Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Venkatramana M

The First Test Cricketer from Madurai was given a raw deal with the Indian team 
Compared with Prasanna for his natural flight and arc in the late 1980s, he was alongside two other spin legends on his two overseas tours but played just the one test in his career!!!
Yet another case of cricketing talent from TN that was not nurtured, protected and grown

Ramana sorely missed a mentor and Godfather!!! - R Dinesh 
(JMD, TVS & Sons), the man who spotted him in Madurai
In a matter of 3-4 years in the late 1980s, a young cricketer from Madurai had shot into prominence at the National Level, this after he gave up Basketball for cricket earlier in the decade. Everything seemed to be going in the right direction for the shy non English conversant man from the districts. M Venkatramana had a remarkable debut season in Ranji Trophy with 35 wickets, one that earned him an immediate test call. 

His Alwarpet and TVS teammate, K Srikkanth was alongside him on his first overseas tour to the West Indies. Legendary S Venkataraghavan was his cricket manager on that tour. On his 2nd overseas tour, another of the famous Spin quartet, BS Bedi was the coach. In between he was remarked as a probable successor to another of the spin greats Erapalli Prasanna, for his flight, arc, bounce and turn.  No other off spinner since Prasanna had shown that amount of natural zip off the wicket in India. It would have seemed a dream come true for any youngster to have had some sort of association with three of the spin greats.

But his confidence was shattered as quickly as it rose. And yet another talent had been sacrificed even before the bud was allowed to bloom.

Venkatramana was a high flying Basketball player at school and led the Madurai U 16 team and it seemed likely that he pursue that sport till the time R Dinesh, Joint Managing Director, TVS and Sons spotted him in a practice session and later watched him bowl against his team.

Venkatramana also played cricket for his school - the not so renowned (for cricket) Madura College Matriculation School. For the first time in its history, the off spinner led his team to victory against the fancied TVS School. 

From Basketball to Cricket- The Transformation
Dinesh was introduced to Venkatramana in a practice session way back when he was in his mid teens. He remembers that first encounter against the young offie in a match ‘He bowled very well against us, was very accurate and showed a lot of promise. I could see that he an ability to take wickets.’ Watching Venkatramana in action, it struck Dinesh that this teenager had it in him to play for Tamil Nadu, at the least. 
Finding his potential, TVS School immediately roped him in for class XI and XII.  Dinesh was also looking for a good off-spinner for TVS Cricket Club, his league team in Madurai. Having been impressed with Venkatramana’s potential, it was Dinesh who recommended to the team’s Coach to rope him in ( He was playing for Majestic CC at that time and had previously started off his Club cricket in Madurai with Jolly Rovers).  

Dinesh was a senior at school. He was so impressed with Venkatramana’s talent that he would pick him up for all the matches in those early years, discussing about cricket while travelling together. It was those inspirational daily chats with Dinesh that led Venkatramana to quit basketball for cricket. It was one of the first transformational moments in Venkatramana’s life. Dinesh mentored Venkatramana over the next few years. 

TVS had a philosophy of ensuring that cricketers had enough time to scale up and practice their game rather than worry about money in a professional job.  Venkataramana was one of those from Madurai chosen to be supported by the Group.

‘Once we realised his capabilities and he started integrating into the team, he not only built up his game, but also became a key player by representing our teams in Chennai as well, and we decided to support him financially.’ 

It was Dinesh and TVS that opened the doors for more opportunities in cricket for Venkatramana. Immediately after his graduation from Madura College, Dinesh provided him with the much needed job security at TVS and Sons, Madurai.

Dinesh remembers Venkatramana from those days in the early 80s as a well mannered and tenacious cricketer, not necessarily aggressive. ‘He became a little more ambitious as he grew up and once he started tasting success.’

It was at the TVS Club that Venkatramana also came under the watchful eyes of PK Dharmalingam who coached TVS (both in Madurai and Madras) that decade. The coach would coach the TVS team in Madurai through the week from Monday to Friday  and return for the weekend to Madras to coach Alwarpet. 
Dharmalingam was closely associated with Venkatramana during his teenage days. He saw a lot of potential in Venkatramana ‘He was very sincere and hard working. Throughout that period, Venkatramana did not miss a single session. May be he was not all that ambitious but he was a totally committed boy wanting to give his best all the time. He had long fingers and used his height well to gain extra bounce.’ 

