April 28, 2001

Eleven doughty protagonists to champion the minority

For the first time in India an intriguing contest between left and right-handers gets underway in the Timex Challenge at the Wankhede Stadium on Sunday. The teams appear to be closely matched but the left-handers are a trifle top-heavy with batsmen. With just three bowlers and no specialist keeper there are definite chinks in their armour. One wonders why Delhi tearaway Ashish Nehra wasn't invited to share the new ball with Zaheer Khan. But then again one-day cricket, and especially a festival game of this nature, is unabashedly a batsman's game.

Left-handers are a hopeless minority, albeit a rather distinguished one, in the game but in recent years their numbers have been creeping up steadily. There is something to be said for the grace and elegance of left-handers, especially when they play the drive, and Jack Fingleton once floated the theory that many left-handers are actually stronger in their right hand which is the top or guiding hand, and hence the rudder, when it comes to the drive. The classing of lefthanders is a difficult proposition since many of them do only certain skills with their left hand and others with the right. In Indian cricket left-handed bowlers are fairly common (both spinners and to a lesser extent medium pacers) but left-handed batsmen have been at a premium. It is only lately that this historical imbalance is being righted.

The first Indian lefthander was PE Palia who played in the country's inaugural Test against England at Lord's in 1932. Palia was primarily a middle order batsman who was also a left arm orthodox spinner, after a fashion. But the honour of being India's first specialist left arm bowler went to Palia's fellow Parsi, RJD Jamshedji at Bombay in 1933/34. Indeed Jamshedji was India's first specialist slow bowler, right or left. The bowlers poured forth steadily since, from Vinoo Mankad downwards, but the batsmen dried up to a trickle. The longest hiatus was from 1978/79, when Surinder Amarnath played his last Test against Pakistan in Karachi, until 1987/88 when Woorkheri Raman debuted against West Indies.

If one could go back into time and pick an all time Indian eleven of lefthanders, what would it look like? It's not easy to find eleven men who both batted and bowled left handed, so the rules will be amended to seek players who performed their core skill with the left hand. Here again, a difficulty arises about Vinoo Mankad who bowled left handed and batted right: which did he do better? Rather than debate that ticklish point, the simpler option is to disqualify him.

Saurav Ganguly who already lays claim, at 28 years of age, to being India's greatest lefthander ever, can be pencilled in right away at No.1. Finding his partner is also not too complicated. Indeed, incredible as it may seem, just three lefthanders have opened the batting for India in Test cricket: Nari Contractor, Woorkheri Raman and Sadagopan Ramesh. Contractor made his debut at No.7 but leapfrogged to the opener's spot in his very next game. An obdurate batsman who offered a reassuring presence upfront, he will lend a calming influence to the host of strokemakers to follow.

Vinod Kambli follows at No.3. The dream start to his Test career (he became the fastest Indian to reach 1000 runs) soured as he wrestled with the twin foibles of suspect technique and temperament. Dropped for the England tour of 1996 on patently non-cricketing grounds, Kambli never seemed to recover from the resulting dent to his confidence. After several failed comebacks, he remains one of the biggest enigmas in Indian cricket.

Next in line is Ajit Wadekar. Leader of sides that won back-to-back series in West Indies and England in 1971, his claim to being skipper is unrivalled. He had the frustrating inability to convert his fifties into three figures, making just a solitary Test century in Wellington. Salim Durani, that 'wayward genius', is a cinch as the first all rounder in the team at No.5. As a crowd puller, he was perhaps unsurpassed and his uncanny knack of offering the spectators a six on demand was legendary. His slow left arm stuff was perhaps underrated but it was Durrani who delivered the crucial break for India in the Port of Spain Test of 1971 by dismissing Lloyd and Sobers in one over.

Another surprising statistic is India's inability to produce a single left-handed wicket keeper in its Test history. The shortage of such a species necessitates the selection of a nonspecialist keeper. Gul Mahomed who kept wickets in three tour games on the 1946 tour of England deputising for DD Hindlekar is probably best suited to fit the bill. Besides being a pugnacious batsman - he had a half share in the world partnership record of 577 with Vijay Hazare - Gul also displayed quicksilver reflexes in the field, which would doubtless serve in good stead behind the wickets too.

Following in his footsteps, I propose AG Ram Singh, perhaps the finest player never to don the flannels for India in an official Test. It still remains a mystery how he missed out on the 1936 tour of England after a stellar role in the first two editions in the Ranji Trophy. A dangerous customer with both bat and ball, Ram Singh is succeeded by a third spinning all-rounder in Bapu Nadkarni. The meanest bowler of his time and perhaps of all time - Gary Sobers said he was the only bowler he ever saw who sprinted down the wicket to prevent a single after his delivery stride - Nadkarni was also good enough to strike one Test century.

As for left arm seamers, India have had a fair share of them beginning with Mumbai policeman Ghulam Mustafa Guard in 1958/59, down to Zaheer Khan. The two best were inarguably Rusi Surti and Karsan Ghavri, both handy batsmen to boot, the latter having the additional asset of bowling left arm spin when required. With three left arm spinners already in the basket, the team is completed by a fourth, Bishen Bedi the only member of the XI to bat right handed; also the only player with minimal batting pretensions. The twelfth man could be Eknath Solkar, one of the finest close-in catchers who played for India. His prehensile hands grabbed 53 catches in 27 Tests, averaging almost two per match, one of the highest proportions in Test history.

That then is the XI: Saurav Ganguly, Nari Contractor, Vinod Kambli, Ajit Wadekar (captain), Salim Durrani, Gul Mahomed (wicket keeper), AG Ram Singh, Bapu Nadkarni, Rusi Surti, Karsan Ghavri and Bishen Bedi. 12th man: Eknath Solkar.