MV Narasimha after receiving the MBE in December 2013. Photo Courtesy: MV Narasimha Rao
MV Narasimha Rao was a successful leg-spinning all-rounder at the domestic level, who unfortunately played only four Tests for India in the late 1970s. After migrating to Ireland, he has been a leading figure in shaping the cricketing fortunes of the nation. He has also played a stellar role in community service through cricket in his adapted country during the turbulent period experienced by the ethnic communities in Northern Ireland. Arunabha Sengupta caught up with the man who became the first Indian cricketer to be conferred with the prestigious Member of the British Empire (MBE) medallion.
CricketCountry (CC): What was your reaction when you became the first Indian Test cricketer to be awarded an MBE [Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire](in December 2012)?
Narasimha Rao (NR): I was very honoured and also quite surprised. I had been coaching for a long time — for ECB [England & Wales Cricket Board] at various levels, and had been the coach of the Northern Ireland team in the Commonwealth Games. The MBE also had a lot to do with the positive effects brought about by cricket in the times of ethnic tensions. I went to schools and used cricket to build bridges between the two communities during the troubled times in Ireland. I started cricket in Catholic Schools and the other schools. This contribution was recognised as well as my role as a coach. In the end it was a great honour.
CC: As many as nine players of Ireland’s World Cup team of 2011 were coached by you?
NR: Yes, (captain) William Porterfield, Boyd Rankin, Ed Joyce, the O’Brien brothers Kevin and Niall, (wicketkeeper) Gary Wilson, Andrew White, Paul Stirling they all went through the Under-15, Under-17, Under-19 structure. I had been involved in coaching and advisory roles for a long time. At first I advised Ed Joyce to go to Middlesex as a pro and he was successful there, and then all the other guys followed. Now the team is well established, and most of them are fine county players. Cricket has become much better for the past few years, much more structured. Previously it was an amateur game, played for pleasure. There was no structure when I came here.
CC: You had a role to play in the structure that one sees in Ireland cricket now.
NR: I played a few games for them in 1994 and 1995. Later on they asked me to become an advisor. I advised them to employ a full time coach. The first full time coach they brought in was Mike Hendrick. I was the batting coach for around five years. The two of us put structure around the game in the country — bringing in the Under-13, Under-15, Under-19 systems, organising cricket circuits in Dublin, Belfast and Derry, regular training in these centres. Before this there was nothing like that.
CC: How much have the expats been involved in the growth of cricket in Ireland?
NR: Once we were doing well, a lot of cricketers, especially in the Dublin area, came from South Africa and other places. Adrian Birrell came in as coach from South Africa. He was followed by Ken Rutherford and Phil Simmons. A lot of South Africans and Australians came to play in Ireland.
CC: Do you foresee Ireland getting Test status in not too distant a future?
NR: I hope so. They are as good as Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Only thing that one can say against Ireland is about the weather, the wet conditions. But, then again you can go to Spain and play during the winter and here in the summer. Cricket has become quite popular, and has been supported by the media after they qualified for the World Cups in both the formats. Last year we also started the Inter-provincials like the IPL [Indian Premier League] in India, between Dublin, Belfast and Derry. We started competitions involving Twenty 20, 50-overs and three-day games. Last year three-day games were played in Ireland for the first time ever. I am the head coach of North West Warriors and they are from Derry. I implemented a structure there as well, they are going to have a Warriors Academy for the Under-19s and so on.
CC: And what made you settle in the country?
NR: After I got married (to Josephine), we went back to Hyderabad for a while. I was the captain when Hyderabad won the Ranji Trophy (in 1986-87). Two seasons later I played my last game. It was against Bombay — Sachin Tendulkar’s fifth First-Class match.
After that I came back here to play as a pro. We had a baby here [Britain] in August and we could not go back to India because the doctors would not allow us to be away for more than four months. I took a year off from my employers Andhra Bank and came over. And then I stayed back.
If I had continued in Andhra Bank, once I had finished my playing days I would have been transferred as a senior officer and it would have been a problem to be together with my wife. Those days cricket was not that big. In fact, I never imagined at that time that cricket would become this big.
CC: How different was the situation when you played?
NR: In my time when we played the final of the Ranji Trophy we got Rs 350 for five days. Even though we won the game, there was hardly any reward. NT Rama Rao was the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh at that time and he arranged Rs. 5000 for each player.
CC: The Ranji triumph in 1986-87 must have been quite a thrill.
NR: We were the underdogs. Only Shivlal Yadav was a regular Test player and he too had been dropped from the national team. I was the only other player with Test experience. Mohammad Azharuddin was there, but away playing for India. We were a young team with lots of spirited young chaps like Abdul Azeem and Arshad Ayub. We qualified beating Goa by a whisker. After that we did not look back. From the quarter finals we made huge scores. Everyone in our team could bat. We had a programme as well. I used to come to England to play for Lancashire Second XI. I carried back that experience and organised similar training sessions that I had here. I was the captain, coach all in one, had to organise nets as well. It was nothing like what it is today.
Narasimha Rao (right) receives the Ranji Trophy after beating Delhi in the 1986-87 final.
CC: And what about the final against Delhi? With Mohinder Amarnath, Kirti Azad and others there were a lot of big stars in the Delhi team.
