Making the ball talk


FOR Erapalli Prasanna cricket is more than a simple duel. It travels way beyond that, to the game's very soul.

"A bowler has to put some life into the ball to make the batsmen put some life into the bat," he says with a sparkle in his eyes, and these are words loaded with significance.


That wickets and runs do not count unless there is a fair contest. Numbers do not matter, quality does.

Press Prasanna further on the subject and more wisdom gushes out. "Mentally, if a bowler does not know how to convert his art into craft, he will not go far. You got to animate the ball. I could do that. There is some life in the ball when I bowl even today." He is 61 now!

It is not just a battle of skills, but a clash of wits as well, and Prasanna is again candid. "The bowler has the six balls of an over to study a batsman and plot his downfall. Maybe it would take two overs, three overs, four overs or beyond. It is here that the game becomes interesting. Once this feature is missing, it becomes boring."

There was never a dull moment when Prasanna held the cherry, drawing the batsmen out with his flight, and deceiving them with his loop and turn, bounce and nip. More than his 189 victims in 49 Tests, it was the manner in which he first set them up, and then delightfully consumed them, that marked him out as one of the greatest spinners of all-time. His control was awesome.

Not someone to be defeated by the conditions, Prasanna grabbed an astonishing 49 wickets in eight Tests, on the back-to-back tours of Australia and New Zealand in 1967-68, and when the Indians defeated the Kiwis, it was their first away series Test win. In other words, he did not require the dusty home surfaces to cast his spell of magic.

In fact, he could run through sides on a green-top, like when he ambushed the Kiwis in the Auckland Test of 1976-77, with innings figures of eight for 76. "There is a lot that a genuine spinner can do even on a green top."

These days, Prasanna is giving something back to the game as a celebrated coach in Chennai's MAC Spin Foundation. Prasanna was guiding aspirants from the West Indies when The Sportstar caught up with him.

Prasanna with his wards at the MAC Spin Foundation.-V. GANESAN

How did he achieve the loop, such a vital element in deception? Times without number, the batsmen would jump out to him, only to miscue their drives or the pushes. "I was a vicious spinner of the ball, both in the air and off the wicket. And, it is an acceptable theory that more the ball spins in the air, it creates a sort of vacuum around the ball. And it enhances the floating qualities of the ball. It stays in the air longer and once the spin reduces it drops," reveals the wizard from Karnataka.

He elaborates further. "It is the same principle that you see in a frisbee. How does the frisbee work? Once the rotation slows down, it wobbles and falls. Same theory in cricket. If you are a spinner, you got to spin the ball. And when you really spin the ball, things like loop can be achieved, the ball will dip once the spin subsides. But spinning the ball viciously is the bottom-line. The other variations revolve around that."

Naturally, the topic shifts to his famous conquests on the cricket field. "A bowler has to plan his dismissals. No batsman will give his wicket away just like that. The bowler has to set up a trap."

Indeed, he was adept at the mind game, reading the batsman, the situation, and the conditions in a flash and adjusting his game-plan accordingly. He required all this and more to get the better of a formidable Australian, Ian Chappell.

A clash of the titans it certainly was. "It was my first tour of Australia in 1967-68, under Tiger Pataudi. Tiger was not able to play in the opening Test at Adelaide because he had pulled his hamstring. So Borde, the vice-captain led us. Ian came into bat and I realised quickly that here was a batsman who was too intelligent."

Chappell was using his feet to get to the pitch of the ball and smother the spin, and Prasanna knew he was up against a canny customer. "I had to work a way out of this, set up a trap."

Prasanna's razor sharp cricketing mind was at work."I tested Chappell with well flighted deliveries, he used to smother it and suddenly I realised he was ahead of the forward short leg. Now, we had a scenario where forward short-leg became the backward short-leg literally. So, the backward short-leg became superfluous."

He realised an urgent need for a change in the field setting. A request that Borde agreed to rather reluctantly with Prasanna managing to convince his stand-in captain. "So I asked Borde, can I take out the backward short-leg and place him in the short mid-on region. We could get him out that way. Borde was used to the English field placements of forward and backward short-legs, slip, point. He finally said yes. I sent down a delivery that tempted Chappell to cover-drive, the ball had a lot of spin. He tried to drive, and was caught by Borde at short mid-on! Borde couldn't believe his eyes, that I had set a trap and it had worked! He came over and asked me, 'How did you do it?' One of the instances where I trapped Ian Chappell." A gleaming insight into Prasanna's methods.

Ian Chappell, an attacking batsman and a great Australian leader, calls Prasanna the finest off-spinner he ever faced, while the Indian picks Chappell as a great player of spin. The respect is mutual. "I have admiration for the man. Very attractive, very positive," states Prasanna.

Not surprisingly, Prasanna has special memories about castling the legendary Sir Gary Sobers in Barbados. "When I bowled at Sir Gary Sobers, it was only the second Test of my career, and it was on a shining Jamaican wicket. First day, I sent down about 30 odd overs, got four wickets, including that of Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd, and I contained Sir Gary Sobers. The following day though he hit me."

