by S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath
Many years ago, in the winter of 1969 to be precise, both of us saw two of the best ever spells of off-spin bowling, within a week of each other. The younger of us, not yet 13 saw Erapalli Prasanna, bring Australia down to its knees with a spell of six for 14 in 11 overs, as South Zone almost pulled off a nail biting victory at Bangalore. A few days later, the elder among us, watched the same Prasanna reduce the same Australians to 24 for 6 at Chepauk in Chennai. Whenever we discuss off-spin bowling, our mind’s eye takes us back to those magical moments. Prasanna beating the batsman who survives; Prasanna then cockily walking ‘backwards’ to his bowing mark, with mincing steps, a teasing smirk on his face and his taunting eyes never leaving the batsman!
If Prasanna represents the ultimate artist among off-spinners then surely the finest of craftsmen among them has to be Venkataraghavan. People talk of the floater as the supreme weapon of beguilement in an off-spinner’s armoury. In his first Test series, and not yet out of his teens, Venkat had the skill to bowl that ball to claim Jarvis of New Zealand in the Kotla Test of 1965. It was a delivery that was so good that newspapers next morning waxed eloquent about the prodigious talent of the young man. People, who think Venkat was quick and flat, cannot be more wrong.
Off-spin has always been an integral part of a good bowling attack. Good leg spin provides the X Factor, fast bowlers provide the essential cutting edge but plugging and plotting away on friendly and unfriendly tracks, with patience, resilience and guile is the off-spinner. Some will be the quickish type, almost medium pace and quite deadly on helpful tracks. The others will be slow, accurate and relentless. Both are every captain’s dream. On a hot day, on a benign track, it will be the off-spinner who will bowl for figures of 1 for 75 in 33 overs!
Over the years, tons of wickets have been taken by the off-spinners. There are at this moment in August 2012, 35 off-spinners who have taken at least 50 Test wickets. All of them have been valiant servants of the game, and the spectrum ranges from the wide eyed Muralitharan on a summit of 800 wickets that no bowler will ever surpass (the cliché that records are meant to be broken will not apply here) to W Bates who took 50 wickets more than 125 years ago, surely forgotten even in his own homeland but whom Wisden in its almanac describes with a lot of respect for exceptional ability.
If we were to poll cricketers and knowledgeable cricket followers to rank these 35 off-spinners, there will never be any kind of agreement. And yet, cricket statistics has its own fatal charm, seducing the keen follower of the game to try and stack cricketers on some key statistical parameters. We were no exceptions. We created a composite effectiveness index using five parameters — Number of Wickets, Strike Rate, Bowling Average, 5 and 10 Wicket hauls, and proportion of wickets taken away from home — and ranked all the 35 off-spinners with over 50 Test wickets. Based on this composite effectiveness index the top 20 off-spinners were: Muralitharan, Jim Laker, Harbhajan Singh, Hugh Trumble, William Bates, Graeme Swann, Saqlain Mushtaq, Lance Gibbs, Tayfield, EAS Prasanna, GE Palmer, Saeed Ajmal, Ashley Mallett, IWG Johnson, Fred Titmus, DA Allen, Roy Tattersall, Shivlal Yadav, Venkataraghavan and Tauseef Ahmed. All too predictably, while we agreed with some of the rankings our statistical massaging threw up, we vehemently disagreed with others.
We realised that we must stick our neck out and make our own subjective but informed estimates of quality. While facts and figures were at the back of our mind we brought in our own assessment of factors such as guile, the beauty of their bowling action and so on. To begin with we agreed that the three spinners of the long ago generation — Trumble, Bates and Palmer — would be included in the top-20 but will not be ranked, for we were in a no position to argue one way or the other about their place. But for the remaining 17 we would rank them.
And so we arrived at our own list of the 17 greatest off spinners of all time:
Off-spin unfortunately has regularly thrown up — with good reason — controversial actions. A leg-spinner’s action has never been questioned and our theory is that it is simply because one uses the wrist to bowl leg-spin and it would be impossible to do so with a bent arm. Off-spin however is finger spin and there is always the likelihood of a bent arm, even more so if the bowler is not quite side on and gets more open chested. To add to its woes, recently the Doosra has become the single biggest reason for off-spinners to be under scrutiny. In the days before Saqlain demonstrated the Doosra with the cleanest of actions and with wonderful subterfuge, our classical off-spinners had the beautiful over spinner, the floater and the leg cutter. Today, every off-spinner bowls the doosra and sorry, we find many of these deliveries obnoxiously suspicious. Which is why, the two of us place such a premium on the bowling action.
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