Transcript: Couch Talk with Javagal Srinath

Couch Talk 176 (Play)

Guest: Javagal Srinath

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Welcome to the show, Sri! It’s an absolute pleasure having you on!

Javagal Srinath (JS)– Thank you!

SJ– For the majority of your career, you were a fast bowler who bowled slightly back of the length and the delivery that came slightly into the right hander. Even if you want to pitch it up, how hard is it to do – physically, bio-mechanically, and psychologically?

JS– I think any sport is very cognitive in nature. When I say “cognitive”, you learn a lot of things when you watch. Now, it is hard to learn sometimes when you watch others and get the knowledge. But, when you see your own pictures, it is quite easy to grasp what you are seeing. We had videos and stuff, but that wasn’t really the right thing, I suppose. What we wanted was the technology that came in 2000, where we could see what we did on a ball-by-ball basis. The access to information was rapid and also more specific. I feel that I missed the technology quite badly. Had there been that technology earlier in my career, it would have been a different story altogether. That is the way life is, I suppose. There were bowlers who were bowling without technology and they were getting wickets, that is a different issue. But, everybody learns in a different way.

I was always just short of length, and I knew that I was just short of length. Initially, I used to play a lot of ODIs and didn’t play too much Test cricket in India. It was working for me [in the ODIs]– I didn’t pitch the ball up, and the ball was coming in and it cramped the batsman a bit. Since my Test bowling was more influenced by the ODIs, that length was something I got used to. I should have gotten out of it earlier.

SJ– You made your debut in Australia with pitches that provided pace and bounce, where you can bowl back of length and still be threatening the outside edge regularly. So, did that have any effect on forming your thought process on how you want to approach your bowling?

JS– Yes, you get a bit carried away when you see a bit of bounce coming on, while Indian strips offer you nothing. All of a sudden you go to Australia and you see the ball getting carried all the way to the shoulder of the ‘keeper – you definitely get carried away. I knew that. But, you got to change quickly.

What was the change? How did I want to change? Those things happen very slowly in sports. It cannot happen overnight. What you do and what you are successful in, you tend to follow it for a longer period. I was more influenced by my ODI technique of bowling and that carried on to my Test matches as well. Therefore, I think I bowled that wrong line most of the times.

SJ– Even if you want to pitch it up, say, and the batsman drives you down the ground or through the cover because you pitched it up 2 feet, how instinctive is it that you want to immediately fall back to what you know best and pull the length back? And, how do you manage that?

JS– If you are an in swing bowler, then you tend to bowl that short of length deliveries all the time. If you are bowling an out swinger, you probably can pitch the ball up. That is also a part which played in me pitching a bit short. If you, as an in swing bowler, pitch it up, it becomes quite easy for the batsman. If you are an outswing bowler, the ball would be beating the bat or taking the edge. Sometimes, as an in swing bowler, if you pitch the ball up and it moves, it takes an inner edge and onto the pads. Had I bowled outswingers, maybe I would have changed that line [and length] a little earlier [in my career]. I wouldn’t have been bowling that short. I think the ODI bowling as well as my basic inswingers held the line at slightly short of length.

SJ– You played 67 Tests for India from 1991/92 to 2002. You mentioned about the introduction of technology around the 2000s when you could analyse your bowling in real time and the feedback was rapid. At what point in your career did you feel that you were as complete a fast bowler as you thought you could be?

JS– I was a late entrant to Test cricket at the age of 23. And then I missed out nearly for 4 years. By the time I was a permanent Test member, I was already 27. I didn’t have the bowling experience what generally someone would possess by then. Ideally, you should be getting into the Test scene by 20-21 and by 23 you would have a fair idea of where you want to bowl and how you want to bowl and what are the lengths that you need to sort out. However, I was a late beginner. By the time I could reconcile the nitty-gritty of Test cricket, I was 27. And then I injured my shoulder, which was another setback for me. I lost around 6-7 months of cricket, and that was crucial. Obviously, the bowling altered a bit after that, I lost a bit of pace. Automatically, the way you think and your approach will be different.

Ideally, somebody should start Test cricket at the age of 20-21, you are raw for the first few years. You understand the nuances of the game by the time you are 23-24. At the age of 26-27, you are at your peak, till the age of 30. That is the time you reap a lot of wicketa, because you understand the game of cricket – you read the line and length, you understand the batsmen better. That is an ideal career for a fast bowler.

