By S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath
Quiz time: Can you name an Australian left arm spinner with more than 54 Test wickets? Or a leg spinner from England who played with any success in the last sixty years? Apart from Murali and Herath can you name a Lankan spinner with over 100 wickets? Is there a Pakistani left arm spinner, apart from Iqbal Qasim who has more than 70 test wickets? Has any West Indian leg spinner captured at least 60 wickets? Imran Tahir is the leg spinner playing for South Africa now, but did any leg spinner play for them in the last 80 years? Last one for the day: Name a New Zealand spinner other than Vettori with more than 110 wickets.
All these questions can be answered with a simple 'None' or ‘No’. However, if a similar set of questions were to be asked about India, each of the questions would be answered with a resounding 'Yes.'
Sometime in November 2011, we culled and massaged facts and figures about all three kinds of spin – left arm spin, right arm off spin and leg spin – and we realised that India alone among all test playing nations has an amazingly even and strong presence in all three forms of spin bowling. All the other countries have lacked in at least one kind of spin and when you consider a composite picture India clearly emerges as the only country that is equally strong in all three. Our analysis is based on data as of early November 2011; we have also only considered data of spinners who have a minimum of 30 test wickets. And this is what our analysis shows:
• Indian spinners have taken 3380 wickets and distributed this among themselves so evenly that off spin accounts for 32 %, leg spin for 34% and left arm spin for the other 33%.
• The tests that spinners have played for India are also nicely distributed: off spin 444; leg spin 311 and left arm spin 384.
• Their workload too has been even: around 87000 balls bowled by off spinners, 81000 by leg spinners and nearly 100000 balls by left arm spinners.
• At most times through India’s test history one will always find a pair of spinners or a spin trio in its lineup.
• If one were to name the great spinners over the ages, India would be the only country that is represented in all three forms of spin bowling. Take a look: Mankad and Bedi in left arm spin; Gupte, Chandra and Kumble in leg spin and Prasanna, Venkataraghavan and Harbhajan in off spin.
• Indian spinners have taken 10 wickets in a match on 29 occasions. As a percentage of the number of tests their spinners have played, this may be inferior to England, West Indies and of course Sri Lanka (read Muralitharan). But the point is that these 29 occasions are quite nicely shared by all three tribes – on 9, 12 and 8 occasions by off spin, leg spin and left arm spin respectively.
• Similarly India’s list of spinners who have 100 wickets and more, has 4 off spinners, 3 leg spinners and 4 left arm spinners.
• None of the other countries even remotely have this kind of evenness of strength. While Australia is absolutely dominant in leg spin it is completely absent in left arm spin. In the case of England it is top of the charts on left arm spin but cuts a forlorn figure in leg spin.
• It is only in off spin that the major cricket playing countries seem to be fairly evenly matched over the ages. Each country has a fair representation of wickets taken by off spinners as a percentage of their country’s spin tally. Thus 29% of Aussie spin wickets have gone to the off spinner, England 38%, India 32%, New Zealand 38% and Pakistan 26%. West Indies, because of the exploits of Lance Gibbs and Sonny Ramadhin and the longevity of Carl Hooper, has most of its spin victims in its off spin column. Every country has an off spinner in the “100 wickets plus” club; England leading the way with six of them, India close behind with four while Australia and West Indies each have three such bowlers. Clearly there is an even distribution of success in off spin, very unlike leg spin or left arm spin, across test playing nations.
To appreciate why this evenness of strength in spin is such a special feature, one must scan the other cricketing nations. Pakistan like Australia has a very strong and successful tradition in leg spin, with great spinners like Abdul Qadir and Mushtaq Ahmed but conspicuous in its low share of left arm spin. Take out Iqbal Qasim and they have a negligible presence in this department. West Indies spin revolves around three spinners. Lance Gibbs their off spinner, Sonny Ramadhin the mystery spinner and Alf Valentine the left arm spin twin of Ramadhin.
South Africa about 100 years ago had three googly bowlers and in fact trounced England in a series using this spin trio. Much later they had the formidable off spinner “Toey Tayfield”, of whom it was said that if you waited for him to bowl a bad ball, you would have to wait forever. Their left arm spin is only remembered for the Chinaman bowler Adams. Sri Lanka is Muralitharan and Muralitharan is Sri Lanka. In that one sentence, which can be seen as absolutely infuriating or extremely inspiring is the story of Lankan spin. New Zealand’s spin can similarly be told in just two words: Daniel Vettori.
