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IT was after close of play on the third day at Calcutta. India was just 275 short of a win, with all 10 wickets intact, and even the weatherman didn't know it would rain mineral water bottles the next day. Pristine cricket-that gentle, yet mortal combat of skill and nerve-was still on everyone's mind. Particularly Sadagopan Ramesh. The gangling 24-year-old southpaw, the latest in a string of experiments at the top of the batting line-up, had managed in five innings to give people something to talk about other than Sachin Tendulkar. Yet, as he took team physio Andrew Kokinos on a visit to a temple, his prayers would certainly have been for a big, match-winning score-a seal of quality on the first flush of a tentative harvest.
It was not to be. He did score 41, and with Laxman, put on a 100-plus opening stand. But, after a batting resume that read 43, 5, 60, 96, and 79, it wasn't good enough-a few more like that, and he would be in danger of being branded as another middle-distance runner of erratic appetite and fickle humour.
Ramesh, a regular at the Anjaneya temple near his home in Chennai, may have found his god a bit impassive at that stage, but benediction day was not far off. 'He believes in the power of japam, says his mother, Vaidehi. And so it was. He struck pay-dirt with a crackling, stylish 143 against Sri Lanka in Colombo. 'As a Hanuman devotee, he was destined to make a mark in the land where his personal god triumphed centuries ago, says father P.C. Sadagopan.
Earlier, facing the likes of Akram, Waqar, Akhtar and Saqlain, Ramesh's approach was a blend of the classic left-hander's liveliness and the rock-steady presence required of an opener: an imperturbable air, backed up by mental callisthenics, eyes alive to the field. 'He's only the second 'probability' player I have seen after Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, says veteran cricket writer Rajan Bala. 'If long-on and long-off are in, he wouldn't mind going over the top as there would be a 60 per cent chance of success. Plus, he's had a better debut than even Sachin, and, more or less, against the same attack. Concurs Ajay Jadeja, 'He's a class player. He can play to all parts of the field, he's a risk-taker.
Ramesh, who cut his cricketing teeth at the R.K. Mission school in Chennai, wasn't always a southpaw. Initially he was a right-arm spinner, who also used to bat right-handed. Says elder brother S. Ramesh, a seamer for the Tamil Nadu team, 'Once, during a school practice session, he tried to play with his left hand. He discovered a new rhythm, since then he has been a left-handed player. Later, as an Economics undergrad at Guru Nanak College, he turned opener. When none of the major clubs in the first zone league were willing to play him in that slot, he joined Jolly Rovers, and started as number eight before moving up the ladder. It was only when he joined spic, a company run by tnca chief A.C. Muthiah, that he got his due as opener, emerging as the highest run-getter for that season.
That helped him break into the state Ranji team in 1995-96, where his brother, Mahesh, already had a place. The third and eldest brother, Satish Kumar, plays for India Pistons and is Ramesh's coach-their father rates Satish as the best cricketer among the trio. 'Initially, we would tell our boys that education should be their first concern, admits the mother. 'But when our eldest son Satish got a job because of his cricketing ability, we allowed them to spend much more time on the game.
The big opportunity for Ramesh came during the recent India A series against the West Indies. Says teammate Rohan Gavaskar, 'He was consistent and delivered the goods when needed. That's why he's broken into the Indian team. He's also very unflappable. The innings against Pakistan won him other converts. Ravi Shastri calls him 'a terrific find . And Qamar Ahmed, Pakistani journalist who's covered over 250 Tests, says: 'He's got all the ingredients of a successful opener-concentration, the shots and temperament. He will go a long way. The rest of the desirable qualities fall into place as you go along.
There are some apprehensions, however, about his lack of footwork. Says Zimbabwean coach Dave Houghton, 'He's strong off the backfoot, but has got to get more movement in his legs. What Bala also pinpoints as his 'only flaw is that he 'does not get his foot out to the pitch of the ball when the line is slightly outside the off-stump . But he refrains from jumping to the conclusion that in Ramesh we have one of those incorrigible, leaden-footed players who prove to be an embarrassment on sterner turf. 'He's seems to be a horse-for-the-course man. If he can get away with playing away from the body on Indian pitches, he will do so. But he would adjust in, say, Australia.
But former Test player Yashpal Sharma prefers a degree of caution: 'He's a good timer of the ball. But if his reflexes slow down a bit and he doesn't get to the pitch of the ball, he could suddenly find his timing going wrong. Agrees Maninder Singh, 'On pitches where the ball bounces he can't get away with not getting behind the line and playing away from his body. But he'll learn. After all, despite all our theorising, he's making runs.
The theories, in fact, abound in related fields as well. Says a senior tnca office-bearer, 'If you look at the game's history, only alternate players from Tamil Nadu make it big on the national scene. V.V. Kumar failed but his successor S. Venkataraghavan made it. T.E. Srinivasan lost out after his Australia tour but K. Srikkanth went on to become the master blaster. So when W.V. Raman failed we knew his successor would shine!
The other, rather pernicious analysis going around in Chennai is that only Iyengars make it to the national team in spite of good domestic performances from others. Says a state Ranji player, 'Right from the days of M.J. Gopalan down to V.V. Kumar, Venkataraghavan, Srikkanth, Raman, and now Ramesh, all are Iyengars. I don't question their talent, but I can't refrain from thinking why only Iyengars make it.
Fellow Iyengars, of course, have only handsome praise for Ramesh. Says India A coach Srikkanth, 'He has the talent and temperament for modern cricket. He's not the most technical bat but he's definitely very effective. He'll be a permanent fixture in the team. Adds Raman, Tamil Nadu Ranji captain, 'He can take the thrill of a one-day game into a Test. Cautious aggression is the word. The level-headedness with which he approached his debut speaks volumes.
Ramesh himself calls his 43 on debut a 'most memorable knock , something he wouldn't forget no matter what else he achieves. Coach Anshuman Gaekwad's favourite too is that debut innings of his. Even Sunil Gavaskar must have been impressed; he was seen at the nets after that knock passing on a few tips to an overwhelmed Ramesh.
About the mans' tastes, bits and pieces of information are seeping through. He loves S.P. Balasubramanium and has a penchant for Hollywood films. Say fellow Ranji players, 'He doesn't like tear-jerkers and loves simple, fun films. He can identify any Balasubramanium number the moment he hears the first few bars. His favourite Bollywood actors are Aamir Khan and Kamalahaasan. Understandably, one of his main cricketing idols is Sachin Tendulkar.Says Ramesh, 'Sharing the same dressing room with Tendulkar has been terrific.
Of course, he prefers vegetarian fare, and doesn't like hotel food. He's also tremendously confident. Says brother Satish, 'He has scored centuries at every level he has played. He scored one on his Ranji debut against Andhra in 1995, in his inter-state one-day cricket debut against Goa and on his debut for India A against the West Indies A team in Bangalore. We expected him to score one on his Test debut in Chepauk. But a deferred bloom, rather than an early burnout, can't be all that bad. To stay the distance as a top-flight bat, it's crucial to master those inevitable, lonely moments when events don't obey the script.