SJ– I want to talk about that – your late entry to international cricket and that you weren’t able to play regularly. How frustrating was it? As a young man, you are in peak physical strength. The ball is coming on nice, and it is fast, and you want to get on the field and make an impression. But, you had Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabhakar was ahead of you on the queue and they played most of the home Tests. You played in Australia, in South Africa, but come home those two would play and you had to warm the benches. How frustrating was that as a young fast bowler?

JS– It can be disappointing, when you don’t figure in the playing XI. But [pace bowler in an Indian team playing at home], it is more of a symbolic representation. Even Kapil Dev, at times. You had three spinners in the team, winning matches left, right and center, and Manoj would open the innings and Kapil would play the all-rounder. What was important was the result of the match, and we used to win the match in 3-4 days. there was no compulsion for the teams to change the combination as such. But, the wickets were such that I don’t know if they encouraged the fast bowlers. I understood how the foreign bowlers struggled on Indian wickets. The spinners could not keep the right line and length. It was quite advantageous for India – Anil (Kumble) was going great guns, Venkatapathi Raju was outstanding and so was Rajesh Chauhan, along with the other spinners that came around. The result was so favourable that there was no need to panic and there were no reasons for them to change the combination or to alter the team. All that mattered was to win the series and we were winning them handsomely. It was frustrating, but the results were sweet, Being a part of the winning side was good.

SJ– India had lost abroad at the time. India had the Ajit Wadekar – Mohammad Azharuddin combo. They set a plan for winning at home, but it seemed to be a short term strategy. You used three spinners – Anil, Raju and Chauhan – to run through and capture the wickets in, say, the 1992/93 series vs England. But then you are not developing the third or fourth fast bowler for when you go abroad. Yes, you may have Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabhakar – Kapil Dev was to the end of his career anyway. But you were not developing your third, fourth fast bowler.

JS– We paid some penalty there, I suppose. We won all the matches here, but when we went abroad, our batsmen couldn’t adjust and our bowling wasn’t that effective. The spinners struggled at times and the fast bowlers couldn’t hit the right line and length. We didn’t tour that often during those days, especially between 1993-96. We hardly toured abroad. We struggled quite a bit. But the confidence of winning at home was so big that we would return from a bad tour and we were extremely good the next week, which covered up everything. That was one of the reasons why we couldn’t win consistently abroad.

SJ– I think the end justifies the means, I suppose, for the Indian management. You bowled in partnership with your state teammate and your good friend Venkatesh Prasad in England and in South Africa. It would be often that you and Prasad would come on and make early inroads and go away after your first or second spells. There was no good third seamer. How did that affect the team’s performances and how did it affect you? When you are taking rest, you don’t want the other team to build up partnerships so that when you are coming back to bowl, you are not bowling to set batsmen…

JS– That was an eye opener for me, the South Africa. Even before that, the England tour [in 1996] was an eye opener for me because I realised that if we do not have 3-4 good fast bowlers, wee would not be able to make a difference to the team. We might bowl one odd good spell. If Prasad bowled a good spell, it is OK, he would bowl it was just one good spell. But, if you really want to keep pegging away and keep picking wickets, to make a difference to the side to win a match, you need 4 good fast bowlers. I always felt the dearth of third and fourth bowlers, and we changed [the third seamer] quite a bit. Paras Mhambrey came and went, Salil Ankola came and went, Prashant Vaidya came and went. We didn’t have somebody who could get stuck in, bowling for 3-4 years. When Zaheer [Khan] and Ashish [Nehra] started coming up. I could see how significant it was to have 3-4 good fast bowlers operating. The results were evident.

Then onwards I realised that if you don’t have a good third seamer, you would struggle because you will have to bowl more overs. Those who are wicket-taking bowlers, to win the matches, are reduced to just filling up the overs for the team. You don’t want to be a fill-up bowler when you are yearning to get a few wickets when you are fresh and ready to go. What happens when you don’t have a good third or fourth seamer – it’s all about conservation of energy. Just by Tea break, you are already knackered because you already have put in 17-18 overs. That was a bit of a rough period for us. It looked as if India had only 2 good fast bowlers and they were doing a good [job]. But honestly, we should have developed a third bowler, or at least we should have identified who could be third and fourth fast bowlers. It would have been a different story altogether.

SJ– In South Africa, you bowled a lot. every time you needed a wicket, the captain brought you on. you didn’t have much time between your spells, in the 1996/97 tour to SA. And then, you couldn’t go to West Indies due to shoulder injury. Abey Kuruvilla went to West Indies and he bowled non-stop there as well. how much of that tour to SA took a toll on you in terms of physical injury and exhaustion?

