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Venkatesh Prasad: Seldom got the credit than he deserved

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Venkatesh Prasad…with 96 wickets in Tests and 196 wickets in One-Day Internationals, he did not do too badly for an Indian fast bowler © Getty Images

Venkatesh Prasad born on August 5, 1969, was an underrated bowler. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of Prasad — one who rendered yeoman service to Indian cricket first as a bowler and then as a coach.

Remember the match against Australia at Nairobi in 2000?

Sachin Tendulkar had initiated the charge, taking Glenn McGrath to the cleaners. On air, the typically calm Harsha Bhogle sent out a clarion call to the nation, asking them to drop everything and gather in front of their television set. Sourav Ganguly struck the ball beautifully at the other end, making Harsha exclaim; “this is not a one-man show: there is a band at the other end too!”

Then Yuvraj Singh announced himself to the world with an 80-ball 84. India lost their ninth wicket in the fifth ball of the last over as Venkatesh Prasad walked out.

Ian Harvey measured his run-up. He was a good bowler at the ‘death’. However, he made the cardinal sin of bowling a slower delivery to Prasad, who knew the art too well. He waited patiently for the ball to arrive; the left foot came forward; and the plonk flew high over long-off.

Prasad and Zaheer Khan punched each other’s fists in glee. Seldom has a six in the first innings been celebrated by a batsman in an ODI. These were among the moments cricket was worth watching for — the unfancied man upturning the tables, even it was for one ball. It remains my favourite Venkatesh Prasad moment.

That soaring off-drive was Prasad’s most lasting memory for this columnist. However, there should be no point for guessing which the second one was. It remains one of the most talked-about dismissals in the history of Indian cricket: Aamer Sohail stepping out and smashing him through cover and gesturing him to fetch the ball followed by the Karnataka medium-pacer uprooting his off-stump and showing him the way to the pavilion.

An overflow of patriotism — genuine or otherwise — followed that dismissal in this country. Prasad’s first spell of 2-0-27-0 was more than compensated by his second one of 8-0-18-3 (which also included the wickets of Ijaz Ahmed and Inzamam-ul-Haq) and he was hailed a national hero the next day.

That Sohail wicket, however, remained the most memorable moment in the hearts of most in the match — even encompassing Ajay Jadeja’s brutal onslaught against Waqar Younis. For once the unruffled self had given way to anguish: the reaction showed it all.

The bowler

Tall and gangly, Bapu Krishnarao Venkatesh Prasad’s frame was as imposing as his Karnataka and India new-ball senior partner Javagal Srinath. That was till he released the ball, though. His gentle-medium pacers did not intimidate the batsmen; what they did is made them more circumspect. It was often the case of him playing the perfect foil to Srinath, as Srinath went all-out against the opposition batsmen Prasad played the quiet supportive role of holding the other end down with a miserly accuracy.

Prasad’s numbers, 96 wickets from 33 Tests at 35.00 do not make excellent reading. What is usually missed while taking a hurried look at Prasad’s career is the fact that there were seven five-fors and a 10-for in that tally.

A look at these performances:

Vs Venue Season Figures Opposition score Next best  Collapse
Eng Lord’s 96 5 for 76 344 J Srinath, 326 for 6 to 344
3 for 76
SA Eden Gardens 96-97 6 for 104 428 A Kumble, 346 for 2 to 428
2 for 78
SA Kingsmead 96-97 5 for 60 235 J Srinath, -
2 for 36
SA Kingsmead 96-97 5 for 93 259 J Srinath, 115 for 1 to 259
3 for 80
WI Kensington Oval 96-97 5 for 82 298 Dodda Ganesh, -
2 for 70
Pak Chepauk 98-99 6 for 33 286 Sachin Tendulkar, 275 for 4 for 276
2 for 35
SL Kandy 1 5 for 72 221 Zaheer Khan, 4 for 76 -

As is evident, four of his overseas performances generated collapses. Imran Khan’s famous five for three at Karachi and five for eight at Hyderabad are among the most talked-about spells; however, the most lethal spell in the history of India-Pakistan cricket probably came from Prasad in the Chepauk Test mentioned above, where he demolished them with a spell of five for nought.

