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Spin maestro VV Kumar pins hopes on Sanghvi, Pawar

Eminent leg break and googly practitioner VV Kumar was unfortunate not to play more than two Tests for India

Sankhya Krishnan
Eminent leg break and googly practitioner VV Kumar was unfortunate not to play more than two Tests for India. Kumar took five wickets in his maiden innings against Pakistan in Delhi - akin to a century on debut by a batsman - including a wicket in his first over and yet was greeted with a bewildering lack of representation at the highest level. The belief that he carried an injury into his second (and last) Test against England, which he denies, was held against him and the later emergence of the quartet buried any hopes of a recall. His skills were confined to domestic cricket where he became the first bowler to take 300 and 400 wickets in the Ranji Trophy. Now involved as the chief coach at Chennai's MAC Spin Foundation, Kumar spoke with CricInfo on his intriguing career, the alarming decline of quality spinners in the last decade and more. Here are some excerpts:
On his emergence into national reckoning
The entire credit should go to the late Lala Amarnath. When we were practising in Delhi in the late fifties for a Ranji Trophy match, Lalaji was present. He wondered who this stripling practising his leg breaks was and my skipper CD Gopinath introduced me. Lala wanted to see me at close quarters and chose me for the Indian Starlets tour to Pakistan led by him in 1959/60. He was of such tremendous assistance and not only did I learn the intricacies of spin bowling from him but also how to be an attacking leg spinner. We had a lot of competition then. Subhash Gupte was at his peak and there was another versatile leg spinner in Chandu Borde. We also had Dhanwade, a cricketer who died prematurely. But Lala made up his mind that I should be given a chance and I played for Board President's XI against Pakistan in Bangalore in 1960/61 and took six wickets. I was called up for the Madras Test but my hamstring was sore after bowling about 50 overs in Bangalore, so I remained in the reserves and finally made my debut in Delhi.
On his dream start in Test cricket in Delhi
The dream start, as you say, is still fresh in my memory. I was bowling according to a plan drawn up by Polly Umrigar (who was captaining in the absence of the injured Nari Contractor). His motto was to attack Imtiaz Ahmed who was a very attacking batsman and liked to go for the bowling. Polly told me to push the ball a little quicker to him but flight the ball one or two times to draw him into a stroke. In my first over, five balls were pushed leg breaks which Imtiaz had no difficulty in playing back according to merit. The last was a really deceptive googly which was very slow in the air, it made him commit himself to a forward stroke, then he saw the ball pitching well ahead of the bat and could not check his stroke. After pitching, the ball flew like a serpent and hit the middle stump. I felt very elated and immediately went to Polly and said it was all because of his strategy. But Polly said it was because of my capability that I got him.
On the 'injury' that led to his downfall
I played the Bombay Test against England in 1961/62 after a long gap of 4-5 months since I had a wrist injury which had just got cured. I told the selectors that I was fit but there was always a possibility something may go wrong during the Test. They said it didn't matter if wasn't 200 % fit but if I was 100-150 % fit it was ok. At the time Vijay Hazare was the chairman of selectors and he wished me all the best saying I was the person who would deliver the goods. In a tall scoring match, I was in the field for 8-10 hours and developed a boil on my right toe. I took permission, went inside and asked the physio if he could give me a piece of ice. As soon as the match was over, I was called by the captain Nari Contractor and our zone selector MJ Gopalan. Contractor said, "Mr. Selector, have you asked VV why he has not confided he was carrying an injury"? In all fairness I should say that if there had been an iota of support from our selector, I could have played for the rest of the series but that didn't come.
On the premature end to his Test career
I didn't bowl badly in the Bombay Test. It was a big scoring match and once I saw the wicket was not assisting me, I thought there was no use in giving away runs and focused on keeping one end tight. Perhaps the extent of the 'injury' which the selectors imagined made them ponder about choosing me. After that I was successful against almost all the touring sides like West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, England... taking not 8-10 wickets but 3-4 at least. Despite the fact that I took 30-35 wickets in domestic cricket, they never considered me. That was the period when Chandra, Pras and Bedi came into the reckoning, so we had a plethora of genuine spinners and the selection process became a little difficult. They had to choose the best and probably that is how I lost out in the race.
On whether Chandra's presence hampered his chances
You can't call Chandra a leg spinner. He was, as the saying went, a spinner with the ability to cut the ball either way. He could be extremely devastating on his day but on his off day he was incorrigible. When we played together the selectors expected me to bowl tight because Chandra was the matchwinner in their mind. This sort of puzzling attitude was an inhibiting factor and had a salutary effect on my bowling.
On the best batsman he bowled to
You see I've played, bowled, studied and analysed about 10-15 world ranking batsmen like Rohan Kanhai, Garfield Sobers, Seymour Nurse, Bill Lawry, Ian Redpath, Ian Chappell, Basil Butcher, Conrad Hunte, Joe Solomon...I have bowled to them on many occasions and in many circumstances. All of them were freestroking, absolutely loose limbed type of batsmen whom you could get out if you had a chance. But there was an Indian batsman whom I thought was the best player of spin in the world and that was Vijay Manjrekar. I still feel that nobody was a patch on him because once he passed 30, you could never get him out. He was so versatile and his positioning and strokemaking were so beautiful.
On the decline of quality spinners
The decline started sometime in the early 80s after the exit of the spin quartet. What happened in the transition period is shocking. I'd basically attribute it to the advent of the one-day game which encourages bowling flat and keeping down the runs. I'll give you a very simple example. If a player bowls 10 overs for 28 runs without any wicket, he is given an award but if he bowls five overs for 40 runs taking five wickets he is discarded. That is what's happening in schools cricket these days. It's very easy to say that you've got to adjust between one and five day games. In those days I still remember we'd play the Hindu Trophy matches of 30 overs each and immediately after the Ranji Trophy. Even Bill O'Reilly or Clarrie Grimmett would have found it difficult. Bowlers of calibre can adapt provided there is a clearcut time lag between the two.
On whether he's optimistic about the future
We have quite a few bowlers who're tossing the ball up and turning it. Like the Delhi left arm spinner Rahul Sanghvi. Similarly we had another excellent left arm spinner in Rajesh Pawar who took seven wickets in the Ranji Trophy final against Hyderabad but we haven't heard of him since. Not many would know that Harbhajan Singh spent some time at the MAC Spin Foundation when he came over to Madras to play for Chemplast. Even then I could see that he was not only a prodigious turner of the ball but had an away going ball at that tender age. He said it was taught by his guru in school and I said your guru must be really good. You could see from his approach, his methodology of thinking, his application and also his attitude that here is a bowler who could scale greater heights provided he had the proper guidance.
On the Academy system and its benefits
The inculcation of training through the NCA is the best thing that could happen to Indian cricket. I found in the South Zone academy at Chennai that the coaches were all first class but they had to entertain a lot of doubts from the spinners. When we've got a plethora of top class spin bowlers of yesteryear, my suggestion to the Board would be that they should be interacting with these youngsters on a regular basis. I'm certain it'll be very productive in the years to come.