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September 5, 1997


The big test

Prem Panicker

September 5 -- the date of what, for Indian pace spearhead Javagal Srinath, was perhaps the most important game of cricket he has ever played.

Javagal Srinath That phrase -- the most important game -- seems to marry hype with hyperbole, more so when you realise that we are talking of a three-day fixture, part of the Karnataka State Cricket Association golden jubilee celebrations, between Indian Airlines and the KSCA XI, Srinath to turn out in the former's colours.

That is the day -- assuming IA bowls first -- that Srinath will, for the first time after March 1997, attempt to propel the cricket ball at something close to his former speeds.

Two days before D-Day, at the end of an extended practice session at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, Srinath says he is confident he can do it.

I was watching him bowl in the nets, for a good hour and a half, before our brief chat -- and at no point did I see him bowl at anywhere close to his rated pace. He was running in with his customary smoothness, his action seemed identical to what it used to be before a rotatory cuff tear put him out of business at the start of the West Indies tour, and his accuracy seemed unimpaired as he, for the most part, concentrated on keeping the ball on or around off, moving it off the seam both ways.

But speed? Nowhere near his peak, no way.

"I have been bowling well within himself," says the quick, who had only late the previous night returned from a quick trip down to neighbouring Madras, for a session at the MRF Pace Academy under the eyes of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson.

"I started bowling in the nets on August 15, and every day, I bowl a few deliveries at top speed to make sure I don't have problems going flat out. But for most of the time, I am working on my rhythm, direction, movement."

And is he confident of getting the edge of his pace back?

"I had no problems when I tried bowling fast here," the quick says, without any trace of self-doubt.

Which brings up the question of the sudden dash to Madras -- an unplanned, spur-of-the-moment happening that has cricket circles in Bangalore buzzing with the feeling that something is wrong somewhere, that Srinath has a problem, that he needs help.

"Yes, it was sudden," says Srinath. "And no," he adds, in response to my supplementary question, "it was not called for by the BCCI. The board had nothing to do with it. I called T A Shekhar (the MRF academy head) and asked if I could come over and work with Lillee and Thompson for a bit, and he said yes."

With what result, I probe. Srinath seems reluctant to discuss details. "I wanted to have a top quality coach watch while I bowled, sometimes you tend to unconsciously change your action after an injury, I wanted to make sure nothing like that was happening to me."

And what was Lillee's verdict?

"He helped me correct a slight technical problem. My bowling arm was apparently not coming through high enough, it was falling off a bit to the side so the ball was also beginning to drift a bit down leg. He showed me what the problem was, and how to correct it."

Dennis Lillee, who I speak to in Madras the next day, concurs. And his former strike partner and now fellow coach, Jeff Thompson, provides a metaphor for my understanding. "When you fall off a horse, the fear stays with you. The next time you climb back on, you tend to clutch the reins like a lifebelt, hanging on tight, doing stupid things, not being relaxed and easy. What you have to do is conquer the fear," Thommo says.

Do you ride, I ask Thommo, unable to resist the non sequitur. And I am rewarded with a chuckle from Lillee. "Not horses!" he laughs.

Lillee interprets Thommo's equestrian metaphor in cricketing terms. "The rotatory cuff tear is a painful injury. It is also a frightening one, for a fast bowler -- because if it doesn't heal right, it can spell the end of your career."

"For a quick bowler -- a genuine fast bowler, like Srinath -- this is the most crucial part of his action..." Lillee demonstrates the 'this' -- slipping easily into the last stage of his famous delivery stride, his bowling arm stretched way behind his back like the tail of a comet, he says, 'Watch!' and, in a smooth, effortless blur of movement, the hand whirls up and over, past his head and down again, fingers pointing dead straight ahead.

