By Partab Ramchand
The Indian batting might be the most lustrous in the game today but overall if it has been one dominating factor in Indian cricket it is the country’s rich spinning tradition. The advent of Kapil Dev changed the equation more than a bit and the result was that the Indian attack wore a more balanced look. But there is little doubt that the most fascinating spin bowlers have come from India. Other countries too have thrown up world class bowlers renowned for their flight and turn, skill and accuracy but it is Indian cricket that symbolizes the ethereal quality of spin bowling. The best among the Indian spin bowlers have held the cricketing world spellbound and the praise they have rightly earned has been the effusive kind.
Such has been the great spin tradition that there has been no shortage of outstanding bowlers for nearly 75 years. Even when the greats have called it a day their replacements have been adequate to start with and then with experience they have become worthy successors. Vinoo Mankad made his bow in the late thirties and he was joined over the next decade and a half by Ghulam Ahmed and Subash Gupte. By the time the first great spin trio played their last Tests I remember there was trepidation as to how replacements would be found for them. But through the early and mid sixties Chandu Borde, Bapu Nadkarni and Salim Durrani kept the flag flying before the famous spin quartet took shape. The era of Bishen Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkatraghavan constituted the greatest phase in Indian cricket till then but once the inevitable break-up occurred in 1979 alarm bells rang again. But through the eighties and early nineties, Dilip Doshi, Maninder Singh, Narendra Hirwani, Shivlal Yadav and (very briefly) Laxman Sivaramakrishnan kept the spin attack going.
By the time the careers of these bowlers ground to a halt Anil Kumble had already made an impact on the international scene and through the 90s he had the support of Venkatpathi Raju, Rajesh Chauhan and (briefly) Sunil Joshi. But Kumble was the kingpin taking wickets by the bucketful, being particularly destructive on home pitches. And in the new millennium even as the other bowlers bowed out he was joined by Harbhajan Singh and the duo formed the most penetrative and successful combination of Indian spin bowlers since the break-up of the spin quartet.
The retirement of Kumble in 2008 again set off alarm bells. Fortunately for Indian cricket Harbhajan is almost ten years Kumble’s junior in age so even as the senior man exited the international stage it was clear that the off spinner would be a worthy successor as spin spearhead. Of course by now pace was having more than a fair share of the spoils thanks to the exploits of Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Irfan Pathan, Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma. And while this spoke well of the balance of the attack it was imperative that spin bowling should remain in the forefront. But are they enough quality spinners around?
This was the point raised by VVS Laxman during an interview the other day. Touching upon the lack of young quality spinners the stylish batsman was of the view that apart from the guys who are playing, the team is struggling to find quality spinners. "You will find that there is no bench strength as far as spinners are concerned and so the quality of domestic cricket has come down in terms of the bowling department. I think the quality of bowlers especially the spinners will definitely be a worrying factor for the Indian team."
Laxman’s view was not shared by the chairman of the selectors Kris Srikkanth who spoke confidently about the available spin resources. "We have a lot of bench strength in every department and I don't think there is any cause for worry," he said in an interview.
The point to consider is that with the outlook and the pitches having changed the opportunities for spin bowlers are limited. In ODIs there is place only for one spinner with three seam bowlers generally in the starting line-up. In Tests in the good old days the Indian team always took the field with three spinners (and sometimes even four). Now at best only two are chosen and sometimes when playing abroad only one has figured in the playing eleven. Apart from Harbhajan the best of the lot these days are Piyush Chawla, Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha. Two leg spinners and a left arm spinner along with an established off spinner on the face of it would indicate that the future of Indian spin bowling is in good hands. But none of the youngsters have really been able to establish their credentials despite opportunities. And when Harbhajan goes through a lean patch like he did in Bangladesh recently the Indian spin attack was hardly recognizable as the kingpins they were in days not too long ago.
It was said that Indian cricket produces an assembly line of outstanding spin bowlers just as the West Indies produces great fast bowlers. The assembly line in the West Indies has disappeared with Walsh and Ambrose the last in the line of devastating pace bowlers. Is Indian cricket too heading for a famine after the feast with Harbhajan the last in the line of great spin bowlers?