Dharmalingam suggested to K Srikkanth in Madurai during an inter TVS Club (Madras vs Madurai) to pick him up for Alwarpet in the first division league in Madras.

Srikkanth's role 
Srikkanth instilled the sense of aggression in Venkatramana not seen much in an off spinner in the state in the decades earlier. He attacked and went for wickets unmindful of giving away runs. It was thanks to Srikkanth that he remained an attacking bowler throughout his career with sole focus on disturbing the batsmen with bounce and turn. 
Within a year at Alwarpet, he was in the State U22 and U25 squad. Strong performances in the next couple of years in the first division league, age group tournaments as well as Buchi Babu tournament earned him a place in the TN Ranji Squad in 1987-88. 

'You will go places' - Kripal Singh
After watching him bowl, AG Kripal Singh, the then Chairman of TN Selection committee called him one day and told him that he saw great potential in the off spinner and that he would go places. 

A dream debut season
What a debut season he had in Ranji Trophy in 87-88 as he played a stellar role in TN lifting the trophy topping the wickets tally nationally with 35 wickets including three five wicket hauls under the guidance of S Vasudevan. 

In January 1988, in the final league match, he had his first big moment in the Ranji Trophy. Against a strong Karnataka team comprising of GR Vishwanath and Brijesh Patel, Venkatramana picked up his first five wicket haul. In the very next match, the quarter final against UP, he grabbed headlines again with another five wicket haul. He played another crucial role in the Semi Final win as well. Up against a rampant Sidhu at Chepauk, Tamil Nadu was in a spot of bother despite amassing a 600+ score. It was Venkatramana’s double blow including dismissing Sidhu that swung the match decisively in Tamil Nadu’s favour to take them through to the final. And he ended the season with 80 wickets in the final against Railways. 

An year with Vasudevan
Spending his entire debut year alongside S Vasudevan was a great learning experience for Venkatramana as he learnt further the nuances of spin bowling. Like in international cricket, where he missed Srikkanth's presence, here at the domestic level, Vasudevan made a surprise retirement announcement ( to provide opportunities for the upcoming Sunil Subramaniam) after lifting the Ranji Trophy. And that was a big blow to Venkatramana as the presence of Vasudevan for the next couple of years would have helped him sharpen his 'spinning' skills.
Vasudevan saw great potential in Venkatramana and believed he had it in him to scale the peak ‘Ramana was a very good off-spinner with high-arm action and was able to get a good bounce & turn that got him a lot of wickets. He was one of best offies in India in the late 80s and early 90s.’

The best compliment of his life
The then Chairman of National Selection committee Raj Singh Dungarpur too was excited after watching Venkatramana bowl. In an unforgettable moment for Venkatramana, Raj Singh came up to him and told him that he saw Prasanna in this young off spinner and that he had never before been this excited at the prospect of watching an off spinner bowl. It was probably the biggest compliment Venkatramana could have received at that point in his career. 

Alongside Srikkanth and Venkat in WI
It seemed at that time that all was going his way. His performances in the Ranji season coupled with TN lifting the Trophy earned him instant recognition. That same year, he was picked in the squad for the Bombay test against New Zealand but he did not play in the XI. Later that season, he was picked to go on a long trip to the West Indies alongside his club captain K Srikkanth and TN team mate Robin Singh. Venkataraghavan was the team manager on that tour. Everything was adding up nicely for Venkatramana in that phase. 

But how soon all that changed!!! Srikkanth received a terrible blow in his hand just ahead of the first test ( in the final one dayer) and had to return home. That was a major blow to Venkatramana for Srikkanth was a senior and influential member of the Indian team in that phase. He probably knew Venkatramana and his potential the best. 

