If India came to be recognised as a team competent of holding its own in Test cricket during the 1970s, the side came of age in the limited overs version during the decade that followed. This transformation from a nation that could not win even a single game during the Prudential World Cup of 1979 to an acknowledged superpower within a period of five years was brought about by an amazing group of players, who displayed aggression and gay abandon on the field, often throwing caution to the winds. Their positive approach to the game transformed the manner in which it had hitherto been played and succeeded in increasing the popularity of cricket by taking it to every nook and corner of our vast country.
Though Kapil Dev is the person often credited for this renaissance of cricket in India, he alone did not fashion either the great successes that came our way during the 1980s in limited overs cricket nor the change in mindset of players who emerged after this period. He was supported by a bunch of players who helped in the creation of a champion side, which brought under its belt as many as four titles, including two major championships, where all Test playing nations participated. A vital cog in the Indian cricket machinery during this decade was Krishnamachari Srikkanth, the dashing opener from Chennai, who became one of the most popular and loved cricketers of his generation.
Though Srikkanth’s entry to international cricket was akin to a whiff of fresh air to followers of the game in India, who were used to the staid and often dull batting on the part of opening batsmen, his initial years at the highest level were not smooth. He was selected to the national squad on the strength of his performances in Duleep Trophy that preceded England's tour of India in 1981. However, his selection dd not please skipper Sunil Gavaskar, who was more keen on continuing with Chetan Chauhan, his longtime partner. The fact that Chauhan had performed creditably with the bat during the twin tours of Australia and New Zealand in 1980-81 made his axing look unreasonable as well.
Srikkanth did not set the Methi river on fire when he made his debut in Test cricket in Mumbai in November, 1981. After being dismissed for a “duck” in the first innings, he had just reached double figures in the second when he decided to leave the crease for doing a bit of “farming” on the pitch after playing a ball towards gully. He probably expected that ball had become “dead” when he left and moved out of the crease for tapping on the pitch. Indian crowds would later became aware of Srikkanth’s penchant for being continuously on the move while at the wicket. But, on this occasion, England side was not willing for any show of leniency and John Emburey, who was fielding at gully, picked up the ball and threw down the stumps, leaving Srikkanth dumbfounded. Gavaskar, standing at the other end, was not amused and made no efforts to hide his annoyance. A dejected Srikkanth trudged back to the pavilion, wiser to the hard ways of Test cricket.
Though he struck a stroke-filled 65 in the next Test at Bangalore, Srikkanth could not retain his place in the side after failure in the two matches that followed. He was not selected for the tour of England in 1982 and though he made a comeback by playing two Tests during the visit to Pakistan in 1982-83, he could not make it for the trip to the West Indies that followed. As Test matches took priority over limited overs games and the prevalent practice did not make allowance for selecting different sides for the two versions, Srikkanth did not get chances for demonstrating his prowess in One-Day Internationals during these tours. It was only during the Prudential World Cup 1983 that Srikkanth could come into his own as an opening batsman for the national side.
Srikkanth did not make any tall scores during the World Cup but he showed that with his style of attacking and fearless batting, he had adapted to the requirements of limited overs cricket better than his more famous teammates. In the final at Lord’s, on a green top giving plenty of assistance to the West Indian fast bowlers, he nonchalantly went down on one knee and square drove Andy Roberts to the fence. When Roberts pitched short, Srikkanth swung into a hook shot sending the ball for another boundary. Watching this duel, Christopher Martin Jenkins chuckled from BBC commentary box “Andy is just setting him up; the faster bouncer will follow now”. The faster bouncer followed and Srikkanth duly hooked it for a six! His 57-ball 38, which included six fours and a six turned out to be the top score in the final as India stunned the Caribbeans.
His performances during the World Cup earned him a recall to the national squad but he soon went out of the reckoning. It was only in January, 1985, that he could finally make it back to the playing eleven for Test matches, when he opened the innings with Gavaskar, against England at Chennai. Though he began with another “duck”, he struck a half-century during the next match. He was in top form during the World Championship of Cricket at Australia where India lifted the Cup, scoring heavily in the group matches and in the final.
Thus, when the 1985-86 season started Srikkanth had stabilised his position as opening partner of Gavaskar in both versions of the game. His style of batting encouraged the great Gavaskar to play more strokes and improve his scoring rate in limited overs matches. On the other hand, batting with Gavaskar helped Srikkanth to tighten his game and place a higher price on his wicket. Thus the combination of steady accumulator and aggressive dasher helped both these great cricketers, besides helping the national side with a stable partnership at the top of the order. Srikkanth came into his own and scored heavily in international cricket during the period from 1986 to 1988, also taking in his stride the retirement of Gavaskar from the game.
An injury suffered in an ODI during the tour of West Indies in 1988 turned out to be a stroke of good fortune for Srikkanth. This forced him to return home and hence he was not part of a group of cricketers who faced disciplinary action from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for going on a visit to the US for taking part in an unauthorised tournament after this tour. When the selectors sat down to choose the captain for the Nehru Cup hosted by the BCCI in 1989 and the tour of Pakistan that followed this championship, they picked Srikkanth to lead the side. The fact that he was not in the side and did not go to the US helped his cause.
The surge of good wishes and positive vibes that greeted the appointment of Srikkanth as captain showed the esteem and affection with which he was held by the ordinary fans of the game. He did well as captain too, taking India to the semifinals of the Nehru Cup and returning from Pakistan after holding the hosts to a 0-0 draw in a four-Test series. But he committed an unforgivable mistake when the side returned from Pakistan, by deciding not to play in Duleep Trophy championship, despite not being among the runs in Pakistan. This action sent across the unfortunate message that he did not care for domestic tournaments and took his place in the side for granted. Raj Singh Dungarpur, then chairman of selectors, was not amused and he appointed Mohammad Azharuddin as the captain for the tour of New Zealand. For good measure, Srikkanth was dropped from the side as well.
Though he returned to the side in the early 1990s, Srikkanth could not recapture the form and prowess that made him a huge success earlier. He played his last international match in Australia in March, 1992, and retired from first-class cricket soon afterwards.
After retirement, he moved to the commentary box where his frank observations and straight from the heart comments won him a large fan following. Later he became the chairman of the selection committee and it was during his tenure at the helm that India won the 2011 ICC World Cup.
Srikkanth’s game was founded on excellent hand-eye coordination, complete lack of fear, unbridled aggression, along with strokes round the wicket. In many ways he was the forerunner to Virender Sehwag in that he could flay the bowling mercilessly by making batting appear so simple and uncomplicated. Though his batting style was unorthodox, he possessed remarkable poise and could play his natural game in any circumstance, without being cluttered by any negative thoughts. He brought unbridled joy to the fans of the sport by his aggressive batting style and mannerisms at the wicket which were loved and even imitated by spectators. He was an excellent fielder as well, especially in the deep and blessed with a strong arm that sent the ball like a rocket, accurately back to the stumps. He could bowl off spin occasionally and even had couple of five wicket-hauls to his credit in ODIs.
Srikkanth carved a place for himself in the hearts of the followers of the game in India by playing the game in a manner they could relate to. His easy and affable manners along with his warm and friendly persona made him one of the most popular and best loved cricketers of his generation.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)