India's spin quartet remembered

2011 Oct 31 by Suresh Menon

How good were the original Fab Four ( Venkatraghavan being the fourth) of Indian cricket?

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By Suresh Menon

Shashi Tharoor’s joy at meeting Erapalli Prasanna was unmistakable, as was his wife Sunanda’s excitement at meeting Bhagwat Chandrasekhar. The sight of these two great cricketers alone must have made the day for many of the guests. Chandra does not step out a lot, and if he can avoid a public meeting, he will.

At an interactive session, both players and the chief guest Tharoor exhibited a generosity of spirit that not only raised the tone of the discussions, but lifted the gathering to a rarely-visited place. A place where another’s skill and achievements are readily acknowledged, where the talk is not about statistics or the latest financial deals but about cricket and all that its stands for in its purest form.

Asked who was the best batsman he bowled to, Prasanna had no hesitation: “Tom Graveney,” he said. The Englishman had made 151 in the Lord’s Test of 1967 against Pras, Chandra and Bishan Bedi. “For me the best batsman is the one who played Chandra best,” explained Pras, with startling simplicity.

Chandra, modest and diffident, said of his own approach to bowling, “All I needed was a slip, backward and forward short legs.” The rest could field anywhere, as far as he was concerned. By the time the 1970s dawned, there was Ajit Wadekar at slip, Eknath Solkar and Abid Ali at the short leg positions, and India’s spin quartet was set to rule the world.

Sportsmen today are so conscious of being politically correct and saying the right things that they neither criticise nor praise their colleagues with any honesty. Generosity does not come easily to those trained from an early age to keep all comments within narrow parameters. On the other hand, former sportsmen, denied the kind of media exposure or the money that current stars do, tend to come across as bitter, not having made their peace with the changing times.

Yet, occasionally, stars trash the cliché, as they did that day.

“If Muthiah Muralitharan could succeed, so would I,” explained Prasanna to another questioner, “off spin will survive.” There was pride in his achievements, pride in his craft. Keen to provoke, another asked, “How is it that India have not produced great spinners after your time?”
Prasanna’s response was wonderful. “What are you saying? Anil Kumble was as good as any of us.” And then this: “Perhaps we had the benefit of the doubt since television cameras were not always focussed on us as they are these days.”

It surprised many to know that Chandra remembered all his dismissals. Most great bowlers have a long memory – they have to remember every detail of a dismissal and how it might be used against the batsman again or against a similar batsman. At one point, he smilingly corrected a Prasanna anecdote after the off spinner said Chandra had taken five wickets in a particular innings. He stretched out three fingers of his hand to put the record straight!

How good were the original Fab Four ( Venkatraghavan being the fourth) of Indian cricket? Were the preceding generation’s Vinoo Mankad (left arm), Subhash Gupte (leg spin), Ghulam Ahmed (off) as good or better? One thing that worked in the later group’s favour was that wickets were prepared for spin. Another was the superior support in the field, especially close in. And with the arrival of Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Vishwanath, two world class batsmen ensured that the spinners would have a total to bowl at.

Led first by Tiger Pataudi and then by Wadekar, the quartet developed both as individuals and a team of attacking bowlers. “Our policy was simple. We looked to take wickets, not keep the runs down. The modern spinner is too conscious of restricting the scoring,” said Prasanna.

So rich is India’s spinning tradition that some of the best would have to stand aside in an all-time eleven. As Tharoor said, someone like Padmakar Shivalkar, a contemporary of Bedi who never played a Test was possibly the second best left arm spinner in the world!