Friday, November 14, 2014

Sadhagopan Ramesh

The Opener from TN reached the top without any 'Godfather'
But 'Questionable Selection' halted his career when he was in peak form

On a late evening in January 1999, a young 23year old opener from Tamil Nadu playing in his debut test in front of his home fans at Chepauk stroked his way to an unbeaten 30 handling the Pakistani fast bowling greats with such ease, that was till then rarely seen in the cricketing world. To many who watched him bat that evening and over the next month, it did not seem that he was new to Test Cricket. Strokes seemed to flow far too easily of his bat. He seemed fearless. He would flick off his legs and drive through the covers with an elegance that was special to Indian left handers. With a bat in hand, 'Lazy' Sadhagopan Ramesh seemed to do everything with nonchalant ease. During that period, Wasim Akram remarked that Ramesh was one of the most difficult batsmen he had bowled to.

The Name Lazy 
It was Vijay Sankar, the current Dy. Chairman of The Sanmar Group who pre-fixed Lazy to his name, a compliment that stuck with Ramesh through his cricketing days.  Ramesh was playing a state U16match at Chepauk and Vijay Sankar happened to be at the MCC playing tennis along with the legendary AG Milkha Singh. As they came back to the MCC after the tennis session, Milkha Singh stopped for a minute and in a flash told Vijay that this boy ‘has talent and will make it big one day’. Vijay immediately decided that this boy would play for his team (Kohinoor was in the 2nd division then). Seeing the teenager from close quarters, he spotted early on the ‘lazy’ elegance. Everything seemed to come to this lad naturally and with ease. He seemed lazy in his stroke play but the ball sped to the fence. After one such stroke, Vijay Sankar called out ‘Lazy’ and the name – a very special compliment to his natural ability - stuck with Ramesh for ever.
‘Lazy’ Ramesh topped the batting aggregate and the averages in that debut series against Pakistan, an attack that included Wasim, Waqar, Shoaib and Saqlain, easily the best in the world at that time. After his debut test innings against Pakistan, Azharuddin complimented Ramesh stating that ‘this was the best he had seen any youngster play Akram’ and presented him a pair of new shoes during that Chepauk test. His 96 in the following test on a difficult wicket is rated by Ramesh as his best test innings. 

In the fortnight following his debut series, he once again topped the aggregate and the averages in the Asian Test Championship in which he made his maiden test century at Colombo against Sri Lanka.

Following a trip to England for the World Cup, he returned to India and struck his second test century of the year, this time against New Zealand at Ahmedabad reaching his century while batting with Sachin Tendulkar. By the end of this series, he had scored almost 800runs in Tests, a phenomenal achievement for someone in his first year in international cricket.

Anti Climatic end to 1999
However, he had quite an unexpected and anti-climatic end to the year. He had his thumb broken in the Boxing Day test of 1999 and was out of action for a long time. He showed his finger pointing out to his thumb where the pin was inserted, something that still pains, 15years later.

He was back in action on the international scene in late 2000 and figured in the famous win at home against Australia in 2001. He made useful contributions in both innings at Chepauk ( including a half century that he just missed in his debut test) and was involved in a match winning partnership with VVS in the 4th innings chase on the final day.

Ramesh went to Sri Lanka later that year and once again performed creditably with over 200runs being 2nd only to Dravid in the series aggregate and scoring a half century in the final innings of the series. No one would have thought then that this would go on to become his last test for the country.

For the 2nd time in his life, injury (this time a back injury) meant he had to miss yet another series against SA. There have been questions raised about the seriousness of his injury at that time and Ramesh making himself unavailable for this tour, as a result of this injury. The story goes that the then coach John Wright as well as KS Viswanathan wanted him to be fully fit for the tour and they suggested that he make himself unavailable if he was not going to be fully fit. In a sense his decision not to tour put him out of  the 'selection process' for a while!!!
Back for 2003 Aus Tour
 He braved the injuries, twice, and came back strong with performances in the domestic tournaments that the selectors just could not ignore.Strong domestic performances which had originally elevated him into the national scene end of the previous decade once again got him into the limelight and he was chosen for his 2nd tour to Australia end of 2003.  Four months into this season, Ramesh’s hopes of a test comeback were dashed by questionable selection. Despite a strong performance in the tour opener in Australia where he was involved in a century stand with Sachin, Ramesh was sent in at No. 7 in the 2nd match leading up to the first test. He must have thought at that time that he was a sure shot for the first test and hence was being sent down the order.

