Couch Talk 145 (Play)
Host: Subash Jayaraman
Subash Jayaraman (SJ) – Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is former Indian opener Sadagoppan Ramesh. He talks about his career, facing up to the outstanding Pakistani bowling attack on debut, his memories from the 1999 series versus Pakistan and the 2001 series versus Australia and the selectoral inconsistencies that curtailed his career amongst other things.
Welcome to the show Ramesh!
Sadagoppan Ramesh (SR) – Thanks a lot.
SJ – Thanks for being on the show, it’s my pleasure having you on.
You grew up as a middle order batsman but due to circumstances became an opening batsman, and your debut was at home in Chepauk against perhaps the finest and most varied bowling attack. What was the step up from playing first class to playing international cricket against such an attack for you, and what sort of adjustments did you have to make?
SR – Obviously, it was a huge leap because it is a different sort of game – like day and night – whenever you jump to the international scene from the domestic scene because you hardly have such bowlers… Actually there is no Wasim Akram in the international scene, so you aren’t going to play that kind of quality bowler in the domestic scene.
Pakistan at that time had probably the best attack in the world because in the fast bowlers you had Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, and if you talk about the spinners, they had Saqlain Mushtaq and Mushtaq Ahmed. So it’s a complete package for any captain to have such a dream attack. So the only thing I thought was, “okay, I’ll just give my shot against them” and I wasn’t sure whether it was going to click or not, but I thought I’ll try my best.
As you rightly aid, I was never an opener when I started my career in cricket, I was a middle order batsman, actually lower middle order, not even at the top of the middle order. And then I moved on to the opening slot because of circumstantial things—one of the other openers got injured and they made me the opener for one of the Under-22 games which accidentally I opened I got 190, so then people started looking at me as a potential opening batsman. So that’s why you won’t see too much of the copybook style of opening batting in me, but still I had some of the strengths like eye-hand coordination, I had a good eyesight and all the stuff. So I was trying to not think too much about it like, “I’m going to play Wasim Akram or Waqar, or anybody.” That you play for your country itself was a huge motivation for me. You become a very confident player or a confident batsman once you have that tag. So that tag helped me, that if I’m good enough to be here, I may be good enough to stretch myself some more in to an international career. That’s what motivated me to try my best against Pakistan.
SJ– In your 19 Tests career, as you mentioned, you faced some of the fastest and finest bowlers to play the game. When you actually take the stance and look up at them running in, what is it that is in your head and what is it you are consciously trying to do?
SR – The best thing is you have to be blank. Your mind just has to be blank, because if you try to play a pre-determined shot or you wait for a particular ball, because when you wait for a particular ball what happens is, automatically you move even before the ball is bowled. You cannot afford to do that against the quick bowlers, because for you to again go back and adjust to the ball that’s being bowled, there is very little time. For that reason the best thing is just to be blank and don’t think about anything and take it as it comes.
When Shoaib Aktar was bowling to me at Calcutta I never looked at his run up because it is too long, he is almost running from the boundary line. I cannot concentrate for so long, so what I used to do is tap my bat and look down and keep tapping it, so I can kind of calculate it by the time he is coming near the stumps, I could look up and play. Because if you keep looking at him, you lose concentration by the time he is getting to the stumps. That lack of concentration will be ineffective. I feel the best thing is for a batsman to concentrate so little until it is actually required, when the ball is about to be bowled that’s when you concentrate and you deal with the ball. So as I said, some of the fast bowlers I never used to look at the entire run up, and only just when they were close to the stumps or something I used to look and try to deal with the ball, whatever they had bowled.
SJ – I see. In your debut series, as you said, you played against the complete package as far as a bowling attack is concerned. What was the feeling after that series about your own game and as a cricketer, what is it you thought about yourself?
SR – It was a great thing and I can proudly always say that I am one of the guys who scored runs against Wasim Akram & Co. That too if you look at that time, when India was in tension with the Kargil War against Pakistan, so there was too much demand in that series from the fans. They didn’t want India to lose to Pakistan, because of the Kargil thing that went on in 1999. I remember that the first match was supposed to be in Delhi or something and they dug up the wicket, so it was shifted to Chepauk. So there was so much tension and a lot of protest of Pakistan coming and playing in India at that time and all the blah blah blah, so both the teams were emotionally charged up and I remember me being the new kid on the block, they were testing my character not only with bowling but a lot of sledging was going around and all that stuff. Despite all that, I came out with flying colors and I was proud and I’ll always be proud of the fact that I am one of those guys who got runs against Wasim Akram, because I feel that Wasim Akram is probably the finest bowler that cricket has produced. I’m talking of fast bowlers. Because he’s got so much variety as a fast bowler, and every ball would be different from him. Even with every ball a variation, he was still so consistent, that he can deliver that kind of variation with utmost quality. I think that I’ll always be proud of being a successful batsman against Wasim Akram.
