When a legend retires, he is quite irreplaceable. That is what Australia is realizing at the moment. They have been able to make up somewhat for the retirements of Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Adam Gilchrist, Damien Martyn, even Glenn McGrath as the bench strength consisted of able batsmen and fast bowlers. But it is the absence of Shane Warne that has really hit them the most. To make matters worse Stuart MacGill called it a day at about the same time and the spin attack is as bare as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. The gallant efforts of Nathan Hauritz and Jason Krejza notwithstanding, they have their limitations and it was not exactly a surprise that the Aussie team management opted for an all out pace attack in the fourth Test at Headingley. There is little doubt however that a quality spin bowler lends balance to the bowling line-up.
Looking at how the Australians are struggling without Warne, I’m reminded of how Indian spin bowling – Indian cricket’s traditional strength – has never really suffered such a lacuna for the last 70 years. Great spinners have graced the line-ups over the decades but when the time has come for them to ride off into the sunset more than adequate replacements have always been found.
Shortly after India attained Test status Vinoo Mankad, the first of the outstanding spin bowlers, burst upon the scene as a precociously talented 20-year-old against Lord Tennyson’s team in 1937-38. About a decade later he was joined by Ghulam Ahmed and in the early fifties Subash Gupte appeared on the scene. They formed the first great Indian spin trio and the combination was broken only in the late fifties with the simultaneous retirement of Mankad and Ghulam Ahmed. Gupte continued playing till the early sixties by which time the spin attack was augmented by the admirable work done by the all rounders Bapu Nadkarni, Salim Durrani and Chandu Borde. These three carried on the spin tradition in the transition period through the early and mid sixties by which time the famous spin quartet took shape.
The deeds of Bishen Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkatraghavan have been written in letters of platinum. Single-handedly, with an apology of a new ball attack and with less than adequate support from the batsmen, they won Tests for India at home and abroad. From the mid sixties to the late seventies they terrorized batsmen the world over as much as Lillee and Thomson, Roberts and Holding. They reigned supreme and this meant that deserving candidates such as Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar could never get a look-in underscoring the embarrassment of riches in the spin bowling department. But all good things have to come to an end and the spin quartet finally broke up with Prasanna, Bedi and Chandra playing their last Tests in the late seventies.
Venkat, the fittest of the lot carried on into the early eighties but in the best traditions of Indian spin bowling ready replacements were found even for such great bowlers. Dilip Doshi who had waited patiently in the wings during the heyday of the spin quartet now became the leading spin bowler and he was soon joined by Shivlal Yadav. And even as the careers of Doshi and Venkat came to an end Ravi Shastri and Maninder Singh appeared on the scene. In the mid eighties L Sivaramakrishnan and in the late eighties Narendra Hirwani - all too briefly in both cases - caused havoc among opposing batsmen.
As the nineties dawned it was obvious that Shastri and Maninder were nearing the end of their careers but again as if my magic a new spin trio emerged on the horizon. Anil Kumble, Venkatpathi Raju and Rajesh Chauhan brought back golden memories of the past early in the decade. Raju and Chauhan were spent forces by the end of the nineties but Kumble was now the kingpin and on his way to becoming the most successful Indian spin bowler. In the late 90s he was joined by a teenaged Harbhajan Singh. Through the first decade of the new millennium Harbhajan and Kumble carried on the rich Indian spin tradition and bowled India to numerous notable triumphs at home and away.
Even with the retirement of a legend like Kumble there is nothing really to worry about as far as spin bowling is concerned and that is the greatness about this subtle art in this country. Harbhajan, only in his late twenties, is still around and as menacing as ever and new kids on the block in Piyush Chawla, Pragyan Ojha and Amit Mishra have given enough evidence that they are ready to carry the strong Indian tradition on their shoulders. It is clear that Indian spin bowling will never die, the link will never be broken and this is one lacuna that will never be felt in Indian cricket.