An aside: in order to see and understand what he is talking about, I am standing in front of Lillee as he explains. And for one moment -- that instant in time when he goes through the final stage of his delivery action -- it is a strange feeling... For despite his innocuous appearance in shorts and loose-fitted T-shirt, his filled-out face a far cry from the gaunt, angular features of his prime, I feel a sudden desire to duck... or maybe retreat quickly out of the line of fire. There is, I realise, an aura about this man. A mesmeric something, that reminds me of what I remember reading of the effect of a snake on a rabbit.

Back to Lillee, who explains: "See, for the classic delivery, close to the stumps, absolutely side on, you got to feel the sleeve of your bowling arm brush your ear on its way..." That is what gives you the aim, the accuracy, you keep it on or just outside off and make the batsman wonder what it is going to do on pitching.

"Srinath's hand was falling away just a little bit. He was 'saving' his shoulder, in effect, not really bringing it to full extension. It happens -- you fear you might aggravate the injury, so you try to go easy on yourself."

Is it purely mental, I ask, or does Srinath really have a problem?

"Mostly in the mind -- but then, a lot of fast bowling is done mostly in the mind, so in that sense yes, Srinath has a little problem. He has to discover his belief in himself again."

And at a physical level, what needs doing?

"Well, the boy needs to work on his shoulder strength - in fact, all your quick bowlers do... Venkatesh Prasad (who, interestingly, had flown down this Monday for a quick one-day session at the academy), that boy Ganesh, Srinath, all of them. You notice they are fast through the air but once the ball pitches, pffffftttt, it slows down. Srinath does bowl a mean bouncer, but he has to really bend his back, strain to get the lift. What they need to work on is upper body strength -- I prescribed a few exercise routines for Srinath, also for Venkatesh..."

But media reports indicated that Lillee had recommended a stint at the Cricket Academy in Australia? "Yeah, sure, that is because there, you not only have the latest facilities and equipment, but also very good physios who can monitor minute by minute what you are doing and how well you are doing it. A stint there will surely do your bowlers some good, though this is easily the best alternative."

Earlier, during my chat with Srinath, I had asked him the same question -- what had Lillee prescribed, and why?

"He wanted me to concentrate on my shoulder movement at the time of delivery, he also gave me some exercise routines to work on."

And the suggestion that he go to the cricket academy in Australia?

"Yeah, that is to make use of the advanced facilities there -- I would like to go, but haven't decided yet about when."

Which brings up the question of his immediate agenda. Does he plan to go flat out when he bowls again, in a competitive situation, on September 5?

"Yes, I'll stretch myself and go for pace on that day. I don't think I will try to bounce much, the wicket at the Chinnaswamy is flat and even so that is a waste of energy, but I want to try and bowl at top pace."

And what then? The national selectors, I remind him, have while selecting the team to tour Canada for the Sahara Cup indicated that if Srinath himself is happy with his performance here and reports as much, then they could consider sending him for the subsequent Jinnah Cup series of three ODIs against Pakistan on the latter's home soil, end of this month. Is he looking at that?

"Well," he says, hesitation evident, "I had actually hoped to be back in the side for Toronto... but now, I am taking it one thing at a time... Sachin (Tendulkar, the India skipper) and Anil (Kumble, his statemate and Ranji skipper) both advised me not to rush anything, to take it slow and easy and one step at a time. So that is what I am doing now."

And the first step, of course, will be when he gets a brand new ball in his hand on Friday, pauses at the top of his run-up, eyes the batsman at the other end, and races in to the wicket to deliver his first ball in serious competition after the ODI final against South Africa in Durban.

Tailpiece: A year ago, Karnataka had seven players in the national side. Today, it has just one. And as I sit chatting with Srinath on the steps of the Chinnaswamy Stadium pavilion, I see Anil Kumble, Sunil Joshi, Dodda Ganesh and David Johnson (remember him?) practising out in the middle. And out on the city roads, a certain Venkatesh Prasad is pounding the pavement, concentrating on developing stamina and leg-strength while he waits for the inflammation in his shoulder -- no, NOT rotatory cuff tear, a certain Ali Irani notwithstanding -- to die down so he can join his statemates in the nets again.

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