoes noisily squelching, Venkat walked up to the stage

* Few would have even taken the field with that kind of injury, let alone bowl an entire day

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Our first book Midwicket Tales was never conceived as one. The anthology began in 2008 as a series of essays that my friend VJ Raghunath and I wrote, first for ESPNcricinfo and then later for Firstpost.com. These were meant to convey our love for cricket through a variety of anecdotes, technical analysis and our own impressions on various aspects of this lovely game. Then, as a result of a meeting with the publishers SAGE in 2012, these essays became a book.

Very early in that adventure, we met S Venkataraghavan — former India spinner, captain, ICC Umpire and administrator. Thinker, strategist, erudite, all of that yes, but also considered very stern and formidable by his playing day colleagues in Chennai. Forbidding actually, according to some of them. But Raghu and I hit it off with Venkat from the beginning. It helped that Raghu had played college and league cricket with Venkat but, even so, a number of people were surprised that Venkat had been so accessible and forthcoming and provided us with such enriching nuggets on the game.

It made perfectly good sense that when our essays indeed got compiled into the book called Midwicket Tales, we rounded off with a chapter called ‘Last word’ that narrated the scintillating conversation with Venkat covering every aspect of the game. But beyond how he contributed to our book and embellished it, let me share something more about this man, something that will warm your heart as much as it did mine.

Midwicket Tales was published in June 2014 and we decided to hold the launch at the Madras Boat Club on June 28. We invited Venkat and VV Kumar, Tamil Nadu’s very own spin twins, to be the chief guests. Both agreed readily. We were all set for the day. Over 100 people had confirmed and by 4 pm — 30 minutes before the programme was to commence — most of them were present. Kumar had arrived early and was mixing with the guests and regaling them with his repertoire of stories.

Very suddenly, without warning, the sky turned very dark. There was a huge thunderclap and down came the rain. This was not just rain; it was a downpour with sheets of water bucketing down across Chennai and one could not even see a few yards beyond the windows. Our hearts sank for how would Venkat now be able to drive and reach BoatClub in time? Raghu and I reconciled to a launch without the great cricketer even as we stood anxiously near the entrance to the hall. And then two minutes before time, in walked Venkat. Drenched from head to toe, with water pouring down his face, from behind his shirt down his neck. Expressionless, he walked up to us as though we should not be surprised he had made it. All he said was, “Do you have a fag? Before I go into the event.” Unfortunately, we could not find anyone who had a cigarette. Venkat shrugged as if to say never mind and, with his shoes noisily squelching, walked up to the stage.

There were no towels and the handkerchiefs were useless. Soaked to the skin, Venkat launched our book along with Kumar. He shared memorable anecdotes and jousted with Kumar as they discussed incidents and strategy. Everyone present realised that Venkat had read every word in the book and revelled as he quoted from the book without referring to it, adding his own insights. In that display, the audience got to see the qualities of determination, commitment and preparation that Venkat brought to his game and life.

Critical as his talent was, these qualities probably were the making of the man and the cricketer. Much later, a fellow cricketer who is not too fond of Venkat told me another story that must also be narrated here. A day before a crucial Duleep Trophy match, Venkat riding pillion on a scooter, met with an accident that took the skin off his left leg from the hip to the knee. The next day, with that injury — his teammates did not know about the accident — Venkat bowled 30 unflagging overs in hot and humid conditions. When play ended, teammates had to literally peel his trousers off him. Few would have even taken the field with that kind of injury, let alone bowl an entire day. That is the kind of cricketer Venkat was and hearing this story I realised why Raghu and I ought to have been sure that Venkat would make it to our book launch.

Let me round this off with a vignette that showcases Venkat’s legendary memory and prowess with numbers. After the launch as people milled around Venkat and Kumar for autographs, Venkat spotted an old friend, Vasudev. Greeting him, Venkat turned around to me to say, “This is Vasu, my Guindy Engineering College classmate. Roll Number 1331.” Stupefied that Venkat recalled a roll number from 50 years ago, I asked him, “Why would you remember that?” . Venkat replied. “So easy, 1331 is 11 cubed.” On his face was disappointment that my arithmetical senses were not alive to the simple beauties of squares and cubes!

S Giridhar is the Chief Operating Officer of Azim Premji University, and has co-authored cricket books with his colleague VJ Raghunath and written a book on India’s extraordinary teachers

Published on May 18, 2021

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