Venkatapathi Raju always played his cricket with a gleam in his eye and a smile on his lips but with a competitiveness that was always obvious, whether it was bowling to the best in the business on unresponsive tracks or batting against the quickest bowlers on spicy surfaces. From lead spinner when he broke into the Indian team in February 1990, he went to support spinner with the emergence of Anil Kumble as the strike force, finishing with 93 wickets from 28 Tests in a career that had more downs than ups towards the later stages.
Raju began cricket as an offspinner but was asked to take up left-arm spin by his coach, a move that paid rich dividend as he finished with 589 wickets from 177 first class games. Post retirement, he took up coaching, became a national selector and now, apart from being one of the vice-presidents of the Hyderabad Cricket Association, is also the head coach at the Hyderabad Cricket Academy.
In this freewheeling chat with Wisden India, Raju reflects on, among other things, his life in cricket, and the influence ML Jaisimha had on his career. Excerpts:
Left-arm spin wasn’t fashionable in Hyderabad in your formative years. How did you take it up?
Actually, I started off as an offspinner. Basically, I had a left-handed throw right from childhood. Hyderabad was known for offspinners but we also had Mumtaz Hussain, one of the best left-arm spinners. The competition was more for offspinners. Since I always had a left-hand throw, sir told me to just rotate my arm. This was when I was around eight or eight and a half years old. When you went for Under-14 selections, basically you got a throw from the coach, you had to catch the ball and throw it back. When I threw with my left hand, he asked me if I was a left-hander. I said yes. Then he asked me to bowl, and I bowled right-handed. He said, ‘don’t worry, there is enough time for you to change’. That changed my life because with offspin, I would not have made it even to the school team.
After that, education became secondary. Once I started playing regularly, I had consistent performances and my name was in the newspapers every second day. My parents felt a little proud. Also, those days, life was a lot more easy, things were not that expensive. Luckily, I had parents who allowed me to do what I wanted to; that’s how cricket took prime importance and studies became secondary.
Growing up, what were your dreams as such?
TV wasn’t very big then. Mostly, it was sports magazines, and I used to paste the posters from these magazines on the walls in my hostel room. The one advantage we had was South Zone always played against visiting teams and all those matches were in Hyderabad. There was a tradition of schools taking their children to watch these three-day games. Having heard and read about someone, and then to see them in person, it’s a unique experience. We also dreamt about being like our heroes. I had very consistent performances for India at the Under-19 level where I played alongside (Narendra) Hirwani when we went to Australia. That really gave us a platform. I made my Ranji Trophy debut aged 16 and a half. There was no competition for left-arm spinners, but I had to go through all the age groups. My strength was line and length. At that time, all the Test players were available to play Ranji Trophy. Even league matches were very strong. And, playing for MCC (Maredpally CC) where Mr Jaisimha was the head was brilliant. Being with him was a learning experience, the way he used to handle all the youngsters. MCC was known to pick all young guys with one or two seniors. When I made my debut, I had the two best guys beside me – Mr Jaisimha was captaining Maredpally and Vijay Paul, who was good with youngsters, was our manager.
I did not have a very good first match, against Andhra, where I dropped two catches and missed the chance of getting a bowling point which would have helped us qualify. That’s where Vijay Paul played a very important role. He took me aside and spoke to me for a long time, and said you don’t look at playing only one game. He wanted me to play for 10 years. That was supposed to be my goal. I could feel the shivers in the second match against Kerala, the ball seemed to be following me all the time. But then I thought this is the way the game is. Bowling to batsmen in India who are very good players of spin itself was an advantage. When bowling to class batsmen, they would make you pay for bowling loose balls. That was a good learning experience.
Tell us about ML Jaisimha’s influence on your cricket.