Questionable Selection
But come January, he found himself having sat out the entire test series with Akash Chopra and Sehwag opening the innings through the four tests. He came back to India and a month later the selectors did not find him fitting into their scheme of things for the Pakistan tour, losing his opening spot to Yuvraj Singh!!! Between his selection for the Australia tour and now, Ramesh had done little wrong. In fact, he had impressed in the tour games in Australia and many deemed him an automatic selection for the tests given the ease with which he played the fast bowlers.

Despite his great form leading up to that first test in Australia in 2003 and with the overall sentiment and form skewed towards Ramesh for the opener’s slot, Sourav chose Akash Chopra and Sehwag. For the first time in his life, Ramesh felt low about playing a team sport as it seemed to depend on so many variables that one is always up against it. Those who watched that season closely would relate to the tale of events and the background circumstances in which Ramesh was let go. Ganguly was stabilising his place in the middle order. Yuvraj Singh was being seen as a competition for the left hander’s spot in the middle order. Yuvraj was then thrusted into the opening spot for that Pak tour (while Ganguly stabilised his place in the middle order) and Ramesh who had looked solid against the best of fast bowlers especially the Pak greats was left in the lurch never to come back again.

Interestingly, the national selection committee at that time included VB Chandrasekar whom he had kind of replaced in the TN team almost a decade earlier. VB and Ramesh never played together for the state!!!

His closest cricketing friend S Ganesh Kumar (off spinner – allrounder) who played together with Ramesh for many years at club and state level remembers the lively spirit of Ramesh that kept the team environment alive with Goundamani jokes. Just ahead of the Australia tour in 2003-04, 'he practised in a car shed with plastic ball asking me and our common friend Balaji to throw fast short pitch stuff at him. He was confident of playing that series and was looking forward to taking on the Aussies in their home turf.’ 

During that phase in 2003, SGK says that Ramesh remained unfazed. He took life as it came. ‘I did not see a single negative outburst from him during that period.Ramesh is the kind who lets go the past and is always positive about life. He infuses positive energy into others and was a rare breed in the cricketing fraternity.

Dropped from TN team
Soon, his own state dropped him and in a period of 12months Ramesh had seen the entire cycle - From practising in his garage with a plastic ball just ahead of the Australian tour in preparation to face the Aussie quickies to now having to find an alternate team in domestic cricket. He moved to Kerala and scored 6centuries in a short span of time but he was still 'not recommended' by the Kerala State for the South Zone selection. And he never found his way back again into the Indian squad. He ended his domestic career with a century for Assam. 

One of the TN selectors, who has played test cricket for India and who is currently associated with one of the IPL teams, told Ramesh once that he would never select him again as his father had had an argument with that selector!!! That same selector many years later asked Ramesh in Bombay as to why he did not wish him ‘Good Morning’ that day!!! Another national selector who had figured in the 1983 world cup team once asked as to what was in it for him if a player was selected.

School Days and Tennis Ball cricket
Ramesh started off his career as a fast bowler at school, having played a lot of tennis ball flood light cricket at Alwar Tirunagari along with his elder brother S Satish Kumar.  He then became an off spinner and it was only into his mid teens that he converted to a batsman and a middle order bat at that. 
His neighbour Kesavan inducted him into Sea Hawks, his first team in the TNCA league. He then moved up into Dorairaj Memorial before joining Kohinoor ( spotted by Vijay Sankar) in the 2nd division, a team that was then managed by Chemplast.