NR: They also had Atul Wassan, Sanjeev Sharma, Jaspal Singh — the young quick bowlers. I was a fiery wicket. But we batted and fielded really well. Lot of people forget that we also won the Irani Trophy the following season. Against a team that included Raman Lamba, Sanjay Manjrekar, Arun Lal, Narendra Hirwani, Yashpal Sharma, Sanjeev Sharma and WV Raman. We were really a very strong side. We had seven Test players when I came into the team but could not win the Ranji. I captained eight years at a stretch. That was how long it took to gel as a team and finally win it.
CC: Going a bit further back to 1978-79, your Test debut must have been quite an experience, walking in the large shoes of BS Chandrasekhar.
NR: I was an all-rounder, and I was chosen in place of Chandra. I batted at six and bowled leg spin. It was unfortunate that the Calcutta wicket was flat and the Madras was horrible because the match finished in three days. We won a low scoring game, and I did not bowl much. It was a very difficult situation. You had no coaches, just a manager and a captain and not much guidance. And when you walked in with the big stars it was really daunting. There was nothing like the support as you get now. Those days you just had one series to shine and got sent back to Ranji Trophy if you did not perform. If you came from particular states, you had to perform immediately or you were gone.
CC: It must have been a period of transition. Your second Test match saw Dhiraj Parsana being tried out in place of Bishan Bedi.
NR: Yes, my first Test match was Bishan’s last in India.
CC: You did come back to play a couple of more Tests against Australia next year.
NR: Against Australia at Delhi I bowled 12 overs [ in the first innings] and got two wickets. In my last Test at Calcutta, while batting I had to sacrifice my wicket for Viswanath. He was in his eighties and called for a single and then said no. Again it was a flat track. I remained successful in Ranji, had a particularly good season in 1981-82 and could have gone to England in 1982. But, they took Suru Nayak instead. He was a medium-pacer and they turned him into a leg-spinner and took him along. I was already playing for the Lancashire Seconds and knew the conditions. I really felt I could have been more useful there.
CC: Would you say you got a rather raw deal?
NR: When I was dropped for the last Test against Australia, the visiting captain Kim Hughes wrote that they were surprised. They were apprehensive about my bowling because they could not spot my googly. Later, Allan Border brought an Australian A team to Ireland, a side which included Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting. I had lost all my hair, but he did recognise me. He did comment that I got a raw deal. They could not understand why I was dropped.
Those days the media was not so focused. I took eight catches at forward short leg, some very good ones, but not much was publicised. Television was very new. However, I have no complaints. Cricket was my passion.
CC: You did have a hand in the making a Very Very Special cricketer for India…
NR: Yes, I started an academy, which is now called St Johns. VVS Laxman was 11 when he came over, and I was his first coach. That is something I can be proud of. I went to Hyderabad in August for my 25th anniversary and he came over. He keeps in touch. He wrote to me on Teacher’s Day as well as, remembering me as his first coach. That was very nice of him.
CC: What do you think of Indian cricket and the kind of coaching that is available now.
NR: I was very qualified as staff coach in 1989, but I could not contribute as I came over. You need coaches with passion. Who have a totally different way of going about coaching. With the population, talent and passion for the game in India, the country should have at least three top-notch teams. They should have three very good fast bowlers and three equally good to replace them. Spin has always been our strength, but there is no second line of spin bowlers of top quality. For instance, Ravindra Jadeja is good, he hits the deck and on a hard track he can be effective, but in the Durban Test he needed support from the other end as well. The academies in India need to be more professional, to produce a second batch which provides competition to the first lot. Spinners, pace bowlers, batsmen.
CC: India has been struggling to produce leg-spinners of quality since Anil Kumble’s retirement
NR: For leg-spinners, you do need focused coaches. There are three types of leg-spinners. The Anil Kumble type with a 12 o’clock release, the Shane Warne types with their unique style, and the Mushtaq Ahmed sort of orthodox leggie. The coaches should realise which template a young leg -spinner fits into and accordingly he should mould him. Leg spinners are born, they cannot be made. You can put them in one of the three templates and that is where the role of the coach comes in.
CC: Do you think spin bowling is threatened by the increasing amount of Twenty20 cricket?
NR: We have seen in the last year or so that all the players who have played proper cricketing shots have got runs in T20 as well. It is all a question of adaptation. It is the same with spinners. You need to adapt your bowling to suit the formats of the game. At the end of the day, Test match cricket is always the actual form of cricket. A Test player is totally different, whether you play one Test or a hundred Tests. It is a totally different level.
CC: Do you foresee yourself performing a coaching role in India?
NR: I would love to now because my children are grown up. My son (Suresh) will soon be 17 and he will be going to the University. My daughters are grown up. When I was asked in the late 1980s, I did not really have the time. I will soon be having lots of time in another six months or a year. I have done more coaching here, but whenever I go to India I make it a point to the camp at six in the morning. But that’s only for two or three weeks. Now, I would love to go to India and coach there.
CC: In addition to the contribution to community by increasing ethnic mingling through cricket, you have also been involved in some other community service. Could you shed some light on that?
NR: I also received the Paul Harris Award for a charitable project in Sri Lanka. When I went there with the Under-19 Team, I came back and raised about £10,000 for artificial limbs for people affected by the war there. I was the chairperson of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, and am still involved with them. My main work is as the Development Officer for Strabane Ethnic Community Association.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)