Thursday, March 28, 2013

The best of them all

The off spinner to catch my fancy after Jim Laker was Ghulam Ahmed. If my memory serves me right, the Hyderabad and India off-spinner had a slightly round-arm action but spun the ball viciously from a height. Because he went bald early in life, he always seemed like a veteran to my young eyes, as I watched him in action against New Zealand and Australia at the Nehru Stadium. Much of my knowledge of his bowling however came from reading about him and my captain ML Jaisimha’s descriptions. According to Jai, Ghulam was an even bigger spinner than Prasanna: “you could hear the buzz of the ball as it left his hand and travelled towards the batsman in a sharp trajectory.”

The first time I saw EAS Prasanna in action was in the final Test of the 3-Test series between India and West Indies at Madras in January 1967. Test cricket was coming back to Chepauk after its banishment to the Corporation Stadium 15 years earlier. The Garfield Sobers-led visitors had won the first two Tests at Bombay and Calcutta, where Prasanna’s rival Venkataraghavan had bowled well—without great success, if you did not count Gary Sobers’s scalp, which he captured in Bombay.

The Chepauk Test, made memorable by Farrokh Engineer’s near-hundred before lunch on the first day and some second innings aggression by Ajit Wadekar and V Subramanyam which served to book their berths to England in the following summer, was the first time the trio of Chandrasekhar-Bedi-Prasanna came together.

Prasanna was impressive in that game, though not incisive enough to cause a collapse in either innings. In the first innings, he accounted for the wickets of Butcher and Hall, while in the second he fared better getting Hunte, Butcher and Hendricks out. The bouncing run-up and tempting were very much in evidence, and so was a happy optimism as if he expected a wicket every ball in his approach to bowling. For someone who was making his comeback to Test cricket after a hiatus of five years, he looked comfortable in his shoes, as though he never doubted he belonged in the company of his seniors in the side. A lot of it must have been the result of the confidence he enjoyed from his captain and South Zone teammate Pataudi as well as South Zone captain and Test teammate ML Jaisimha, on the reserve bench for the match.

That Test match which ended in a draw thanks to dogged post-tea resistance on the last day by Garry Sobers and Charlie Griffith had raised hopes of a resurgent Indian team, with some exciting batsmen in Ajit Wadekar, Pataudi, and Borde and a brand new spin combination promising much. The tour of England that followed soon afterwards proved a great disappointment, with India receiving a massive drubbing despite some isolated instances of defiance. The spinners did nothing of great note, and we had to wait till the third and final Test for Prasanna to run into some form. He took 3 for 51 and 4 for 60 in the best of his outings in the series. In fact, Prasanna never did spectacularly well in England, the weather in the first half of the summer perhaps preventing him from bowling at his best, with the ball retaining its shine for long periods and the grassy wickets inimical to turn.

Prasanna was at his best on the 1968 Australia-New Zealand tours when he took as many as 49 wickets in eight Test matches. Like thousands of other Indians, I was glued to the radio every morning during that wonderful tour when India were gallant losers in Australia and deserving winners in New Zealand. Prasanna was hailed as a world-class spinner by the Australian critics and even some of the Australian batsmen.

The real moment of magic was to come soon. It was in the Chepauk Test in January 1970 that Prasanna almost single-handedly landed India at victory’s doorstep—only for a missed stumping chance and fighting batting by Ian Redpath and the tail took Australia to a total which proved way beyond India’s fourth innings capability. In their second innings, Australia were tottering at 24 for 6 before their miraculous recovery. Prasanna’s share of victims up to that point had been four, to Mohinder Amarnath’s two—incredibly, Keith Stackpole and Ian Chappell, both for duck. Prasanna finished with six wickets in the innings, and I was permanently hooked on his bowling, though I was away in Dharwar playing university cricket and only heard the match!

