Spinners September 6, 2010

Sirens of India

Picking two out of nine spinners means it's a choice between the romance of the past and the effectiveness of the present

The stereotypical Indian batsman is all wrist and charm; the bowling cliché is the spinner, his flight luring batsmen to destruction rather in the manner of the Sirens in the adventures of Ulysses.

India's early attack was pace-oriented. Their first significant spinner Jamshedji was 41 when he made his debut in their first home Test (Wilfred Rhodes said that if he had the Indian's spin, no batting side would have reached 100). For the next Test CS Nayudu was chosen. Since then India have always had a host of spinners they could call upon.

Certainly between January 1962, when Erapalli Prasanna made his debut, and September 1983, when S Venkataraghavan played his last Test, there was an embarrassment of riches. One or the other of the spin quartet - Bishan Bedi and Bhagwath Chandrasekhar were the others - played in 98 Tests in that period. Between them they claimed 853 wickets, and attained mythical status.

The most recent spin combination is also the most successful. Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh have taken 976 wickets, 501 of them in the 54 Tests they played together. The choice will be between the romance of the past and the effectiveness of the present.

The candidates

Anil Kumble
India's greatest match-winner, his role in 43 victories putting the 23 wins inspired by the spin quartet in perspective. Kumble claimed 288 wickets for 19 runs each at a strike-rate of 44 in those matches. Only the second bowler to claim all 10 in an innings, his 619 victims place him third in the overall list. Kumble was as much a presence as a performer: tough but fair, inspired as well as inspiring.

Bishan Bedi
Jim Laker once said his idea of heaven was to watch Ray Lindwall bowl from one end and Bedi from the other. Trevor Bailey wrote that "Bedi was much more than just another great bowler; he was above all an artist who brought to his craft a beauty that was timeless." His 266 wickets in 67 Tests meant that this was no beauty without cruelty, for Bedi teased the batsmen to their doom.

Erapalli Prasanna
His first 100 wickets came in just 20 Tests, as the offspinner used flight to make the batsman lunge for the ball that never arrived. His run up was deceptively simple, and fielders near the wicket swore they could hear the "whirr" of the ball as it approached the batsman. His decision to complete an engineering degree early in his career and then selectorial manoeuvres later restricted his appearances to 49 Tests.

Subhash Gupte
The legspinner's record of 149 wickets in 36 Tests did not do him justice in the years when India's catching was the worst in the world. He was the first Indian to claim all 10 wickets in a first-class innings, and with Vinoo Mankad formed the first pair of great spinners to operate together. "To me," wrote Garry Sobers who played against him, "Gupte was a better bowler than Shane Warne."

Bhagwath Chandrasekhar
One of few bowlers in history capable of producing the "unplayable" ball. He bowled his legspinners at medium pace, which was incredible given that his arm had been weakened by a childhood attack of polio. Played the crucial role in India's first wins in England and Australia. Continues to hold the Indian record for the most wickets in a series, 35, against England at home and has over 1000 first-class wickets despite not having played county cricket.

Harbhajan Singh
The first Indian with a Test hat-trick, he had 32 wickets against Australia in a three-Test series. A modern offspinner at home in all three forms of the game, Harbhajan bowls the doosra and recently has developed the happy knack of getting runs in the lower half of the order. Chosen by Muralitharan as his successor, capable of matching his own aggregate number of wickets.

Dilip Doshi
One of only two bowlers (the other being Clarrie Grimmett) to claim a hundred Test wickets after making a debut in the 30s. Having to compete with Bedi for a slot restricted the younger Doshi's international appearances, but he was a world-class performer who would have walked into any other team.

S Venkataraghavan
Good enough to play for India at 18, he was still playing 18 years later but had to contend with the more successful Prasanna through much of his career. He was the better batsman and an outstanding fielder at gully, and easily the fittest spinner of his generation. His 8 for 72 against New Zealand was the best in an innings among the quartet.

Vinoo Mankad
Held India's aggregate record, 162 wickets, for years before Bedi relieved him of it. Figures of 8 for 55 and 4 for 53 inspired India's first Test win, against England. Mankad had a slightly round-arm action and his control was remarkable. Flight was his weapon, as a contemporary pointed out, adding, "to rely on the vagaries of the wicket would have been a reflection on the purity of his art".

