Between Vinoo Mankad and Ravindra Jadeja, India has produced a long line of left-arm spinners who have played Test cricket, but also perhaps an equal number of classy exponents of the craft never to have represented the country.
Among the specialist left-arm spinners I have watched or played with and against, the likes of Mumtaz Hussain, Rajinder Singh Hans, Suresh Shastri, B Vijayakrishna, S Vasudevan and Sunil Subramaniam might have fared well internationally had they been selected. Then there were Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar, who with their considerable longevity in domestic cricket and innumerable match-winning exploits were in a different league altogether. They would be certainties in any all-time India XI made up of those who missed out during their playing careers.
To begin with, Goel and Shivalkar emerged as talented young bowlers at a time when India had a surfeit of quality spinners at the first-class level. Even before the famous quartet became a part of the team, India often fielded three or four spinners, including allrounders, in the playing XI. Around the time Goel made his first-class debut for Patiala, Subhash Gupte, Ghulam Ahmed, Salim Durani, Vinoo Mankad, Chandu Borde, AG Kripal Singh, VV Kumar and Bapu Nadkarni were doing duty for India. For a long while, both Goel and Shivalkar were even overshadowed in their state and zonal teams by the presence of great Test bowlers of similar specialisation.
Between them the two stalwart spinners of contrasting styles but comparable mastery over their art took more than 1300 first-class wickets with miserly economy. Goel yielded just 18.58 runs per wicket and Shivalkar just under 20. Why couldn't they break into the Indian team despite such sterling figures? Quite simply because the man who kept them out, Bishan Bedi, took 1560 first-class wickets, including his 266 Test victims. He was a class act, widely regarded as the best in the business internationally in his time.
It is often said that Goel and Shivalkar were unlucky to have been born when they were, with the world-class Bedi shutting them out permanently from the Indian dressing room - except once, when Goel got close, warming the reserve bench. There are ardent supporters who dismiss the bad-luck theory with scorn, saying the selectors ought to have played Goel and Shivalkar regardless of the Bedi factor, at least in a stop-gap, horses-for-courses capacity occasionally. Did India not go into Test matches with two offspinners in the playing XI, they argue. Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan both always figured in the Test squad of 14 throughout their careers, if you exclude Prasanna's largely self-imposed exile between 1962 and 1967, and Venkat's omission for the 1967-68 tour of Australia and New Zealand.
Goel, who debuted in his teens in the late 1950s, was something of a late bloomer, to go by his early performances in the Ranji Trophy. When he moved to Delhi, he and the young Bedi often bowled in tandem, Bedi setting hard-to-match bowling records at first-class level just as he did in Test cricket. Goel was rarely far behind, though, and the two, along with offspinner DS Saxena, ran through most opposition line-ups, especially within the North Zone, which included Services and Railways, both Central Zone teams later.
If Bedi's action was described as poetry in motion, Goel's bore the economy of movement and precision of a master craftsman at work. He began to express himself uninhibitedly in the 1970s, once he moved from the Delhi Ranji side to Haryana. With 637 Ranji Trophy wickets, and 750 first-class wickets overall, he set a well nigh unattainable goal for any bowler after him. He never led Haryana to the Ranji Trophy title, but did bring them close to the final stages of the tournament on a few occasions.
Goel was a menace to opposing batsmen in the Duleep Trophy as well, his 7 for 98 and 5 for 36 in a losing cause against South Zone in the 1975 December final was perhaps his finest display in the tournament. In a match dominated by two century-makers, Brijesh Patel of South Zone and Surinder Amarnath of North, the slow bowlers, captain Venkataraghavan, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar and Prasanna, bowled South to a 37-run victory. Sitting in the stands, I enjoyed the rare opportunity of watching Goel's metronomic accuracy and ability to extract purchase from the wicket with a slightly roundarm style. He was quicker through the air and a delightful contrast to the flight and guile of his fellow left-armer and captain Bedi, who claimed six wickets in the match. Watching Goel demand the utmost respect from batsman after batsman on that sporting Chepauk pitch led you to wonder how devastating he could have been on drying or soft wickets - perhaps as deadly as Derek Underwood if not more so.
Shivalkar's was an even more poignant story - if we believe that distinguished cricket careers must receive the ultimate stamp of approval of Test-match appearances - considering his fairy-tale beginning in first-class cricket.
He found a place in the Cricket Club of India President's XI in a match at the Brabourne Stadium in March-April 1962 (when he was barely 22) against an International XI led by Richie Benaud on a world tour. The wicket was a batsman's paradise, the outfield fast as greased lightning, and the visitors' batting line-up formidable and world-class. The tourists made 518 batting first, but the CCI XI, whose attack included opening bowlers Rajinder Pal and GS Ramchand, as well as spinners Gupte, Sharad Diwadkar, and Shivalkar, the debutant, withstood the onslaught bravely, especially Gupte (4 for 161) and Shivalkar (5 for 129).
In the first innings, Australia's boy wonder Ian Craig put on 208 for the first wicket with Bob Simpson, and Tom Graveney made 95. Shivalkar took the wickets of Craig, Everton Weekes, Raman Subba Row and Benaud. In the second innings he took 2 for 44, bowling Weekes and getting Graveney caught and bowled.
