TE Srinivasan was one of the finest batsmen that Tamil Nadu had ever produced.
TE Srinivasan was one of the finest batsmen that Tamil Nadu had ever produced

An epitome of panache and humour, TE Srinivasan was born October 26, 1950. A ubiquitous crowd-puller for Tamil Nadu, Srinivasan could be elegant and devastating at the same time. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a stroke player the national side could not utilise.

Batting does not come naturally to most. It is often an arduous exercise for them. There are a fortunate few however, for whom it is the simplest thing on earth, scoring runs and making the process look easy at the same time. Tirumalai Echambadi Srinivasan was one of those fortunate few.

There was never an ugly bone about him. S Thyagarajan wrote of him in The Hindu: “TE exuded a spirit of nonchalance, regardless of the level of the competition. He attacked bowlers with rare relish, seeking every avenue to annihilate them. His strokes, especially on the front foot, were a treat to the eye and despair to the fieldsmen. He enjoyed hitting the ball on the rise, and invariably finished with an impeccable shot that mirrored his judgement and timing.”

Writing for ESPNCricinfo, Suresh Menon went a notch higher in his appreciation for the man: “In the years between the eras of CD Gopinath and Krishnamachari Srikkanth, TE was the finest Tamil Nadu batsman — a case can be made for his being the finest ever, his back-foot play alone placing him above the rest. He was the quintessential Tamil Nadu batsman too, capable of unexpected beauty at unexpected moments but prey to self-doubt at other times.”

Srinivasan’s exquisite brilliance captured the imagination of many. As S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath wrote in Mid-Wicket Tales: From Trumper to Tendulkar, “In the 1970s, there was no finer sight in India’s maidans than the classical back-foot square-drives of Srinivasan.” They added that he was “a very talented, stylish batsman…a thrilling batsman to watch.”

Michael Atherton, who saw very little of Srinivasan, could not help notice him (could it be because Atherton was the complete antithesis of Srinivasan?). Atherton wrote in Opening Up that Srinivasan was “A swashbuckling batsman from Madras, Srinivasan was everything that [Sidath] Wettimuny was not — wild, aggressive, and totally unorthodox.”

Just like Sunil Gavaskar, Srinivasan was a fan of ML Jaisimha. However, unlike Gavaskar, he could not keep his hero-worshipping off the field, and hence ended up with figures comparable to Jaisimha’s than to Gavaskar’s. Srinivasan’s talent never translated to numbers. A First-Class tenure of 3,487 runs at 34.18 with a mere 5 hundreds hardly did justice to Srinivasan’s immense talent. His 2 ODI appearances were rather forgettable, but he did not do too badly in his only Test.

Many, especially his colleagues, thought he deserved more chances. VV Kumar told Thyagarajan: “TE was very talented; he never got the chances to prove himself. There was never a dull moment when he was around.” P Mukund, Srinivasan’s teammate at Tamil Nadu, added: “TE deserved to have played more Tests. He was not given enough opportunities for the quality of cricket he played.” They were certainly not the only ones.

“Tell Dennis Lillee, TE has arrived”

Srinivasan’s reputation, dry humour, and ability to put himself at the receiving end of jokes had assumed legendary status in the Indian dressing-room. He landed in Australia in 1980-81 with the status of no more than a reserve batsman, but announced himself with “tell Dennis Lillee, TE has arrived.”

This had come two seasons after his famous words to Rodney Hogg. The Victorian speedster without the slightest reputation of being mild-tempered, was having a tough day in the sun in a hot Hyderabad day against South Zone. To irk him further, Srinivasan went up to him and asked “Why don’t you stop bowling off spinners and try to bowl fast instead?” What followed is not very well-documented, but one can be sure it would have needed some censorship.

On another occasion Srinivasan met Ghulam Ahmed, the then Chairman of Selectors, at an airport, and realised that Ghulam had not recognised him. The following conversation ensued:

Srinivasan: Good morning, Sir. I’m V Sivaramakrishnan sir, the opening batsman.
Ghulam: Ah, Siva, good morning. How’s our friend TE Srinivasan?
Srinivasan: TE, sir? That rascal is up to no good sir, always drinking and getting into trouble.

Coming back to the Australia tour, Srinivasan had cajoled a security person on the ground to reprimand Yashpal Sharma, warning him not to use his binoculars (there were, after all, ladies in the stadium). Poor Yashpal panicked, the Indian dressing-room broke out in hysteric peals of laughter, and things got so out of hand that an annoyed Gavaskar (then at the crease) was not willing to bat till the mayhem subsided.

Indeed, as Bharath Kumar told Thyagarajan, “He had the special ability to turn some difficult moments for the team into one of fun and laughter with comments that lifted the sagging spirits in the dressing room.” Kumar added that “there was never a dull moment when he was around.” Venkat, never known for giving in to emotions, said after Srinivasan’s death: “He was a wonderful friend and human being, very charming and gregarious.”