JS– Exhaustion is a part of a fast bowler’s career. Obviously, when you bowl 20-22 overs in a day, you are exhausted at the end of the day. That is not an issue. Unfortunately, I picked up a shoulder injury. When you play for a side and the captain goes to you for a wicket and throws you the ball, you are proud of it. You look up to such captains. You don’t want him to run away from you to some other bowler. You want the captain to look up to you every time. However it happened so that I ended up bowling the maximum overs. I enjoyed every over that I bowled in SA. There were wickets, there was good intention behind every ball. I was learning every over I bowled in SA. I enjoyed that SA trip.

SJ– Towards the end of your career, you had developed the variations. You bowled the slower ones and you bowled the ones that left the right hander as well. you were a bowler that brought the ball into the batsmen. How did you go about developing the variation? How difficult was it, how was the time line?

JS– I wish I had those variations coming in a little early. Once we started to see the videos and we had access to all the pictures, it made a big difference. You know what you are doing. The correction happened immediately. The feedback was instant. The mind started operating to the requirement of the side. All of a sudden, you know where to bowl and you have the feedback coming from the boundary line from people who are watching the match and the analysts would look at the specifics to tell us the right way to go about. The game changed completely – strategies and plans became more proper and we had a more concrete approach to the game. We understood how to approach a batsman who is in form. Technology brought everything to me at that point in time. Then, I realised how much I had missed it in my career.

SJ– How difficult was it to come back from those injuries?

JS– It was tough, in the sense you weren’t sure that you will be able to bowl in the same way again. The shoulder is a 360 degree rotating body part. The one good thing that happened was that I was in the best hands of the South African doctors, Mark Ferguson did a fantastic job. A lot of things went through my mind, I went back to my engineering college and finished my three subjects and got my degree. A few good things happened there. a degree is important for anyone – that is what you strive for everyday. I became a degree holder, and I came back to sports again, although I lost a bit of pace – that is what was going to happen when my joints were altered. It was quite a challenging moment, a doubtful moment. Like anybody, I was a little insecure. However, I was able to manage, be practical, and it helped me.

SJ– After Kapil Dev it was you that held the mantle of fast bowler for India. After you it has been Zaheer Khan. In the last 15 years, we have had Ajit Agarkar, parts of Ashish Nehra to RP Singh to Irfan Pathan to Munaf Patel and several other fast bowlers that had played for India. There is a good number of players that came through in the last 15 years, but none had a career as long or productive as Zaheer Khan. Was there a fast bowler in the last 15 years other than Zaheer Khan that you thought was going to be good and have a long career, but did not?

JS– Oh, plenty! I can name a few of them. I thought Ashish Nehra would be a great resource, he had everything, but a very uncertain body. He got injured every now and then. His body alignment wasn’t really good. His hip and knee joint were not in the right line. His ankle was injured a lot of times. i appreciated Salil Ankola – a strong lad, somehow he couldn’t stick for long. And then, I had some hopes on Pankaj Singh from Rajasthan, he was pretty good as well. Another talent that missed the bus was Harvinder Singh from Amritsar. He was a rapid fast bowler and was a treat to watch running in. he played a couple of Test matches and was gone. I don’t know what happened to them, it all boils down to confidence levels when they are in a Test match. It is quite tough to kind of reinforce yourself on Indian wickets and see the spinners take all the wickets. You have to succeed now and then. If you don’t do, then the confidence erodes and you make way for someone else. It is not that easy to bowl on Indian wickets.

SJ– Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra that you talk so fondly of, when they came in, you were the big brother to them and helped them through. Even when you retired, I remember Ashish Nehra said he would miss seeing you standing at mid-off/mid-on telling him what to do. When you came in, was that kind of thing available?

JS– There are two ways of looking into it. One is that you can seek information and knowledge from others. The other is knowledge coming on to you. Both have a kind of advantage and also disadvantages. If you keep on going to the mid-on/mid-off fielder and keep asking them what to do, unless and until you have a great rapport with them, [it won’t work]. Even he is a bowler and he should be thinking about his game, [and if you keep going to him], we might be a bit of interference. You should be sharp enough to watch and understand what is going on, and implement it yourself. Self-learning is probably the best way to go forward. Yes, outside knowledge is important, if you are getting the right kind of knowledge from the people around you. If you don’t get that knowledge, it doesn’t mean that you can blame them that knowledge was not passed on to you. You should step up and get the knowledge for yourself. That makes you an even better bowler.

