Raghavendraa is a crucial member of the Indian cricket team’s support staff – and his specialty is throwing the ball really fast.
Baby-faced and shy, this lean, diminutive person is always the first man to enter the field and the last to leave, every time the Men in Blue turn up for a practice session. In the heat and dust of a gruelling practice session, this man has a significant presence as, one by one, he tests all the top batsmen in the side with his pace, bounce, swing and guile. Mahendra Singh Dhoni calls him the only ‘foreign pacer’ in the squad, for his unique ability to fire missiles consistently at 140-150 kph at the batsmen, while Virat Kohli openly admires the role he has played in fine tuning his art at the batting crease.
The man who has managed to keep a distinctly low profile, amid all the superstars around him in Team India, is Raghavendraa, or just ‘Raghu’ to everyone around him. He has been a regular member of the team’s support staff for seven years now, and, over the years, has perfected the unique skill of giving ‘throwdowns’ to the Indian batsmen from half the length of the pitch, which allows them to come to terms with dealing with fast, accurate and hostile pace bowling. For variety, Raghu can also swing and reverse swing the ball. The unknown (and unsung) man with the ‘golden arm’ had worked on his special skills since he was a teenager who, like millions of others, had a desire to play for India. Again, like most others, he couldn’t make it big in his desired role, but a lot of hard work, and fate, still ensured him a regular place in the Indian squad as an ‘Assistant Trainer’.
For almost six years, Raghu’s right arm had to bear the immense wear and tear of the throwdowns. However, for the last one year, he has been using the ‘Sidearm’, which is a piece of cricketing equipment that is shaped like a long spoon, where the far end is designed to hold the cricket ball. As he hurls the deliveries, at speeds in excess of 140 kph, it helps the batsmen to get their balance, bat swing and reflexes right.
As Dhoni says, it is not just the fact that Raghu can bowl fast consistently – he also does something more important, which no Indian pacer does. While the Indian quick bowlers are those who release the ball, Raghu can be as lively as Morne Morkel or Mitchell Starc, by hitting the deck and making the ball kick off a length. It is the kind of delivery Indian batsmen usually find difficult to deal with, when they are playing on the fast and bouncy pitches in Australia and South Africa.
Ajinkya Rahane had the misfortune of experiencing this first hand, when he broke his hand at a practice session courtesy a snorter from Raghu, on the eve of the Mumbai Test against England in December last year. Virat Kohli echoed similar sentiments when he acknowledged the fact that Raghu provides the kind of genuine pace at practice sessions that the Indians would only come across in a Test match against a quality side. This has helped the Indian batsmen, who are now more adept, and confident, when they square up against quality fast bowlers like Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Morne Morkel.
Interestingly, Raghu is the only throwdown specialist in the world, and he has has been travelling with the national side for his specialised skill. The results have been splendid. The entire Indian top order—Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane – was among the runs on the last tour of South Africa. Then, on the following tour of Australia, Virat Kohli turned it into his Coronation ceremony, as the world’s best batsmen scored four hundreds in as many Tests.
Hailing from the village Kumta in Northern Karnataka, Raghu quit studies, and home, to pursue his cricketing ambitions in Mumbai in the late 1990’s. However, when things didn’t work out, he went to the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru, where he would give throwdowns to the Indian players who were there for training and rehab. It was at the NCA that he developed his unique skill, by spending hours at the nets. Rahul Dravid was impressed by Raghu, and soon he was hired to give throwdowns to the Indian players who practiced at the academy in the mid-2000’s. Such was Raghu’s passion for what he did that there were times when he would spend three or four hours, all by himself, simply chucking the ball at an empty net. Soon, much like Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar too was very pleased with Raghu’s ability to make the ball ‘talk’ from a distance of about 15 yards. Tendulkar would invite him to Mumbai as a personal guest, so that he could help the maestro get some quality batting practice. Once Raghu got a big thumbs up from these two legends, he was formally included as an additional member of Team India’s support staff in 2011.
Getting the man to talk about his special skills, or about his wonderful journey, is an exercise in futility. All you get to hear is, “No sir. Why me? Nothing to talk, sir!” Perhaps the only time he drops his guard is when he imitates bowling actions, which makes the players smile in appreciation. However, we have none other than the Indian captain himself to talk about Raghu’s contribution to the Indian batting line-up. “The success of a batsman does not get much significance for those who work for him behind the scenes. But I believe that Raghu has made me very strong, by helping me practice at the speed of 140 kph,” acknowledged Kohli, during the last Champions Trophy in England.
A humble, shy and pious person, Raghu is always armed with a ‘tilaka’ on his forehead. At the team hotel, he’s the most visible, and busy, member of the squad, handling complimentary passes before every game, carrying messages, helping close friends of the players get through to them and sorting out cricketing gear ahead of every practice session. Even as he does all of that, wearing that disarming smile of his, he is always on the run. Now that other international teams have become aware of Raghu’s specialised skill with the Side-arm, an offer or two has come his way, which he has politely refused. Neither has this 32-year old been seduced by the lure of the cash-rich Indian Premier League. He is genuinely, and totally, devoted to Team India.