I remained his fan throughout the rest of his career, and had the pleasure of playing against him in the Ranji Trophy. He had a lean patch after that wonderful spell against Australia, when Ajit Wadekar took over the captaincy and led India to historic victories in the West Indies and England in 1971. India’s maiden triumphs in the two continents meant that Prasanna’s relegation to the background was hardly noticed. His bowling against England in the 1972-73 season and again in the 1976-77 season was outstanding, though against Tony Greig’s men his spin seemed to have lost some of its sting. Jaisimha and Pataudi, my seniors, however believed he was still as good as ever, when I suggested to them that he was past his best. In between, in the 1975-76 season, he had a successful tour of New Zealand and a less successful tour of the West Indies, where he lost his Test place to Venkataraghavan after the first match.

I realised that Jaisimha and Pataudi were probably right about the continued high quality of Prasanna’s off-spin when I played against him in the Ranji Trophy, which featured some outstanding spells by him. In what was perhaps his last Ranji game, he took seven wickets against Hyderabad, in a match at Bangalore. I was one of his victims, caught at short-leg while trying to drive on the offside. The ball was a perfect beauty, flight, dip, turn, bounce and all. I had hit him the previous ball for a four to square-leg, a shot he actually applauded. How he had me fooled! Around the same time, I remember the way pressmen waxed lyrical over the way he dismissed Sunil Gavaskar with a perfect straight delivery in an Irani Cup match. I had to wait for some 15 years to witness a repeat of that scene, when he bowled Gavaskar after he hit a flurry of boundaries with a similar delivery that clipped the off bail during my brother Sivaramakrishnan’s benefit match (in April 1993) at Chepauk, between two teams of veterans. Prasanna was all of 53 then—and Gavaskar 40-plus.

Prasanna was perhaps the most confident bowler I have seen, certainly the most aggressive off-spinner. Short of stature, and generously built, even plump at times, he had a springy run-up to the wicket, whose momentum he used to great effect. At his best, he was perfectly side-on, and brought his right arm down quickly to maximize the spin he imparted to the ball. His variations were subtle—including intelligent use of the crease, changes of grip ranging from fingers loose and far apart to tight and close together to control the amount of turn. He could bowl a flatter, quicker ball with fingers close together or a floater angling away from the bat by rolling his fingers over the seam. All these variations were marked by the invariable magic of the ball dropping short of the length the batsman anticipated.

I was fortunate to play alongside the great spinners of the time. Prasanna may not remember it, but he came over to watch me in action at the State Bank of India nets in Hyderabad (where he had moved for about a year from Bangalore), at the request of my teammate P Krishnamurti. When Murti told me Prasanna had been impressed, it did my morale a world of good, as I was not yet the first choice off-spinner in the bank’s team. (Syed Abid Ali was another “guest” Murti invited to assess my bowling. In a cricketer’s life, these are unforgettable gestures of kindness).

My subsequent encounters with Prasanna were as a rival player, and those are not quite the same. Once, when we were playing at the Chinnaswami Stadium, the umpire ruled AV Jayaprakash not out caught behind off my bowling, and Prasanna shouted from the pavilion: “That was off the middle of the bat, not an edge.”

Yes, Prasanna was an outspoken man. He proved it again that day, as I returned to the pavilion at lunchtime, with a couple of wickets in my bag, by telling me I was bowling too fast, I should give the ball more air. I didn’t take too kindly to that unsolicited piece of advice. (Well, you can talk, you have a batting line-up that gives you runs to bowl with, I thought).

It was only in hindsight that I realised he was absolutely right, though there was precious little I could have done, as I was only playing the role my team expected of me.

Naturally, as a competitive sportsman, one tried to be as good as one’s rival, even if he was the world’s best off-spinner, as it happened to be in this case. It was indeed a tall order, as in addition to his formidable bag of tricks, Prasanna had one advantage over taller off-spinners—the extra height to which he could flight the ball.

It was an honour to merely try to compete with him.

Monday, March 25, 2013


(First published on 12 June 2005 in The Sunday Express)

Anil Kumble has earned his place in the pantheon of the greats of the game by sheer perseverance and longevity—not to mention his superb qualities of head and heart which have enabled him to triumph over the trials and tribulations besetting him through his long and distinguished career. There is no doubt that in a different time and place, his exceptional intelligence and man-management capabilities would have won him the captaincy of his country. He is a man to be admired and respected, and not one for whom tears are easily shed, because he meets every adversity with courage and determination—and usually succeeds.

