April 23, 2014

Fizz, flight and loop

Erapalli Prasanna was a masterful conjurer and perhaps the shrewdest of India's great spin quartet

Prasanna was forever trying to improve as a bowler, even in his last match © PA Photos

The last time I saw him in action was during the V Sivaramakrishnan benefit match between two teams of veteran cricketers at Chepauk in April 1993. The match got off to an electrifying start with Sunil Gavaskar, by then in his mid-40s, playing some pluperfect drives off the medium-pacers. When spin was introduced and EAS Prasanna came on, the "Little Master" greeted him with more of the same.

The two maestros had turned the clock back and those fortunate to be there that morning were witness to a vintage duel between tantalising flight and dancing feet. Then came the delivery of the day, with Gavaskar forward, aiming a push to the on side, and the ball clipping the off bail. Prasanna was nearly 53 years old.

He had never been an athletic figure on a cricket field, but I believe he was as fit for his job as any top-rung cricketer of his time. In his senior years, nothing much had changed in his bounding run-up and classical side-on finish, and the ball continued to fizz after it left his hand and travelled towards the batsman in an enticing arc, even though he was tubbier than he had been in his playing days.

This was almost 15 years after I had last met him on a cricket field as an opponent - when I was playing for Hyderabad and he for Karnataka. It was one of his last Ranji Trophy matches, if not the very last one, if memory serves me right. In the course of a seven-wicket haul, he bowled splendidly, even applauding my pull to the boundary off him, and having me caught at bat-pad next ball while I was aiming an extra-cover drive.

What caught the attention of some of us during the match even more than Prasanna's brilliant spell was his bowling in the nets. With little change in his regular offspin action, he repeatedly made the ball go the other way off the pitch, visibly enjoying the addition of a new weapon to his arsenal. This was a veritable legbreak, not the floater with which he had fooled many a batsman, including Gavaskar in the Ranji Trophy semi-final in March 1974 - a dismissal almost identical to the one I watched in the veterans match two decades later.

When one of us ventured to ask him if he had tried the variation in a match yet, he said, "No. I am not ready. I haven't mastered it."

In hindsight, Prasanna had stumbled upon the doosra long before Saqlain Mushtaq - and I can swear he delivered it with a perfectly straight arm - and retired without trying it in a match situation. The fact that he was still trying to grow as a bowler in his last match and yet held back a new trick (like a classical musician of the old school, averse to presenting a song on stage before practising it hundreds of times) only underlined his greatness.

Young cricketers and cricket enthusiasts often wonder if spinners of Prasanna's vintage could survive the assault of contemporary batsmen and bats, especially as they were said to flight the ball way more than today's bowlers. The answer would of course be that those flighted deliveries were no gentle lobs but sharply spun balls that tended to dip in front of the batsman and spit; at any rate great spinners of any era adapt to the conditions of the day, and flight is not some one-arc-for-all standard fare.

True, a Prasanna today would perhaps go for more sixes - including mishit ones - than he did in his day, but he would still fool batsmen with his deceptive loop. He never represented India in an ODI, but was very effective in the few matches he played in the Deodhar Trophy, the zonal one-day championship.

Would Prasanna have been an effective bowler in T20 cricket? I like to believe, especially after watching the successful exploits of Sunil Narine, R Ashwin and Praveen Tambe, that he would. Prasanna was perhaps the shrewdest of the quartet of spinners India produced in the 1960s, and I believe he would have adapted beautifully to the shortest form of the game. He would have offered his captain an attacking bowling option, especially against left-hand batsmen. At any rate, a more confident bowler would be hard to find.

V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s