The Wizard of Fizz

RAJU BHARATAN

IN England Sourav's India already is. And to England it was that Subhash Gupte went seven years too late in his spin span. As we pressmen (a posse of three!) landed in England for the summer of 1952, the consensus among the cognoscenti there was that India must be an unusually strong touring team. Seeing how India could afford to leave out one already ranking, potentially, as the best right-arm leg-spinner in the world! It was with a rare fizz that the 22-year-old Gupte released his wrist-spun leg-breaks by 1952. The tragedy of being Subhash Gupte was that, as 'The Wizard of Fizz', this aristocrat of spin made it to England only by 1959 when he was going on 30. Only to shed world status as a leg-spinner in an England that had been waiting to watch his sleight-of-hand for years on end.

Subhash Gupte will be remembered as a bowler whose crafty disguise of intent matched his arty flexibility of wrist.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Do we pause to examine such a startling career happening at a point when Subhash Gupte is no less now that he is no more? For my part, I do believe that the best writing on Subhash Gupte - on how his art lay in concealing art - was done when the C. K. Nayudu Award for Lifetime Achievement was so becomingly bestowed upon this little marvel just over nine months ago. As a 'personality' performer falling into an international spin class all his own, Subhash Gupte remains the dimension of deliverer whose niche is secure in our mind and heart. As one whose crafty disguise of intent matched his arty flexibility of wrist.

Gary Sobers first espied this 'Rumpelstiltskin of Spin' ('Fergie' to the Caribbeans, 'Subia' to us) when India's wonder virtuoso was at his whirring best. Never could Gary forget 'Fergie' as the 'mystique man' who bowled out the near insuperable West Indies for 222 inside the first day of the December 1958 Kanpur Test - with just five minutes to go for the close. Thus did Gupte Green Park himself in the Windies psyche as India's star 'turn'. Subhash Gupte's single-innings figures on that epic day, 34.3-11-102-9, is ninth among Wisden's 'Indian Top 10 Bowling Analyses Of All Time.' If but 66th in the 'Wisden 100.'

'Fergie' here captured the first seven West Indies wickets in a mesmeric row, including in his bulging bag Holt (31), Hunte (29), Kanhai (0), Sobers (4), Butcher (2) and Collie Smith (20). Subhash Gupte thus looked poised for 'The Perfect 10' a full 40 years before Anil Kumble. This, bewilderingly, was when Ghulam Ahmed (appearing none too fit to off-spin them out as India's captain) took over from 'Fergie' Gupte to bowl wretchedly. So much so that Ghulam Ahmed (10-3-29-0) had no go but to look to 'Fergie' Gupte, anew, to scalp Joe Solomon (45) and Gerry Alexander (70). By then, sadly, the 'Fergie' spell had been broken - as No. 9 Lance Gibbs (0) contrived to be bowled by Vasant Ranjane. If Jim Laker, in 1956, flaunted 10 wickets in an innings for first Surrey and then England, Subhash Gupte (that Friday of December 12, 1958) looked all set to duplicate the mind-bending feat. After all, had this peerless purveyor of parabolic slows not already registered figures of 24.2-7-78-10 (in a single innings) for Bombay vs the touring Pakistan Services & Bahawalpur C.C. at the Brabourne Stadium in the 1954-55 season to reach his zenith?

It was by such world-spinning standards that Gary Sobers assessed Subhash Gupte. Records Trevor Bailey in Sir Gary: A Biography: "Sobers sometimes failed to pick the googly early on - he recalls that Subhash Gupte troubled him this way. Of the wrist spinners he encountered, Sir Gary thought Subhash Gupte to be the best." As an impressionable teenager, Gary Sobers had obviously viewed 'Fergie' Gupte in buzzing action during India's early-1953 tour of the West Indies under Vijay Hazare. Excelling against a West Indies team comprising 'The Three Ws' (Worrell, Weekes and Walcott) - not to speak of Jeff Stollmeyer, Allan Rae and Gerry Gomez - this top-flight Indian, with his esoteric legerdemain, had (in the five Tests) consolidated figures of 329.3-87-789-27 (ave. 29.22).