This preamble is necessary to explain the greater partiality many of the 70s generation have for the unorthodox Indian leg-spinner to have attained cricketing immortality—BS Chandrasekhar, who turned 60 a few weeks ago. If Kumble is the perfect professional, Chandra was in many ways the antithesis, a genius with nothing workmanlike about him. If Kumble is all intellect and mental toughness, Chandra was frail and vulnerable, in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. A polio-afflicted limb gave him the unusual arm-speed that enabled him to whip googlies, flippers and the occasional leg-break at ferocious velocities. There was the air of a tragic hero about him as time and time again misfortune struck him when least expected.

His physical attributes too contributed to this less-than-aggressive image that stayed with him through his career. He remained slim, almost thin, throughout his 15 years in top-flight cricket, his intermittent beard serving to heighten that impression of forlornness.

Of the celebrated quartet (or trio, to be truthful, as only once did all four play together in a Test) of Indian spinners, none was more spectacular than Chandrasekhar. Bishan Singh Bedi’s bowling action was deservedly described as poetry in motion, Erapalli Prasanna was a spinner’s spinner with his classical flight, sharp spin and delightful variations, and Srinivas Venkataraghavan was a probing wielder of a surgeon’s scalpel, but none of them could accelerate the pulse rate of excited spectators in the manner of a fast bowler as Chandra did.

As he measured his paces, marked the start of his bowling run, walked the first couple of steps cupping the ball in both hands, ran in with a purposeful stride, and then delivered in a perfectly side-on finish, left arm raised high, right arm coming down in a rapid whir, thudding on to his left thigh, the crowd exploded in a burst of feverish anticipation.

Slip fielders and short legs, not to mention wicket keepers belonging to any other generation would have dreaded the prospect of the fierce edges that Chandra’s fizz and bounce induced. But that high noon of Indian cricket was lit by some extraordinary close-in catching fireworks, ignited by such champions as Ajit Wadekar, Venkat, Abid Ali, and the incomparable Eknath Solkar. Despite that magic ring of fielders, streaky boundaries abounded when Chandra was on song, as the edges flew through the gaps at supersonic speeds towards the boundary.

Today the pundits mock Kumble for his lack of turn. Back in the 1960s, they called Chandra the fastest bowler in the Indian XI. It was like saying that Indira Gandhi was the only man in her cabinet—sometimes it was actually true. Some of Chandra’s hand grenades, which sent stumps cartwheeling, were no more than a blur to the spectator. Worse, from a batsman’s point of view, he did not see them much better either. What caught batsmen unprepared was that the lead-up to a sensational Chandra spell could consist entirely of full tosses and long hops. One moment, he would be muttering to himself and working himself into a nice temper to bowl better, and in the very next, he would be firing down an unplayable yorker or flipper. Like a man in a frenzy, he would wait impatiently for his next victim, chafing at the leash.

Unlike Kumble, Chandra was not a cerebral bowler, but it would be a fallacy to state, as many self-styled experts did, that he did not know what he was doing. If his general bowling style was fast and faster, he introduced subtle changes as he grew in age and stature as a bowler. When he held one back, it presented a much more difficult proposition to the unsuspecting batsman than the well-flighted delivery of an orthodox wrist spinner. There was only an imperceptible change of trajectory in this change of pace, which more often than not fooled batsmen into spooning return catches.

Yet another major difference between the two great leg-spinners of Karnataka is that the senior could not bat to save his life, while the younger man has on occasion shamed his frontline colleagues with his determination amidst the ruins of a collapse. Chandra is perhaps the only Test bowler in history with more wickets than runs to his credit. I believe he once made 22 in a Test innings and played two memorable supporting roles at No. 11—the first while V Subramanyam, his Karnataka captain, went from a hundred or thereabouts to 200 against Madras at Chepauk in 1967, and the second as an admiring spectator at the non-striker’s end while GR Viswanath raced to an electrifying unbeaten 97 against the fire of Andy Roberts & Co. at the same venue seven years later.