Venkatramana had Venkataraghavan by his side throughout that tour but for a shy youngster from the districts who was not conversant with the English language, it was not easy to approach the legendary off spinner. 
While Venkatramana seemed to bowl reasonably well in the tour games, he did not get to play till the final test of the series - end of April 1989 - that had gone so drastically wrong for India.  The morale was generally low on tour with India having been beaten soundly in the one dayers and not having performed creditably in the earlier tests. Even that opportunity rose after an injury to a fast bowler and Venkatramana was informed only an hour ahead of start that he was playing. The pitch at Sabina Park was not made for spinners and Venkatramana did not get to bowl much. In the second innings, he picked up Desmond Haynes as his only test wicket - that in the last over of the series!!!

Left out of the Pak tour under Srikkanth
India toured Pakistan next in November 1989 but Venkatramana was told by the selection committee that he was being protected from that tour as it was expected to be a fast bowling dominated tour. Srikkanth was the captain on that tour but Venkatramana once again missed out on an opportunity to be alongside his club captain (India performed creditably on that tour with Manoj Prabhakar and Kapil Dev shining with the ball but off field controversies led to Srikkanth losing his captaincy).

Venkatramana continued to perform well with the ball in the domestic tournaments. In the final of the Duleep Trophy he picked up 6 wickets against West Zone to help South Zone lift the trophy. 

Shattering Experience in New Zealand
He earned a recall for the three test tour to New Zealand in early 1990 alongside TN team mate VB Chandrasekar (who had struck back to back centuries in the Duleep Trophy).  But it turned out to be the most shattering experience of his cricketing career, one that set him back by a year or two. 

Legendary spinner BS Bedi was the coach on tour.  He tried to modify Venkatramana something that did not quite suit him. Worst still, the training regime on that tour was the worst he encountered in his career. It was unsystematic, tiresome and completely burnt him out, more so that he didn’t play in any of the tests on that tour and was generally warming the benches at different venues. 

He lost his rhythm on that tour and returned with fatigue, both physical and mental. His bowling had deteriorated after being restricted to bowling in the nets day in day out on that tour. 

VB Chandrasekar, for whom too this was the last international series, had told me way back in 1998 about the trauma he had undergone in New Zealand having been made to run up the hill repeatedly on that tour as part of a supposed fitness regime.  It was not something Indians were used to – to run 10-15kms up and down the hill every day of a cricket tour (VBC had had a great tour opener with strong knocks in both the innings and yet the man from TN was overlooked for the tests when by all counts he would have merited a test place on that tour). 

Post retirement, Bedi was keen on keeping himself fit. As a youngster and especially being part of the spin fraternity, Venkatramana was susceptible to ‘crude’ lessons, became an easy bunny and never quite recovered from that experience.

Former Ranji and India team mate WV Raman, who too was on both those tours and watched him closely says with a tinge of sadness that 'Venkatramana was unlucky not to get the right breaks.'

Tormenting Times
Returning after that tour and with confidence low of having sat out most of the time on the international arena, he was caught in that typical indecisive zone - should he get into the corporate world to try and work his way up the ladder or should he focus on cricket and try and regain his place in the national squad. He opted for the latter and kept pegging on at the state level at a time when there was little money on offer for state cricketers. 

Five years later, he earned a call with the India A team that comprised of Ganguly and Dravid among others for a tour to Sharjah, thus opening the doors for him to press his claims once again. For the third overseas tour in succession, he did not get the chances he merited. He was the only player in the entire squad not to play a single match on tour. He was not even allowed an opportunity to ‘fail’. It was a tormenting feeling to be sitting outside on three big tours. Many a time he felt it was better for him to not be there (playing cricket). In those dark days, sleep often deserted him as he was left wondering if he would ever get an opportunity to bowl. 

When he was overlooked for every single game for India A, he saw it as the final nail in his ‘cricketing’ coffin and he could bear it no longer. He went seeking greener pastures in the UK where he played league cricket. It was also the beginning of his move from a player to a coach. He played there for 5 English summers, something that was to pave the way for his coaching stint in Singapore. He was the head coach of the Singapore National team for many years from 2005. Surprisingly for someone not too conversant in English, his coaching career has been far more satisfying than his playing days. 

