Margashayam Venkataramana was yet another victim of baffling selection policies. Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Margashayam Venkataramana was yet another victim of baffling selection policies. Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Born April 24, 1966, Margashayam Venkataramana was a Tamil Nadu off-spinner who took the country by storm following his debut season. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a career that wilted away following bizarre selection policies.

For the uninitiated, Margashayam Venkataramana was an off-spinner who played a Test and an ODI and was left out in wilderness for no apparent reason. It was not that India had an enviable repertoire of off-spinners: Arshad Ayub and Gopal Sharma were fading out; Saradindu Mukherjee had just appeared before vanishing for good; Rajesh Chauhan and Aashish Kapoor were still a few years away; and Harbhajan Singh was 8.

Venkat did not do too badly in the international matches he played. He played a crucial role in Tamil Nadu’s Ranji Trophy title in his maiden season of 1987-88. Tamil Nadu had an excellent bowling line-up that season, consisting of Bharat Arun, TA Sekhar, Santhanaraman Vasudevan (captain and left-arm spinner), and occasionally, Laxman Sivaramakrishnan.

Despite the tough contest, Venkat emerged at the top in Tamil Nadu’s campaign. Along with Vasu, Venkat was the hero of the campaign alongside the batting stars, WV Raman and Robin Singh.

Amarjeet Kaypee, yet another domestic champion, told Vijay Lokapally in an interview with The Hindu: “You had to be at your best when playing him. He could tie you down to the crease. I played him a few times and found him hard to tackle. He was a deceptive spinner.” Narendra Hirwani was all in praise as well: “He had good turn and bounce. He was top class skill-wise and would have done much better with a supportive captain.”

From 75 First-Class matches he had a haul of 247 wickets at 29.63. Ranji Trophy brought the best out of him: his career amounted to 205 wickets from 58 matches at 26.35. But more of that later.

Road to Ranji

Born in Secunderabad, Venkat moved to Madurai at an early age, and took to both cricket and basketball before deciding to stick to the former. He was soon selected for Tamil Nadu Schools. He also made a name for himself in club cricket, and impressed Kripal Singh so much that the former Madras mainstay predicted that Venkat would play for India.

He did not have an idol or a mentor. He never received proper coaching either. He later told Lokapally: “None taught me in the true sense. I never had a dedicated coach. At various stages of life, I learnt from different people. It helped because I absorbed and used the wisdom to my benefit.” Indeed, those were different days.

He made his Ranji Trophy debut as a 21-year old against Kerala, not getting a bowl in the first innings and finishing things off with 2 for 15 in the second. The next match, against Andhra, was a near-encore: Venkat bowled only in the second innings and claimed 3 for 14. Against Goa on the matting wicket of Erode he picked up 2 for 15 and 3 for 44, but went wicketless against Hyderabad, his first major opposition.

Then came the Karnataka match. Roger Binny’s side had a strong line-up, but the youngster proved himself worthy of the challenge. As Vasu tied one end up, Venkat picked up 6 for 107: the wickets including Binny, Syed Kirmani, Brijesh Patel, and — playing his last season — Gundappa Viswanath, caught by Mylvahanan Senthilnathan at bat-pad.

The wicket inspired Venkat to no limits. He later admitted: “He was not known to get out bat-pad and I succeeded. I rate that as one of my most prized moments of cricket”.

It turned out to be a cracker of a match: Raghuram Bhat’s 8 for 43 gave the hosts a 97-run lead, but Vasu and Venkat skittled out the tourists for 94. This time Bhat claimed 7 for 41, and Tamil Nadu lost by 67 runs.

Despite the defeat Tamil Nadu made it to quarter-final. VB Chandrasekhar and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan slammed hundreds against Uttar Pradesh. Tamil Nadu scored 590, and Venkat (5 for 31) routed the tourists for 190. A huge first innings lead was sufficient for Tamil Nadu.

Venkataraman Sivaramakrishnan scored a hundred against Punjab in the semi-final, as did Robin Singh. Arun and Venkat added 79 for the last wicket, and Tamil Nadu amassed 601. This time, it was different, for they had to reckon with Navjot Sidhu, who refused to give in an inch. Following a marathon contest, Punjab, once comfortable at 203 for 1, slumped to 416 after Sidhu fell for 146.

