'Sunny was middling the ball, no edges, no tension'
It happened 25 years ago, but the passing of a quarter of a century has not dulled Raghuram Bhat's memory one bit. The former Karnataka and India left-arm spinner, who is currently manager of the Karnataka team, broke out in unrestrained laughter when asked if he remembered the time Sunil Gavaskar batted left handed against him to save a Ranji match.
"That cannot be forgotten. The ball was turning right angles on the day. I was just pitching the ball in the good length spot, because I did not know how much the ball was going to spin; sometimes I tried to bowl an armer and it turned," he said, in a freewheeling chat on the sidelines of the Karnataka-Saurashtra Ranji Trophy match. "The ball was beating the bat and the only way to play on that day was to play left-hand and play forward and offer pad. That's how Gavaskar played and he really played well and saved the game for Mumbai. It was a great thing to bowl to him and the guts he showed in batting left-handed, for some 12-13 overs, was amazing."
It's often been suggested that Gavaskar was wrong to bat left-handed, and that in some ways it was a disrespect to the bowler, but Bhat will have none of that. "I won't consider it as negative batting, he was trying to save the game and that was his duty than to get embarrassed by losing outright. His footwork on the day was something to be seen to be believed. If I had recorded that game on video I would have shown that to young cricketers as an example. Sunny was middling the ball, no edges, no tension."
For Bhat, that was the red-letter day in his 82-match first class career. Although the match was drawn, Karnataka advanced to the final of the Ranji Trophy by virtue of a first-innings lead, and Bhat had 13 wickets in the game, taking 8 for 123 in the first innings that included a hat-trick. Strong performances in domestic cricket won him a place in the Indian Test team, but that was to last only two matches, where he picked up four wickets, including that of Javed Miandad and Clive Lloyd, but he was dropped after that, never to be picked again.
Since he retired from first-class cricket, just as a young Sunil Joshi was making his mark for Karnataka, Bhatt has served in many capacities - as umpire, administrator and coach. Today, when he watches cricket, he, like other quality spinners of his generation, is amazed at the lack of back up for Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. "Basically, we have forgotten the spin bowling department unlike in the earlier days. There are left-arm spinners but the quality is not there. The talent is missing somewhere. We have to put our spin department back on track."
Unlike some other veterans, though, Bhat does not simply bemoan the lack of talent. He is encouraged by the cricketers he sees coming through the younger age groups, and is working with the Karnataka State Cricket Association to put systems in place that will unearth fresh talent. Already people speak highly of KP Appanna, the 17-year-old left-arm spinner who has picked up 21 wickets in his debut season. "What I feel is the most important quality in a spinner is the consistency. They should not get carried away by the success; it is important. They have to work continuously, they cannot say that I have taken 25-30 wickets this season and sit back," he says.
Bhat insists that it is quality spin that will win India matches. "Ultimately, spinners have to win the game for us. If you look at the recently concluded Cape Town Test, we would have won the game if Anil would have been a little bit effective," he said. "A left-arm spinner would have made a difference. With a left-arm spinner your team is complete."
India have not had a left-arm spinner to play consistently since Venkatapathi Raju played the part. Murali Kartik has done the job when called upon, but has not been able to go past either Kumble or Harbhajan in the race to be picked. It's too early to tell if there's a young cricketer rising up the ranks who can do the job, but people like Raghuram Bhat are certainly searching hard.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo