Were Indian batsmen of earlier eras better against spin?
Whenever an overseas spinner takes wickets against India, we hear endless dissections of the reasons why India's batsmen are weak against spin bowling today, but weren't so before. I remember reading about this back in 1999 when Saqlain Mushtaq took two consecutive ten-wicket hauls. Sri Lanka's thrilling win in Galle thanks to the indomitable Rangana Herath is the latest such episode. But is the underlying premise that Indian batsmen from earlier eras played spin better really true?
It's unlikely that any batting line-up will regularly make 400 against good spinners on a turning wicket. A spinner with basic control of length and the ability to get decent dip and turn on helpful pitches, with Test-quality close catchers, should expect a good return.
The top four spin bowlers (by wickets taken) against India in Test cricket are Muttiah Muralitharan, Lance Gibbs, Derek Underwood and Richie Benaud. Murali needs no introduction. Gibbs was the first spinner in Test history to take 300 wickets and for a time was the most prolific wicket-taker in Test cricket. Underwood took 297 Test wickets and 2465 first-class ones. And Benaud was probably the best orthodox legspinner in the world during his time.
In Tests in India, the same four bowlers occupy the top four positions. The records of Benaud and Muralitharan are well known. Let's look at the performances of Underwood, Gibbs and a few other bowlers in India and how they compared with Indian bowlers at home against visiting batsmen.
Lance Gibbs toured India in 1966-67 and 1974-75. In 1966-67, Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, S Venkatraghavan and Bhagwath Chandrasekhar bowled for India, and Gibbs finished as the leading wicket-taker. He was backed by Garry Sobers, who bowled seam-up and spin. Gibbs took his wickets more cheaply and was harder to score off than any of the Indian quartet. West Indies won 2-0.
By 1974-75, Gibbs was nearing the end of his career, while the Indian quartet was in its prime. But compared to 1966-67, when Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith were both past their prime, in 1974-75 Gibbs had a young pace attack, including Andy Roberts, for support. Gibbs took 21 wickets at under 22 apiece in that series and conceded 1.74 runs per over. The figures for the Indian quartet in this series do not make for great reading, though they bowled India to victory in two of the five Tests. The core of the great West Indian batting-line up of the next decade was built during this series. Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge made their debuts; and in the first ever Test at the Wankhede Stadium, Clive Lloyd made 242 not out.
Overall Gibbs took all but three of 63 Indian wickets (42 batsmen) for scores of less than 70. He had better returns against Indian batsmen than India's spin quartet had against Sobers, Richards, Lloyd, Greenidge, Frank Worrell and the rest.
Underwood made three full tours of India - 1972-73, 1976-77 and 1981-82. In 1972-73, India's full-strength side had the better of an English Test team without Geoff Boycott, John Snow or Ray Illingworth. The spin quartet ran riot. And though there were three hundreds by the England batsmen compared to only two by the home side, India's batsmen fared marginally better overall.
The 1976-77 tour was a triumph for Underwood and England. Underwood was the leading wicket-taker in that series, his 29 wickets at 17.55 (at a strike rate of 52.3 balls per wicket, compared to 71.5 for Bedi, 61.2 for Chandrasekhar and 77.5 for Prasanna) the difference between the two sides. In England's two wins in Madras and Delhi, Underwood took a combined 11 for 141, of which nine were top-order batsmen, including Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Brijesh Patel and Mohinder Amarnath.
In 1981-82 , Underwood was neutralised - as were most of the bowlers. Five of the six Tests were drawn and Dilip Doshi was the best bowler on either side. Underwood played his last Test in Sri Lanka that season.
On England's next tour of India, in 1984-85, India's spin-bowling resources were unheralded. Laxman Sivaramakrishnan bowled India to victory in Bombay, but in the first Test, in Delhi, Pat Pocock and Phil Edmonds took 13 wickets between them to bowl England to victory. England would go on to win the series 2-1, following an innings victory in Madras, where Neil Foster took 11 wickets and Graeme Fowler and Mike Gatting made double-hundreds. Though the visiting spinners did not dominate the Indian batsmen in this series, they outbowled India's spinners in the Delhi victory.
In 1969-70 Australia toured India for five Tests and won 3-1. They had Graham McKenzie and Allan Connolly as their new-ball pair. But their top wicket-taker was offspinner Ashley Mallett, who took 28 wickets at 19.1. In the same season, New Zealand visited India for a three-Test series and left with a 1-1 tie. They beat India in Nagpur by 167 runs. Hedley Howarth, Vic Pollard and Mark Burgess got the better of Prasanna, Venkataraghavan and Bedi. India's batting in that match included Chetan Chauhan, Ajit Wadekar, Ashok Mankad, Rusi Surti, MAK Pataudi and Farokh Engineer.
On New Zealand's 1988 tour, John Bracewell took 6 for 51 in the fourth innings at the Wankhede Stadium to back Richard Hadlee's ten wickets and bowl New Zealand to victory by 136 runs. Among Bracewell's wickets were Navjot Sidhu, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohammad Azharuddin and Kapil Dev.
It is also worth mentioning the Bangalore Test against Pakistan in 1986-87, played on a wicket tailor-made for India's spinners to break the deadlocked series. Tauseef Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim outbowled Maninder Singh, Ravi Shastri and Shivlal Yadav, and India lost despite the brilliance of Gavaskar.
If it is believed that Indian batsmen in earlier eras played spin better than the current team, there is precious little in the records to support this view. India's mastery of spin began once Gavaskar established himself in the second half of the 1970s. This was also a phase when the general quality of India's batting improved. In the Tendulkar era, India were among the best players of spin bowling in the world. This probably had to do with a couple of things. Firstly, India mastered Shane Warne. Secondly, apart from Saqlain and Muralitharan, the spin-bowling stocks of the rest of the world's teams were especially low during the 1990s and 2000s. Murali had his triumphs against India in Sri Lanka, but in India he was bested.
However, if you take the long view, good spinners from Benaud to Rangana Herath have had success against India when the conditions suited them. There's nothing to suggest that Herath's tremendous effort in Galle was in any way suggestive of India's especially poor ability against spin today.
Sanjay Manjrekar and others are probably right about the technical points they make, but I feel that had they been commenting on the young versions of Viswanath or Umrigar or Amarnath, they might well have made many of the same points then.
It is also not the case that batting line-ups that are generally good are especially poor against spin. To be a good batsman at Test level is to be a good all-round player. Even against good batsmen, good spinners are still a handful, and reputations do not immunise batsmen, no matter how good they are, against the vagaries of cricket.