Venkatapathy Raju, born on July 9, 1969, is a former India left-arm spinner, selector and current vice-president of the Hyderabad Cricket Association. Jaideep Vaidya goes through the career of the pencil-thin bowler who was ironically nicknamed ‘Muscles’.
With a none-too-imposing height and wiry frame, one that urged Brian McMillan to playfully call him “Muscles”, Venkatapathy Raju typified the Indian spinner of the 80s and 90s. Bowling slow left-arm orthodox, Raju tossed the ball up and invited the batsman to have a go at him, and beat him with the nuances of his craft while the ball was in flight. He got hit for runs in the process, but that was just how he bowled. He would rather attack and risk losing runs than bowl a defensive line. His strength was his impeccable line and length. He did well to get 93 wickets in 28 Test matches at 30.72. In 53 One-Day Internationals (ODIs), he took 63 wickets at 31.96. Unfortunately, he was to be overshadowed by more prolific colleagues such as Anil Kumble and then Harbhajan Singh towards the later part of his career.
Raju grew up in Hyderabad and attended the All Saints High School — whose alumni also includes Mohammad Azharuddin, who went on to become his first captain in the Indian team. Raju started off as a right-arm off-spinner, but since he threw the ball with his left arm, his coach made him switch to bowling with the same arm when he was eight. It’s a suggestion that Raju would go on to be very grateful for.
After going through all the age groups, Raju went on to make his Ranji Trophy debut aged just 16 and a half. He performed well for India Under-19, before taking 32 wickets in the 1989-90 domestic season. This performance turned out to be his passport into the Indian team as he was picked for the tour of New Zealand. In his very first Test played at Christchurch, one where John Wright hit a magnificent 185, Raju was sent in as a night-watchman at No 5 to protect the wickets of Sachin Tendulkar and Manoj Prabhakar. He proved that he was no mug with the bat as he scored a patient 31 and was the last man out, even as India slumped to 164 all-out. Raju was included in the touring party to England the following summer, but could not play the internationals after his knuckle was broken by a Courtney Walsh bouncer.
In November, 1990, India hosted Sri Lanka at Chandigarh for a hastily arranged one-off Test, which was to see Raju’s best performance in a match ever. The Indians were entering the game on the back of four consecutive overseas trips where they had played 14 Tests and won none of them. It was their first home Test in more than two years and the Indians were determined to produce a good result. Raju helped them on their way, and how! Here’s what Wisden had to report on the match: “The chief architect of India’s win was the 21-year-old orthodox left-arm spinner from Hyderabad, Venkatapathy Raju. His nagging accuracy, genuine spin and even some bounce, on a pitch where the ball kept disturbingly low, brought him figures of six for 12 as Sri Lanka were dismissed for 82, their lowest Test score, and eight for 37 in the match.” Raju bagged what was to be his only Man of the Match award for his performance.
Raju went on to form a promising spin trio with Kumble and Rajesh Chauhan. They were even compared to India’s famous spin quartet of Erapalli Prasanna, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Bishan Singh Bedi. However, Raju termed the comparison “unfair” since the expectations from the fans soared. Till 1992, Raju was the lead spinner of India. “When Anil came in, it became a little easier for us,” Raju told Wisden India in an interview. “He was supposed to be the strike bowler whereas we are supposed to support him, which is sometimes good. Kumble is a big fighter, we all know he never fools around, his self-confidence was high, he would take wickets and keep it tight which always helped us — me and Rajesh Chauhan.”
Raju went on to have considerable success at home where pitches best suited his bowling. Off his 93 Test victims, 71 were scalped at home, which shows his prowess on Indian pitches. In the 1994-95 series against the West Indies, Raju took 20 wickets in three Tests including two five-wicket hauls. However, as Kumble’s stature rose, Raju was demoted to the role of a support spinner as the Karnataka leggie led the attack. “In a way, the responsibility was less but then the chances of being dropped were more, because Anil was always there,” said Raju. “To fit in, you either tied one end up or you picked up wickets.”
After the West Indies series, Raju’s appearances in the Indian team started to get sporadic. When Australia toured the country in 1998, Raju managed to take just seven wickets in three Tests and was immediately dropped. However, he continued to perform well in the domestic circuit for Hyderabad where he took 52 wickets in the 1999-00 season. He was to end his First-Class career in 2004 after 177 matches that brought as many as 589 wickets. Raju’s last match was the famous Kolkata Test in 2001 against Australia, where he could only take one wicket. With the birth of Harbhajan Singh in that series, Raju’s international coffin was nailed shut.
Despite not having a prolific career, Raju has no disappointments except for the fact that India “couldn’t win many matches overseas”. Even after retirement, his association with cricket wasn’t to end as he joined the Hyderabad Cricket Association (HCA). In 2006, he was made the South Zone’s representative in the national selection committee chaired by Dilip Vengsarkar. “I never wanted to become a selector, to be honest, but when I did become one, I enjoyed the experience,” he said. India enjoyed a lot of success in this period as they won the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup in 2007. It was also, of course, the first time that MS Dhoni was made the captain of the Indian team. The Indian Premier League (IPL) was also born and became a colossal success. “It was exciting to be a part of that whole new development.”
Once Raju’s tenure as selector ended in 2008, he was appointed coach of the Orissa Ranji team. However, the appointment was to last barely three months before Raju quit citing personal reasons. He continued to be associated with the HCA and, at the time of writing, is one of its vice-presidents.