We'll be publishing an all-time India XI based on readers' votes to go with our jury's XI. To pick your spinners click here

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • madhurendra on September 9, 2010, 18:02 GMT

    corrections- raju avgd well over over 50 away under Azhar; both kumble n raju avgd under 30 at home under azhar but overall these 2 +chauhan avgd overall over 30 under azhar; chandra avgd under 30 under wadekar n bedi (bedi under 26 under himself n pat) n just a fraction over 30 under pat; the only trio of spinners that together overall home n away together avgd under 30 under any indian captain were bedi, pras/venkat,chandra under Pat. this again confirms statistically the view contrary to popular perceptions that 2 spinners are sufficient, the 3rd quality spinner often (of course never always) redundant and the 3 spinner strategy as evidenced by respective bowling averages of the quartet worked best briefly under Pat only. Venkat too avgd under 30 only under Pat. Perhaps the superb close in catchers 66-74 missing from the list of contenders may've helped too (but not needed by bedi/chandra under bedi). Any way, in the circumstances 2 spinners are appropriate for the Indian AT XI

  • Munawar on September 9, 2010, 17:37 GMT

    No matter how much discussion we have and delve into the nitty gritty of talent vs contribution, conditions vs luck, strength of opposition vs place in own team, international pitches vs home pitches, old era vs modern era, etc. it boils down to this balanced All Time X1 side....Gavasar, Sehwag, Dravid, Sachin, Azhar, Kapil, Kirmani, Srinath, Zaheer, Kumble and Chandrashekhar. Thanks

  • madhurendra on September 9, 2010, 16:38 GMT

    i mentioned others may attach different weight to these issues? btw gavaskar had centuries at brisbane, perth, melbourne 77 vs thommo, ; under azhar away from ind (tailor made spin tracks), sl, zim, kumble avgd about 37, chauhan 37.28 overall under azhar, and raju well over away under azhar; of course a different story at home on tailor made tracks; but the AT XIs of other countries have batsman who scored runs in india and spinners who took alot of wickets here unlike most of the sides thrashed at home by azhars team in 90s and some fast men succeeded in india too; so tailor made AT XIs at home mayn't be the answer for these AT XIs other countries. so i wouldn't really compare azhars handling of his spin trio with pataudi's. btw bedi n chandra both avgd under 30 under bedi. and together about 9.5 wkts per test under bedi (2/3 away). btw sla sunil joshi couldve also delivered more if better handled avgd 78 under azhar, and bhajji avgd over 40 overall under azhar

  • madhurendra on September 9, 2010, 15:53 GMT

    the away averages of azhars spin trio?

  • Arunabha on September 9, 2010, 14:43 GMT

    @buntyj - Why only Pataudi's era? India were immensely successful with 3 spinners under Azhar as well. Kumble, Chauhan and Raju, sometimes Joshi ... an early Harbhajan ... as for others - I think bouncy wickets are just one sort of wicket and not the only type of wicket a good batsman needs to bat on. A great batsman is one who is consistently successful on bouncy tracks, swinging conditions and spinning wickets ... and of all Indian batsmen, Gavaskar (almost), Sehwag, Sachin, Dravid, Hazare and Laxman (almost) can lay claim to that. At the risk of flogging a sacred cow, gavaskar did score runs all over the world, but failed when tested by fast men on real fast tracks. but he fits there. Mohinder was dreadful on Indian wickets and also took a lot of blows on the head in between some glorious knocks & avged 38 against WI. vengsarkar was suspect on bouncy tracks, umrigar suspect against genuine pace, sourav - inconsistent and dreaded short ball, vishy - inconsistent post beer belly.

