In the land of spin, Kumble is king

ACCOLADES for Anil Kumble came like an avalanche, after the Karnataka spinner reached the magic figure of 400 wickets in Tests at Bangalore.

ACCOLADES for Anil Kumble came like an avalanche, after the Karnataka spinner reached the magic figure of 400 wickets in Tests at Bangalore. Any panegyrical reference to this feat is worth it, even assuming that Kumble is not the first but the second Indian to reach this milestone.

But it is a paradox that in this land of spin, the first to reach this mark in Tests happens to be a fast bowler — Kapil Dev. One cannot but marvel at his 434 wickets, many of them coming on spinners' tracks, and that too in unfavourable weather conditions.

The path of Kumble to the pinnacle was not easy either, given the periods of uncertainties the bowler had to surmount, not to speak of injuries now and then.

What stood Kumble in good stead was his confidence and the indomitable spirit to overcome adversities.

Kumble is among the long line of spinners who have contributed immensely to this enchanting facet of cricket. Spin bowling is an art, demanding intense concentration, control, variation of trajectory, and, of course, the ability to lure and snare even the most imaginative of batsmen.

Surveying the spin scene over the years is in itself a thrilling experience since the time India achieved the status of a Test playing country. Interestingly, the early Indian teams laid more emphasis on pace. The focus was on Mohammad Nissar (C. K. Nayudu rated him faster in the early overs than even Harold Larwood) and Amar Singh than on C. K. Nayudu who bagged as many as 65 wickets through his off-spinners during the England tour of 1932.

The classicism associated with Indian spin is clearly a post-war phenomenon. Not that there was nothing in that area before; but only after the dawn of Independence did we have classic exponents and match-winners. The emergence of Ghulam Ahmed and Vinoo Mankad, not to speak of Chandu Sarwate, in the late 40s, led India down the rosy path of discovering spinners, whose wares were not merely artistic, but artful enough to confound even batsmen of the calibre of Don Bradman and Len Hutton.

Chroniclers are not tired of relating how Vinoo Mankad tied down the England captain, Len Hutton, in a series of maiden overs, provoking the crowd to indulge in slow hand-clapping. Annoyed by the reaction, Hutton showed the bat towards the crowd indicating that any among the barrackers could take guard at the crease and face the wiles and guiles of Mankad. Can there be a greater tribute to acknowledging the value of Indian spin?

Symbolic of the supremacy of spin bowling in the 50s was the diminutive Subash Gupte who lifted the whole aspect of leg-break and googly bowling to a plain of aesthetic delight.

The 50 odd wickets he picked up on the tour of the West Indies in 1953 stamped him as a world-class spinner. He was the master for almost a decade during which he had an all-10 against Pakistan Services at Bahwalpur in 1955 and nine for 102 against the West Indies at Kanpur. The ageing Ghulam and Vinoo Mankad formed a formidable combination with Gupte.

Though the left-armer Bapu Nadkarni created a niche for himself in the gallery of spinners with a phenomenal spell of 21 successive maidens in a Test in 1964 against England, after off-spinner Jasu Patel had devastated the Aussies at Kanpur in 1959, the real golden era of Indian spin surfaced when the most feared and respected quartet of Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkataragahvan held the stage for almost a decade. Each was a class apart. In terms of Test wickets, Bedi was the topper at 266 followed by Chandrasekhar (242), Prasanna (189) and Venkataraghavan (156). They accounted for a whopping 853 wickets. Later Dilip Doshi came into prominence.

Such was their dominance that even a few equally competent purveyors of spin like Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar had to be content with proving themselves in the national level competitions. In the land of spinners, a paceman like Kapil Dev, supported by Chetan Sharma, Madan Lal and Mohinder Amarnath, strove to acquire the status of a bowling legend.

But the tradition of spin continued in all its glory, with the arrival of Ravi Shastri, followed by Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, notwithstanding the perceptible shift to fast bowling in recent years. The blossoming of seamers such as Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan, Ashish Nehra and Lakshmipathy Balaji somewhat overshadowed the value of spinners but not in a measure to snuff out the proficiency of men like Kumble, whose unique distinction of snaring all 10 Pakistani wickets for 74 runs in the second Test in Delhi, 1999, will ever remain long in the minds of Indian fans.