Thursday, June 2, 2022

Beyond the Cheek: An essay on some unique aspects of Kris Srikkanth

In a world of witty youtube channel names, “Cheeky Cheeka” is just about perfect for former Indian captain and chairman of selectors Kris Srikkanth.  Merriam Webster helpfully defines “cheek” as “insolent boldness and self-assurance.”  If you have watched the best of his innings for India – I rate his 57 versus England in 1985 and his 116 against Australia in 1986, both at Sydney, as his best – you will find it hard to disagree with the attribution.  And beyond the on-field exploits, the insouciance that marks his interviews, speeches and video vignettes, are a delight to many admirers like me.  But Srikkanth is one of those people whose outwardly carefree nature sometimes makes us lose sight of the depth of character.  This essay is an attempt to dig a little deeper, to showcase the depth and profundity that you may have missed.

The 57 vs England (Listen to Bill Lawry exclaim, "He doesn't even run!" at the 57-sec point)

The genesis of this essay was the video he released today about Sachin Tendulkar.  He tosses off detail that another person would have used as an excuse to turn the spotlight unto himself.  Two cases in point from the 1989 tour of Pakistan.  Indian cricket had been embroiled in payment-related issues between the players and the Board. (Srikkanth wrote about it 18 years after it happened.) But when a worried Tendulkar, who was making his debut in the series, approached Srikkanth to discuss the dispute, Srikkanth assured him that he would not be impacted by it.  Srikkanth (30) was nearly twice as old as Sachin (16) back then.  And as a senior, Srikkanth had exhibited an almost paternal attitude towards the kid.  

Ditto for the way Srikkanth, at the start of the series, promised Sachin that he would play all 4 Tests.  This seems insignificant now, given that Sachin’s legend has been cemented for eternity.  But for a 16-year old kid that failed in his first Test (he was out for 15), the security afforded by constancy would have done wonders for his confidence.  Sachin scored his first 50 in the next Test.  And he never looked back.  If you think about the professional setting, when a company is going through a crisis and a leader has his employees’ back and walks the talk, imagine the ease with which the employees can silence the extraneous noise.  That is what Srikkanth did for Tendulkar back then.  True to character, Srikkanth does not dwell on his pivotal role in allaying the concerns of the youngest member of his team.  But I shall dwell away!

The protective attitude was something that Srikkanth extended to not only Sachin but also the seniors who were front and center of the payment dispute.  Srikkanth wrote, years later, that when the then BCCI president urged him to take a second XI team, he flatly refused.  He wrote, rather touchingly, "I was the representative of my players.  At that moment, I wanted to do my best by them.  I could not betray the people whom I might have had differences with from time to time, but who were also the people I considered my mates."  That the Board, in their wise old ways, dropped him for his batting failure in one series – we do know of players being given a slightly longer rope, don’t we? – is a rather unflattering example of the unfairness of the system back then.  Srikkanth, through those two trying years out of the Indian team, maintained a dignified silence.  Of course, when he came back, his form tapered off after a successful WSC series and his career wound down with a whimper.  But if we are focused on higher order things such as character, loyalty and long-term friendship, Srikkanth, by getting dropped, may have lost the battle but he certainly won the war.  The lack of bitterness at his ill treatment and his warm camaraderie with peers like Kapil Dev three decades after the end of his career are all elements of his character that we must not lose sight of. (It was a delight to see these 1983 world cup heroes celebrate his birthday last December.)

Another trait of Srikkanth that we take granted for, is his positivity.  Let’s admit it.  It is hard to be as consistently positive and nonchalant like him.  We dismiss preternaturally positive people as frivolous.  We only do ourselves a disservice by not seeking to emulate that energy.  It is safe to state that Srikkanth’s effervescence is consistent, unforced and intrinsic.  It was on full display in his batting histrionics, it was evident in the way he fielded, it was there to be seen in the way he cheered for bowlers when they took wickets. (Former wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani once ribbed him about wearing spiked shoes and stepping on him in a moment of ecstasy, post a wicket!)  And age has done nothing to rob him off his sparkle.  His commentary style is a reflection of that personality.  When he says “avan” instead of the more respectful sounding “avar”, it is not a sign of disrespect.  Instead, the colloquiality is a byproduct of artlessness.  The heady mix of positivity, cheer and transparency deserves to be treated with respect and admiration instead of being perceived as a lack of seriousness or focus. (For the record, you don’t top-score in two humungous ODI finals without a sense of focus!)  Harsha Bhogle summed it up best when he wrote of Srikkanth, "As a captain and as a person, he never wore a mask and you always knew where you stood with him." 

His mentorship of the subsequent generations of players is another aspect of his personality that seldom gets attention.  From Sadagopan Ramesh to Ravichandran Ashwin, the memories shared of Srikkanth tend to focus on his candor, forthrightness, his genuine advice and generous acknowledgement of their talents.  The great VVS Laxman, in his autobiography, mentions Srikkanth’s encouraging words during a tough phase and how their religious nature helped solidify their bond.  Even outside of cricket, voice artiste and motivational speaker Ilango (he happens to be visually impaired) shared how Srikkanth inspired and created an opportunity for him to channel his strong voice, thereby shedding spotlight on a talent that has luckily not gone unnoticed.

In the movies, we have a subconscious tendency to not treat well-made light films with the respect they deserve.  In society, we tend to often take lighthearted people lightly.  I once read, "lighthearted is not the same as lightweight."  Casualness can coexist with commitment.  Frivolousness can coexist with focus.  Temerity can coexist with thoughtfulness. 

In short, yes, Cheeka may have a surfeit of cheek.  But as an inimitable inspiration, there is nothing that Kris Sri…can’t do!

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