People have always spoken highly about him, I thought he was one of the best captains never to have led India. The confidence he had in you, the way he spoke with you – he never criticised you, he made things very simple, never complicated anything. Whenever you were down, he always motivated you. We always felt very comfortable with him. Age was not a criterion with him, he was always willing to have a drink with any youngster and during the evening he would come out with a lot of ideas. We always believed in a lot of get-togethers where we spoke more cricket, he was an influence on everybody. I felt it was a privilege for me just to sit beside him and to hear him talk.
And then, when you started playing Test cricket, Mohammad Azharuddin was the India captain and Bishan Singh Bedi the manager …
Azhar was in his early days as captain, but he knew me because we had played a couple of games together in Ranji cricket. Coming from Hyderabad, he had confidence in me, and then we had the taskmaster in Bishan Bedi, the manager, who never allowed us to relax and who was very strict when it came to fitness. We used to be very critical of Bishan paaji because he made us work so hard, but he was another positive man who never minced words and said what he had to to your face.
You picked up 6 for 12 in only your third Test to raise expectation levels.
Like I said, the advantage for me was line and length but in internationals, you had to change and vary your pace which came match by match. Expectations were too high because people started comparing us with the four legends, which is unfair sometimes. Luckily, Anil (Kumble) came in to the side. In 1992, I was the main spinner leading the Indian spin attack in the World Cup. When Anil came in, it became a little easier for us. He was supposed to be the strike bowler whereas we are supposed to support him, which is sometimes good. Kumble is a big fighter, we all know he never fools around, his self-confidence was high, he would take wickets and keep it tight which always helped us – me and Rajesh Chauhan. I have no regrets – I played two World Cups and it was very disappointing to lose in the semifinal to Sri Lanka in 1996, but that’s how life goes.
How did you take to becoming the support spinner from being the lead spinner?
In a way, the responsibility was less but then the chances of being dropped were more, because Anil was always there. To fit in, you either tied one end up or you picked up wickets. Everything was going smoothly till 1996, when the allrounders started coming in. Anil bowled at the start of the innings and at the end, and I was also bowling in the first 15 overs. Anil was a bowler who could bowl on any wicket; he was more accurate and quicker than others, he had height and people started fearing him till the South Africans started playing him well.
How do you look back on your time in international cricket?
Fun. Memorable. Great journey. We saw many highs, and then there was the low of match-fixing, one of the things that should never happen. That is where I appreciate (Sourav) Ganguly, who took over as captain and then rebuilt the team. I made a lot of friends, which was good fun. People always misunderstood me as they thought I was too much into friendships and less into playing. But such is the culture of being in a boarding school, where I was as a young kid, that you do end up making a lot of friends. At the same time, that doesn’t mean you are not competitive. When I played, I played the hardest I could. You can’t fool around when you are facing Allan Donald or when you are bowling to great batsmen. My nature was such that I made friends easily. My only big disappointment is that in those days, we couldn’t win many matches overseas.
When I started playing for India, there was not much pressure to begin with. The Australians were good players of spin but the New Zealanders and the Englishmen were not. That has changed now, what with teams playing each other more often, with 50-over and Twenty20 cricket becoming more prevalent, with new gadgets dissecting players, and with improved equipment. It means there are no secrets anymore, and that’s why you appreciate bowlers like Kumble and Murali, who have played all the formats, survived in all the formats and performed in all the formats. That is why they are great. In a team game, small contributions were important and that is where we fitted properly.
What was it like, being a member of the national selection panel?
I never wanted to become a selector, to be honest, but when I did become one, I enjoyed the experience. It was the first time (MS) Dhoni became the captain. I was never too interested in watching matches if I wasn’t playing, but as selector, here you are, watching others play. A lot of the things depended on you. As players, we used to be extremely critical of most of the selectors, but our stint was a fairly successful one apart from the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies. Like Kapil’s 1983 side changed cricket in India, Dhoni in 2007 brought back the glory again. People might have started to lose interest after our 2007 World Cup exit, but by winning the World T20, the fortunes of Indian cricket changed again. The IPL became a huge success. It was exciting to be a part of that whole new development.