Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Gokulakrishnan J

His entry into TNCA League, His Debut match in Ranji Trophy and His first season with Goa all had unexpected twists marring his growth
Determined and Gutsy, he stuck on and went on to pick up over a 100 first class wickets and score over a 1000 runs

JEEKS was a complete team player in an era where individuals thrived being selfish - An Extremely Talented Game Changer – VB Chandrasekar
It was the summer of 1989. YMCA (TSR), one of the earliest coaching academies started in Madras, was playing a strong Brijesh Patel Cricket Clinic in the prestigious annual inter-city tourney in Bangalore. The stand in wicket keeper of YMCA (TSR) Pramodh Sharma (who went on to play for Kunal Engineering in the First Division league and is now a big and successful entrepreneur in the textile sector) was having a tough time with the gloves behind the wicket.  One ball bounced high and thudded into the gloves almost breaking his finger on his right hand. Another one swung back so late that he had to go full stretch to his left injuring his left hand. By the end of the day, both his hands were sore with swollen fingers.

It was the first indication of the talent of this relatively unknown 16 year old school boy from the Chengalpet district. He was by far the fastest bowler YMCA (TSR) had seen and rarely had one seen such big inswingers in those days from a school boy in Tamil Nadu. It was only a year earlier that he had contemplated quitting cricket altogether after being ignored repeatedly by his districts selectors and it had required persuasive skills of his mother to convince him to continue playing.

Buoyed by his mother’s words of encouragement, J Gokulakrishnan did not give up and went on to play close to 40 first class matches including coming close to India A selection in the mid 1990s.

However, his was a case where forces worked against him with unexpected events halting his growth at every important point through the decade long first class career.

Frustrating Early Days
It was Kapil Dev inspired victory in the 1983 World Cup that spurred the then 10 year old boy to take up to fast bowling.  At the small ground opposite his house in East Tambaram, near MCC, he would run up and bowl as fast as possible with the tennis ball. Spotting his ability to bowl fast, Manohar, an avid cricket enthusiast who had himself played first division cricket, initiated him into serious cricket and took him to play a few 30overs non league matches. His father, Jayaraman, too was a pillar of strength through the early days of his cricket. He would be at the ground for every match and standing on the boundary edge encourage him to perform better.

It was his younger brother Madanagopal who was first picked for the districts team. It reached a point of great frustration that after being constantly ignored by the district selectors, Gokulakrishnan came back home one evening and decided to quit cricket to focus on his studies. His mother being a school teacher had always impressed upon the importance of education.

This time, though, the mother infused strong words of motivation and the importance of not giving up in life and sought greater effort from him that would force the selectors to take a look at him. A year later he was in the U17 squad. It was around the same time that Manohar wanted to get a team comprising of youngsters from the districts into the TNCA league.  The team participated in the Ranga Rao trophy (a qualification tournament to gain an entry into the league) and went on to win the tournament with Gokulakrishnan making important contributions all the way through.

Having performed impressively in the U17 tournament, Gokulakrishnan’s talent caught the eye of his manager Victor Fernandez who was with SPIC.

When Chandrasekar Rao, former Andhra Ranji player (also the coach at SPIC at that point of time) came up to Gokulakrishnan and informed him about the interest shown by SPIC to pick him as a guest player for the Chemplast Pasadena tournament, he thought that the coach was playing a joke on him for he did not believe that a strong team like SPIC (led by S Vasudevan) could actually offer a role for this U17 school boy in such a prestigious tournament.


A TNCA Clause rules him out of first division

He impressed the SPIC team management with his performance in that tourney and they offered to sign him up for the first division league. Unfortunately, the then rules of the TNCA forced him to play for the team that had won the Ranga Rao tourney and a place in the TNCA league. Thus he had to play for Perungalathur CC in the fifth division for a year (1989-90) before he could make the jump into the first division.

In a sense it was the first of the many negative twists in his cricketing career each of which were to come up at the most inappropriate of times.

He picked up well over 50 wickets that season in addition to scoring over 500 runs for Perungalathur with headline performances in almost every match along with his captain S Balaji. He joined SPIC the next season and took 30+ wickets in his first season in first division cricket at the age of 17.