Everyone knows that Chandra’s greatest moment was the Oval Test of 1971, when he bowled India to an improbable first Test victory in England. Yet it would be folly to single that magical performance out in a glittering career, which included many acts of derring-do in India and abroad—against England, Australia, New Zealand and West Indies. In one memorable spell at Bombay, he took eight wickets in the first innings and four in the second. The Hindu’s PN Sundaresan, not known for flowery prose or sentimentality, wrote perhaps his most inspired prose describing the lump in his throat as he watched the frail young man soldiering on against a West Indian batting juggernaut led by Garfield Sobers.

Personally, though never a close friend, I, like other cricketers of my generation, was witness to Chandra’s tragedies and courage in adversity. We all knew of his weakness to Mukesh’s hauntingly nasal voice and his guru Saigal’s favourite beverage. I also had occasion to learn of his fondness for another brew—rasam, without which no south Indian meal is complete. In Chandra’s case, it could be the meal to the exclusion of the rest of the menu, I once found out.

I wonder if Kumble would have been possible without Chandrasekhar. Were it not for Chandra’s match-winning exploits in the 1960s and 70s, would any selector have dared to blood an unorthodox wrist spinner in the mould of Anil Kumble in the 90s? Would he have been dismissed as a freak bowler, unlikely to succeed on the world stage?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Jim Laker

By V Ramnarayan

His autobiographical “Over to Me” was not a book meant to inspire a young cricketer. It was  a continual rant against his skipper Peter May, manager Fred Brown and other cricket personalities of the time, but I read it from cover to cover because at age ten I was already an ardent fan of his bowling.

Jim Laker was my role model as an off-spinner. I never saw him in flesh and blood because he did not play Test cricket in India, never watched him in action elsewhere in the world, because we had no TV then, leave alone satellite telecasts. My only acquaintance with him was via radio broadcasts in the voices of Norman Yardley, John Arlott, et al, and photographs. 

His immaculate bowling action captured by still cameras was forever etched in my mind. I had a perfect image of his easy run-up, high-arm action, viciously spinning fingers, and perfect follow-through imprinted permanently in my mind’s eye. Growing up in a complex of three independent houses with no compound walls separating them, I never walked between them, always bowling imaginary but unplayable deliveries in my hero’s action, getting imaginary batsmen bowled, caught or leg before innumerable times every day. Years later, I was to admire his dry, laconic wit as a no-nonsense broadcaster, but reading about his incredible cricket exploits (193 wickets in 46 Tests at an average of 21.24, an economy rate of 2.04, a strike rate of 62.3,best innings figures of10.53, best match analysis of 19/90) in real time gave me a high never equalled afterwards.

A Yorkshireman by birth, James Charles Laker started his career in his home county as a batsman, but by the end of it, he had been acknowledged as arguably the best off-spinner of all time. It was Surrey that recognised his bowling potential, and invited him to join the county staff, after a sore 'spinning finger' had prevented his playing a 'trial' match for Essex.

What made Laker such a great spinner? According to John Arlott, English cricket's golden voice, "There have been off-spinners though few - who spun the ball as much as Jim Laker; some of them had comparable control. But no one has ever matched him in those two departments and had also, such a quality of intelligence.

"Physically economical of energy, he walked back six paces to his mark and came in up a short-stepping run which he deliberately varied from ball to ball, changing its pace or number of steps, a subtlety which made it difficult for the batsman to time his approach.

"Without any apparent change of action he bowled a topspinner and a ball which ran away a little off the pitch but, equally dangerously and far more unusually, he could and did, control the width of his break."

Often a batsman would find Laker's first ball pitched on a length and turning relatively mildly. The next ball would look innocuous enough, quite easily defended. Nothing much would happen off the next ball either, and the batsman would, if he did not already know Laker, conclude that here was just another off spinner. 