Early days

Srinivasan was born in Madras to an Iyengar family. There is no doubting the contribution of Iyengars to Tamil Nadu cricket, but he belonged to the top even among the Iyengars; take away the duo of Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Srikkanth, and Srinivasan would definitely rank among the most prolific among Iyengar cricketers (perhaps in the company of WV Raman).

He went to Nungambakkam Corporation School, where he practiced on hard concrete pitches. He was too talented for the pace bowlers of the school, and soon he resorted to asking them to bowl at him from 18 yards. This was perhaps the chief reason behind Srinivasan’s success against pace bowling, especially the rising ball.

Giridhar and Raghunath wrote that Srinivasan “was very special with blazing drives and spectacular shots played on the rise to good-length balls”, while Venkatraman Ramnarayan would later mention that he was “unusually strong against fast bowling, rare among domestic batsmen of his vintage.”

While this was unusual for Indian batsmen, a more astounding feature of his batting was his weakness against spin. This had probably led to his limited success. South Zone, after all, boasted of some of the finest spinners of the time in EAS Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, and Ramnarayan, not to speak of Venkat and Kumar at club level.

He was also extremely talkative in his school days (an attribute that often led people to erroneously believe that he was arrogant). The trait continued, along with the instilment of a strong sense of humour, as he moved on to Vivekananda College. He also played for Aruna CC, Madras CC, and India Pistons.

Srinivasan made his First-Class debut at 20 against Kerala, scoring 36. There was a lean patch thereafter when he could not convert his starts to big scores. His first performance of note came in 1973-74 against Karnataka when he added 89 for the seventh wicket with Venkat and 64 for the eighth with Lawrence Edmonds to save the innings defeat, but was left stranded on 72 — an innings studded with 12 fours against Prasanna and Chandra.

The maiden hundred came in 1975-76: he scored 130 not out against Karnataka and followed it with an unbeaten 37 (he helped lift Tamil Nadu from 42 for 5 to 112 for 7). He had his problems against left-arm spinners — Ramnarayan wrote that Srinivasan blamed Dame Fortune for “having to face ‘bloody left arm spinners’ all the time on arrival at the crease” — but none of it showed in the Duleep Trophy encounter next season when he scored 112 not out against Bishan Bedi and Rajinder Goel (South Zone were bowled out for 276 after being 256 for 4).

That season saw him score 90 against Hyderabad and 94 in the Irani Cup encounter against Bombay. The second match saw him pitted against Padmakar Shivalkar; the demons of left-arm spin had perhaps been conquered. That season saw him score 451 runs at 64.42. He was named an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year.

More success came his way in 1978-79. It started with a career-best 149 against East Zone at Eden Gardens, and also featured a 195-minute 108 not out with 17 fours and 2 sixes against the visiting Pakistanis (the attack consisted of Imran Khan, Ehteshamuddin, Abdul Qadir and — another left-arm spinner in Iqbal Qasim).

He did not win a Test cap against them, but rose to the occasion with 45 and a 110-ball 101 against Delhi (Bedi played in the match) in the Irani Trophy bout at Kotla. This time he could not be kept out of the side any further, and was selected for the twin tours of Australia and New Zealand.

Going Down Under

Though he managed a solitary fifty (69 not out against Victoria at MCG) Srinivasan did not really disgrace himself in Australia, where he scored 203 runs at 33.83. He also played 2 ODIs (both at MCG) in the Benson & Hedges World Series Cup, failing on both occasions: his contributions amounted to a 12-ball 6 against Australia (Lillee got him all right) and a 23-ball 4 against New Zealand before he fell to Jeremy Coney.

Srinivasan had a good start to the New Zealand leg of the tour, starting with 37 and 90 against Central Districts at Napier and 83 against Otago at Dunedin. With India 0-1 down in the series Srinivasan was handed out his Test cap in the last Test of the series on what Wisden called a “dry and brown” pitch at Eden Park.

TE Srinivasan. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan.
TE Srinivasan. Photo courtesy: H Natarajan.

Test cricket

India included all three spinners (Dilip Doshi, Ravi Shastri, and Shivlal Yadav), while for the first time in the series New Zealand decided to play a spinner (John Bracewell). Gavaskar batted first but found themselves in trouble against Martin Snedden. The scoreboard read 50 for 4 after an hour’s play when Srinivasan joined Chetan Chauhan.

The pair hung around for over a hundred minutes, fighting the seamers and smothering Bracewell as the day progressed. Chauhan eventually fell to Bracewell, as did Srinivasan soon afterwards, but not before he had scored a gritty 81-ball 29. India found themselves reeling at 124 for 8, only to be rescued by Syed Kirmani and Yadav. They eventually reached 238.

Shastri and Doshi bowled their hearts out, but could not stop New Zealand from gaining a 128-run lead. The match had already reached its fourth day; the onus was on India to chase a victory to level the series. However, Gavaskar and Chauhan went into an inexplicable shell, before the latter fell for a 52-ball 7.