Imagine Shivalkar's frame of mind as he went home after that match. Wouldn't he have nursed dreams of playing for India after dismissing so many top-class batsmen? Unfortunately he had to wait for many years to break into the Bombay XI even, thanks to the presence in that side of left-arm allrounder Bapu Nadkarni, who continued to serve India well until as late as 1968, along with fellow left-armer Bedi, who was already on the verge of greatness and firmly entrenched in the India XI by then. Shivalkar toured Australia later in 1962 with a CCI side, with some success.
Goel was a senior colleague of mine in the State Bank of India team. I had the privilege of sharing the attack with him and legspinner VV Kumar, another fine bowler, in the Moin-ud-Dowlah Gold Cup. Those were the only games in which I was able to watch Goel's bowling from close quarters.
There was much to learn from his focus and control. He was gentle in his ways, had a soft corner for the underdog, and took a keen interest in the careers of younger cricketers like me. He was one of few players I knew who could look beyond their own fortunes to empathise with others. Other State Bank colleagues and I, and fellow inmates of a conditioning camp at Chepauk, struck up a warm, comfortable friendship, with Goel paaji, as we all called him. I remember he never pulled rank on us, though he was eminently qualified to do so.
Some years later I visited him in the Chepauk dressing room when he was representing Haryana in a Ranji Trophy match. He had already broken VV Kumar's record for most wickets in the tournament, perhaps even gone past 500 - I don't quite remember. When I asked him if he would retire at the end of the season, he quickly replied in the affirmative.
"Bas, bahut ho gaya. Ab Rohtak mein aram karenge aur youngsters ko help karenge.'' When I warned him to beware of S Venkataraghavan, still fit and rapidly closing in on his tally of Ranji Trophy wickets, a new look of determination came into his face. He quickly changed his mind about retirement, and the rest is history.
Like Goel, Shivalkar was probably past his best when I first met him on a cricket field, but he was still a potent force with his deceptive flight and loop. The first occasion was a historic Ranji Trophy quarter-final match between Hyderabad and Bombay during the 1975-76 season. Batting first, Bombay were all out for 222 on the first day and we took a first-innings lead of 60-odd runs. Shivalkar sent down a marathon 50 overs for figures of 2 for 77. It was a slow surface and he had apparently lost some of his sting of yore, but he was still a slippery customer, with beautiful flight that left the batsman constantly guessing whether to go forward or back.
Bombay captain Ashok Mankad and debutant Rahul Mankad counterattacked adventurously, and they declared the second innings with just over three hours of play left. We were bundled out for 146 and Bombay went on to achieve yet another Ranji win, beating Bengal and Bihar in their next two matches. Though legspinner Rakesh Tandon was the wrecker-in-chief in the last innings, taking six wickets, it was Shivalkar (4 for 39) who wove a web of controlled deceit around Hyderabad's timid batsmen.
A year later I met Paddy again at Delhi's Feroz Shah Kotla, when he bowled brilliantly on a good batting strip to claim ten wickets in the match as Bombay beat Rest of India by an innings in the Irani Trophy. He was at his skilful best.
I remember some other Ranji Trophy matches memorable for Shivalkar's exploits, though I did not witness them firsthand. The first was a semi-final at the Brabourne Stadium that Bombay won by a big margin against Mysore. Shivalkar's figures in the match were 8 for 19 and 5 for 31. Mysore's famed batting line-up, which included GR Viswanath and Brijesh Patel, folded for 90 and 111. He followed up with ten wickets in the final, in which Bombay beat Bengal by another big margin.
In yet another famous final, the very next season, Paddy had the incredible figures of 8 for 16 and 5 for 18, as Tamil Nadu crashed to defeat in two days and one ball, after their spinners, Venkat and VV Kumar, bundled Bombay out for 151 on the opening day on a wicket tailormade for them. The story of this match tends to be retold every time the act of underpreparing wickets backfires on the host team, as in the recent India-Australia Pune Test match.
Goel is a tiny man, while Shivalkar is taller, Both are wiry and weighed next to nothing during their playing careers. Goel's brisk walk to his delivery stride, his streamlined finish facilitated by his boyish frame and excellent use of the crease, tended to produce a tantalising drift towards the leg stump, after which the ball would land just short of the batsman's reach - and spit fire on helpful surfaces. Shivalkar had a straighter, more leisurely run-up to the wicket, and a classic high-arm action. Quite possibly the best attribute of their cricket was their utter dependability. With them in the side, their captains only had to worry about their supporting bowlers.
Both were tireless, with their smooth actions demanding the minimum of effort - or so it seemed. Yet it was their unstinting work in the nets that made their seeming effortlessness in match situations possible.
If a comparison must be made between them, it must be to state that there was hardly anything to differentiate them, except the possibility that with his flight and subtle variations, Shivalkar posed a more attractive proposition on good wickets, with Goel perhaps more destructive on crumbling surfaces. Those who know of his parallel career on stage will, of course, tell you that Shivalkar is the better singer of the two.