Raja's trip down memory lane

Raja's trip down memory lane

Arjun Raja

Arjun Raja, the bespectacled former Karnataka batsman, is a regular on the list of Bengaluru cricket journalists who visit Perth. He is a great host and drives them to the best of Indian restaurants in this Western Australian city but the most interesting aspect of those meetings is always the endless cricketing anecdotes during his playing days that come with a dash of Kannada.

Raja spent a few years in Dubai after moving from Bengaluru before shifting to Perth in 2006. He is an Australian citizen now and happily married with a daughter who is in college. Raja, many of his contemporaries in Karnataka believe, had the potential to play for India but there is no trace of regret in the 50-year-old.

“I was never disgruntled and I’m not angry with the fact that I did not play more,” he says after reluctantly agreeing to talk about the premature end to his career. “So many cricketers have gone through this. There are millions who have not played even as much as I have. You make friends in this game. I’m very happy where I am. No regrets. I possibly would not have come to Australia if I was still in State Bank of India,” he says.

Raja held the record for the highest individual score -- 267 -- by a State batsman for close to one and half decades and quit the game at the ripe age of 24. In a first-class career lasting just over three seasons, he made 1194 runs in 20 matches with two centuries and eight half-centuries at an average of around 46. He was also the second highest run-maker with 842 runs in the country in the 1989-90 season.

A situation, created by circumstances and his own growing doubts about his future, forced Raja to opt for a safer career.     

“After I didn’t play the Irani game in 1991, I was under pressure to score at the start of the season (1991-92),” Raja says recalling what led to his decision to move on. “Against Kerala and Goa I flopped and they selected the Duleep Trophy side immediately after those two games. They didn’t consider my runs of the previous year and selected on form. That was another setback. The next two games were on difficult wickets and I got fifties, against Hyderabad and Tamil Nadu, but fifty was not enough. We didn’t qualify for the knockouts. My form was improving, but I didn’t have a chance to show my skills in the knockouts,” he notes.

Raja’s highest knock of 267 came in 1991 against Bengal before Barrington Rowland broke it in 2004-05 season with a 283 against Madhya Pradesh. “All I can remember was that I had batted two days and I was very tired. I should have got a triple but, no strength, we weren’t so fit back then. (Karthik) Jeshwant had scored 259 a few matches ago and I managed to beat it, so it was quite a big moment,” he says about the knock.

Raja played with Rahul Dravid, Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad and Anil Kumble, who all have high regard for him, and is happy how their careers shaped up.  

“What I cherish the most is that at least four or five of my Karnataka team-mates went on to become good international players,” he says. “I feel proud to be associated with them, I was senior to them, they were my friends, they are still my friends, they all went up. Rahul, Srinath, Venky, Anil."

Dravid, his junior in college and Karnataka team, also shared a big partnership with Raja in that match.

“We batted out a whole day at Eden Gardens and I made about 100-110,” Dravid says. “Arjun scored a lot more. He was much more fluent and dominating. What I remember most about that was that it was very hot. So, when I batted the whole day with Laxman in 2001 (against Australia) -- obviously a bit more famous -- I had a sense of having done it before, because I had,” he reminisces.

Dravid says Raja was already big by the time he joined the State team. “Of course I had heard about him even before. He was one of those guys who scored heavily in school cricket, and we both went to the same school and college, although he had finished college before I got there. Even in club cricket, he was something of a legend. I think he scored 10 centuries in 11 matches in one season, it was that hard to break into the Karnataka team.

“He played only three seasons and a bit but I guess he knew what he needed to do. In those days you had to make a choice between playing cricket and a career, and looking back seeing how well he has done for himself, first in Dubai and then in Perth, I'm sure he has no regrets,” he says.

Srinath, too, has glowing tributes to pay for Raja.

“Arjun was a lovely bloke,” he notes. “He was a fine left-hand batsman and an equally great human being. He was my captain in the State under-19 team. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t go on to play as long as he should have. I certainly believed he was an India material. I don’t know where and how things went wrong. Perhaps that Irani Cup match for Rest of India when he didn’t get selected affected him a bit. I played that match incidentally and he should have played ahead of Snehashish Ganguly (Sourav Ganguly’s brother). I also believe things around that time progressively forced him to worry about his future. He had to make a choice between cricket and other careers, and he chose the latter,” he tells you.