Indian wickets falling in a heap was a miserable but not rare experience in the 1990s, particularly when India were touring. In fact, during the tour Down Under just before the 1992 World Cup, the highlights package of Test matches we got to see in Indian middle-class homes looked like a procession of Indian batsmen towards the pavilion. It did not change much during the Benson & Hedges World Series that followed, so when Azharuddin & Co. were bowled out for 126 at the WACA on December 6, 1991, it did not surprise us. Besides who can fault any batting line-up for being clueless on the fastest wicket in the world, playing Patrick Patterson, Curtly Ambrose and Malcolm Marshall?
What did surprise us was a lanky Indian pacer dismissing two West Indies batsmen off successive balls. The excitement about a possible hat-trick was bonus. The fact that a young Indian pace bowler could perplex two Caribbeans with pace (Carl Hooper) and swing (Keith Arthurton) was enough to make us delirious in those days. We had seen finesse in pace bowling because of Kapil Dev but saw speed because of Javagal Srinath. He fulfilled the promise he showed that Australian summer. What he started on the bouncy pitches of Australia, he continued in South Africa, England, New Zealand; most importantly, on the dust bowls of India. But reams were not written about him, he was not compared to the greats of the game; even today he is hardly called a legend.
Words are losing weight today. When it comes to the vocabulary of cricket, ‘legend’ and ‘great’ rank high among the decadent expressions. A retiring batsman is a legend these days with 700-odd runs @26.48 in Tests, five-and-a-half-thousand runs @35.31 in ODIs. A bowler who could not play more than 17 Tests and 120 ODIs (averaging 42.40 and 31.72 per wicket respectively) notwithstanding his talent, is worshipped as a great and given a match to finish his career in glory. Srinath, with 236 Test wickets @30.49 and 315 ODI wickets @28.08, is still too light to be either a legend or a great.
Srinath is not just a story about what has been but also what could have been. While praising England’s handling of James Anderson, one cannot but remember how Srinath was handled. But for the overworked shoulder that put breaks on his career at the wrong time, one wonders how many wickets he would have finished with. The 6-21 in Ahmedabad before that injury is much talked about. Let’s discuss a performance after his comeback from that injury. I am talking about the first Test in the Asian Test Championship played at Eden Gardens.
That Test is remembered more for Shoaib Akhtar’s thunderbolts to send back Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar off consecutive balls; and Saeed Anwar’s 188 in Pakistan’s second innings. Those who saw it from the stands also vividly remember Tendulkar’s run out in India’s second essay followed by huge chaos. But amid all that, Srinath picked up 13 wickets. He removed five of Pakistan’s top six batsmen in the first innings, reducing them to 26/6. At least that Ahmedabad wicket gave Srinath some uneven bounce, this Eden Gardens pitch was a proper strip. Srinath bowled with even more ferocity (8-86) in Pakistan’s second innings. It is his spell that did not allow Pakistan to take the target beyond India. The only partnership that threatened to do that (between Anwar and Mohammad Yousuf) was also broken by Srinath, when he had Yousuf caught on the rope going for a hook. It is a pity that not much is written about the fierce bouncer that got Shahid Afridi off the next ball. Perhaps an Indian victory would have forced the reaction those spells deserved. Who likes to discuss spells in a losing cause? Hundreds in a losing cause are deemed much more tragic, hence glamorous.
A Srinath fan cannot thank Sourav Ganguly enough for bringing the Karnataka legend (at least that is not questionable) back for the 2003 World Cup. Otherwise his ODI performances would have remained unappreciated. Once upon a time, whenever India lost an ODI, it was customary to say Srinath was not penetrative enough. Nobody knows when that lack of penetration got him 300-plus wickets. Obviously, he had limitations like the slower delivery, which he developed rather late in his career. He also had lows like Titan Cup 1996, where he got just one wicket in the entire tournament. But even Ishant Sharma once went for 30 runs in an over. Who remembers that?
Perhaps the real reason Srinath does not have a place in public imagination today is his demeanour. Who remembers a pacer who does not have a flowing mane, does not show aggression by making faces and does not out-sledge Australians? An angry Srinath would look like that Pakistan fan meme with hands on his hips — unfashionable in new-age India represented by Virat Kohli’s aggressive team. Some are saying Srinath was the predecessor of today’s fast men like Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami. But that does not matter. This is the age of restoring history’s factory settings.