Venkat still keeps his eyes on the ball

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 April, 2004, 12:00am

After 40 years of listening to cricket's cry of 'Howzat' - first as a player and then as an umpire - Srinvasaraghavan Venkataraghavan is ready to step away from the international arena, albeit a little reluctantly. If he had his way, undoubtedly he would continue to stand in the middle.

But time has caught up with India's best known umpire. Turning 59 later this month, Venkat as he is known universally among cricketing circles, says he has had to retire from the International Cricket Council's elite panel of Test umpires because of his age and not because of ability. 'The Board of Control for Cricket in India says an umpire has to step down between 58 and 60. In England, the retiring age is 65 and that is why you see David Shepherd still continuing,' says Venkat, with perhaps just a hint of envy. The Tamil Nadu stalwart - he played from 1963 to 1985 - retired last month.

In town this weekend to celebrate the centenary of league cricket in Hong Kong - along with the Tamil Nadu team - Venkat is as watchful as ever when the Sunday Morning Post caught up with him.

The burning question is what is his views on Sri Lankan off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan. Is Murali a chucker or not, we ask Venkat. He is well qualified to answer as in his playing days, Venkat too was an off-spinner and as he has stood on plenty of occasions when Murali has been bowling.

'It is a touchy subject and very controversial. I don't want to comment too much at the moment because I want to see what action the ICC is going to take over Murali. But I can reveal that during my tenure as an umpire, I have reported quite a few players for chucking and Murali was one of them. This was much before he was called in Australia. Of course, the ICC cleared him after that,' he says.

The champion Sri Lanka bowler was reported by ICC match referee Chris Broad at the end of the last month's home series against Australia. Broad believes that Murali's controversial 'doosra' delivery was suspect.

Venkat is guarded. He does not want to fan the controversy. 'The ICC has got their hands full,' is all he adds. Venkat does not want to dwell on this topic, even though he has now stepped out of the ambit of the ICC.

Venkat and the rest of the cricketing world will leave it up to the ICC to decide Murali's fate scientifically. Last Wednesday, Murali underwent comprehensive tests - for the second time in his career - at the University of Western Australia. He bowled five overs strapped with reflective markers and watched by 12 high-speed cameras. His fate now lies on the outcome of a computer analysis.

Perhaps this is all for the best with Murali on the verge of overhauling Courtney Walsh as the highest Test wicket-taker. Walsh's record is 519. Australian leg-spinner Shane Warne has got 517 wickets while Murali has 513. But the latter is tipped to reach the record mark first as Australia's next series is some time away while Sri Lanka tour Zimbabwe soon.

A computer can see what the human eye can only believe happened. Even Venkat admits this is so. 'No one is infallible. I have made decisions that while not glaring blunders, might have been mistakes. Fortunately for me, my strike rate is around 94. That is for every 100 decisions I take, I have got 93 or 94 right.'

Umpiring is a fine art where decisions must be made instantly. Venkat recounts how even the television pundits were caught out. 'This was during a series in Australia and Channel Nine had an impressive lineup of commentators, among them Tony Greig, Ian Chappell, Keith Stackpole and Bill Lawrie. I bumped into them the night before one day's play and I asked them, the next time they commented on the umpire's decision, to commit themselves before the slow-motion replay. They all agreed. When I met them at the end of the day's play, I asked how they had fared. Tony [Grieg] told me that he had tried four times and had been wrong on all four occasions. Ian said he tried three times and got it only right once while the other two didn't open their mouths,' recounted Venkat.

Venkat was part of India's Famous Four spinners - Bishen Singh Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar - during his Test career which spanned 57 Tests from 1964 to 1984. He made his debut as a 19-year-old against New Zealand and after an on-off career (having to compete against the rest of the spinning quartet for a place) he bowed out at the age of 38 against Pakistan in 1983-84.

'It was a golden era for spinners. I don't think it will ever happen again because present day cricketers lack the hard work ethic. Spin is all about hard work. It is all about being able to bowl a good length all the time,' said Venkat who took 156 Test wickets in his career.

Venkat captained India on five occasions, including four Tests on the 1979 tour of England. He also led India at the inaugural World Cup in 1975 and then in 1979. He was a world class fielder and was a specialist in the gully position where he took most of his 44 catches.

He made his umpiring Test debut in India's 1992-93 home series against England at Eden Gardens. 'Graham Gooch was captain and Keith Fletcher was the manager of that side. I remember walking out for the first time as an umpire in a Test and Alec Stewart was alongside me. I told Alec 'I played against your father Mickey' and he couldn't believe it. I could feel the whole perception of the team changing when they knew the umpire was a former player himself.'

The advent of slow-motion replays has placed umpires under the spotlight in the past decade or more. But Venkat says his past experience as a player helped him a great deal in making decisions. 'I made my decisions as I saw it. There is more pressure on the umpires now made worse by the fact that there are instant replays at the ground. The third umpire helps but still there is one area of concern which I hope can be addressed in some way.'

Venkat is talking about the delivery pitched outside the leg stump. 'I wish there is a way and means to let umpires know of the ball pitched outside the leg stump. For as the law stands now, a batsman can't be given out to such a delivery as the theory is that every batsman has a blind spot on the legside. It is very difficult to make a decision based on whether the ball was pitched outside leg. Say a bowler is bowling at 90 miles per hour. This means the ball reaches the batsman in less than 0.4 seconds. We have to watch out for the no ball too and this leaves us very little time to judge if the ball was pitched outside the leg stump.'

Apart from this area of concern, Venkat feels cricket has got it right as far as the third umpire is concerned. The third umpire can be asked to adjudicate in run-outs, stumpings, hit-wicket and boundaries. 'But most recently, they can be referred to in a case of a bounce ball, where the batsman hits the ball into the ground first before it is caught by a fielder.'

The third umpire has alleviated some of cricket's difficulties. But with decisions having to be fraction fast, umpires are always at the centre of controversy. Venkat knows that all too well. 'The thing about umpiring is you have to try and be correct and to be seen as consistent. The batsmen have to be convinced they are out.'

Forty years after travelling the world as player, manager and umpire, Venkat has finally called it a day.

'He has stood the test of time in an exceptionally demanding profession,' says Malcolm Speed, ICC chief executive. 'His integrity and passion for cricket are of the highest order and he has helped ensure that the spirit of the game remains intact for those that will follow.'

Added Venkat: 'I thoroughly enjoyed it. The game has given me so many great memories and I'm grateful for that.' You can tell that he will miss his time out in the middle.