From Palwankar to Nayudu

Partab Ramchand

October 6, 2001

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No country has thrown up a more mesmeric variety of spin bowlers than India. And it has not been just the variety that has fascinated cricket connoisseurs the world over, but how the bowlers have managed to be among the greatest in contemporary cricket. Vinoo Mankad in his time was the finest left arm spin bowler in the world, Subash Gupte the best of his type, while the spin quartet, of course, re-wrote the history of spin bowling.

The best batsmen the world over have always admitted that their cricketing education has not been complete without successfully tackling the Indian spin bowlers, particularly on their home wickets. In their own way, they have bewildered batsmen as much as the most fearsome fast bowlers have terrorized them.
The strength of this mode of attack has more than covered up the general lack of pace bowling in Indian cricket. Even when, for a change, Kapil Dev held sway for about a decade and a half, Indian spinners were still good enough to win matches for the country.

The best batsmen the world over have always admitted that their cricketing education has not been complete without successfully tackling the Indian spin bowlers, particularly on their home wickets. In their own way, they have bewildered batsmen as much as the most fearsome fast bowlers have terrorized them.

The tradition of the best of Indian spin bowling can be traced back almost 100 years ­ and to Baloo Palwankar. Today he is acknowledged as the first great Indian spinner. He had to come up the hard way, fighting the caste considerations of those days.

Born in Bombay in 1876, Palwankar was an `untouchable' (Gandhiji later called them Harijans) and worked as a groundsman at a club for a paltry salary of three rupees a month. His low caste status meant that, despite being a gifted bowler, he could not play for the Hindu Gymkhana, a prestigious Bombay club at the time. The Parsees, who had played a notable role in popularizing the game in the country in the late 19th century and early 20th century, gave him the opportunity to play. Subsequently, when the Hindus discovered that there was a certain magic in his fingers, he was quickly made a member of the club and later went on to captain the Hindus!

Prof DB Deodhar was of the view that Palwankar was as good a bowler as Wilfred Rhodes and Hedley Verity. On the all-India tour of England in 1911, the gifted left-arm spinner took over 114 wickets at the niggardly average of 18.86.

He played first class cricket for the Hindus in the Quadrangular till 1921 and his overall figures serve to show what a good bowler he undoubtedly was. During his career, which started in 1905, he took 179 wickets at 15.21 apiece. He died in Bombay in 1955 and now has a road named after him in the metropolis.

As Indian cricket came of age in the 20s and 30s, the focus shifted to pace in the form of Mohammad Nissar and Ladha Amar Singh. With the medium-paced cutters of CK Nayudu and Jahangir Khan for support, there was very little scope for spin to succeed.

The one spinner who could just about get a place in the Indian side at this time was Rusi Jamshedji. He was born in Bombay in 1892 but made his first-class debut only at the age of 30. A left-arm spinner of the orthodox school, he played with some success in the two unofficial Tests against Arthur Gilligan's MCC team of 1926-27, but he made his Test debut only against Douglas Jardine's team seven years later.

By this time he was 41 and still remains the oldest Indian player to make his debut. He did well enough though, picking up three wickets for 137 from 35 overs. That remained his only Test and under the shadow of the well-established and immensely successful pace duo of Nissar and Amar Singh, there was never any chance for a spin bowler to be a force to reckon with ­ an interesting fact given the acute scarcity of pace bowlers in later years.

Given this scenario, it is not surprising that Mushtaq Ali was picked for his first couple of Tests primarily as a left-arm spin bowler. But India's best bet around this time was probably Cottari Subbana Nayudu, the younger brother of CK. Born in 1914 at Nagpur, Nayudu was a right arm leg-spin-cum-googly bowler who spun the ball fiercely.

A bundle of energy, he made his firstclass debut in 1931, his Test debut in England in 1936, and between 1934 and 1961 in the Ranji Trophy had a bag of 295 wickets ­ a record until VV Kumar broke it in 1970-71.

He was a prominent member of the formidable Holkar side of the 40s and 50s and took 14 wickets in a match once, besides twice exceeding 30 wickets in a season, which, given the limited opportunities in those days, was a commendable feat. He was also a batsman capable of getting four first class hundreds. But somehow his career for India proved disappointing, as illustrated by his figures in 11 Tests ­ two wickets at 179.50 apiece.

Nayudu still holds the record of bowling more overs in a match than anyone else. In the 1944-45 Ranji Trophy final against Bombay, he sent down 152.5 overs ­ 917 deliveries in all ­ to bag 11 wickets. By the time Nayudu had played his last Test against England in 1951-52, India were on the verge of discovering their first outstanding spin trio.

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