SJ – Playing at home, in front of your home fans at Chepauk, on your Test debut, was that added pressure for you? That all the well-wishers are going to be there and you have to perform?
SR – Obviously, because the expectations are huge and that people have come to watch you play and all that stuff, that you are a local lad so the expectations will be there and all that. I still remember when I, because it was India – Pakistan, a lot more security was provided in the hotel and that stuff. I still remember the police-wallah used to tell me, “Thambi, 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 from them or instructions, because they are so crazy about cricket and all of that, they would tell it in an aggressive way and sometimes you feel like its now a demand, an order.
But actually it is an advantage, because I have played so much in Chepauk that I’m used to that kind of atmosphere, 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! So that’s a disadvantage that if you don’t perform in front of an entire crowd who came there to watch you, they will be disheartened. You will also automatically be disappointed about it. So it’s a kind of balancing act.
I didn’t think of the crowd. I used the advantage of me having played in Chepauk for many times, I’m used to the wicket. I was trying to use that to my advantage, and then I did well, and even though it’s not a big score, 43, I got a standing ovation when I went out, from the crowd, which really motivated me, I was so thankful to them.
SJ – There is a question for you from a listener. His name is Anantha and he calls himself a S. Ramesh Super fan. The late 90s was a period when India experimented quite a bit with a number of openers—some part timers, some full time openers, etc. 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 quite a bit? You know, if you don’t perform in this series you are out, that sort of thing, or was that only reserved for the part-time openers?
SR – I went through a lot of pressure, I know that if I’m going to not perform for three innings, that there is going to be a sword on the neck. That pressure was always there, and I think that probably is the reason I played more consistently, because I was not handled with kid gloves, you know, I was given that kind of treatment like, “if you don’t perform, you are out.” I feel that, especially because we were at a time when it was so scarce to find a good opener for a country, and maybe when someone is doing well they need even more protection and motivation, I think maybe that was lacking. When I did well I wasn’t really getting that kind of support, to be honest, which I felt would have made me much more confident to go on and play, because I am not asking to back me up without the performance. I had the performance. So with a little more push, may be I probably would have converted all the small scores. Even in the last tour when I went to Sri Lanka where I consistently got 40’s and 50’s, with the right kind of support I probably could have gone to 100 or 120, we’ll never know.
SJ – These days if you look at it the captain, the selectors and the team management are a lot more patient with the players. Once they are selected for India, they seem to get a much longer rope, and are given the chance to come good. They seem to believe in the talent that you have. Would you agree with that assessment of the current Indian setup, and I’m assuming you would have liked that to happen during your playing time as well?
SR – It depends on who has been given the longer rope there, because really if you have a good talent, if you see someone who is outstanding, 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 he was given a long rope in South Zone matches and all that stuff, but he justified that by becoming one of the best batsmen in the world. How many did that? How many did that, I don’t want to name cricketers, but if you can go back and check the stats, some of the players got the longest rope and they were not able to justify that long rope. The question is if you see a real talent there is no harm giving them the long rope, but again, if they know you are giving them a long rope they will be complacent and not under pressure at all. I always feel that there has to be a little bit of pressure on the cricketers and that you don’t compromise on the consistency. That’s what the Australians used to do. Even if you are a big cricketer and all that stuff they want you to be consistent and find your place on the side. I feel that some good cricketers deserve the long rope, because they are exceptional, but questions of “How much” and “When” and all that comes in as well.
SJ – Let’s take your case itself. One could easily argue that you were not given the kind of run you should have been given, especially considering the scores you had put up. You would have been a better player perhaps, with stronger support, right?
SR – Oh, definitely. No doubt. In my last Test innings I scored 50 runs. Which makes me always question myself, 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 or whatever, because I have seen much better cricketers than me in domestic cricket who never got a chance to play for their country. So if I’m looking from that perspective I think at least I’m thankful to God that I was able to play for India and contribute with some meaningful performances. In that way you could say I am satisfied. You could also say I could probably have gone and certainly, I feel I should have been a player who could have played at least 50 Test matches for the country. But unfortunately it got cut short because of a few things. I think I deserved, probably deserved a longer rope from the selectors.
SJ – Do you believe that converting into hundreds, you know you had two centuries in 37 Test innings, you think that was sort of held against you because there wasn’t the eye-popping number on the score sheet the next day in the newspaper?
SR – Yeah, I agree that you have to convert your starts into big knocks and all that stuff, but if you look at the Sri Lankan Test series, I was the third highest run getter in the series after [Sourav] Ganguly and Dravid. You can’t say that I failed in that series. Even you mentioned that we struggled to find good openers for the country and when you have someone who was consistently giving you 40’s and 50’s, why not stick with him? You were struggling to find openers who could give you even those scores. If the 40s and 50s are able to contribute in a meaningful way for the team, even that is something. It’s not that only hundreds can contribute to the team all the time, sometimes a crucial knock at the right time is what matters.
