On 25th June 1932, India became the sixth team to be granted test cricket status. From there it took 20 years for India to register their first test victory. Even though India had no problems finding good batsmen or even competent spinners, their problem with fast bowlers during the British colonialism of India was that they only had two: Shaikh Mohammad Nissar and Amar Singh. Both of them were outstanding when they went to England and within the first 20 minutes of the first test, they made the whole cricketing world sit up and take notice.
But unfortunately, all the cricketers playing in that era had their careers cut short because of World War II. Nissar and Singh played their last test in 1936 and it took another 42 years until India found a great fast-medium bowler in Kapil Dev, who ended up taking more than 400 test wickets.
When Kapil’s illustrious career was in its twilight, no one knew who would step in his shoes as the bowler. This is when Javagal Srinath burst onto the international scene.
In 1989–90, Srinath made his extraordinary first-class debut for Karnataka, taking a hat-trick in the first innings against Hyderabad. The second innings saw him taking wickets off consecutive balls. He finished off the season by taking 25 wickets in 6 matches. He was selected in the international squad for the 1991–92 tour of Australia.
In 1990, while preparing for the upcoming England tour, he was asked to bowl in the nets to Dileep Vengsarkar. The first ball was a ferocious bouncer, which hit Vengsarkar on his gloves. He immediately received a scolding as Vengsarakar wasn’t ready for a short ball. So, in an attempt to bowl fuller, Srinath bowled a deadly yorker that hit him on the toes, injuring him.
Bishan Singh Bedi, who was there when this happened, claimed he had never seen an Indian bowler bowl so quickly. Srinath played 5 matches in the series, taking 10 wickets. What made him different from Dev was his natural ability to bring the ball into the right-hander as opposed to Dev’s out swinger, and he did it at a much faster pace.
For the next three years, he didn’t play a single test at home as the team played with only two seamers (Kapil and Manoj Prabhakar) since the pitches in India are more conducive to spin. His breakthrough series came in 1994, three years after his debut against the Windies at home. In the first test, he took 5 wickets and scored 60 runs in the second innings, securing India’s victory and earning him the Man of the Match award.
Srinath played 10 tests and 44 One-Day Internationals over the next two years, taking 38 and 50 wickets respectively. Even though his statistics might have been ordinary by his standards, it was evident to everyone that they were witnessing something out of the ordinary in Indian cricket: the first “fast” bowler since Nissar. In a post-match interview, wicketkeeper Kiran More said Srinath was the fastest bowler he had ever kept to.
By the time 1996 happened, Srinath was already among the fastest men in the world. He was consistently bowling at above 150 kph (93 mph). When South Africa came to India in the same year, he took 17 wickets in just 3 tests. His brutal spell in the second innings of the first test is still considered one of the best by a pacer in India. India won the series 2-1, but the fact that it was won primarily because of a fast bowler rather than a batsman or a spinner added to the significance and delight of the triumph.
When India visited South Africa later that year, he took 18 wickets in three tests, proving that he could also be devastating in overseas conditions. In 1997/98 in a triangular series against South Africa and Zimbabwe, Srinath’s bowling, according to Zimbabwean captain Alistair Campbell, was the fastest his team had ever faced. In the same series, one of Srinath’s deliveries was recorded at 98 mph, proving Campbell correct.
In 1997, at the peak of his career, he sadly suffered a rotator cuff injury and had to undergo surgery. It was believed that the injury was caused due to overuse. Some questioned if Srinath would ever bowl again, much less compete with the likes of Akhtar or Donald.
Two years later, the world cup arrived, and as much of a batsman’s game cricket is, this particular edition of the World Cup featured an abundance of fast bowling. But the question wasn’t so much about who was the fastest as it was about who could come close to the Rawalpindi Express. There were two players who were being considered to take the second spot: Allan Donald and Glenn McGrath, who wasn’t necessarily ‘fast’ but generated considerable ‘nip’ especially early on in his career.
People weren’t sure if Srinath would bowl as quickly as he could post-surgery. But much to everyone’s surprise, in the first match of the tournament, Srinath clocked 149.6 kph which was about 9 kph faster than McGrath’s fastest. By the end of the tournament, Javagal ‘The Mysore Express’ Srinath was officially the second fastest bowler in the world.
India recently defeated England at Lord’s, and the fast bowling quartet of Siraj-Sharma-Bumrah-Shami were credited with the victory. However, in the early 2000s, India mostly played with only one seamer, occasionally two, and this approach resulted in him losing his pace and retiring from tests in 2002.
Srinath finished with a 30.59 average over the course of his test career. If India had played with a couple more seamers and on more seamer-friendly tracks, he could have played longer and averaged far lower. On the suggestion of Sourav Ganguly, he opted to play limited overs cricket until the 2003 World Cup. He had developed many variations to his bowling and was the second-highest wicket-taker for India. But after India’s loss in the finals to Australia, the country’s first “fast” bowler decided to retire.
Javagal has come a long way from being born into a middle-class household to being an engineer, one of the best fast bowlers, and now a match referee. He proved to everyone that a country known for its great batting and spin bowling prowess can also develop a real fast bowler.
Srinath turned 52 years old this week. Here’s wishing a man who has represented India in 296 matches and has 551 international wickets to his name, probably the first and the only fast bowler not to have sledged anyone, a very happy birthday.