September 7, 2015

When Indian cricket was brimming with offies

Not at all of them turned the ball into the right-hander, but they kept batsmen on their toes with variations of flight and pace

Gopal Sharma: an offspinner who pitched his deliveries straight or towards slips © Getty Images

I remember being greatly offended reading a comment Sri Lankan stalwart FC de Saram once made to offspinner turned commentator Robin Marlar. "Flaming [a euphemism for what he actually said] offspinners" is how he described Marlar and my tribe of bowlers, against whom he was particularly destructive during his career.

Marlar's article that mentioned this - which I read during the peak of India's slow-bowling riches in the form of the quartet and other spinners of quality in the country - set me reflecting on the craft of offspin bowling. Was de Saram right in his contempt? Was it the easiest bowling for right-hand batsmen to face? Did the Sri Lankan play in a period of scarcity in offbreak bowling?

When I looked around at the Indian domestic scene of the time, I found only partial truth in de Saram's generalisation. There were a handful of ordinary offspinners, though most were extremely accurate and clever exploiters of any assistance on offer from the pitch. Some were unintentional purveyors of the doosra, though Saqlain Mushtaq and his discovery were well into the future: far from being a variation, it was their stock delivery. The harder they tried to turn it, the more the ball deviated the other way.

The fine little spinner Gopal Sharma was a classic example of this type of bowler, and I hope he won't mind my saying so, for I intend no disrespect. He was highly successful at the first-class level, and did play for India, but I rarely ever saw him bowl a genuine offbreak; most of his deliveries instead went straight or floated towards slip. He was a smart operator with numerous variations in flight and pace, and fooled many batsmen with them.

Revealingly, he often deployed a field of five on the off side, in sharp contrast to the masters of the craft, who bowled with three on off and six on leg at their best and when the wicket was doing something. Sharma's field was not too uncommon, either, for English offspinners like Ray Illingworth tended to bowl to similar fields.

Growing up as a young bowler in the south, I came across a number of offspinners who spun the ball sharply. The tall Ramanathan Chandrasekaran of State Bank of India was one who did. Once Srinivas Venkataraghavan debuted for Madras and quickly went on to play for India, Chandrasekaran had to be content with the opportunities that State Bank's inter-circle matches afforded him to showcase his skills. Not only did he collect bagfuls of wickets in that competition, in which many leading Test batsmen took part, he once made 174 batting in the lower order.

His State Bank colleague R Raghavan belonged to the category of smart rather than sharp offspinners, while K Ganapathy was from the old school of slow men who tossed the ball high with remarkable control.

Of those who turned their bodies much more than they did the ball, Najam Hussain and JS Ghanshyam were champions of such sleight of hand. I have recalled elsewhere on this blog how Najam could be deadly on a wicket offering assistance.

Hyderabad, the team I played for, had several offspinners of merit in the era after Ghulam Ahmed, the best of them all. The fastish and frequently unplayable M Jairam was said to have a suspect action, but he was a willing soldier, always ready to do his bit for his team. He might not have passed the 15-degree test, but he apocryphally achieved 15 minutes of fame when, representing South Zone, he faced Wes Hall unprotected by an abdomen guard and was hit in the region.

Hyderabad offspinner Ghulam Ahmed took 68 Test wickets and 407 first-class wickets between 1939 and 1959 © Getty Images

Naushir Mehta was a hugely successful offspinner of my time, and he too had the uncanny knack of floating the ball away from the right-hander. By drifting towards off, he would have the batsman in doubt as to which way the ball would go after pitching.

Of those who followed me in the Hyderabad side, the excellent allrounder Arshad Ayub bowled straight and away-going deliveries more often than he did the offbreak, which would surprise the batsman with its sharpness and speed. Kanwaljit Singh was a top-class offspinner distinctly unlucky to miss playing Test cricket.

One genuine offspinner who never came into the limelight beyond the south was my senior by some years. K Bavanna bowled from a good height and gave the ball a hard tweak. He was devilish on matting, as some of the finest South Zone batsmen of the period found out. He remained unknown at the national level as Andhra did not qualify for the knockout part of the Ranji Trophy.

Prasannasimha Rao must have been a good offspinner since he made a remarkably successful debut for Karnataka in the absence of Erapalli Prasanna, who was on Test duty.

Offspinners of his state and neighbouring Tamil Nadu found their progress blocked by the presence of their famous seniors, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan, unless they migrated to other states. Did Rao ever contemplate such a move, I wonder.

Two of his state mates, offspinners GV Kumar and Suresh Shanbal, were very successful, sometimes devastatingly so, for a couple of seasons.

This was a time when throwing was prevalent. I remember at least one occasion when skipper Brijesh Patel just changed a no-balled bowler to the other end and got away with it. The ploy, however, did not work with umpire Piloo Reporter, who would also call bowlers for chucking when serving as straight umpire, standing a couple of steps behind the normal position.

One of the most watchable offspinners of the period was N Bharathan, brilliant in inter-university cricket with both bat and ball, but who only played one first-class match. He had a lovely loop and healthy self-belief. He was probably the best equipped offspinner of my time unfortunately not seen at the national level.

It was indeed a period of riches in a facet of cricket that de Saram so despised.

V Ramnarayan bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s. His latest book is Third Man, Recollections from a Life in Cricket

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