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The compelling fact that sets India apart is its rich and consistent line of spinners of all three varieties through the ages. The spin quartet of Bedi, Chandra, Prasanna and Venkat playing together for more than a decade perhaps has no parallel in cricket history. Prasanna and Venkat straddled the off spin firmament for two decades and while one was the ultimate artist, the other was a fantastic craftsman. Between them they had over 330 wickets but often had to play musical chairs in the India XI.
Leg spin too was richly endowed. Vaman Kumar, who made his debut against Pakistan in the late 50s could easily have played much more but had to watch from the sidelines as Chandrasekhar came on the scene. Cricketers who have played both of them say that both deserved a place in the team, much like Prasanna and Venkat.
The fifties too were rich for India. Subhash Gupte was easily the best leg spinner of his time and complementing him from the other end was Vinoo Mankad the left arm spinner. We have had occasion earlier to write about Gupte so we talk about Mankad here. Perhaps the greatest spinning all-rounder the game has ever produced (if you exclude Sobers who was part fast/medium bowler and therefore not purely a spin all-rounder) Mankad in our opinion will pip Wilfred Rhodes for the spot. He won India their first test against MCC in 1951 and followed this up with their second test win against Pakistan. He had 10 wicket hauls on both occasions. He remained the quickest to reach the double of 100 wickets and 1000 runs for a long time and the highest wicket taker for India till the spin quartet overtook him. As an opener, he hit hundreds against Lindwall and Miller (Australia) and Bedser and Trueman (England) in their countries (not on sub-continent pitches).
As a spinner he carried a huge workload with marathon spells and was often very economical while retaining his wicket taking ability. Playing alongside Mankad and Gupte was Ghulam Ahmed, an off spinner of distinction. The abiding regret of that era is that India’s catching was woefully weak. Had these three spinners been supported in the field their returns would have been far superior.
The years between Vinoo Mankad and Bedi belonged to Nadkarni and Durani. Between them they took nearly 200 wickets and had a hand in the few wins that came India’s way in the early sixties. Nadkarni brought intense concentration to his trade and was known for his economy and maiden overs; his economy rate (1.67) is unsurpassed among all bowlers with over 30 test wickets. But “maiden Nadkarni” was also a wicket taking bowler against attacking batsmen, especially the Australians who used their feet and tried to attack him. His battles against Harvey, O’ Neill, Simpson and Booth were very interesting.
Multi-skilled Nadkarni was an obdurate batsman and along with Venkat, the best close- in fielder among our spinners. Durani on the other hand was simply gifted; he would bowl some unplayable stuff when the mood took him, come up with a clutch of wickets and the game would suddenly sizzle to life. Remember how he set up India’s first victory against West Indies at Trinidad in 1971, gobbling up Sobers and Lloyd? He had a long run-up; he was a tall man with a high action and released the ball close to his left ear, unlike most left-arm spinners who were more round-arm.
During almost the entire eighties, India did not have a great spin combination. In fact the number of spinners who played for India was not small, just that none of them rose to greatness or ever formed a strong combination. Doshi was the best of them. Shivlal Yadav despite a very nice off spinner’s action never rose above the ordinary. Prasanna, to this day has only one mantra for the off spinner, “Length is mandatory, line is optional”. Those who saw Yadav frustrate his captain’s carefully planned field setting, would appreciate this pearl of wisdom more than anyone else.
Sivaramakrishnan, the prodigiously talented leg spinner came and disappeared like a shooting star. Maninder, a genuine talent like Siva, found the burden of being called “the next Bedi” impossible to bear. One of your authors, who met him at Delhi after he had just retired, can never forget that ineffable look of sadness on his face, as he talked about his retirement. Ravi Shastri and Maninder Singh did form a left arm spin combination for a couple of years but had just one 1986 victorious tour of England to remember. But then arrived Kumble in 1990! With Harbhajan joining him some years later, India had a really potent pair of spinners and as they took over 1000 wickets between them, India tasted success against every country. The cupboard seems bare again. Will Ashwin, the off spinner, and Pragyan Ojha, the left arm spinner, form India’s next pair of spin twins? Is there a very good leg spinner round the corner?