In the early 90s with Ramesh still not yet out of school, a few of the Kohinoor players who were on the fringe of making it to the first division were sent to play in the annual tournament in Bangalore organised by Brijesh Patel and Imtiaz Ahmed.

Century against YMCA (TSR) 
Batting against YMCA (TSR), another team from Madras, he scored a century at the St. Joseph’s College ground giving one the first glimpse of what was in store from this teenager. He was dropped at slip on nought by S Ravi ( now International Umpire) Chemplast won that tournament ( the host team that year included Kumble, Johnson, Sujit Somasundar, Fazal Khaleel and the like) and Bharath Reddy who watched Ramesh in action immediately elevated him into the first division. The Chemplast team that year was very strong with stars all around and Ramesh says ‘it was an honour to be included in that Chemplast team that season while he was still in his teens.’

In his first match in the first division league, batting at No. 7 Ramesh scored 17 batting against Venkataraghavan. He did not get to play the next 8matches!! Recalled for the end of the season clash with Southern Railway, Ramesh scored a century and followed that up with two fifties against MRF. These knocks earned him a promotion to No.3 at the start of the next season. While he scored runs through the season, it was not good enough for a number three slot.

Moves to SPIC
Bharath Reddy suggested that Ramesh move to SPIC so he could play through the year on a turf wicket. And this was a turning point in Ramesh’s career.  He was in the reserves in the U22 state squad. With one of the openers becoming ill, Ramesh was inducted into the squad as an opener. He scored 196 against Kerala in the three day U22 match away from home. The day after this match, he was dropped from the one day team as the TNCA (from Madras) had already directed the playing team for the one dayer. And thus he carried the drinks for Tamil Nadu a day after he scored 196.  In the next match against Karnataka, he scored a century each in the three day match and the one dayer.

VV Kumar fights for Ramesh
VV Kumar had just taken over as the Chairman of the TN Selection Panel and was instrumental in providing Ramesh the right opportunity at the right time. VV Kumar rates Ramesh as one of the three most gifted left handers from TN alongside AG Milkha Singh and WV Raman 'He had a languid and fluid grace about him. When I first saw him bat, he was still in his teens. His class immediately struck me. I found that he had the ability to caress the ball through the gaps and felt he could be a long term opener for TN. He had the staying power and was equally comfortable against spin and pace.  We picked him for the city v districts match after a lengthy ‘closed room discussion’. I look back with pride that I backed him that day despite ‘pressure’ to include ‘another’ player. His big century in the city v districts match in Tirunelveli endorsed my decision to include him ahead of the ‘other’ player, silenced his critics and in a sense was a turning point for him. He was immediately roped into the Ranji squad and there was no looking back for him since.

Seeing the amount of runs he scored, K Srikkanth called him up and told him ‘I have not seen you much but really I am amazed at seeing your name in the papers every other day’. These words of praise from Cheeka were one of the first big moments early on for Ramesh in his career (years later, Cheeka’s strong words would motivate Ramesh to a 2nd innings hundred against WI A)

Big centuries in his debut season (95-96) in Ranji Trophy turned the spotlight on Ramesh. He made 132 on debut against Hyderabad and went on to score 158 in a triple century opening stand with K Srinath. He scored over 700runs that season earning him a place in the Zonal Squad.

Zonal debut - December 1996
Just ahead of this match, a national selector (from South) questioned his ability to perform against quality attack and asked him to prove himself in Duleep Trophy. Ramesh had him eat his words for in his Duleep Trophy debut in the Semi Final against North Zone, Ramesh scored a match winning century. December 1 turned out to be a career defining day for Ramesh. Having conceded the first innings lead to a strong North Zone team, South was tottering on the 4th evening having lost 4wickets chasing close to 400runs. Ramesh batted at No. 6 and put on a double century stand with his TN team mate Sharath fashioning a remarkable comeback win. Ramesh scored 143 to take his team into the finals.

With South Zone struggling at the end of day 4, the manager was already on his way to book the side’s ticket back down South (they were playing at Faridabad). On the other hand, a buoyant North Zone manager booked their team’s trip for the final.  Sharath and Ramesh’s partnership left both the NZ and SZ managers blushing. It had been an unbelievable Zonal debut for Ramesh.

