Indian spin: golden oldies

Ashwin & Co. have arrived at where they are today after some years in international cricket; they are at a stage of development akin to where the past masters started their Test careers.

Talk of spin and one instantly recalls the exploits of the Indian spinners (from left) B. S. Chandrasekhar, Bishan Singh Bedi, E. A. S. Prasanna and S. Venkataraghavan.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

India's most successful spinner Anil Kumble was also their most enduring. He and his off-spin partner Harbhajan Singh regularly won matches and rubbers for India.   -  K. R. DEEPAK

R. Ashwin is showing signs of greatness in his field and there are other promising spinners like R. Jadeja and A. Mishra, on the horizon.   -  K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

As India’s latest spin combination spearheaded by off-spinner R. Ashwin draws circles around the visiting South African batsmen on surfaces with just enough turn and bounce on them to create doubt in their minds, memories of the dominance by our slow men in the past are unavoidable. The finest of them did not depend overmuch on assistance from tailor-made pitches in their quest for wickets. Vinoo Mankad was perhaps the first Indian spinner to seriously trouble opposing Test batsmen on a regular basis. Though Mankad did not enjoy the support of a constant spin partner, batsmen found the going difficult on the occasions he was joined by the tall Ghulam Ahmed, whose off-spin was said to be the sharpest among Indian bowlers of his tribe.

It was a whole decade after Mankad’s last Test appearance that Bishan Bedi, with his languid grace and subtle variations, dazzled players and observers alike, especially Englishmen and Australians. “Poetry in motion” was how one critic described his action, and soon he was being hailed as the greatest left-arm spinner in Test history, Sir Donald Bradman going so far as to place him above Bill O’Reilly, an Australian of an earlier era, in his Hall of Fame. Yet, there were others who felt Mankad was the greater bowler — craftier, more of a man for all seasons, and arguably superior as a fielder and catcher off his own bowling — to all others of his ilk. And to boot, he was a genuine all-rounder who could win matches with bat or ball and a master strategist as well.

If all-rounders have been a rarity in Indian cricket, spin bowling all-rounders have been rarer still. Like Mankad before him, Salim Durrani, who seemed to have inherited his legacy, was a professional cricketer of the amateur era and, like Mankad, he plied his wares in more than one State, settling down to form a great partnership with the likes of Hanumant Singh and Parthasarathy Sharma in Rajasthan. Endowed with enormous talent that earned him the tag of genius, he did not quite scale the peaks he was capable of, despite an early hundred against the West Indies in the Caribbean, and a historic double strike nearly 10 years later to remove Garfield Sobers and Clive Lloyd in Trinidad that gave India its first Test victory there. Durrani was a picture of lazy elegance in all he did; delivering the ball from a great height, he fooled batsmen with subtle changes in his action comparable to the sleight of hand of a magician. His senior and occasional spin partner, Bapu Nadkarni was a better bowler than the mere maiden-over specialist he was often made out to be, with a couple of Test match-winning bowling performances under his belt. It is doubtful if Test cricket has ever witnessed a more accurate bowler.

If C. S. Nayudu was perhaps the first well-known wrist spinner to play for India, Subhash Gupte not only surpassed his deeds with his immaculate action, tantalising loop and destructive googly, but also became, in the 1950s, one of the most feared, most respected leg-spinners in the world, sometimes rated higher than Australia’s Richie Benaud. In Sir Garfield Sobers’ estimation, the greatest leg-spinner of all time, greater even than Shane Warne. Gupte was of medium height and delivered from a beautifully side-on position off a brisk, economical run-up and a high-arm action. He kept his younger brother Baloo out of the team — except for a couple of appearances — forever until his own premature exit from Test cricket was followed by the brief emergence of another top-class leg-spinner in V. V. Kumar. Kumar was a far better bowler than his tally of two Test match appearances suggests. He had everything in the book — a good leg-break, googly and flipper and phenomenal control. A bowler of aggressive intent, he loved a good fight and was never overawed by any batsman.

VV, as he was known to all, lost out to the unorthodox B. S. Chandrasekhar who had great match-winning capabilities. A kind of super-Kumble, blindingly quick off the wicket and a constant threat to the wicket-keeper with his steep bounce. Chandra was probably the most feared bowler among the quartet. With Venkataraghavan and Prasanna, he formed a lethal trio for South Zone in the Duleep Trophy. If Prasanna was the aesthete’s delight with his fizzing off-breaks, enticing loop and devilish cunning, Venkat wielded a surgeon’s scalpel and probed away at the batsman’s weakness. When Bishan Bedi came on board as the specialist left-arm spinner for India, one of the two off-spinners had to make way for him. With three top-class slow bowlers combining seamlessly under captains like Pataudi and Wadekar, who knew how to handle spinners, and some prehensile close catching, visiting batsmen had no respite on Indian wickets.

India’s most successful spinner Anil Kumble was also their most enduring. He and his off-spin partner Harbhajan Singh regularly won matches and rubbers for India. Ironically, it was an injury to Harbhajan on an Australian tour that was instrumental in reviving Kumble’s flagging fortunes, when the leg-spinner grabbed his chance and started a dream run that prolonged his career by a few hundred wickets including some during a distinguished stint as captain. There is no doubting the class of this champion who reinvented himself in his thirties with a whole new bag of tricks within his apparently limited armoury.

Today, India is perhaps on the cusp of a spin renaissance. Ashwin, for one, is showing signs of attaining greatness in his field and there are other promising spinners on the horizon. But those who were privileged to watch the great spinners of the 1960s and 1970s will continue to place them on a pedestal, with E. A. S. Prasanna right at the top. Ashwin & Co. have arrived at where they are today after some years in international cricket; they are at a stage of development akin to where the past masters started their Test careers.