If you talk about the Pakistan series, I never got a hundred in that series. My contribution was very significant in the entire series. Coming back to your numbers, hundred is the magical number, people always remember hundreds more than even 99. Because it’s the number, the stats, the aggregates, and magical number that people remember after even twenty or thirty years.
We were discussing about the Delhi Test match the other day and one of my friends was commenting on the Anil Kumble historic 10-wicket haul and all that, he asked me suddenly, “Did you play that Test match?” I felt so bad because I got 60 and 96 in the Test match. 60 and 96! May be another 4 runs would have made him remember that, okay yeah he got 100 and so he played in the Test match. But as they rightly say, our mentality is more in to the numbers and so that converting starts into 100s would have been really important for me to be in the team for a very longer time.
SJ – There are a couple of questions from listeners. One is from Mahesh and this is: you had a good knock in the practice match in 2003-04 tour to Australia, against Victoria, but you were not picked in the eleven following that. Were you given any reason why you were not picked in the eleven?
SR – Yeah, I still remember that knock because me and Sachin [Tendulkar] had a very good partnership in that match. We were struggling at 25 for 4 or something. We lost Dravid, [Virender] Sehwag, Aakash Chopra, and Ganguly. It was a tour opener and we started off so badly at 25 for 4, and me and Sachin, we picked up a good partnership. We went on to a 180 or 200 run partnership, I don’t remember exactly. Even in the second innings I got some 40 or something.
In the next side game, I was pushed to number eight. Number eight! So where is the question of me going to play the Test matches? After that performance I was pushed to number eight. So I was not asked to sit down, there was no reason given, or they may be wanted to try Sehwag and Akash Chopra opening combination for the entire Test series or whatever.
The thing is when I came back after the series, I played in one of the Deodhar Trophy matches. I got 97, and then in the next Deodhar Trophy match, I got some 52 I think, and then in the Duleep trophy I got 75 something. These are the three or four matches I played in between the Australian tour and the Pakistan tour. Even in Australian tour side games I did well, even the domestic games that happened in between those two tours, I played 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 and thought that I should have picked up playing 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 and I a just going to be sidelined.
SJ – There is a question from a listener on those lines: Anyone who plays representative cricket wants to play for their country. What sort of affect does it have on you as a cricketer when you realize that the doors are being shut on you despite good performances in tour matches and domestic matches? This is from a listener Shiva, and he asks, while you have really good reasons to feel aggrieved after being dropped from the Indian team for possibly no valid reason, did that have an effect on your domestic performances after you knew that Yuvraj is going to Pakistan as the third opener rather than you?
SR – It was a very depressing and disappointing thing. At least, I am thankful that I was not given the longer rope not because of my performances, and it wasn’t from my side. So at least my conscience is very clear. I’ve done nothing wrong on my side. It was somebody else’s mistake. At least, I am not guilty or I should have done whatever to extend my career.
Once 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. They are not going to pick 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 kid; a nice family. There is so much to look to on the other side of things.”
When I went through those tough times, I was married and my daughter was born in 2004. That (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 kids and a beautiful family. So, I was able to see that life was larger than cricket. I was able to handle whatever turmoil in my cricket in a much better way because of my family. I’m thankful to God for giving me a beautiful family to share (my life) with.
SJ – One aspect of your batting that was kind of held against you was that you didn’t have the footwork to be an opener, which is kind of understandable because you were a middle order batsman, you weren’t an opener so you didn’t have the textbook technique, as you mentioned. This is a question from a listener, Shahir, he asks: do you believe that footwork is overrated?
SR – Absolutely! If you look at cricket today, how many cricketing shots are you looking at actually? We don’t. If you talk about the 1980’s when you have to play cover drive like this, your elbow has to be straight, you have to get behind the ball, blah, blah, blah and all that, but today, if you see the ball, you whack the ball. That’s all. All those 1970’s and 80’s methods are outdated now.
Let’s take the case of Sehwag. He never had much of footwork but he was the most effective opener India have had. One of the best Test openers we have had. Forget about ODIs, he was so successful in Test cricket. In Test cricket, you can talk about the technique etc., and he was never in the Sunil Gavaskar mold but completely different. He had brilliant eyesight, confident and aggressive opener. There were a lot of such players. Technique is a bit overrated. [You don’t need it] if you can compensate for the lack of it with some other quality. Where I believe technique comes in to play is, if someone like Sehwag goes out of form and someone like Dravid goes out of form, Dravid has a better chance of coming back to form sooner than Sehwag because he’s got the basics strong. That’s when it helps.