Former TN Ranji opener V Sivaramakrishnan, who was playing for SPIC that year, said in a chat with me that year (1990-91) that Gokulakrishnan in the form that he was in, in the first division league, and given his potential should be inducted straightaway into the Ranji squad and that the state should leverage such young talent when in form and when the confidence was high. The next year, he picked up over 50 wickets in the league helping SPIC to the Palayampatti shield (VB Chandrasekar, who was to become his cricketing mentor too joined SPIC that year). However, despite strong performances for three successive years, he did not make his Ranji debut till late 1993.


The 2nd tragic incident

And when the Ranji debut finally came his way, he was in for the 2nd big cricketing shock, one that would have ripped the heart out of any 20 year old. The then upcoming umpire, AV Jayaprakash (who was trying to make a mark on the international scene), called him for chucking, a call that derailed Gokulakrishnan’s career by a few years. It set a confused state of mind within the TN camp with the then captain WV Raman unsure of picking him in the XI given the threat of other umpires calling him too.

Recalling the series of events of that season, Raman says 'We immediately took action that same evening. I even took him over and got an 'unofficial' endorsement from a  renowned, globally respected cricketer who was present in the city that week. Throughout that season and later, we as a team backed him. The number of matches he played during that period may have had to do with the kind of pitches we played on and not necessarily anything to do with his action.'



He played just 6 Ranji matches over the next three years despite being in the squad throughout. 

That phase, though, saw the beginning of a long and successful relationship with VB Chandrasekar and the two of them forged a great partnership, first for India Cements and then for Goa in the Ranji Trophy (See the Column below). Gokulakrishnan saw in VBC a mentor who saw  his true potential and brought the best out of him. It was a period that saw many victories for India Cements, anchored by Gokulakrishnan and his star performances with the ball

After the calling incident in the Ranji Trophy, it was VBC (and Dr. Natarajan) who really saw him through that tragic phase in his cricketing career. He came home to convince Gokulakrishnan that all was not over for him. VBC vividly remembers those days of working with Gokulakrishnan  We worked towards proving to the world he was clean. I remember distinctly Dennis Lillee saying ‘If he is chucking then I am a chucker too.’ The controversy ended there.”

Following this controversy, VBC  suggested to Gokulakrishnan the importance of developing outswingers to polish his skills.

But this entire episode really set him back by a couple of years and he was a mere passenger in the TN squad for the next few years playing just a couple of matches each season.

It must be noted that his mentor VB Chandrasekar too led Tamil Nadu in that period and there was no dramatic change or improvement in the performance of Gokulakrishnan for till the time Robin Singh became the captain, Tamil Nadu's bowling attack was broadly driven by the spinners. 

Having completed his graduation at Guru Nanak college and now into his early 20s, Gokulakrishnan, for the 2nd time in his life, wondered if it was worth continuing with his cricket for he was going nowhere with the TN Ranji team.

The Best Phase of his career playing under VBC in Goa
That was when he was given a fresh lease of life by VBC, who had struck a professional deal with Goa. VBC roped in Gokulakrishnan as his fast bowling spearhead for the 1996-97 season and the two renewed their aggressive style of playing ‘winning’ cricket in Goa that season.

During the two years there, Gokulakrishnan performed outstandingly well. Back to his best under VBC, he routed Karnataka twice with figures of 7/54 and 4/60 in the season opener in October 1996 (after VBC himself had provided a rollicking start with the bat) to give Goa their first and their biggest win to date in Ranji Trophy. It was Gokulakrishnan’s most satisfying performance in Ranji cricket.

He also made his only first class century that season against KN Ananthapadmanabhan’s Kerala in Palghat. On the basis of his Ranji performances that season, he was picked for the Duleep Trophy where he picked up 5 wickets in the Final. It was also during this phase that former India great ML Jaisimha, who had eye for spotting talent, came up to him and told him that he had the talent to make it to the Indian team. 

Taking Goa to the top of the Table in Ranji Trophy
The strong performances in the 96-97 season set him up for the next big jump in his cricketing career. As a 23 year old, he was on the verge of being selected for the India A team that was to go to Bangladesh. Unfortunately in the final league match of that Ranji season (Quite unbelievably, Goa was top of the table at the start of the match ahead of TN, Karnataka and Hyderabad and just the first innings points would have ensured their qualification into the knock out phase) against Hyderabad, after a strong bowling performance taking 4 wickets (he was the top wicket taker for Goa that season with 20+  wickets), he injured and fractured his right index finger in trying to hold on to a return catch. He was ruled out of cricket for the next 3months and he informed about his injury to national selector Shivlal Yadav. It was the most telling blow in his quest to move up to the next level in cricket.
 