  • madhurendra on September 9, 2010, 11:40 GMT

    for those who prefer 3 spinners may i point out that this was most successful under pataudi's captaincy if we look at bowling averages (bedi/pras each below 30, chandra just over 30 all under pat); from the trio's averages its clear they usually didnt do so well under other captains; so, my question are they choosing pataudi in their AT XI and as captain? if not how can they assume other captains would surrender their personas and imitate him? and from contenders where are the close in catchers to support that pat insisted on? only azhar (never at fwd sh leg), pat (pre injury only close in), amar top notch fielders; dravid, laxman good but not in class of solkar surti subrahmanyam etc; kapil, tendulkar not at sh legs, sunny at midfield. yes i recall kapil's lean spells; but still best all rounder (only 1 with higher batting -above 30-than bowling average -below 30, for start)

  • madhurendra on September 9, 2010, 11:24 GMT

    i also admit i've given more weight than some might to the following issues (especially away)- if on a seaming track or swing friendly conditions would he remember where his off stump was? many of the contenders did pass this test; next was more difficult- on fast/bouncy track, 4 pacers, no restrictions on bouncers would he handle it? yes for gavaskar, tendulkar, amarnaths, 3 vijays, pataudi, engineer, nayudu, borde, surti (and marginal for vishy, laxman, dravid) no for most others; next q for those who get yes- would theyve survived or counter attacked? only amarnaths, pataudi, engineer, nayudu, surti regularly attacked short fast stuff particularly away. hence i stand by my proposed AT XI- Merchant, Gavaskar (V-C), Amarnath, Tendulkar, Laxman, Engineer (WK), Kapil Dev, Amar Singh, Bedi (Capt), Nissar, Chandrasekhar 12th man Pataudi, close calls Sehwag at no 5, Gupte as spinner. Prasanna and Tamhane making the 16 the fielding is weak but i doubt if any Indian AT XIs will be better

  • Avinash on September 9, 2010, 10:56 GMT

    An all time T20 team would be very interesting. How do we select players who might have been suitable for the shortest format of the game, but never got a chance to play. People like Srikanth, Umrigar, C K Nayadu, Salim Durrani, Engineer, etc were made for this format. My team would be 1. Sehwag/Srikanth, 2. Tendulkar, 3. Ganguly/ Gambhir, 4. Azhar/ Vengsarkar, 5. Yuvraj/ Umrigar/ Ajay Jadeja, 6. Dhoni/Engineer, 7. Kapil Dev, 8. Durrani/Shastri, 9. Zaheer/ Srinath, 10. Kumble/Harbhajan/ Amar Singh and 11. Bedi/Chandra/ Prasanna. It is obvious that only Tendulkar and Kapil Dev are sure starters, all the rest positions have stiff competition. And now think of a West Indies all time XI: 1.Greenidge, 2. Gayle, 3. Lara, 4. Richards, 5. Lyod, 6. Sobers, 7. Dujon, 8. Marshal, 9. Ambrose, 10. Holding and 11. Garner... my goodness!!!! can anyone match them???? even a worlds XI?

  • madhurendra on September 9, 2010, 10:52 GMT

    corrections : bedi- missed auckland test 76 so 1 less test as captain; 14/22 tests away; also was well used by pataudi too (avg below 26); didnt adjust well to bombay tactics; if pak 78 excluded avg as captain from 19 tests with 11 away would be under 22; match 10 for in narrow loss as capt at spinners graveyard perth 77; yes murali kartik couldve been better used too; pak- 78 - pras was in the team; vengsarkar did ok too. so i would retain bedi in my AT XI and as captain. complemented chandra since they were diff types n since 70s chandra on return after injury bowled mainly googlies n flippers rather than his 60s legbreaks; gupte vs chandra- everything i've read has always convinced me that gupte was better but chandra could produce matchwinning unplayable balls including away in all countries save pak. hence i opt for chandra but its very close. the other close call is no 5 where i opt for laxman but could easily think of sehwag there; another close call.

  • Arunabha on September 9, 2010, 8:51 GMT

    @buntyj: I agree with most of your analysis but 2. first your insistence for Mohinder Amarnath in place of Dravid, which is too ridiculous to dignify with another argument. The second about an average seamer for someone like Prasanna or Venkat. about bedi, you are correct. Very few captains have actually used a left arm spinner well. If you look at Murali Kartick's record again that is very evident. Saurav, who had exceptional bias for harbhajan using Zaheer's footmarks, actually used him atrociously. It is only under Dravid that he flourished breifly. careful handling may have made a very good spinner out of him. If Indian AT XI play in India, I think they ought to go with 3 spinners. Abroad, Australia, England etc. they can try 3 pacers 1 spinner ploy - but the pacers have to be Kapil (pre 83), Nissar and Amar Singh. By the way, is it well known that for more than two years in the mid 80s Kapil went without a wicket at home?

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