There could be no doubt that Subhash Gupte was beginning to peak by this mid-1953 point. So swiftly did he grow in stature that Australia's most cultured left-handed batsman of the time, Neil Harvey, was determined to get after 'Fergie' to prove a point as he came face to face with one who had crafted wrist spin into an art form. By that mid-1950s stage Subhash Gupte was being hailed as the best of his type in the world. So Neil Harvey decided to take on 'Fergie' in the October 1956 Brabourne Stadium Test between Ray Lindwall's Australia and Polly Umrigar's India. "If you have a world reputation, so do I!" Harvey challenged Gupte. Saying that, this willowy left-hander proceeded to knock the Hades out of India's elfin wrist spinner in his stroke-laden 140.

Yet Subhash Gupte, like all great spinners, lived to fight and flight another day. But not, inexplicably, after he toured England in 1959. Following that traumatising tour, Subhash Gupte caught a Tartar in Hanif Mohammad in the very first Test between Pakistan and India at Bombay's Brabourne Stadium in December 1960. From the word go, Hanif (in compiling an initiative-seizing 160 run out) came dancing down the wicket to meet Gupte's sensuously tossed-up ones on the full. That Bombay Test had witnessed Subhash Gupte's return to the India team after his having missed a whole series of five Tests against Richie Benaud's Australia at home in 1959-60 (away in the West Indies as one married there). Hanif thus set out to undermine Subhash from the outset, having obviously picked up the gumption to do so from the way 'Fergie' failed to live up to his world standing during the 1959 tour of England (integrated analysis in five Tests: 199.4-51-589-17 - ave. 34.64).

After that December 1960 Bombay Test vs Pakistan, Subhash Gupte saw that, for the first time, he had unfailingly to perform to hold his specialist spot in the India XI. Subhash now (against Pakistan itself) first made way for brother Baloo Gupte (30-9-97-0 & 5-0-19-0 in the fourth Test at Madras). And, finally, for the one long considered his logical wrist spinner-successor, V. V. Kumar (almost match-winningly 37.5-21-64-5 & 36-17-68-2 in the fifth and final Test against Fazal Mahmood's Pakistan at the Kotla). That Kumar tamely gave way to Subhash Gupte against Ted Dexter's England by the December 1961 second Test at Green Park was VV's own fitness fault. But Subhash Gupte, by this juncture, also found Chandu Borde springing up as a surprise 'wristy' rival - after Fergie's having displayed his artistry, one last time for India, in the December 1961 Kanpur Test vs Ted Dexter's England (40-12-90-5 in the first innings). But Subhash Gupte's second-stanza 33-8-89-1 here was held against him for "no real penetration any longer."

How Subhash Gupte came under a cloud by end-1961 itself is not a chapter in his career worth recalling when wrist spin remains the man's signature tune. In actual fact, the 1959 summer in England had already proved Subhash Gupte's international undoing as Dattajirao Gaekwad's India came to be whitewashed 5-0. Subhash Gupte's 17 wickets from five Tests here had come at 34.64 each. That tour of England, in truth, signalled the beginning of 'Fergie' Gupte's end as a world-class spinner. We knew what to expect when a commentator-writer sympathetic to India from the pre-August 1947 years, John Arlott, felt constrained to observe in the 1960 Playfair Cricket Annual: "Gupte was the greatest disappointment of the tour, if not of the (English) season. Technically as good a leg-break bowler as any in the world, he had studied English conditions in Lancashire League cricket. But, although he already had a world reputation, this was his entry into English first-class cricket and many enthusiasts looked forward to his bowling with considerable interest. He may well have been discouraged by poor support from his fieldsmen but, whatever the reason, he demonstrably lost heart and, within a few matches, began to bowl defensively, abandoning flight and losing life off the pitch."

I pinpoint this just to drive home how different things would have been if Subhash Gupte (Test career figures: 1880.4-599-4403-149 - ave. 29.55) had toured England in 1952 itself. Remember Subhash Gupte tossed 'em up in an era when the top Test batsmen he confronted were absolutely world class. Had 'Fergie' Gupte therefore gone to the Old Country in 1952, he would not, in the high meridian of his career, have undertaken his first tour of England as a total stranger to Test-bowling conditions there (in 1959). After that, in India, Chandu Borde was to Subhash Gupte what Stuart MacGill is to Shane Warne today.

Does that five-Test 1959 series in England (followed by his wayward performances for India from December 1960 to December 1961) diminish Subhash Gupte's rating as an all-time great? No way. There comes a point in the life and times of a super spinner when he falls short merely by his own highest standards. Is not Shane Warne, right now, going through the same excruciating experience as Subhash Gupte did then? And who shall say that Warne will not go the Gupte way at this U-turn in his career? The legend of being Subhash Gupte is the reality of being Shane Warne!