Thus at the peak of his prowess, he lost out on the India A tour to Bangladesh.

The next year, he picked up a six wicket haul against Kerala (he had scored a century against them the previous season) and went on to pick 25 wickets that Ranji season. In two years, he had picked up over 50 first class wickets and the confidence was back big time thanks to VBC.

But just when things were looking up, he received another telling blow, one that really put an end to his quest to play at a higher level. Controversies surrounding ‘professional’ cricketers in Goa led to VBC and co making their way out of Goa the next season.  VBC may have considered extending his stint in Goa especially with his mentee performing so well but  in his own words the politics in Goan cricket was difficult to handle.’

Another TNCA Clause- Another Year Gone!!!
Gokulakrishnan came back to Tamil Nadu but in yet another blow to his career, it had been suddenly decided that cricketers who had left the state to play professional cricket outside had to undergo a ‘cooling’ period of one year. And Gokulakrishnan lost out another year in his Ranji career, this after having picked up over 50 first class wickets in the previous two seasons. And yet when Aashish Kapoor (of MRF) – TA Sekar was the Chairman of Selectors in that period - came back the next year after a professional engagement, he was inducted straightaway into the TN squad (without the cooling period).

Wills Trophy Cricket
A year and half later he was back in action for Tamil Nadu with back to back four wicket hauls in the Subbiah Pillai tourney including against Azharuddin’s Hyderabad in Dec 99- Jan 00 that earned him a place in the Wills Trophy squad.

On the Pongal day in 2000, playing for the Board Presidents XI in the Wills Trophy under Azharuddin, he was assigned the task of bowling the last over of the match to try and contain Bengal from achieving the win. He picked up two wickets in that final over (and a five wicket haul in that innings) to take his team into the final. Having watched him perform with the bat and ball, Azhar had suggested that Gokulakrishnan had the talent in him to play one day cricket at the higher level as an all rounder.  That opportunity was to never come, though!!!

He had a couple of more years with Tamil Nadu including the two finals and in between played for a year at Assam but really various episodes and events in his career had meant that he did not go into the higher echelons of cricket.


And yet for someone with such talent and ability and a sense of team spirit that was not available in large quantity in those days, the lack of opportunities in those initial 5-6 years was a dampener and the final tally of just over a 100 wickets and 1000 runs did not justify the talent he held as a youngster.

He was a rank outsider from the districts and came up the hard way battling several hurdles all the way through his playing career. He had a Masters in Computer Applications before he had turned 24 and with the controversies and the lack of opportunities at his prime, he could have so easily been lost to the corporate world, especially since that was the time India was gaining prominence in the IT field. He stuck on gamely to cricket. The stint in Goa under his mentor VB Chandrasekar was a high point in his career and showcased to the cricket world as what a captain’s faith could do to a bowler.
With little more support and backing, he could have easily played at least a couple of levels higher, especially the Challengers and Deodhar Trophy, for he was well suited to the one day game.

However, like all things in life, things turned around in his post playing days. He has been the only coach to have been with the TN Ranji team five years in a row (from 2008) with stints with the State U17 and U19 teams on either side of the Ranji Coaching engagement. This season, his U19 team won the South Zone Championship.

Another big moment for him this season was when his team Tuti Patriots won the inaugural edition of the TNPL with him working together for the first time with brother Madanagopal.



He is not flashy. He does nothing to market himself. He takes pride in doing with sincerity and commitment the tasks assigned to him, preferring to take a back seat.  Amidst all the highs and lows, he has remained grounded complaining about nothing in life.




This year marks the 12th anniversary of his coaching engagement with different state teams in TN on the back of playing 10 years of first class cricket and that is quite an achievement for someone on whom destiny played its tricks every time success was on the horizon.