When you have proper technique and footwork, it helps you get back in to form when you are out of form. Other than that, I won’t say that someone that doesn’t have the proper footwork and technique is going to fail in international cricket, because they are not. They might have a bigger quality that can compensate or even overshadow those negative qualities.
If you look today’s cricket, I don’t think we are going to see many more Dravids and Sachins coming in to play. Now, it’s a question of how much of an effective cricketer you can be. It’s not about how technically correct you but how effective you are. If you are going to hit to midwicket or slog it over long on, it doesn’t matter, as long as you can hit the ball effectively, you are a good batsman. That’s it.
SJ – I just want to ask you about some of the Test series you were involved in in your career. Of course you were involved in the ’99 Pakistan series, and then you were also involved in the 2001 against Australia. Can you share some memories from them both a personal batting perspective and also from the team’s—the loss in Chennai that came, you know Sachin scored 139 in the second innings and you were there, and also the Kumble ten-for in Delhi, and also the Australia Test match where there was a tremendous turn around in India’s fortunes in Calcutta. So can you talk about your memories from these two series?
SR – Well, first, 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 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’m the new kid on the block and I’m sitting in between Sachin and Azhar, and I was so scared to look at either my right side or my left side. Two big cricketers who were the role models for many young cricketers. So I used to keep my kit bags and even the gloves, everything inside to make sure that they don’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 legs and all that and Sachin started talking to me normally and all that.
When I got to 32 not out on the end of first day’s play, I came back in and [Azhar] hugged me and said “I’ve never seen any youngster or anybody bat Wasim like this” and said, “Keep this.” He gifted a pair of shoes. That was one of the most memorable moments for me, as I was playing my first Test match and getting such encouraging words from the Indian skipper who gifted me shoes.
In the second innings of that match, Sachin played one of the most brilliant knocks ever for his 139, but unfortunately we lost that Test match. When he got out, he came inside and was completely pissed off that he got out. He didn’t remove the pads till the end of the Test match as he was so pissed off. It affected him so much that we lost that Test match. There, I was able to see the passion for the game in Sachin, already a legendary cricketer, who put team’s results ahead of his individual performances. I learned from being in close quarters and it taught me how to be an international cricketer and what sort of approach you need to have and all that kind of stuff.
Coming back to the Delhi Test, it was a memorable Test match for the entire Indian team because we bounced back from the Chennai loss with a brilliant victory. It was one of the most difficult wickets I’ve batted on in my entire career. It was breaking and crumbling. To get 96 against Saqlain and Mushtaq was amazing. My 96 also contributed to us having a good lead in the second innings and Kumble was able to come up with the 10-fer. I am so proud of being part of that Test match which has historic significance. When I got out on 96, I remember it was to a full toss. I was completely shocked when I saw the ball zooming back to Mushtaq. I was praying that 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 4 runs don’t matter. Your 96 speaks volumes about your character.” Those were some of the best moments I had.
Talking about the 2001 Australia series, I think it was probably India’s best ever Test series we have played against Australia. I remember, we lost pretty badly in Bombay and Calcutta also in the first three days, they were literally hammering us.
On 4th day, 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. Australia were probably going to win the 2nd Test match as well and were going to win the series, and the 3rd Test in Chennai was going to be meaningless.
But, when they started batting, and at 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.” Again, when they batted through to lunch without losing a wicket, we thought, “okay, we are at least fighting back.” We still didn’t think we had the chances to bounce back in the Test match. We thought we are at least showing some character. When we didn’t lose a wicket till Tea time, that’s when we started encouraging them for every run and every boundary. The voice was getting bigger. The noise was getting bigger. 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. The entire team was so inspired. We started encouraging them for every single or even for a ‘well left’. At the end of day’s play when they came back, we knew we were sitting in the driver’s seat and the pressure had completely shifted to the Australian team. They could not believe that the fortunes had completely changed.
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 at short leg. This showed that cricket is such a great leveler especially in a Test match because of the time that’s there in a Test match. You play 3-4 sessions really good in a Test match, it can really change your fortunes. If you want to quote about how scenarios in a Test change dramatically, that’s the Test match you can use as an example.
The victory there was very morale boosting and we could see that the Australians were on the back seat. In the third Test match, they were completely under pressure and in Chepauk, the crowds were there encouraging us and is one of the most sporting crowds. They 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. It was amazing that we bounced back and I feel it was one of the best Test series I have ever watched or played, and for any cricket fan in India, it was probably the best.
SJ – On that note Ramesh, thank you so much for being on the show, thank you for everything you did for Indian cricket. I wish you all the best!
SR – Thank you, thanks a lot Subash, Thanks a lot for the opportunity buddy.
SJ – It’s absolutely my pleasure. Thank you so much.
Episode transcribed by Kathleen Galligan