The cricket caravan shifted to Sobers' homeground, Bridgetown, Barbados. And Prasanna had his revenge. "I had Sir Gary Sobers bowled, because he tried to dominate me from where he had left in Jamaica. I brought the ball in from the off-stump on to his middle-stump, choked him a bit. It had worked according to my game-plan. The next morning some newspapers carried the heading, 'Prasanna bowls Sobers.' Why I picked the examples of Ian Chappell and Gary Sobers is that they were supposed to hit me, but I could win over them. You have to induce them to make mistakes. Nobody is perfect. Even they could make mistakes. Being a bowler you have to invite them to go after you."

He indeed was the quintessentially aggressive spinner, who would flight the ball even more if the batsmen were dancing out to him. "If you don't concede the fact that you have to concede runs to take wickets, bowling becomes monotonous. And you will not eventually turn out to be a winner."

With the ball, he loved calling the shots, was seldom intimidated by reputations. When he was parading his skills with Bishan Bedi or Bhagwat Chandrasekar at the other end, it was the ball that dictated the course of play. "I always wanted to bowl, the way in which I wanted them to bat. My line of thinking was 'I have the ball, I have to let go the ball before they attempt to play,' so that 90 to 95 per cent of the times, they played a shot that I wanted them to play. They may play all along the carpet or they may get a few runs, but still, I believed that since I was an attacking bowler, I would attack." Did someone say cricket was a batsman's game?

Even defensive players were often sold the dummy. Ken Barrington, who could frustrate the best of spinners with an iron-clad defence and endless patience, was in ominous form during the tour of the sub-continent with Ted Dexter's side. Prasanna managed to fox the tenacious Englishman. "I got him. He was playing all right, playing down the line. Then, just to change his line of thinking, I bowled a delivery that drifted away, and he was caught trying to cut. He had been tempted into committing an error."

Mike Denness, a more aggressive customer, met with a similar fate, bamboozled by Prasanna's deadly amalgam of mind and skill.

"England was going well in Madras ('72). Denness played forward, completed the shot, the ball dropped, and went through the bat and pad. He had played early, he was deceived in the air. The 'dip' did him in. He was one of the best players of spin."

In fact, Madras was his favourite hunting ground. The crowd adored him, and he responded with glittering displays of his guile and craft. India was 1-2 down in the 1974-75 home series against the West Indies, when Prasanna scalped nine in the fourth Test at Chepauk to level the scores.

And there are a couple of dismissals that have stayed in his mind. "Bernard Julien was caught and bowled by me in Chennai. It was a floater and I kept the whole on-side open. He played early again, and I waited for him on the follow-through. I knew he would scoop the catch back to me. Then Clive Lloyd was stumped in the second innings. The ball was flighted invitingly, and I held it back. He jumped down, and I could shake hands with him when Engineer whipped off the bails."

In fact, given his tantalising flight and sharp turn, stumpings were a common sight when Prasanna operated. The off-spinner takes another trip down memory lane, to the 1976-77 Test in Bombay against England. "Roger Tolchard was charging at me all the time to pad up or smother the spin. I had planned with Kirmani to have him stumped. The ball drifted through his pads, went on the on-side, and Kiri did the rest."

And there was one team-mate to whom he particularly relished bowling at - the masterly Sunil Gavaskar. Over to Prasanna. "We were playing the Ranji semifinals in '74. He was bowled by a genuine drifter. Pitched on the middle-stump, played down the line. That was the turning point for Karnataka. I will always cherish this as among my top-most wickets. We eventually became champions. In whatever form we used to play, somehow or the other I always used to get Gavaskar's wicket."

An attacking spinner requires the backing of the captain and Prasanna was lucky to have Tiger Pataudi, a fantastic reader of the game, as his skipper. The two jelled wonderfully well, and it was a famous partnership. "Pataudi had a very positive approach that suited me. He was attacking. He could think about my field placements, before I could ask him something. He had a lot of faith in me, because he knew I could rise to any level of excellence. He gave responsibility to me. He knew that what he said, I could do."

Again, Prasanna recalls an incident when Pataudi kept the right man for him at the right place. It's once again the Madras Test of 1974-75 against the West Indies. "He introduced me into the attack when Roy Fredericks and Gordon Greenidge were batting. Within my first two balls, he knew that I would have them. He brought Eknath Solkar to forward short-leg. I made Fredericks come forward. Soon, he walked back, caught Solkar bowled Prasanna. He knew I would do it."

He is frank and forthright about his other captains. "Bishan was attacking, and his line of leadership was good too. Gavaskar might have appeared defensive but he wanted to win. Wadekar was the one who wanted to save and he won the maximum!"

Prasanna has a word of praise for Eknath Solkar, that fearless fielder at short-leg, who plucked catches out of nowhere.

" Solkar was extraordinary. Out of the world. But when we were bowling, he did not get hit even once, despite the fact that we were all supposed to be bowling lollipops, and people expected us to get pulled."

Well, they were not lollipops, but sugar-coated, viciously spinning missiles! Prasanna indeed was the Master of Deception.