I wish I could have done more for JEEKS when he needed me the most – VB Chandrasekar

From the early 1990s, VB Chandrasekar worked very closely with J Gokulakrishnan, first at SPIC, then at India Cements and later for Goa in Ranji Trophy cricket. When VBC saw him the first time as a 19 year old at SPIC, everything about this teenager impressed him.
 "Every department looked exciting. He was an enthusiastic young man willing to extend himself to achieve. But to perform, opportunities were required. He got much less of it."

VBC believed that he could be a match winner and the moment he moved to India Cements, he roped him in to spearhead his attack. 
Later when VBC moved to Goa, Gokulakrishnan was the first cricketer he reached out to. In the very first season, they were on the verge of creating history before tragedy struck Gokulakrishnan.
 For the first time in its history, Goa was top of the Ranji table going into the final league match against Hyderabad. Gokulakrishnan had performed outstandingly well under VB Chandrasekar, who had a magic sauce to bring the best out of his ace fast bowler. And then tragedy struck again in his life.
Gokulakrishnan had taken already 4 wickets in the first innings taking his season’s tally to over 20 wickets. VBC recalls that moment and how fate conspired to provide a knock out blow. "Not many would know he fractured his index finger going for an impossible return catch playing a Ranji game Vs Hyderabad. I had the bad feeling, fate knocked him out to favour Ajit Agarkar."
The two of them would sit together at the end of a day and work out different ways to knock the opposition out. Some of these meetings were at VBC’s house on Desikachari Road ( VBC's mother would keep feeding Gokulakrishnan with special biscuits while the two sat for hours together chalking out the strategy for the next game) while many were sitting in the car at the corner of some road. And hours later, VBC would drop his mentee at the Teynampet Voltas bus stop for the ward to take a long 1hour bus back to East Tambaram. And this became a daily routine for many years in that phase as India Cements won many trophies under VBC. That phase in the 1990s brought India Cements back on the cricket map of India.


VBC points to Gokulakrishnan's eagerness to keep the side's interest first as a distinctive feature  ‘He was a complete team player in an era where individuals thrived being selfish. I might have failed to impress this upon the young JEEKS!!!!  He believed in my methods and I was leaning heavily on him for my success as captain.  He was an extremely talented game changer.’



VBC bemoans the fact that TN captains of that decade did not tap into the potential of this talented player right from the early 1990s ‘Most bowlers depend on their captains to succeed. It was perhaps not forthcoming (in those early days in TN).’ 



In a tone of regret, VB Chandrasekar looks back at his Mentor - Mentee relationship from the 1990s and says ‘I could have done more for him when he needed me the most. His failure was mine too.’

11 comments:

Unknown said...

Wonderful article and GK's deserves every bit of it .. Though my association with Geeks has been as an opponent , he was somebody who wouldn't go unnoticed in any match that he played as he would end up with something outstanding in any one of the three departments .. mostly more than one. I clearly remember a subbaiah pillai match against TN played in Bangalore (2002) and they needed 38 runs in 3 overs with 3 wkts to spare ..geekes smashed those runs with couple of balls to spare and it was quite a bitter experience to watch this from the other side ... wishing him all the luck in his future assignments and I am pretty sure he won't be found lacking in giving it his all .

Anonymous said...

Very poignant article. Brings out how bad luck sometimes stands in the way of genuine talent.

Anonymous said...

One of the best cricketers I have had the fortune of playing.. Should have played every level of cricket other lesser players ended up playing

Anonymous said...

Geeks was a rare breed in TN cricket .. and certainly deserved more credit for his accomplishments in cricket than what you brought out .

Anonymous said...

Brilliant story! Thank you for sharing these stories that might go untold.

Ram Tnr said...

Awesome Prabhu, Jeeks my best friend deserved the best unfortunately did not get it ,VB as usual has been a pillar of support for many youngsters.
With good support i am sure Jeeks would have been playing for India but unfortunately fate had its lasdt laugh but still he is valued, thanks for bringing such a wonderful cricketers and humans (VB and Jeeks) values to us.
Ram

Anonymous said...

Good story, and quite sad.

Anonymous said...

Nice Article, Prabhu

Anonymous said...

It is nice to bring out the inside story on circumstances leading
to him not going to the next level.

Anonymous said...

Good read on this lesser known cricketer.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article as usual... Cricket is a strange game where the talented fail and some absolute failures are hailed as talents. I feel happy in a way that this talent will not go down as a failure. I am sure he is going to contribute immensely as a coach.