A dozen years with the State had fetched him close to 250 wickets but really he had the potential to have done a lot better. 

Vasudevan who himself was undone by lack of opportunities even at the Zonal level during his playing days feels sad even today at the lack of opportunities for this talented off spinner ‘For some unknown reasons, he could not get the right opportunities to prove himself and play longer in the National Team.’
Dinesh is even more specific and forthright in his views on the 'Madurai Man' missing out ‘In those days, you needed a ‘Godfather’ to support you by making sure the selectors recognised you.’ Venkatramana did not have one to push his ‘justified’ case. 

Venkatramana looks back at those early days as one of ‘innocence’. While in the West Indies, he was far too scared to go Venkataraghavan, the one in New Zealand was an experience of being under a ‘dictator’. He was just far too subdued and the time just passed sitting on the sidelines. While the selectors backed him on two tours, the team management kept him away restricting him to nets sessions and tour games. ‘It never occurred to me that I was being unfairly treated. I thought this was the way it was and kept pegging at it. Only on reflection, does it now seem that it could have been so much better if I had been given chances on the field of play.’ 

Having seen him emerge into a competent cricketer after discarding Basketball, Dinesh thinks that ‘Ramana definitely did well (more than what had been in my dreams when I first met with him) for himself.’  But, by the same token he regrets that it could have been better if he had been mentored extensively with the intention of becoming an international cricketer ‘Venkatramana missed a mentor who could have helped him build his capability as a bowler and may be further sharpen his off-spin skills. If that had happened, it is likely he would have scaled greater heights and played significantly for India.’

2nd phase of his cricketing life - Coaching Stint
Last year, Venkatramana was appointed as the head coach of Dindigul Dragons, a team in the TNPL that in some sense took him back to his roots in the districts down South.

Off Spinner VDS Guru Kedarnath, who also plays league cricket in Australia, was one of the beneficiaries at Dindigul Dragons. He made an important contribution as the Dindigul Dragons impressed for a major part of the tournament.
Kedar credits Venkatramana for his creditable performances in the TNPL last year "He helped me improve my action with subtle adjustment to get more alignment in my action that resulted in more body into the ball.'

Venkatramana too had tactical understanding of both the bowler as well as the match situations and provided several important inputs to Kedar that included bowling to different players,situations,field setting and surfaces.

Like  Venkatramana in his playing days, one found Kedar bowling with an attacking mindset through the tournament. Bowling most of the time in the power play, he tempted the batsmen to go over the top by having a sweeper and deep mid wicket and without deep fielders in the straight field, thus creating a wicket taking option early on!

In the last few years, Venkatramana has also been associated with the BCCI performing coaching duties at the NCA. Just past 50, he is finally reaping some kind of financial rewards for his 3+ decades in cricket, albeit through coaching.
But really his has been a story on yet another great talent going amiss due to the callous attitude of the powers that be in not taking care to nurture, protect and grow a youngster in his prime. It showcases to the cricketing world the fickleness of the sport - as to how one’s confidence can shoot up like a meteor and fall at just the same speed never to rise again.

Being a top wicket-taker in the Indian domestic season in a debut season is something rare. And to follow that with match winning performances in Duleep Trophy, one sensed that a genuine off spinner had come to stay. But neither at the State level nor at the national stage did anyone come forward to take care of such a rare talent from the districts. By the turn of the decade, he wore a shattered look.

There were no video analysts in those days. The ball wasn’t coming out of his hand in the way he would have liked after that NZ tour but he was left to fight his own battle. 

It was all fluid for him in that phase in the early 90s. But he had stuck his neck out far too much into cricket for him to look beyond. For a TN cricketer it was yet another case of ‘what might have been’. He was undone by lack of opportunities at his prime. 

The first cricketer from Madurai to play test cricket, Venkatramana had it in him to contribute a lot more to Indian Cricket. But it was not to be. Despite having legendary spinners on both his international tours, this talented off spinner from Madurai ended up playing just one test and mostly warmed the bench and faded into oblivion much sooner than one expected.