The next delivery would look no different from the earlier ones but bite, turn, hurry through and hit his stumps even before his bat came down.

Laker was a good bowler on all types of wickets. He spun the ball really viciously and ran through sides on turning pitches at the lowest possible cost. On good wickets, whether in cool England or in tropical conditions, he could bowl over after over of perfect length and line. On those, he set problems of length and flight.

Like all great spinners, he achieved flight by spinning the ball hard.

The ball left his hand and travelled towards the batsman in a perfectly controlled parabola, thanks to the spin imparted by strong and determined fingers that gave the ball and themselves - a fair rip. The flight of the ball was tantalising. Like a mirage that fools a thirsty traveller until he gets there, the Laker delivery was almost always not there for the batsman when he reached for it in defence or attack. Listen to John Arlott again: "He paid a painful price for his bowling. Like most men who spin the ball really hard, he often wore away the skin from the inside of his index finger. If he bowled on, it would harden, a corn would form and then, as it grew too hard, it would tear away, leaving the flesh exposed once more. (He) lacked the unusually long fingers of the savage off-spinners and to gain a similar degree of purchase, he had to take a grip which stretched his first two fingers to an exceptional and painful extent."

As a result, Laker's fingers became distorted and he developed an arthritic condition that ended his career sooner than expected. Yet, in only 46 Tests, he took 193 wickets at the meagre average of 21.23.

This is what a young spin bowler can learn from a great spin bowler like James Charles Laker or our own great slow bowlers. When you are told to flight the ball, it doesn't mean you toss the ball up in a gentle arc. Buying wickets doesn't mean giving away free runs. The idea is to fool the batsman into believing that free runs are to be had. And that, you can do, only if you genuinely spin the ball, only if you tear the skin of your finger by rubbing it hard against the ball to make it spin like a top, only if you practise so long and so purposefully, that in a match, good line and length are automatic, and you have the confidence to try variations at will. If you have never had spinning finger problems, you have never had blood oozing from that finger, you have never spun the ball. Forget spin bowling then, and switch to something easy like batting!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Gyan from cricket nawabs

By V Ramnarayan

Rarely do we read sensible writing on spin bowling. A very popular—and completely nonsensical—cliché is the description of a slow bowler that he "varied line and length intelligently". Nothing could be more absurd. Unless you are express fast and can bowl a good bouncer, you never vary your length except to modify it to suit the reach and footwork of the batsman. A tall batsman demands a slightly shorter length than a short one or a predominantly backfoot player; otherwise a “good” length is sacrosanct, though a halfvolley is always a better delivery than a rank short ball.

As an off-spinner who began his career in the 1960s, I had partly intuitively been following precisely these bowling fundamentals. Both length and direction were unvaried in your arsenal of sharp off spin, faster deliveries, floaters and leg-cutters, not to mention the occasional outswinger, and this is something you learnt very early. My first mentor (excluding my cousin Venkatachalam who had often shared his cricket wisdom during conversations indoors when I was still in my arai nijar) had been medium pacer VV Rajamani, my senior in the Presidency College cricket team.

The one aspect Rajamani stressed was arm-speed from the top of my delivery stride to my finish (“that doesn’t mean you push the ball through; you whip the ball as if you were spinning a top; the arm comes down fast, but the ball travels in a parabolic loop”), with my left leg ramrod straight and right arm falling to the left of my left thigh. A pivoting action was essential on your delivery stride, and for this your left foot needed to grip the ground firmly. In all these years of cricket reading, I have not for decades come across a reference to arm speed, the Rajamani gem that helped me so much in my development as a spinner. (Among world class spinners, Shane Warne provides an exceptional example of this factor, his strong back and shoulders compensating in this regard for his short run-up; a longer, quicker run-up would normally provide the the necessary momentum).