Prasad was a more formidable force to deal with in the shorter version of the game. He picked up 196 wickets from 161 ODIs at 32.30 with an economy rate of 4.67. His best performances across formats, however, were saved for the unusual trio of oppositions — Pakistan, England, and South Africa:

Opposition  Tests ODIs Combined
England, Pakistan, South Africa Matches 12 55 67
Wickets 51 80 131
Average 24.88 27.88 26.71
Economy 2.89 4.45 3.72
Other major countries Matches 21 79 100
Wickets 45 78 123
Average 46.46 40.21 42.50
Economy 2.84 4.98 3.83
Minor countries Matches 27 27
Wickets 38 38
Average 25.36 25.36
Economy 4.28 4.28
Total Matches 33 161 194
Wickets 96 196 292
Average 35.00 32.30 33.19
Economy 2.86 4.67 3.83

Early days

He made his First-Class debut against Kerala at Thalassery in 1990-91, picking up four for 113. The next season he came into prominence with his very first List A match: playing against Delhi at Karnail Stadium in the Wills Trophy quarterfinal of 1991-92 Prasad grabbed attention picking up four for 23.

It was two seasons later, however, that he came into national prominence in the famous Deodhar Trophy match against North Zone at Surat. Batting first South Zone were skittled out for 82 in 37.5 overs by the movement of Bhupinder Singh and Obaid Kamal. Prasad, the only bowler of any quality in the side (Robin Singh opened bowling with him) bowled unchanged to pick up six for 23 and pull off an unbelievable 14-run victory.

He targeted North Zone again that season. Playing at Valsad in the Duleep Trophy he picked up seven for 38 from 27 overs to bowl them out for 170. Suddenly he became a force to reckon with; he finished that season with 50 First-Class wickets at 18.60 and nine List A wickets at 22.77. With Kapil Dev on his way out Prasad was suddenly in the contention for the third seamer in the national side along with Prabhakar and Javagal Srinath.

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Venkatesh Prasad in his pre-delivery stride © Getty Images

International debut

Prasad went on the New Zealand tour of India in 1994 but could not create an impact in the only ODI he played at Christchurch. The Austral-Asia Cup, too, went wicketless; it was in his fifth match against West Indies at Bombay that he finally created an impact, picking up three for 36.

The World Cup match (mentioned above) had actually turned out to be a significant moment in Prasad’s career. A few matches back Prabhakar’s international career had ended after a thrashing in the hands of Sanath Jayasuriya: now, after the Bangalore quarterfinal, Prasad was suddenly the top contender as Srinath’s new ball partner. The fact that he had won the Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year recently had helped, and Prasad found himself on the flight to England.

Test debut

In the Edgbaston Test that involved seven debutants (including four Indians and two Englishmen of Indian origin) India lost by eight wickets despite Tendulkar’s 177-ball 122 out of a team score of 219. Prasad did not disappoint on debut: swinging the ball prodigiously in favourable conditions he bowled beautifully in tandem with Srinath and had reduced England to 215 for eight before Nasser Hussain took the Test away from the Indians with an innings of 128.

Prasad returned figures of four for 71 to go with Srinath’s four for 103. The lack of a third quality seamer hurt India; in the second innings, too, Prasad picked up the only two wickets to fall and finished with match figures of six for 121.

Then came the Lord’s Test: the Test witnessed the debut of two batsmen who would go on to impact Indian cricket for well over a decade. Sourav Ganguly’s 131 and Rahul Dravid’s 95 made people forget Prasad’s first five-for in Test cricket: England had lost their first five wickets for 107 and the last four for 18, but Graham Thorpe and Jack Russell ensured they reached 344.

Prasad moved the ball beautifully – both in the air and off the surface. Encouraged by the helpful pitch he bowled faster than usual and let loose the occasional bouncer or two, causing problem to the English batsmen.

He finished with figures of five for 76 and as the Test petered out to a draw he took two more wickets for 54 in the second innings. The third Test on a flat track at Trent Bridge saw him pick up two more wickets.

Prasad eventually finished the series with 15 wickets at 25.00. With Srinath also picking up 11 wickets the English press showered the duo with praise, calling them the best Indian new-ball attack to visit English soil since Mohammad Nissar and Amar Singh.

Prasad had left the English shores as a success. It was hardly a flash in the pan, though.

He came into prominence in the second Test against South Africa at Eden Gardens. After Andrew Hudson and Gary Kirsten demolished the Indian attack adding 236 for the first wicket and finishing the day with 339 for two Prasad led one of the better bowling turnarounds the hallowed ground had witnessed: South Africa lost their last eight wickets for 82 runs at Prasad picked up six for 104.

The best was yet to come, though. On an absolute green-top at Kingsmead the Indian batting line-up crumbled in front of Allan Donald, who picked up nine for 54 to bowl out the tourists for 100 and 66. Prasad was the only man that emerged from the ruins: he picked up five for 60 and five for 93, the only 10-for of his career.