SJ– On that note, I want to bring up the topic of Ishant Sharma. He has already played 65 Tests, that is only 2 short of your entire career, and he is only in his mid 20s. When he came on, he debuted in Australia and had similar incoming delivery, the bounce off the back of length. But, by the time you played 65 Tests, you were the wise man in the team, you understood fast bowling. He has played 65 and we are just about to see him understanding his game. Where do you think his nurturing or development as a fast bowler has slowed down?

JS– I think various formats have slowed down [the development of] many fast bowlers in India. it is not quite easy to manage all formats of the game. When you are a fast bowler, you bowl with certain pride. That pride is gone for a toss in T20s. You end up giving 40-45 runs, or even more. You are not very instrumental in winning matches in T20 games. If you go by the ratio, in every 20 games the bowlers are going to win 1 game for you, it is the batsmen in the rest. It is absolutely a batsman oriented game. that has been the most celebrated format in the last ten years or from the time IPL came into existence. The batsmen have a tremendous psychological edge, seeing the bowlers from a different perspective. The batsmen have seen bowlers getting hammered for runs. The game has become very positive from a batsman’s perspective, whereas for the bowlers they have gone in to a shell. The bowlers are now trying to stop the runs. That is not how the game has to be played.

Irrespective of which format you play, you want to be tested as a bowler. That doesn’t happen in the T20s and the ODIs, that can only happen in the Test cricket. With so much cricket being played, you don’t have enough experience in those 5 day matches. All of a sudden when you are put into a 5 day match, you struggle, you don’t know anything about a third spell when you are bowling the 19th over at the end of the day. That is the most difficult spell to bowl. Not only Ishant Sharma, most bowlers have been caught in that predicament, where they find it hard to manage all three formats of the game. Therefore, you see such results.

SJ– How much of role does that play going from one format where you bowl longer spells and lot more overs and then you go to ODIs and T20s? There is a mix of all of that, the ODIs and the IPL etc. Not just in terms of your bowling skills and knowledge, but also in terms of the toll it takes on your body – how much of it have you seen?

JS– I understand a lot of planning is required but it is a profession for all of us, and so you have to manage. It is about how far we can go and how strong you are and how long you are going to last. Commercial [aspects] also plays a role in your mind. You get along with all formats, and one of the formats will always take a beating; and here, unfortunately, Test cricket has taken a beating with respect to the [Indian] fast bowlers.

SJ– Lastly, I want to talk to you about your swan song in international cricket – 2003 Cricket World Cup. India came into it with not a great form. But, you got into good form after losing in the early round robin game to Australia. And then you faced Australia in the final as well. The Indian bowling came together as a unit, the batting did well, Sachin (Tendulkar) was in great form as well. What were your memories from the beginning and end of the world cup?

JS– Speaking from the fast bowling fraternity’s aspect – we had a great combination. Ashish was brilliant. Zaheer was too good. Everything fell in place. for the first time, we as bowlers sat together and looked at videos. We had our own team meetings and made strategies, they were more meaningful. We understood the weaknesses of the batsmen and we worked on it, we were so happy. We took the games very seriously, not that we didn’t take the other games as seriously, but here the plans were so specific and tailor-made for each batsmen and we knew what we were doing. We exercised complete control over the opponents, especially our bowling department. The wickets in South Africa were good and the batting complemented us. We won a few games [with our bowling] and we were cruising.

The only thing was, Australia were playing cricket at a whole different level. They were a at least four to five notches above any other side playing in the tournament. We had no answers to them. Maybe in the finals, this is a very hindsight view, we could have batted first. I didn’t bowl well in the finals; May be I was overawed, but I could not perform well for the side. I came back to the dressing room and said to the guys that I didn’t do justice to what I have been doing all the time. Except for the finals, we had a great run.

SJ– When you look back at your career for India and for Karnataka, are you a very satisfied man?

JS– Oh, yes. I knew my end was coming. I could not have played any more cricket in India, because I didn’t have the pace to bowl on Indian wickets. I could have played abroad for a couple of years, but then, the on and off wasn’t the right thing to do and it didn’t add up to the build up of a good team. Keeping all those things in mind, although I had one or two of good years of cricket left in me, I decided that to be a complete cricketer, you need to have a body that responded to you. I didn’t, and therefore had to quit.

SJ– Alright! On that note, Sri, thank you so much for being on the show. It was an absolute honour speaking to you!

JS– Pleasure! Thank you! Bye, bye!

SJ– Bye!


Episode transcribed by Bharathram Pattabiraman