The Indian spin drought

UNPARALLELLED... Erapalli Prasanna and Bishan Singh Bedi.-K. MURALI KUMAR

In many ways Warne, Murali and Kumble remind me of the Indian greats, Chandrasekhar, Bishan Bedi, Prasanna and Venkat. They were all different, but had guile, control of length and confusing flight as their main wicket-taking ingredients.

It used to be said at one time in English cricket that if they were short of a fast bowler they would go to the nearest coal mine and shout down their request. That was the story anyway, for great fast bowlers like Harold Larwood, Freddie Trueman and many others honed their strength down in the pits.

It was also understood that every county club would have at least two finger spinners capable of playing for their country. Unfortunately, so much has changed in English cricket that they now struggle to produce even one orthodox spinner good enough to represent their country. Unfortunately, the same seems to be happening in the home of finger spinners — India. Whereas in the past India had an abundance of spinners, the situation is very different today. Is this because for too long wickets have been prepared to help the spinners, or is it just that groundsmen these days can't prepare the flat, perfect wickets that were the hallmark of Indian cricket not so many years ago?

On such perfect wickets finger spinners had to develop the guile, accuracy and patience to gather their rewards. These days, if the wickets don't turn square, finger spinners don't figure in the equation between bat and ball. This is a great shame, for youngsters in India still have the raw natural talent that sets them aside from youngsters outside the sub-continent.

Over the last few years, I have worked closely with the Cricket Club of India's cricket academy. On some advice from myself and under the wise guidance of Raj Singh Dungarpur, we have specialised our efforts on boys under 16 years of age.

It has been remarkable and encouraging to see the talent of these boys selected from all over India. The outstanding ones have been the spinners, both wrist and spin. Most of them, of both types, give the ball a good rip and get a nice loop and good bounce. When you see them bowl you feel that the future for spinners in India is secure. Sure, many of them are tactically poor, but this is something that accompanies experience.

Unfortunately, when you see some of these very talented youngsters 12 or 24 months later the obvious natural talent has diminished, replaced by methods which have taken the flight, bounce and penetration out of their bowling. Is it limited-overs cricket, poor captaincy or just poor coaching, which have blunted these wonderful natural skills?

Probably a bit of each, but poor coaching is high on the agenda. Things have changed at the very highest level with most spinners and the batsmen who face them. Too many coaches seem to be advocating the sweep in various forms as the one and only way to play spinners. England and South Africa, sadly, are prime examples.

Spin bowling coaches want their charges to bowl flatter and look for bat-pad catches as the only way to get a batsman out. Most times, as you watch international spinners operate today (with the exception of Warne, Kumble and Murali), you get the feeling that they are totally restricted in dismissing the batsmen with bat-pad catches.

Murali, Kumble and Warne, on the other hand, are great practitioners of flight and have tactics designed to exploit the weakness of every batsman. Some may say Kumble doesn't flight. Look again and remember flight is anything above the line of the batsmen eyes.

Kumble does this beautifully and this is why he obtains so many LBW decisions with his quicker top-spinners.

In many ways these three bowlers remind me of the Indian greats, Chandrasekhar, Bishan Bedi, Prasanna and Venkat. They were all different, but had guile, control of length and confusing flight as their main wicket-taking ingredients.

I have never seen anyone bowl as easily as Bishan. He was silken-smooth and his rhythm never changed with any delivery. His quicker ball brought him a large number of wickets.

Dean Jones, a very good player of slow bowlers, summed it up best. In 1986, my first year as coach of Australia, we were in Delhi and I asked my old mate Bishan to come and have a bowl at my youngsters. Bishan, as ever, was happy to help an old mate. He turned up at the nets and bowled beautifully, about eight years after he had retired.

Deano, who loved to come down the wicket to the spinners, came up to me after his time against Bishan and said, "Simmo, your old mate certainly has the ball on a string and every time I try to get at him he pulls the string back." To me this was the ultimate compliment to the unmatched left-hand flight of the great Bishan Bedi.

Just before the practice ended, my young charges insisted that I put the pads on and face Bishan. I think honours were even at the end of our contest and some of my players reckoned it was like two old bulls not prepared to give an inch to each other.

Bishan and I enjoyed tilting our skills against each other once again. It is one of my favourite memories of my time in the game.

The greatest right-hand off-spinner I have faced is Prasanna. Pras wasn't as pretty to watch as Bishan, but boy, he could bowl! Like all the great spinners of the time, Pras, brought up on perfect batting pitches, learnt how to get batsmen out on them. He had accuracy, wonderful flight (we always thought he had the ball on a string), a quicker ball and a drifter. Prasanna marooned many a talented right-hander down the wicket with his drifter and he always got a lot of stumpings with the ball that passed the outside of the bat.

Pras was prepared to take a gamble, particularly tempting batsmen into cutting his quicker delivery and nicking to the 'keeper. He was always after me with this delivery.

Chandra always fascinated me and he was a lovely bowler who flighted the ball in much the same way as Kumble is doing now, maintaining excellent line and length.

Anil, probably, has more variety, but I thought Chandra had a better wrong 'un. It was dangerous to play back to Chandra as it is to Kumble now. Chandra would have been unplayable on some of the bouncy spinning wickets that I have seen of late in India. A wonderful bowler and a wonderful man, one of the best on and off the field.

Unfortunately, I didn't see as much as I would have liked of Venkat. I played him in my comeback years of 1977/78 and while he was a fine bowler I thought he lacked the variation of Bedi or Prasanna.