The 1999 Chennai Test against Pakistan is etched in every cricket fan’s memory for different reasons. For Indian fans who saw their team snatch defeat from the jaws of victory thanks to a lower-order collapse - it’s a nightmare that most would rather forget.
For cricket, it was a great spectacle: the Chennai crowd applauding the Pakistan team in unison, during their victory lap around the Chidambaram stadium, was a sight to savour.
And for Indian opener Sadagoppan Ramesh, who made his debut in this epic Test match, it was a bittersweet moment. Making your debut in front of your home crowd and making a mark by playing a sweet little cameo, and eventually losing the test. The then 23-year-old southpaw had gone through all this and more in those four engrossing days of Test cricket in January 1999.
Sadagoppan Ramesh’s international bow
Sadagoppan Ramesh, after his first-class debut in 1995/96, had three good domestic seasons before making it to the Indian Test team in 1999. The way he handled Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, who were probably at the peak of their prowess, on debut in Chennai impressed one and all.
Sadagoppan Ramesh took to scoring runs, like a duck to water. He also played a few exquisite drives and cuts during the dying moments of day 1. Ostensibly, there were no butterflies in his stomach, and he looked like he belonged right away.
After Sadagoppan Ramesh’s unbeaten 30 at the end of the first day’s play, the then-captain Mohammed Azharuddin was so impressed with the youngster that he hugged him in the dressing room and famously exclaimed that he had never seen anyone score runs off Wasim Akram quite like that.
Well, Ramesh was doing a lot of things right. No wonder, his captain was full of praises for the young southpaw. The left-hander eventually got out for a 41-ball 43 in the first innings but only managed 5 runs in the second innings.
But in the second Test in Delhi, Sadagoppan Ramesh’s substantial scores of 60 and 96 reiterated his ability. Subsequently in the Asian Test championship that followed a week later, Ramesh scored 79 and 50 against Pakistan and scored a stroke-filled 143 against Sri Lanka in Colombo.
Four Tests into his career, Ramesh had scored a mammoth 496 runs at an average of 62, in just over a month. Now he was touted to be the next big thing in Indian cricket. With such a rich vein of form, Ramesh was drafted into the ODI squad and eventually, he even made it to the World Cup squad of 1999.
Indifferent form but good enough to hang on
Though his ODI batting wasn’t impressive, Ramesh was an integral part of the Indian Test team. By the time he played his last ODI in Oct 1999, he had 24 ODIs under his belt, scoring 646 runs at an average of 28 and a strike rate of 59.
But he continued piling on runs in the Test arena, where there seemed to be no stopping him. He scored his second Test century against New Zealand at home. After a tumultuous time Down Under, in 1999, where he got injured in Melbourne, Sadagoppan Ramesh atoned and started scoring runs again.
Yes, he was often criticised for his lack of footwork, but he had his own method of scoring runs, and that’s what mattered. The Tamil Nadu batsman was equally good against both seam and spin, and almost had all the shots in the book with no apparent weakness.
While he struggled to get the big runs, he used to see off the new ball and make the middle-order batsmen's lives easier more often than not. Even during the famous 2001 series against Australia, he had decent returns and had handled the mighty Aussie attack quite well.
A decent SL tour that marked the end of Ramesh
India’s tour of Sri Lanka in 2001 was Sadagoppan Ramesh’s final hurrah at the international level despite being the second-highest run-getter (223) in the three-Test series, only behind Rahul Dravid (235).
India lost the series 1-2, but Sadagoppan Ramesh scored a lot of runs in the context of the series’ scores. His scores in the last 6 innings in tests were: 42, 2, 47, 31, 46 and 55. Technically, just one failure. But inexplicably, despite scoring 101 runs in the last test with a half-century in the last innings, the then 25-year-old Ramesh was unceremoniously dropped from the Indian team.
The other opener, SS Das, who scored less runs than Sadagoppan Ramesh in the series kept his place for the following South Africa tour. On the other hand, Ramesh, having done nothing wrong, was shown the door.
19 years later, in 2020, it’s still hard to wrap our heads around the fact that the second-highest run-getter of the series was dropped. And unequivocally, one has to confess that there wasn’t any cricketing rationale behind Sadagoppan Ramesh’s sacking.
The comeback - So near yet so far
Disillusioned, Sadagoppan Ramesh did not let this snub affect his game. Using his international experience, he scored a mountain of runs at the domestic level for two years. He eventually made it to the Indian team for the Australian tour of 2003/04.
In the first practice game against Victoria, Sadagoppan Ramesh, batted at No.3 and scored a fantastic 87, with wickets falling around him, only to be pushed to No.7 for the next game against Queensland.
Now quite clearly, Virender Sehwag and Aakash Chopra were the first-choice openers; and the number of runs Sadagoppan Ramesh scored didn’t really matter. He simply wasn’t wanted. He watched all the four Tests in Australia from the bench; later, to add insult to injury, Ramesh was dropped from the squad for the following Pakistan tour.
That was it. At 28, Ramesh was discarded forever, and he never came close to making it back to the Indian team again.
A Tamil Nadu stalwart
Well, Sadagoppan Ramesh was an instant success at the Test level, and he seemed to have what it takes to be successful at the highest level. But unfortunately, destiny had other ideas. It’s hard to believe that despite such a consistent run, the Chennai-born cricketer’s career ended as abruptly as it did.
It was a clear case of mismanagement on the selectors’ part; unfortunately, Sadagoppan Ramesh had to bear the brunt. But for Tamil Nadu, he was a stalwart who turned up for 116 matches and scored 7696 runs at an average of 43 with 20 centuries.
During the twilight of his career, Sadagoppan Ramesh played a season for Assam before retiring from all forms of the game, at a fairly young age of 32. As a cricket fan, if you sit back and reflect on Ramesh’s career, you will definitely feel that he got a raw deal.
Sadagoppan Ramesh played 19 Tests for India and scored 1367 runs at a healthy average of 38 with 2 centuries. Well, these are decent numbers for any opener even now. In hindsight, one could say that, there’s no way that someone who could play Akram with ease on debut, could end up playing only 19 Test matches.
With a bit of support and proper communication, Ramesh could definitely have had a much longer career for India. Now, we can only sympathize with Ramesh, and hope that such harsh treatment isn’t meted out to any cricketer in the future.