Obituary, 2003

Fergie Gupta

Gupte, Subhash Pandharinath, died in Port-of-Spain on May 31, 2002, aged 72. He had suffered from diabetes and was unable to get about without a wheelchair or walking frame. Sir Everton Weekes had recently said Gupte was "easily the best leg-spin bowler of all time", and certainly between 1953 and 1956 he was peerless. In 15 successive Tests for India he beguiled his way to 82 wickets at 23.57, averaging a wicket every 70 balls. At a comparable stage in his Test career, Shane Warne's strike-rate was 75.

In contrast to his burly younger brother Baloo, who also bowled leggies and won three caps in the 1960s, Subhash Gupte was small and slight. But he had a high arm action and the wrist-spinner's predilection for experimenting with flight and rotation. Unlike some, he possessed the control and patience to afford his variations. His legspinner, nicely looped, turned on the flattest pitches, while a scurrying top-spinner and two googlies provided sufficient chicanery. The googly he bowled with a lower trajectory was for batsmen to read; the other, from his customary high trajectory, came laced with overspin and dipped and bounced deceptively. Unhappily, his close catchers struggled to pick his repertoire almost as much as the batsmen, so chances often went begging. He would have taken all ten wickets, instead of nine for 102, against West Indies on jute matting at Kanpur in 1958-59 had the wicket-keeper Naren Tamhane not dropped Lance Gibbs. It was the first time an Indian bowler had taken nine wickets in a Test innings - and still India lost by a large margin. There was one ten-wicket return in his career bag, however: for the Bombay CA President's XI against a visiting Pakistan Services and Bahawalpur side in December 1954, at a cost of 78 runs. While most of his domestic cricket was for his native Bombay, he also played for Bengal and Rajasthan.

After a debut Test against England in 1951-52 and two the next season against Pakistan, Gupte won his spurs - and a nickname, "Fergie", after the Trinidad leg-spinner Wilf Ferguson - in the Caribbean in 1952-53. He also met his future wife, Carol. Though few of the pitches helped bowlers and Weekes was rampant, averaging over 100, Gupte took 27 wickets at 29.22 in the five Tests, including seven for 162 at Port-of-Spain, and ended the tour with 50 at 23.64. India's other bowlers managed 35 between them in the Tests and 57 overall. Back on the subcontinent he picked up 21 Test wickets on the mat and turf in Pakistan and then 34, while his team-mates took 30, against the touring New Zealanders. But to the 1956 Australians, limping home from England and Jim Laker's off-breaks, leg-spin brought welcome respite. The left-handed Neil Harvey was particularly severe on him in the Bombay Test: Gupte's eight wickets in the three-match series cost 32.62 each and Richie Benaud won the leg-spinning honours hands-down with 23 at 16.86, including 11 for 105 on a Calcutta pitch taking spin from the start.

Gupte was considered the best of his kind when India went to England in 1959, but the strain of carrying India's attack was beginning to tell. Gerry Alexander's West Indians had recently made him pay 42.13 apiece for his 22 wickets; India's next highest wicket-taker claimed only five and Gupte's workload of 312 overs was almost three times that of anyone else. Though he remained India's leading wicket-taker, he did not always come up to expectation on the hard pitches of that sun-baked English summer. And the Indians' slothful fielding didn't help; he was patently dispirited by the poor standard. Ten county spinners went past 100 wickets at a lower cost than his 95 at 26.58, which included eight for 108 in Nottinghamshire's first innings. Wisden's correspondent was among those who wondered if the English batsmen's long look at Gupte wasn't giving them "useful experience for the visit of Benaud in 1961". It was not necessarily a case of nonpareil to net bowler, but an uncomplimentary assessment none the less.

Gupte missed that winter's Tests against Benaud's Australians because he was coaching in the West Indies. When Pakistan visited India in 1960-61, his brother replaced him halfway through the series. But the old familiar flight and fizz were much in evidence when he was recalled for the Kanpur Test against Ted Dexter's MCC side in December 1961. He took the first five wickets and, for the first time, India made England follow on. But the comeback did not last long. During the next Test his room-mate, Kripal Singh, phoned the hotel receptionist to ask her for a date. She complained to the Indian management who, claiming they did not know who made the call, suspended both players. Even worse, the Indian board president, himself an acquaintance of the lady, told the selectors not to pick Gupte for the forthcoming tour of the West Indies. Bitter and disillusioned, Gupte quit India for good at 33 and emigrated to Trinidad, where he worked in the sugar refinery and as a sports officer within the industry. Two Beaumont Cup finals for South Trinidad and one appearance for Trinidad in 1963-64 closed his first-class career after 115 games with 530 wickets at 23.71. In 36 Tests, he took 149 wickets at 29.55 - only Benaud and Grimmett among leg-spinners had taken more - five in an innings 12 times and ten in a match once.

© John Wisden & Co