In the process he became the first touring bowler to take 10 wickets on South African soil since Johnny Wardle’s 12 for 89 in 1956-57. If you discount that Test, the last 10-for was Clarrie Grimmett’s 13 for 173 in 1935-36. It also remains one of three 10-fors by an Indian seamer outside India (the other two being Chetan Sharma’s 10 for 188 at Lord’s in 1986 and Ishant Sharma’s 10 for 108 at Kensington Oval in 2011).

Prasad finished the series with 17 wickets at 25.00 while Srinath picked up 18 at 28.72. At this point of time Prasad’s career statistics read 44 wickets from ten Tests at 25.25. His last 23 Tests would fetch him 52 wickets at 43.25.
Middle years

Prasad never scaled the heights of his first year in Test cricket. Playing mostly on the placid pitches of India (and Sri Lanka) Prasad somehow lost his rhythm. His pace was too slow to pick up wickets on a consistent basis in the longer format of the game.

The fact that Srinath was out of action for close to two years did not help, either. Instead of playing a supporting role he now had to step up as the spearhead — a role his pace was simply not cut out for at international level. Indeed, there is a significant gap between his performances with Srinath in the side and without him. Even after Zaheer came along he was quite content to play the second fiddle despite being the more experience bowler. The following table illustrates Prasad’s performances alongside the two men:

M W Ave
With Javagal Srinath 21 68 31.74
With Zaheer Khan 4 11 37.27
Without either 8 17 46.59
 Total 33 96 35.00

Prasad’s performance also had a significant dip when he bowled the first over of a Test. Clearly he did not enjoy the role of being a spearhead. It must be noted, though, that he led the attack only when India did not have a quality attack to back him up:

W Ave
1st position 19 46.21
2nd position 63 31.52
3rd position 14 35.43
 Total 96 35.00

He had the occasional moment of brilliance like a four for 27 against Pakistan in the Asia Cup of 1997. On a damp SSC pitch Prasad was virtually unplayable with his lateral movement: Pakistan were reeling at 30 for five when rain saved them after the match was nine days old. Prasad had picked up four for 17 and was looking like running through the Pakistanis in his first spell itself.

He produced a career-best haul of six for 33 (including a spell of five wickets without a run) to demolish Pakistan. Later that year he produced an epic performance under immense emotional pressure: playing one of the most high-intensity matches in the history of the sport that ran parallel to a war between the two countries, Prasad wreaked havoc.

Adrenaline ran high, patriotic emotions dominated the match, and eventually India triumphed over Pakistan in the World Cup match — once again thanks to Prasad. This time he went a step ahead and picked up a career-best five for 27 as India won the match by 47 runs.


Final days

Despite the occasional performance it was evident that Prasad’s career was leading towards a fast end. With Srinath making the occasional comeback, Ajit Agarkar’s performances to keep Prasad out of the side, and the rise of Zaheer, Prasad’s pace was possibly not good enough to help him retain a spot at top level.

Even in the ICC Knock-Out tournament of 2000 Prasad picked up three for 27 (in contrast to Zaheer and Agarkar, who went for 94 wicketless runs from 82 balls) as Chris Cairns pulled off the match. His final hurrah, however, came in the Kandy Test on a tour where he was selected at the last moment, just following his Arjuna Award.

Sri Lanka had won the first Test at Galle by 10 wickets, and had acquired a 42-run lead in the second innings at Kandy. They threatened to run away with the series at 52 for one, but Prasad and Zaheer kept on striking. The senior man picked up five for 72 to go with Zaheer’s four for 76, and it took a freak innings from Muttiah Muralitharan that helped add 64 for the final wicket before Ganguly and Dravid chased down 264.

Despite his performance he played just one more Test. Even there he picked up three for 101 at SSC where Sri Lanka piled up 610 for six and won by an innings. He was dropped for good after that. He kept on doing well at domestic level, picking up 69 wickets from his final three seasons at 21.70.

However, age was clearly catching up with him at this stage, and the Ashish Nehras and Irfan Pathans, along with Zaheer, kept him out of the side. He eventually announced retirement at an age of 35.
Coaching

Prasad took to coaching almost immediately after his retirement from international cricket. He took over the charge of India’s Under-19 side, guiding them to the 2005-06 World Cup final. He was also appointed the coach of Karnataka. Following India’s disastrous World Cup campaign of 2007 he was announced the bowling coach of the national team.

However, he was sacked along with fielding coach Robin Singh rather unceremoniously. It was more surprising because his coaching was lauded by Praveen Kumar on the very day the news came out. BCCI never bothered to provide with a reason. Worse, they did not even inform Prasad (and Robin Singh) about the blows directly.

Prasad, however, found a job as the bowling coach of Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League (IPL), and currently works as the bowling coach of Royal Challengers Bangalore.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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