“‘A cricketer and a gentleman’ – that’s what his autobiography must be called,” an acquaintance of mine mentioned when I asked him what he thought of Javagal Srinath. As we chatted, we began to talk less about how much he achieved and more about how much more he could have achieved in a different setting with more nurturing. In none of his post-retirement interviews (he retired from international cricket in 2003) have I seen Srinath express any serious regrets about his career. And, I don't even think that he was an underachiever at all - how about 236 Test wickets and 315 ODI wickets? This is more about how Srinath was the type of person who needed a perceptive mentor and a more supportive system. What is truly praiseworthy and inspiring is that he worked within the limitations of the self as well as the system that he was in and yet, carved a niche for himself, donning the India cap as an express fast bowler and as a gentlemanly sportsman for 12 years.
I recently read an illuminating interview of Srinath by Subash Jayaraman in cricinfo1. When asked about the fact that it took a few years into his career for him to hone the art of pitching it up (rather than sticking to short of a length), Srinath replied, “Had there been that technology earlier in my career, it would have been a different story altogether. That is the way life is, I suppose. There were bowlers who were bowling without technology and they were getting wickets - that is a different issue. But everybody learns in a different way.” More than any of the tech details he mentions, what caught my eye was that last line about learning. “Everybody learns in a different way.” This line caught my attention because I have read stories about how the experienced, thoughtful Imran Khan molded raw but talented youngsters like Waqar Younis & Wasim Akram into great match winners. Having grown up watching Srinath put in his heart and soul into his performances (with varied results over time, of course) and now looking back at the trajectory of his career, I sincerely believe that a perceptive mentor – a mentor, not just a bowling coach, a sports psychologist or any of those fancy terms that coaching personnel use - would have made a significant difference to his growth.
I don't know Srinath on a personal level. But something tells me that he would have been a delightful protégé to have for any willing mentor. He would have worked hard in the nets, putting in his best efforts to incorporate his mentor's suggestions to tread a growth curve with a mix of genuine curiosity, hard work and innate humility.
While Kapil Dev (who was India’s lead paceman when Srinath made his debut in 1991) was indeed one of India's great all-rounders, I don't think many would call him a selfless mentor. That lack of passing on the baton hurt Srinath quite a bit. Akram recounted a story of how Imran coached him on bowling yorkers after he saw Akram get smashed in a prior game. And, we all knew what a devastating death-over bowler Akram turned into.2 The ardent Srinath fan in me felt a little wistful thinking of how Srinath never had one of those Imrans. The situations that Akram and Srinath found themselves in in their early 20s were different. By the late 80s, while Imran was more of a batsman (following his career-threatening injuries), Kapil was chasing his world record when Srinath came into the team. As a result, Imran was the thinker to Akram's executer. Whereas, Srinath was carrying drinks as a 12th man for home tests since India could not afford to play three fast bowlers for the dust bowls that were prepared in the early 90s. (Kapil and Manoj were more the batting all-rounders in those bat-thwack-spin-win home Tests of the early 90s.)
Occasionally, Srinath’s critics mistook his impeccable on-field behavior for a lack of killer instinct. They sometimes wrote that he may have been more successful had he been more aggressive and looked more aggressive. To me, it may be true but it’s only a miniscule part of the truth. He didn't have to glare at batsmen and mouth expletives in order to get wickets. He just needed better strategies and he was essentially left to himself to figure out those strategies. That it took time was only natural, given the introverted nature that he was known for.
Having followed cricket actively throughout the duration of his career, it was rather touching to see Srinath, in the twilight of his career, mentor younger bowlers like Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra. I am sure Srinath would not have wanted the talents of a Zaheer to go waste without proper direction. I have heard numerous tales of Srinath's generosity and his thorough, organized manner of working with youngsters, bringing in his engineer's intellect and his utter lack of pretentiousness. While Srinath may have never won a World Cup winner's medal, he played an important role in laying the foundations of the careers of Zaheer and other pace bowlers who eventually helped take India to victory in the 2011 World Cup. As Randy Pausch once said of his legacy - “Like Moses, I get to see the Promised Land, but I don't get to step foot in it. That's OK.”
The way in which Srinath really inspires me is to realize the importance of being proactive and finding those people who can guide you gently when you find yourself lacking in direction. Sometimes, I even think that every youngster, despite their field of work, should identify mentors like the Srinath of the early 2000s in order to not end up like the Srinath of the early 90s. Because in every walk of life, there are only a select few that are considered a ‘natural’, be it sales or writing or sports. The overwhelming majority (I consider myself in this category, for sure) have to work extra hard to achieve significant things and in order to do so, they have to introspect to identify the areas where they need guidance and then go get that guidance from more seasoned veterans. For the ones that maybe retiring by nature (like Srinath was), it may be a step out of their comfort zone to reach out for help. But those small steps could be absolutely necessary to improve their career by leaps. In that respect, I am grateful to all my gurus in academia and my professional life who have been generous with their time and their thoughts.
I don't know if Srinath will ever pen an autobiography as suggested by my acquaintance. But I see his cricketing career akin to a book whose foreword and prologue did no justice to the author's talent. But by learning several important lessons through the colorful chapters of life, the author certainly knew how to script a meaningful epilogue. So, in essence, his autobiography would really be the story of a mentor who was never a protégé in the first place. And for that, I salute him.