It was his three big centuries in 1997-98 that caught the eye of the selectors a 2ndtime. He began 1998 with a knock of 187 against Kerala on the New Year day (his third big knock against Kerala in 3years). A week later he slammed 182 against former TN players – VB, Suresh and Gokulakrishnan.

Later that year, interestingly once again on December 1 (he had scored a big 100 on the same day 2years ago in his Zonal debut), in his first India A match against a WI A team that comprised of Ian Bishop and Pedro Collins, Ramesh scored another big hundred in a big 4th innings chase. Ramesh had top scored in the 1st innings as well with a blistering 43 out of India A’s total of 110. Srikkanth, the India A coach was however upset that Ramesh had thrown away a good opportunity and these words from his coach stirred Ramesh to that with a 2nd innings century.

His big centuries through the late 90s showed he had, both, class as well as long innings and big match temperament. Quite an achievement for one who was always referred to as ‘lazy’ for almost his entire cricketing career for the casual approach he seemed to follow.

Ramesh scored almost 1400 runs in his 19tests. In his last test innings and last test series, Ramesh was the 2nd highest run getter (scoring 55/ 223runs). In his last one dayer, he scored 33. In his last first class game, he scored a century for Assam.

Ramesh was yet another story from Tamil Nadu of ‘what could have been’ though he played much more than his counterparts of the 90s – Sharath, Sriram, Badani and the like. But for someone who had scored a century on debut in U22, Ranji, Duleep and India A matches and who played Wasim and Co as well as anyone at the top of the order at that time, one would have liked to have seen a lot more of Ramesh at the international levels than the 19tests that he played.

It was good till it lasted. Surely someone who played those great fast bowlers with such ease should have played many more tests for India. But several factors, external to his cricketing abilities, cut short what could have been a long career. We would have loved to see more of him but Sadhagopan Ramesh gave us some unforgettable moments none more so than his elegant drives and his effortless flicks of Wasim and Waqar on that late January evening at Chepauk. 

During that 5year international phase, yesteryear greats of Indian cricket such as Madhav Mantri and Bapu Nadkarni, among a couple of others once in an informal discussion at the CCI in Bombay said that while Ramesh had talent in abundance, his overall approach, including off the field, was casual or at least they believed that was the overall perception. But they did not necessarily say that this would go against Ramesh in his selection. 

The problem was that Ramesh was in many ways like David Gower. Throughout Gower's 15year career, he was branded as someone who was casual, did not take the game seriously and did not like to practice hard like some of the less talented colleagues in his team. Ramesh's performances on the domestic scene between 1995 and 1999 and his run of scores in his 1st year of international cricket definitely point to the fact that he converted his talent into big scores.

His handsome looks have landed him a few deals in the cine field. His elder daughter has just lent her voice in the 'Lion Dates Syrup ad'.

While the fans' 'Ullam Kettuthey More' craving for more of his elegance on the cricket field, Ramesh, unfortunately, had to settle for a movie by that title (Ullam Ketkumey More).

However, Ramesh's first love remains cricket and he is now looking at launching his own cricket academy in Madras next summer.


Anonymous said...

Good One

Anonymous said...

Good that he is acting in films.

Anonymous said...

Lovely article.What a cricketer he was?Sheer talent and elegance.Another case of talent gone wasted and not tapped right.He would have created a lovely niche for himself in the team for a long time.

Anonymous said...

Well written.

Probably the most handsome cricketer during that time … they say – “You have to make the best use of the chances you get – and you seldom get more than a few, unless well connected”

Anonymous said...

Loved the first story.

It was a honest appraisal of Ramesh as a cricketer and what he has and could have done had the system supported him a bit.

Although I was disappointed that you didn't say in clear terms that Ramesh should only act within the confines of his home and not anywhere outside, especially when in front of a camera :-) Pitted against him, Shruti Hassan will win multiple Oscars !!

Manavu said...