India forgets its spin bowling legacy at its own peril
In the way dynasties used to rule (and still do in political life), countries seem to dominate sport in a somewhat peculiar way. The United States rules the pool, Jamaica produces track and field athletes who belie the size of their nation, for most of the last century and this one, the Russians have only allowed two outside their fold to win a world chess championship, and for about 50 years India produced spin bowlers who left the cricket world mesmerised.
And yet these countries aren't powerhouses at other sports, or even sometimes at aspects within the same sport. India, for example, produces fast bowlers like it does chief ministers: with a lot of fanfare and only occasional success. No more than a hundred kilometres separate the Indian Punjab and its Pakistani equivalent. The culture, the idiom and the food are almost identical, but only one of those regions produces fast bowlers. Karachi was once part of the Bombay Presidency but it seems to have lost the art of producing batsmen.
There must be a culture of handing down knowledge from one generation to another, sometimes sharing it within a generation - a bit like it used to be with Hindustani classical music - that produces these dynasties. Those who care for that tradition, and nurture it, continue producing champions; those who ignore it and let it fade away, who let the knowhow drain away, seem suddenly incapable of being as good.
It is something that India needs to think about seriously, for, quite apart from the real drought that threatens many parts of it, there is another in the sporting world that is as dangerous. You can scan the horizon in India, you can map it with sophisticated gadgetry, but you will not find a spinner who makes your heart rejoice, who plays with the ball with the joy a child might reserve for a favourite toy. The tradition is broken and the knowhow lies like a dusty book in an old library.
Two things reminded me of what we possess. Setting aside some pretty well-known differences, Sourav Ganguly recently invited Bishan Bedi to train spinners in Kolkata, saying the old wizard was still the best man to teach spin bowling. And, during a 20-over game a few months ago, I interviewed Erapalli Prasanna and he spoke of the joy of spin bowling. "If you have guile and you have control, you shouldn't worry about the batsman," he said, putting into words what he practised so many years ago.
When Prasanna and Bedi were playing for India as part of the famed quartet, they were part of a tradition that included, other than BS Chandrashekhar and Srinivas Venkataraghavan, some other great spinners; dare I say, they were everywhere, like fast bowlers were in the West Indies in the seventies and the eighties. In Chennai you had VV Kumar, in Bombay, Padmakar Shivalkar, and up in the north, Rajinder Goel. These were masters, as Dilip Doshi was in Kolkata, but apart from them you also had B Vijayakrishna, V Ramnarayan, Naushir Mehta and Mumtaz Hussain in the south; Sharad Diwadkar, Bapu Nadkarni and Chandu Borde in the west; Sarkar Talwar in the north; and Salim Durani and CG Joshi in Rajasthan. Surely India was the crucible of all knowledge in spin bowling. Even as the tradition declined, India were still able to throw up Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, with 1100 Test wickets between them.
But Kumble, himself so unorthodox, and Harbhajan were the dying embers. It was as if the gharana (the musical school) had been dismantled. Newer spinners say that the game has changed, and with modern bats you can no longer be the spinner you were. But knowledge must adapt to changing times, not get buried under, as was the case with Indian hockey, which lived so long in the past that even the present grew to be out of sight.
Indian spinners need to go back to the masters to learn guile, but they need a bit of help from the administrators. If bats are going to be what they are, boundary lines cannot be where they are. You cannot have loutish blows going for sixes off leading edges. Either world cricket legislates on bats or makes a 75-metre boundary mandatory. When javelins began threatening people at the other end of the stadium, the authorities had to clamp down.
Cricket cannot live with the mistaken belief that people want to see big hits. People like to see goals, but no one is talking of moving the goalposts a metre wider either side. A goal is something special; a six must be too. And we need to work on that now because increasingly bowlers are going to come into Test cricket from the 20-over game not the other way around. Guile and control have to be in the syllabus early.
Spin bowling is not the only art that is spurning the knowledge that exists in India. Kapil Dev didn't have anyone to learn from, but learn he did, and that knowledge still resides in him. Zaheer Khan got a bit more help. Unless we tap people like him and Kapil, crops will grow and wither away. Already so many have, either because of reluctance to acquire the knowhow or not having access to it.
Rebuilding a tradition, like spin bowling, will take a long time. It will take even longer if we let the knowledge that resides within fade away.
Harsha Bhogle commentates on the IPL and other cricket, and is a television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here