Throughout most of twentieth century when India was in general considered to be a country bogged down by woes of poverty, privation and pestilence, there was one area where the nation could justifiably claim to be rich.
This was in the area of left-arm spin bowling where the country suffered from an excess of riches on account of which many talented bowlers who would have walked into most of contemporary national squads were forced to remain in the sidelines and limit their careers to playing first class cricket.
India possessed such an abundance of talent in this branch of bowling that up and coming left-arm spinners knew that they would need something extra in their repertoire to merit consideration by the selectors.
It is widely accepted that the first great left-arm spin bowler to emerge from India was Patwankar Baloo, who played his entire cricket in the days prior to India’s entry into the exalted world of Test cricket. He played for the “Hindus” in the “Pentangular", which was the premier cricket tournament in India during those days.
He also toured England with the first ever side that left the shores of the country to play cricket in the home of their colonial masters. He impressed the pundits of the game in England with his control over the length and the amount of turn he could impart to the ball. Baloo is also significant as the first Dalit player to make his mark in the game and his career received considerable attention from anthropologists and sociologists on this score.
Vinoo Mankad was the leading all-rounder in the cricket world during the 1950s and held the record for achieving the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in Tests in the shortest time till it was broken by the legendary Ian Botham. Though he could walk into the national side as a batsman and held many batting records as well, Mankad’s achievement as a bowler was more significant as it helped India to record their few victories in Test cricket during this decade. He picked up 34 wickets when England toured India in 1951-52, including 13 in the last match at Chennai where the hosts celebrated their first ever Test win.
He possessed the stamina of an ox and could bowl unchanged for hours. His bowling style was orthodox and though his trajectory was on the flatter side, his control over the line coupled with the variations of pace made him a dangerous customer on any wicket. He ended his career with 162 Test wickets.
The next left-arm spin bowler to emerge from India was Salim Durani, another all-rounder but markedly different from Mankad in both batting and bowling styles. Durani was a talented, but mercurial player and took the cricketing world by storm by taking 10 wickets when the country recorded its first ever series win against England in 1962. However, he could not live up to his promise and found himself out of the side soon afterwards.
It is universally accepted that the greatest left-arm spin bowler to don the national colours is Bishan Singh Bedi, who made his bow into Test cricket in 1967 and strode that arena like a colossus during the next decade. Blessed with a classic high arm action that was a connoisseur’s delight and a large heart that saw him give the ball plenty of air, Bedi bowled giving like a millionaire, despite the fact that his side did not always have the required runs on board to afford such luxuries. He led the Indian bowling attack during the years he played and was undoubtedly one of the greatest purveyors of this art who graced the game. He was also among the first lot of spin bowlers who made his mark in limited overs cricket, thanks to his stint with English county cricket. He also led the national side in 22 Tests and was a popular skipper.
Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar were two left-arm spin bowlers who suffered the misfortune of having their playing days coincide with that of Bedi. Both of them were brilliant bowlers and would have played Test cricket had they belonged to another country. When Bedi was dropped for one Test, on account of reasons of discipline, Goel was made part of the squad but did not get an opportunity to play. They both picked up wickets by the dozen in first class cricket, which was the only arena they had to showcase their talent and skills.
It was Dilip Doshi who won the nod for being Bedi’s successor when the latter was dropped after the tour of England in 1979. Doshi immediately made his mark with a six-wicket haul in his very first innings and reached the landmark of 100 wickets in Test cricket in a short span of 28 matches. He was joined in the national side by Ravi Shastri during the series against New Zealand in 1981 and from that point onwards India had two left- arm spin bowlers in their playing eleven. The fact that Shastri could bat a bit helped his case further as did the support he received from skipper Sunil Gavaskar, who considered the former as his protege. Doshi believed that his career in Test cricket was shortened on account of Gavaskar favouring Shastri. Whatever the reason, Doshi found that his place in the side was taken over by Maninder Singh by the time the national side returned after a disastrous tour of Pakistan in early 1983.
Maninder and Shastri combined well in both Tests as well as in the limited overs version of the game till the former suffered a sudden eclipse in form after the 1987 World Cup, which saw him lose his rhythm, loop and control over the ball. Shastri continued till the early 1990s, but by then he had become more of an opener than a wicket taking spinner. The slot of left-arm spin bowler was filled by the thinly built Venkatapathi Raju, who bowled with deadly venom on helpful pitches within the country but was rather ineffective on tracks abroad. He held his place in the side till the late 1990s when other contenders like Nilesh Kulkarni, Murli Kartik and Rahul Sanghvi came to the fore and pushed him out.
From the turn of the twenty first century, the stock of left-arm spin bowlers have come crashing down. During the historic series against Steve Waugh’s Australian side in 2001, each of the three tests featured a different left-arm bowler. Finally Saurav Ganguly, who had taken over the reins of captaincy, decided to go with the formula of having only two spin bowlers in the playing eleven. These slots were invariably taken up by Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh and it was only when one of them was injured or unavailable that a left-arm spin bowler was provided an opportunity.
The present national squad has in its ranks Ravindra Jadeja, who, while not being in the same league as Bedi and Mankad, has proved his mettle in all versions of the game. As a left-arm bowler he has his limitations, which come to the fore on unhelpful pitches outside the Indian subcontinent. His abilities as a hard-hitting lower order batsman and a quick moving fielder in the deep makes him a valuable player, particularly in the shorter duration formats. Since present day captains of national teams prefer to go in with only one spin bowler in Test matches abroad, he has not been able to become a fixture in the playing eleven, despite having 185 wickets in his kitty.
What could be the reasons for the decline of left-arm spin bowling in the country? One factor could be the invariable dearth that follows deluge of any kind. India was blessed with an excess of top quality left-arm spin bowlers during the second half of twentieth century and it is only natural that their number dried up during the period following this. Another reason could be the conscious promotion of pace bowling, which started during the 1970s when country did not have even one good fast bowler. The dividends for the efforts put in this sphere became visible by the turn of this century and today the country can boast of a pace attack that can compare with the best in the world. This excess focus on fast bowling led to adverse fallout on other areas, particularly in the arena of left-arm spin bowling. Finally, the growth of limited overs cricket has made life more difficult for spinners, especially those who believe in flighting the ball. A left-arm spin bowler in the classical mould gets constrained while bowling a flatter trajectory, which forces him to be restrictive and defensive, rather than his preferred course of attacking the batsman. This, in tun leads to captains tending to overlook such players who do not fit into the overall gameplan of the side.
What could be a solution for this problem? It was widely believed that classic leg spin bowling had become extinct till Shane Warne appeared on the scene during the 1990s. Left-arm spin bowling needs a phenomenon like Warne for its resurrection. Otherwise, this beautiful art form, runs the risk of vanishing from cricket grounds the world over.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)