It had been 33 years since Balu Alganan had led Tamil Nadu (then Madras) to a Ranji Trophy triumph. Once again Railways started well, reaching 172 for 1. Then Venkat (7 for 94) bowled what was probably the most important spell of his life. Vasu’s 2 for 113 was almost as crucial, and Railways were bowled out for 318.

The onus fell on the batsmen. Robin Singh and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan slammed hundreds; there were four other scores in excess of fifty; Railways’ score was overhauled for the loss of 4 wickets; and Tamil Nadu eventually scored 709. Whatever doubts were left of a victory were eliminated by Vasu (7 for 59), as Tamil Nadu won by an innings and 144 runs.

Venkat finished the tournament as the leading wicket-taker with 35 wickets at 20.45 (Bhat also had 35, but at 22.28). Vasu played his part with 27 at 22.22. Venkat had emerged as a star after a solitary Ranji Trophy season.

International cricket

The call eventually came when New Zealand toured India in 1988-89. India had already sealed the 5-match ODI series 3-0, which led to Rashid Patel and Venkat making their ODI debuts. New Zealand went on a rampage from the beginning, with John Wright and Andrew Jones adding 140 in 118 minutes.

Then Wright was stumped off Venkat and Jones was caught-behind. New Zealand scored 278 for 3, and with figures of 10-0-36-2 against seriously aggressive batting he had proved that the Ranji outing was not a fluke. Mohammad Azharuddin then scored the fastest ODI hundred at that point, and India, after being 133 for 5, won the match with 17 balls to spare. The fifth ODI at Jammu was washed out, and Venkat never played another ODI.

However, Venkat found a spot on the flight to West Indies in 1988-89. Unfortunately for him, Viv Richards had decided this series would be a “revenge series” following their defeat against Hirwani at Chepauk. They stampeded over India in the ODI series, forcing a 5-0 victory. Rain saved India in the Bourda Test, but West Indies strolled to easy wins at Kensington Oval and Queen’s Park Oval, clinching the 4-Test series with a Test left.

Unfortunately, Sabina Park also turned out to be the least spin-friendly of the four pitches. The management had earlier gone in with Ayub (who claimed 5 for 117 in the first innings) and Hirwani on the turner at Queen’s Park Oval. A third specialist spinner could have been crucial.

West Indies went in with Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose, and Ian Bishop. Sidhu (116) was the only one to put up some resistance; nobody else reached 50, and India were bowled for 289, Walsh taking 6 for 62.

Kapil Dev removed the openers early, while Chetan Sharma accounted for Keith Arthurton. At 86 for 3 India had a chance, but Richie Richardson (156) and Richards (110) added 235. The tireless Kapil fought back with 6 for 84, but West Indies had gained a 95-run lead.

This time there was no resistance: Bishop (4 for 61) and Walsh (4 for 39) demolished India, leaving the hosts a target of 58. Venkat batted twice, remained unbeaten twice, and faced 4 balls.

Kapil bowled unchanged for 9 overs before Venkat was introduced. At that stage West Indies needed 10. Desmond Haynes the first ball for four, but was stumped off the next to become Venkat’s only Test wicket. Gus Logie, the new batsman, finished things off with a six off the second ball he faced. Venkat never played another Test.

Put aside

Venkat was not picked for the Pakistan tour that winter on the grounds that Pakistan play spin well. Krishnamachari Srikkanth was sacked following the tour, Azhar was appointed captain, and Venkat was never reconsidered.

He continued to rule domestic cricket. He claimed 35 wickets at 19.48 in 1992-93, and 30 more at 19.80 the following season. With the emergence of Sunil Subramaniam, the left-arm spinner, Tamil Nadu continued to remain a major force. He hung up his boots following the 1997-98 Ranji Trophy, though he turned up in a solitary match against Hyderabad next season.

Following retirement he went on to become a Level-3 coach. He worked as a coach with Singapore Cricket Association. Under him Singapore won ICC World Cricket League Division Six in 2009, thereby earning a promotion to Division Five.

He stayed in Singapore for five years before returning to India in 2011. He currently works at Sports Medicine Centre of the Sri Ramachandra Medical Sciences (SRMC), helping young bowlers rectify actions, if required. His coaching helped him earn accolades. Hirwani said: “He is able to explain the points so beautifully. What I like is he does not tamper with the natural style of the young bowlers (at the Board’s Academy). He is a very open-minded coach.”

Lokapally wrote that Venkat had a “smooth and clean action”, something several contemporary bowlers, especially finger-spinners cannot boast of. BCCI has probably appointed the right person.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)