In my adult life, I learnt some of my best bowling lessons from Hanumant Singh, the Rajasthan and India batsman under whose captaincy I played for State Bank of India for a couple of seasons in the 1970s. I made my debut for the bank’s all India team when he was captain; he softened the blow of my being dropped for the next game and final to make way for Rajender Goel, by complimenting my efforts and giving me some great insights into the game, spin bowling in particular. This is when he confirmed the correctness of my instinctive understanding of the game. “Whatever you are doing, bowling at your normal pace and trajectory, flighting the ball a little extra, pushing the ball through quicker, or bowling the wrong ‘un, make sure that the ball invariably lands on the same spot—same length, same line. This way the batsman is always in doubt, while you are giving nothing away by way of width or poor length.”

“Length is mandatory, while line is optional,”  EAS Prasanna one of the best off-spinners of all time, has been quoted as saying. This could easily be misunderstood to mean that you can change your direction from ball to ball, over to over—unless you grasped the proper import of Prasanna’s words. No captain can set a field for you if you bowled on both sides of the wicket all the time. I believe Prasanna has  other ideas: that you decide your line on the basis of the nature of the wicket, the amount of turn it is yielding, on whether you are attacking or defending, and on whether a right hander or left hander is batting. Once you decide your line of attack for the day (or the session in case conditions have suddenly changed), you pretty much to stick to it.

I played under a great captain for Hyderabad. Though there was not much  spoken communication on the field between ML Jaisimha and the bowlers, all of us knew his cricket thinking and quickly learnt to bowl to his plans. For one thing, the field—sometimes extremely attacking—that he set for you clearly demanded a certain line of attack. Even on a typical first day wicket, he always gave the off-spinner two short legs—forward and backward. We would start with a slip, point, cover, mid-off , deep square leg, mid wicket and mid-on besides the two short-legs, with square leg the only deep fielder, some three quarters of the way to the boundary. All the other fielders except those in the close-in cordon were at single-saving distance from the bat. After a few overs, when he was confident I had settled down, he’d say, “All right, Ram?” and then proceed to bring in point to silly point, leaving that region totally unprotected. The field would then be slip, silly point, cover, mid-off, mid-on, mid-wicket, forward and backward short-legs and deep square leg. (You had to be absolutely accurate around off-stump; you simply could not afford to stray outside it the way you could with a less attacking offside field).

Once the batsman settled down, either slip or silly point was removed and only much later would a deep midwicket be added to the onside field, with the offside field reduced to point, cover and mid-off. Unless the batsmen really flourished and some 400 runs were on the board, the two short-legs were a constant. Even when one of them withdrew into the outfield, it was rarely the forward short-leg or bat-pad fielder that left his post.

This was a standard field deployed for a good off-spinner by the leading captains of the day, say Tiger Pataudi for India, Jaisimha for Hyderabad, V Subramanyam (succeeded by Prasanna) for Karnataka, or Venkataraghavan for Tamil Nadu.  I have a serious suspicion that this kind of attacking field placement originated in the south, perhaps when Subramanyam was leading Karnataka, and evolved through brainstorming among all these greats of the period. And if I am not mistaken, this broadly speaking, is what Prasanna means when he says length is mandatory, line is optional).

On a turning wicket, you not only tried to spin the ball from outside the off-stump, but often went round the wicket to make the batsman play, once he started using the pads with no fear, thanks to the abundant deviation, of lbw. The trick was to still bowl around the same spot from round the wicket, the straighter angle forcing the batsman to play and increasing chances of leg before at least slightly. And a well-directed straight or away-going delivery from round the wicket could get you one of three kinds of dismissals: lbw, bowled, or a slip catch.

Playing in that era, you also learnt some superb lessons on how to bowl to left-hand batsmen from the aforesaid nawabs of cricket. Contrary to what many of today’s experts advocate, our seniors encouraged off-spinners to bowl over-the wicket, and maintain a strict leg-and-middle line, thus cramping the left-hander. You often had a forward short-leg to grab the bat-pad snicks, while you could still force an outer edge to slip, especially if the pitch offered some purchase.

In part two of this series, I hope to describe in some detail the great spinners of my era that I watched from afar as well as those I was fortunate enough to follow from very close quarters.