Gavaskar promoted Srinivasan to No. 3 in pursuit of some quick runs. Srinivasan took 30 balls to reach from 1 to 2, and his score read 19 off 105 balls when he got dismissed by Lance Cairns. India crawled to 284 at a mere 2.35 runs an over. New Zealand were left to chase 157 from 243 balls but they decided to play safe (though they survived a scare, having been reduced from 83 for 1 to 95 for 5).

An abrupt end

Srinivasan’s numbers from the twin tours read 416 runs at 37.82, but he never played another Test as India stuck to the likes of Sandeep Patil and Srikkanth, Yashpal and Anshuman Gaekwad, Arun Lal and Pranab Roy; they even tried Shastri and Roger Binny up the order.

He did not play domestic cricket for long either, though he showed his class against Delhi in the Ranji Trophy quarter-final of 1981-82. He top-scored with 87 (against Maninder Singh, another left-arm spinner), but Tamil Nadu lost their last 9 wickets for 113, conceding a lead. A 7-wicket haul from Laxman Sivaramakrishnan kept Tamil Nadu in the hunt, but they eventually lost the match by 20 runs.

Srinivasan played 2 more matches the next season. He bowed out of First-Class cricket with a whimper following another quarter-final defeat against Delhi; he scored 9 and 25. He played for Woodhouse in Yorkshire League and Grade Cricket in Sydney, but never had another shot at First-Class cricket.

Srinivasan acted as a match referee in a Ranji Trophy one-day and four-day matches. Teaming up with Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) groundsman Parthasarathy, Srinivasan also played a stellar role in reviving the famous Marina Grounds of Chennai. He became manager of India Pistons in 1985 and had his own coaching manual (cricket could really do with one from him) released by Kapil Dev.

A fulcrum, a pillar, the perfect foil

“I fell in love with his batting the first time I saw him play. I knew nothing of cricket, though. TE’s batting had that kind of effect on you. It was like listening to Madurai Mani Iyer or MS Subbulakshmi for the first time, even if you knew no music,” Mala Srinivasan once told Ramnarayan, a family friend and an “inter-collegiate foe” of Srinivasan’s.

The innings, of course, was the 130 mentioned above. A 26-year old Srinivasan soon received a fan mail from Mala. He wrote back once he got to know of the letter. Cupid played a crucial role, and soon they were together — till death did them apart. Literally.

The final battle

It was around 2005 that Srinivasan was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour. There was a stage when he could not move or communicate properly. As Dr Rakesh Jalali, under whom Srinivasan underwent his treatment at the Tata Memorial Centre, told Clayton Murzello of Mid-day, “changes in the brain were bang on the area of speech and right leg.”

However, all that changed in the space of a few months, as Murzello found out: “We expected to see a pitiful sight, but to our pleasant surprise, Srinivasan walked into the living room with a smile on his face, dressed in a t-shirt and a track pant all set for his evening walk down Marine Drive.” Dr Jalali conceded that Srinivasan had “clearly done well”.

Murzello worked out the reason: “What’s being doing the trick? Chemotherapy yes, love and good care certainly, but more than anything else, the grit displayed not only by the cancer-afflicted former batsman, but also Mala.” It was a story of a man who refused to spend his final days in depression, and was supported to the fullest by his wife: “We don’t think negatively at all. We enjoy life, we celebrate living each day. Right from the start, TE said that he was going to fight. We enjoy every minute and don’t look beyond,” Mala Srinivasan told Murzello.

The battle had started with TE’s first visit to the Tata Memorial Centre (for cancer treatment), where he saw children and teenagers diagnosed with the same ailment as his. “When I saw those kids, I thought to myself: At least I’ve lived for more than 50 years,” he later told Murzello.

A second surgery happened on October 2007. Things improved, but not significantly. Their daughter Shubha, based in USA, sought the help of a doctor there. Srinivasan continued, inspired by Lance Armstrong’s battles. The finest compliment possibly came from Shubha: “Dad, you can be like Lance Armstrong.” She knew her father’s spirit well.

How brave was the man while battling the Emperor of Maladies? When Ramnarayan complimented Mala on taking care of TE during his worst days, she disagreed: “On the contrary, TE [Srinivasan] looked after me even when he was desperately ill. He kept my spirits up with his good cheer, never complaining of his pain or suffering.”

She also told Murzello: “When TE was first diagnosed I just broke down. But he was pacifying me by saying, ‘I am not going to give up. I’m going to fight this.’ After some days I realised that if this is his attitude, what am I crying for? He is an inspiration to me. He is an example of how you should lead your life: you don’t have to go to a Zen master.”

He remained cheerful till he passed death on December 6, 2010 — 41 days after his 60th birthday. The Indian team that wore black armbands in memory of Mark Mascarenhas did not perform the same gesture on their next ODI at Chinnaswamy three days later. There was not even a silence of remembrance.

Not that it would have mattered to Srinivasan. He had enjoyed his batting, had lived life to the fullest, and had looked at death in its eyes with a smile. What was it that Richie Benaud wrote in Lindsay Hassett’s obituary? “There are others who have made more runs and taken more wickets, but very few have ever got more out of a lifetime.”

The words would not have been lost on Srinivasan.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)