Old Guest Column

The Fantastic Four of Indian Cricket

Partab Ramchand continues his writeup on the history of Indian spin, from the 1930s to the current era

Partab Ramchand
Fortunately, by 1961, when Subash Gupte played his last Test, several utility players like Chandu Borde, Salim Durrani and Bapu Nadkarni were already on the scene, and they carried India's spinning fortunes on their shoulders for a few years. Bowlers like VV Kumar and Baloo Gupte, Subash's younger brother, also appeared fleetingly. By the mid-60s, however, Borde had given up bowling his leg-breaks because of a shoulder injury, and the abilities of left-armers Durrani and Nadkarni were on the wane.

But by this time, the famed spin quartet, spotted first by the selectors and then encouraged by MAK Pataudi as captain, had taken shape. And for the next decade and a half, the four bowlers were almost solely responsible for the upswing in Indian cricketing fortunes.
But by this time, the famed spin quartet, spotted first by the selectors and then encouraged by MAK Pataudi as captain, had taken shape. And for the next decade and a half, the four bowlers were almost solely responsible for the upswing in Indian cricketing fortunes. With virtually no backing from medium pacers, Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Bishen Singh Bedi and Srinivas Venkatraghavan performed with their hearts on their sleeves, bowling India to one famous victory after another ­ and not just at home.
Prasanna came on the scene first. He made his Test debut in January 1962 at Madras against England, went to West Indies later that season, and then was promptly forgotten as he concentrated on his engineering studies and then his career. Back he came, though, with a bang against West Indies in 1966-67 ­ also at Madras ­ and from then on, till he played his last Test at Lahore 12 years later, he mesmerized the best batsmen with his subtle variations of flight and spin. Frequently, he made batsmen look like clowns in a circus. Between 1967-1969, when he was at his peak, the off-spinner from Mysore took 95 wickets in 16 Tests, an unbelievable strike rate of six wickets a Test.
For a short while, he was the leading Indian wicket taker, overhauling Vinoo Mankad's long-standing record of 162 wickets, and when he finally called it a day, he had a tally of 189 wickets from 49 Tests at an average of 30.32.
Chandrasekhar burst upon the scene during the 1963-64 season. Like Prasanna, he too graduated from junior cricket to the Test level within months. Making his debut against England at Bombay in January 1964, Chandrasekhar had his share of ill-luck through injuries, and this saw him out of the team for some time. But when he was back for good in 1971, he was the kingpin of the attack, bamboozling batsmen with his fizzing leg-spinners, googlies and top-spinners. He had a particularly good record against England, but showed that he could also take wickets in Australia and West Indies. The Mysore magician will forever be remembered for his six for 38, which paved the way for India's victory at the Oval in 1971; but then, his name is associated with so many feats, and he has been the architect of many notable victories at home and abroad. By the time he had played his last Test at Edgbaston in 1979, Chandrasekhar had taken 242 wickets at 29.74 apiece, with the best strike-rate among the quartet.
Venkatraghavan, a bundle of talent and energy, made rapid strides in his first series against New Zealand in February-March 1965 and had a match haul of 12 wickets in only his fourth Test, but for most of his long career he had to play a game of musical chairs with Prasanna. It speaks volumes of Venkat's determination, dedication and fighting qualities that he took up this challenge, though Prasanna was generally the preferred bowler. The best fielder among the quartet and the fittest of the lot, Venkat outlasted the other three and was the only one of the four who continued to play international cricket in the 80s. Even though he was generally overshadowed, not only by Prasanna, but also Bedi and Chandra, the wily off-spinner from Madras had his moments in the sun, most notably when he bowled skillfully against West Indies in the second Test at Port of Spain, in Prasanna's absence through injury, to take five for 95 and pave the way for a famous victory. At the end of a long and distinguished career, Venkat had taken 156 wickets from 57 Tests at 36.11 apiece. He also led India in five Tests, as well as the first two World Cup competitions.
The entry of Bedi, against West Indies at Calcutta in December 1966, completed the quartet. The Punjab and Delhi left-arm spinner was the most indispensable of the lot and played 67 Tests until 1979. Old-timers saw a lot of similarity between Bedi's bowling and Mankad's and, like his illustrious predecessor, the Sikh at his peak was the best of his type in the world. Even leading batsmen were wary of Bedi's alluring flight, his impeccable length and line, and the vicious turn he obtained on responsive pitches. He too had a notable part in many Indian victories at home and abroad, and not for nothing did he earn the sobriquet the Sardar of Spin. He played his last Test at the Oval in 1979, by which time he held the record for the most number of wickets by an Indian ­ 266 at an average of 28.71. Besides, he also led India in 22 Tests with a fair measure of success.
In this embarrassment of riches, only three of the four could play in Test matches, and one had to be unfortunate to sit out. Only on one occasion ­ at Edgbaston in 1967 ­ did all four play in the same match. Between them, they took 853 wickets, and even the most cautious of gamblers will safely bet that such a spinning force will not be seen again in international cricket.