Andy Roberts and menace were like Siamese twins. The great West Indian pace bowler not only sent down extremely quick deliveries but also chills down the spine of many a batsman. In 1983, he was not as quick as he was in the 70s but was still a very nasty proposition to handle. In the 1983 World Cup final, on a bowler friendly Lord's wicket, he, along with the equally devastating Joel Garner, was creating hell for the Indian batsmen. Having dismissed the great Sunil Gavaskar early on, Roberts must have fancied his chances against Gavaskar's less technically correct partner. But Krishnamachari Srikkanth (or Cheeka, as he is affectionately known) had other ideas. In fact, he only had one idea - go after the bowling. And, he did that in such belligerent fashion that spectators must have wondered whether he was playing on a different wicket. He cut, drove, pulled and hooked Roberts, Garner and Michael Holding with a complete lack of fear. But one stroke stood out. And, it rightfully found its place in the annals of Indian cricket - the square drive off Roberts. The quick reflexes and the hand-eye coordination that he had in his youth were in full flow in this magnificent shot off a fantastic pace bowler. That lack of fear, the sheer joy of playing attacking cricket and the love that he had for his team and the game are all what made Cheeka one of my cricketing heroes.
Cheeka, The Entertainer - No place for fear
I'll wager a bet that when Cheeka came into the Indian team in 1981, he must have made Gavaskar think, "If I can only play like him and score the amount of runs that I score, I'll have a lot more fun!" Gavaskar was a model of perfection. His technical correctness, his unwavering concentration and his insatiable appetite to occupy the crease for long hours made him the rock of the Indian batting line-up for 16 years. But at the other end was someone who was as much of a contrast to Gavaskar as night is to day. Cheeka was not exactly copybook, he could easily get distracted and to him the way he made runs was more important than the number of runs he made. Try anything else different, he would fail. It was very rare that Cheeka would take too much time to get his eye in. It was either his day or it wasn't. As Ravi Shastri recently said of him, "No half measures!" Study Cheeka's scores and you will find that if he didn't get going in his initial few overs, he would end up with scores like 5 off 39 balls! But on days like the aforementioned 1983 World Cup final, he was unstoppable by anyone...except himself!
To me and many of his fans, Cheeka's appeal was not about making mountains of runs consistently over long periods of time. Rather, it was his carefree approach to the game that drew people towards him and his game. Cricket, being the unifying religion it is to Indians, can bring a lot of joy to people and Cheeka's cavalier, almost reckless approach, was one such source of joy. His enjoyment of the game was thoroughly infectious. Watch the videos of his 50s or 100s and you'll find him routinely smiling in a goofy manner at bowlers that he would've just smashed out of the park. It was extremely rare that he engaged in a war of words with the opposition fielders either. I wouldn't have been surprised if he was saying to them, "Hey, wasn't that a good shot?!" Sure, he could exasperate you by playing a premeditated slog and getting out to a mediocre bowler. But such was the affection that he enjoyed amongst his fans that they would throng the stadiums to watch him play in the hope that he would click that day, even if briefly.
Of all the innings that Cheeka has played, the one that has given me maximum pleasure even on repeated viewings is the one that even he regards as the finest ODI innings he has played - his 57 against England in the 1985 World Championship of Cricket. One of those days when he was timing the ball extremely well, the innings is filled with glorious strokes. A thoroughly entertained Richie Benaud described him as "the guy who's just flinging his bat and doing it with such skill!" His lofted off-drive off Richard Ellison is, even now after 26 years, a sight to behold.
As with Sachin, one of the things about Cheeka that I really admired was the respect that he had for his fans. When he played in Chennai, it was customary for him to raise his bat to the D stand after he reached 50 because they supported him to the hilt from his younger days. During and after his playing days, he has always been casual and down-to-earth with fans of the game, for he knows that the game is played for them. That realization is something that is lost on many players but it is that realization that has always kept Cheeka humble and grounded.
Cheeka, The Inspiration - No place for "masks"
I've always liked Cheeka as a player and as a person (I've had the pleasure of knowing him from my early teens). But one line that Harsha Bhogle wrote of Cheeka in his biography of Azhar is the reason why he figures among my "inspirations." Talking of Cheeka's brief stint as captain of India in the 1989-90 season, Bhogle wrote, "As a captain and as a person, he never wore a mask and you always knew where you stood with him." I find that to be one of the most inspirational things ever said of a leader. And, it is a testament to Cheeka's personable nature that in spite of his very short stint as the captain of India, he is regarded by Kapil Dev as the best captain that Dev has played under. That line of Bhogle's is one that always rings in my mind whenever I think of fostering a sense of belonging within the team that I work for, even if I am not the leader. Cheeka's transparency, honesty and the regard he had for his fellow players must have been just a natural extension of his personality. And, it is indeed sad to note that the ugly face of cricket politics reared its head to cut short his stint as captain. That he failed with the bat on the tour of Pakistan gave the selectors an easy excuse to sack him.
He made a comeback after almost two years and played some fine innings in the 1991-92 World Series Cricket tournament. But his failures in the Test series against Australia and the 1992 World Cup hastened his exit from the game. What he might have achieved had he had an extended run as captain in the early 1990s is a matter of conjecture. But what is for sure is that he would have backed his players to the hilt and would have gone any lengths to give them the impression that nothing could "mask" his innate transparency. That wonderful quality of his is what has inspired me the most.
Giving Back to the Game
After his retirement, Cheeka has been associated with the game in many ways. While he has never garnered too much praise as a commentator, his work with the next generation in varied roles, be it as a coach or selector, has been stellar. He maintains the same forthright, no-nonsense approach that he had as a player and it has been a matter of great pride to him that as the current Chairman of the Indian selection committee, he has seen India lift the World Cup again after 28 years. As an ardent cricket lover, it is great to have a selector who doesn't regard himself as bigger than the game and instead, just looks to pick the best side and finds happiness in their successes. And, it is equally gratifying to note that one of my cricketing idols retains that youthful zest that he had for the game 25 years ago. And, along the way, he has taught me a thing or two about being a leader of men.
PS: Here're some highlights from his brilliant 116 at Sydney (1985-86)