Where are the left-arm spinners?

S. DINAKAR

ENGLAND, a land where that peerless Sardar Bishan Singh Bedi and that indomitable all-rounder Vinoo Mankad had left the audience enthralled with their craft and guile, has an Indian side in its midst without a left-arm spinner. Sad, but true.

In three major successive Test tours, South Africa, West Indies and now England, India has chosen to travel without a left-arm spinner, while Daniel Vettori and Ashley Giles have played prominent roles in the Kiwi and English campaigns.

And at home, the members of this unfortunate tribe, have been making guest appearances. There one match, gone the next. The most glaring example - three of them being fielded in that historic three-Test home series against Australia in 2001.

It's another matter altogether that Harbhajan Singh's off-spin scripted a sensational series victory for India. The musical chairs with the left-arm spinners revealed a distinct lack of clarity of thought among the selectors.

Rahul Sanghvi turned out in the first Test in Mumbai, Venkatapathy Raju took over the mantle in the second at the Eden Gardens and it was Nilesh Kulkarni in Chennai. Simply bewildering.

Or take the case of that genuine talent, Murali Kartik. So shabbily treated, having been dumped from the squad without receiving an opportunity in the West Indies (ODIs).

Two home Tests against South Africa in 2000, where he was handed a defensive role, asked to bowl over-the-wicket to the right handers, one Test in Dhaka, where Sourav Ganguly forgot his existence for most part, another match against Zimbabwe and soon Kartik found himself out in the cold.

Kartik, who has learnt much of his craft from Bedi, has an effective arm ball, exactly where he scores over someone like Sunil Joshi (41 wickets in 15 Tests). The Karnataka bowler, when he struck rhythm, flighted invitingly, got the ball to spin away from the right-handers, but the lack of a wicked armer stood between him and success at the highest level.

Much has been written and said about his suspect temperament and a lack of self-belief, yet Joshi's story could have been so different had he possessed a stinging armer in his repertoire.

Kartik is lucky, for Bedi has guided him since his formative years, and the Sardar could send down armers at varying speeds. And it was the arm ball that proved Kartik's principal weapon as he enjoyed a fine domestic season last year, starring in Railways' Ranji triumph.

Among the other left-arm spinners in the contemporary scene with the Test cap is Delhi's Rahul Sanghvi, a regular wicket-taker in the domestic circuit. While his approach to bowling cannot be faulted - he is on the look-out for wickets - the left-arm spinner suffers since he tosses the ball up and doesn't quite flight it, which means the 'loop', such a vital element of deception, is conspicuous by its absence.

In other words, Sanghvi is extremely vulnerable when the batsmen decide to go after him; he is not a big spinner of the ball as well. Yet, Sanghvi is hard working, is not averse to receiving suggestions, and has the opportunity to improve in the coming years. The tall and lean Nilesh Kulkarni is a limited bowler, who was never really cut out for the big stage.

Apart from Kartik, the domestic scenario doesn't appear bright either. In fact, during the last Duleep season, we had Sridharan Sriram, better known for his batting ability, sending down over after over for South Zone as the lone left-arm spinner in two games. The fact that veteran Utpal Chatterjee is still turning his arm over for East Zone sends the wrong signal.

The left-arm spinners do bring variety into the attack and, on a turning track, can be the most dangerous, really. Indeed, if a left-arm spinner operating round the wicket gets his line right against a right-hander on a wicket affording help, then the odds are loaded against the batsman.

And the very angle from where he releases the ball makes him different from a leg-spinner, for instance, who too turns the ball from leg to off.

Travelling to the 60s and 70s, we come across a totally different picture. There indeed is so much classicism associated with Bedi that the romantics of the game will always have a special place in their heart for this glorious left-arm spinner. The tantalising flight, the deceptive loop, the vicious turn, the subtle variations, the clever use of the crease, the bulging bag of tricks, and astonishing consistency made Bedi (266 wickets in 67 Tests), both, a match-winner and a connoisseur's delight.

A 'killer' arm-ball was Bedi's biggest weapon, the mean delivery either rattling the timber or catching the hapless batsmen right in front. A supremely attacking customer, Bedi certainly was.

The man whose turbans were often as colourful as his delightful bowling played his last Test at the Oval '79, a match where Sunil Gavaskar completed a heroic double century on the final day, and it marked the end of one man's fascinating journey.

Before Bedi, Vinoo Mankad (162 wkts. in 44) was a left-arm spinner of the highest quality apart from being one of India's finest all-rounders. Salim Durrani (75 in 29), was a moody cricketer with that distinctive streak of genius in him, and Bapu Nadkarni (88 in 41), was as niggardly as they come. All left their mark, in differing ways. And when Bedi ruled in the 60s and 70s, it meant two exceptional left-arm spinners, Bombay's Padmakar Shivalkar and Haryana's Rajinder Goel found the 'Test' match door firmly shut on them. It's anybody's guess how many Test batsmen they would have consumed in the barren present day scenario.

Dilip Doshi was luckier. He was past his 30s when he first turned out for India, against the Aussies in Chennai, 1979-80 season, yet ended up with a highly creditable 114 wickets in 33 Tests.

Doshi was a spinner of the ball and his control over line and length - he made the batsmen earn every run - ensured that the pressure would be on from one end. In fact, much before the pace-spin combination of Srinath and Kumble, Kapil Dev and Doshi did much the same for India in the early 80s.

Around the same period, two very different left-arm spinners emerged - Ravi Shastri and Maninder Singh. The tall Shastri (151 wickets in 80 Tests) who gradually developed into a reliable opener, was an intelligent customer, working on a batsmen's weakness. He may not have been the classical spinner, but made the most of his ability. In the later stages of his career, given that batting was his much stronger flank, wickets from Shastri enhanced his value to the side.

Maninder Singh, pitchforked into Test cricket a touch too soon, eventually finished with 88 scalps in 35 Tests, and considering his potential, that would go down as a huge disappointment. He was a precociously talented bowler with flight and spin, but lacked the guile of someone like Bedi.

The Bangalore Test of the 1986-87 season against Pakistan springs to mind, where, on a minefield, on which just adhering to the basics would have enabled Maninder run through the side, he tried too many variations in the Pakistan second innings and faltered. India went down in a nail-biting finish. Later in his career, Maninder ran into problems with his action, and was a shadow of the bowler he once was when he bid adieu.

Ironically, the customer who could have been destructive on wickets providing a measure of assistance, was given the short shrift by the selectors during the 80s. Karnataka's Raghuram Bhat, who possessed a lethal armer, could have been the match-winner in that Bangalore Test against Pakistan.

In the 90s, Venkatapathy Raju had been quite successful, without really managing to graduate to the centre-stage. Raju (93 wickets in 28 Tests), believes in the virtues of flight, but then, with Anil Kumble being India's swordarm at home, the Hyderabad bowler's role was more of a supporting one. He had his moments in tandem with Kumble at home, however, away from it, Raju's success has been limited; the loss of fizz in the arm ball during the later stages of his career - his arm got lower too - being a major stumbling block.

Back to the present and the future. Murali Kartik has interesting possibilities, and with time, could emerge a match-winner for India. Are the selectors taking note?