“BALL-a thotta anja, ball-a thotta anja…(if he touched the ball, he got five wickets).” It’s a line you hear often in the Tamil Nadu cricket circles when the name Sridharan Sriram props up. In the early 1990s, Sriram was ear-marked for greatness. He was a prodigious left-arm spinner of rare classical quality and with a fearsome reputation. And he was quite a menace with ball in hand at the junior level. It was no surprise then that he was fast-tracked into the state team at just 17 as a specialist spinner while being a breakaway star for India U-19. But it’s unlikely that many would know that.
For, not only did he never quite live up to those lofty expectations, even the eight ODIs that he did play for India with minimal impact came as a specialist batsman who could double up as a useful left-arm spinner. And Sriram faded away without much of a trace after a brief fling in an Indian context anyway. That is, before he resurfaced again in the unlikeliest of scenarios in Pune last week with Australian Steve O’Keefe attributing his epoch-breaking 12-wicket haul that humbled India to his team’s home-grown spin consultant.
Suddenly, Sridharan Sriram was in the news again this time for having inspired a spell that was reminiscent of his own phenomenal exploits two decades ago. It did look after all like all O’Keefe had to do for an Indian wicket at the MCA Stadium was clasp the ball in his hands. And he didn’t just settle for five. He finished with six, in both innings. It isn’t an out-of-the-blue association, however, since Sriram has been working with the Australian team on and off since an ‘A’ tour to India in 2015, and was part of their support staff during the 3-0 mauling in Sri Lanka.
Former India left-arm spinner Murali Kartik has known Sriram since their Tamil Nadu Under-12 days. And he recalls an intense cricketer who was a great student, both in school and on the cricket ground. Someone who was on a constant quest to get better at his craft and was never shy of going out of the box to do that.
Sriram finished with a very impressive first-class batting average of 52.99. But for someone who started his career as potentially the next big Indian spinner, his bowling average reads a disappointing 46.07. It didn’t help that Sriram had to be content being the third spinner behind stalwarts Sunil Subramaniam and M Venkatramanna for a major part of his early career. But Kartik believes that losing his way somewhat as a spinner only made Sriram a more intimidating opponent with the bat.
“He was one of the best spinners you’d see at the junior level but then transformed into one of the best players of spin in the country. He played the sweep and reverse-sweep better than most. If you got him out as a spinner you knew you were good. And you knew you’d made it if Sriram rated you as a good spinner,” says Kartik.
Sriram took a while to break into the Indian team but it came on the back of a stellar Ranji season where he scored 1075 runs. It not only won him the India cricketer of the year award but also led to him becoming the first-ever recipient of the Border-Gavaskar scholarship. He spent a month or so at the then Australian Cricket Academy in Adelaide under Rod Marsh. Little would he have known then that his Aussie connection would be renewed some 15 years later, and how.
Sriram never quite looked settled at the highest level and remained mostly on the fringes, but former Tamil Nadu teammate Laxmipathy Balaji says it wasn’t due to lack of effort. Sriram was a cricket-nut, according to Balaji, and it was difficult to have any conversation with him that wouldn’t somehow come back to cricket.
“He’s very expressive when it comes to his ideas. He won’t hold back. And he’s gone around the world learning something new. He has played club cricket in New Zealand, for Scotland, in Bangladesh and England,” says Balaji.
Sriram was a journeyman even within India and has played for teams and has covered the north, south, east and west zones of the country. He left his home state for Maharashtra before turning up for Assam, Goa and Himachal Pradesh. He even had a stint in the ICL. All along, he rarely went through a season without a decent amount of runs.
That he would turn to coaching once his playing days were over hasn’t surprised Balaji, considering how difficult it would be to get Sriram off the cricket ground.
Prasanna Agoram, South Africa’s long-standing performance analyst, doesn’t just relate to Sriram as an Indian export in a foreign dressing-room; he’s also seen him in from close quarters in a coaching capacity at Delhi Daredevils. The two also have remained close friends since the time Sriram was Tamil Nadu U-19 captain and Prasanna one of the standbys. And what he did with O’Keefe during the lunch-break on the second day — getting him to skip lunch and try bowling a little “rounder and quicker” which eventually resulted in the turnaround — is exactly the kind of inputs Australia can expect from Sriram.
“He’s not someone for motivational speeches. His coaching technique is based on facts and stats. It’s pretty cut-throat. He’ll take the player to the ground, tell him what he thinks will work for that individual and ask him to stick to it like he did with O’Keefe,” says Prasanna.
There will, however, always remain conjecture over how much of O’Keefe’s record-breaking performance was due to the treacherous Pune pitch as compared to Sriram’s contribution. Whatever the case, at least in Balaji’s opinion, “it was recognition long overdue,” even if it did come while he was in the enemy camp.