He has dreams of coaching the State. It is hoped that his coaching stint will be lot more successful and that he is provided with the opportunities to scale to the highest level in this 2nd phase of his cricketing life. 


Anonymous said...

Kripal singh milkasingh te srinivasan sekar vvkumar venkat himself bombay group never liked venkat promotion as vice captain gavaskar slow scoring in world cupunder venkat captaincy is suspect

Srinivasan Rajasekaran said...

All the very best Ramana

Unknown said...

Another Good cricket talent wasted. Nice to know Venkataramana is giving something back to cricket.

Sridhar Thathachari said...

It's an ugly truth.
Players from Tamilnadu we're never treated well.
It's all because of a gentleman called Sunil Gavaskar.
He is the most cunning cricketer ever to grace the Indian scene.And also the most selfish.He introduced the privelaged status in Indian Cricket

His entry into cricket was easy because of his uncle Madhav mantri.
In his earlier playing days Gavaskar had a very good rapport with a few cricket journalist's and there was not even a criticism of him, even have hen he dropped catches.
He played in the 1971 windies tour and scored 775 runs, largly due non hostile bowling, as compared to the famous quartet of 70's.
In the late 70's,When packer took over most of the cream is of cricketers from all the cricket playing countries of the world. Most teams were left with very poor second string teams, and Mr Gavaskar made the most of it by amassing lots of runs.
Moreover there was not an umpire in India who dared to lift a finger for LBW appeals against Gavaskar.
He dominated the BCCI throughout his enire career, influencing in selections.In the 1982 England tour, as many as 8 players from Bombay made the tour.
He always disliked Kapildev for his popularity and larger than Life figure, ,He always played behind the scenes and boasted that he was not answerable to anyone.
He never liked cricketers from Tamilnadu from Venkat onwards. Luckily Srikanth was spared because one day cricket began to flourish at that time.
He always promoted selfish Bombay cricketers ( A lesson our Tamilnadu cricketers should learn)
Due to his good communication traits in English he smoothly got into the lucarative job of Commenting. Got paid hugely for it by the BCCI and continues to do so.
He knew all about match fixing and his ugly side, though it should be fair to add here that he never did indulge in it.
But he knew all about it.
He was not a accomplished batsmen like the quiet and unassuming GRV. He was able to make his mark die to his shrewd Ness in all aspects.
The allegations are plenty, only have a sample of it.
Many may wonder in what way he is connected to Venkatramana episode, but he is connected all right.
Mr "Dependable' Vengsarkar was the skipper in his first tour at West Indies.
One has heard a lot about the team unity in those days.
I pity Venkatramana, because I have played with him.
The list of pady TN cricketers getting a raw deal even despite talented is long.V.V.kumar,Venkat,T.E.Srinivasan, Abdul jabbar.T.A.Sekhar,Ramnarayan,S.Ramesh,W.V.Raman,S, Vasu,D.Vasu,K.Arunkumar,etc etc...
LS got good chances but could not cope with limelight.
Many others have been left out.
It's only now a TN player is able to stick to the team, mostly because there are no immediate replacements of that Calibre.

George Heston said...

It's disheartening that no representation from TN for India Why? What happened?

Why not?

Anonymous said...

Ramana got his break for the state U-22 in 1984 [not U-23]. He was a good fielder and a decent batsman.

Anonymous said...

Interesting and sad.

Anonymous said...

Good one Prabhu.

Anonymous said...

nice read

Anonymous said...

I pray Almighty to make his career as a Coach successful.
Very absorbing story.

Anonymous said...

Nice one! I have spent a lot of time with Ramana during his Alwarpet CC days. Terrific bloke and great talent.

Anonymous said...

Good one Prabhu ... but you could have avoided talking about Dinesh repeatedly .. ... yes he was instrumental in roping in Ramana though Ramana was originally from a team called Majestic in Madurai .

Again I liked your articles on Arvind Su and Sanku more than others . Time to focus and write about some of the unsung heroes in chennai cricket ..

Saraswathi said...

Had the chance of going through this article. Each and every word is a fact and TN cricketers were given a raw deal those days. Wish the present day coach teach the young talents without disturbing or changing the natural talent!!