A tale of two of the finest off-spinners, fifty years apart

Fifty years ago when India won a series in England for the first time, their most successful bowler didn’t play a single Test

Team balance usually scores over the record of individuals in selection. Fifty years ago when India won a series in England for the first time, their most successful bowler didn’t play a single Test.

This was off-spinner Erapalli Prasanna, who in 25 Tests earlier had claimed 124 wickets including 49 in eight Tests in Australia and New Zealand. He was the best in the world. Ian Chappell, one of the finest players of spin, called him ‘maestro’ (he continues to do so). Even the English media were shocked at the omission.

And now history seems to be repeating itself. Off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, with 413 wickets, this Indian side’s most successful bowler, found himself excess to requirements in the first two Tests.

That must be difficult to accept for someone who has played 79 Tests and was once spoken of as a potential captain. Like Prasanna (also spoken of as a captain but who never led), he is an engineer; the former had to give up cricket for five years while he completed the course to keep a promise to his father.

Prasanna’s main rival was Srinivas Venkatraghavan, whose tighter off-spin and sharper fielding (he was a great catcher at gully) meant that he fit best into skipper Ajit Wadekar’s plans. He was the better batter too, but didn’t live up to potential at the international level.

Tribute to the pace attack

It is a tribute to India’s pace attack today that one spinner is considered sufficient for away Tests. Thus Ravindra Jadeja, the better fielder and the more restrictive spinner, is the better option, especially if giving the fast bowlers some rest is an important role. Indian cricket falls into convenient axioms quite easily. The received wisdom is: Ashwin the lead spinner for home matches, Jadeja when playing away.

Wadekar never fully articulated why he preferred Venkatraghavan to Prasanna who had been his predecessor Tiger Pataudi’s go-to bowler at every turn. Pataudi’s theory was that the four best bowlers should play regardless of whether they were spinners or seamers.

Perhaps Wadekar figured that with the match-winner Bhagwat Chandrasekhar at one end and the relatively restrictive and accurate Venkatraghavan at the other, the choice ought to be between Prasanna and Bishan Bedi, attacking bowlers both, who flighted the ball and did not shy away from ‘buying’ their wickets by giving away runs. It kept out the bowler who had been India’s spearhead on the tours preceding.

Modern teams don’t buy into the ‘best available’ theory but look for better balance. In the first Test in England it meant that two bowlers — Ishant Sharma being the other — who between them had over 700 Test wickets were not selected. That is India’s reserve strength!

It has been a while now since India have had an all-rounder who makes the team on the strength of his batting or bowling alone. This has affected balance, but then again, not if victories in Australia and England are any indication. Hardik Pandya showed some promise before injuries stalled his career.

Two-out-of-three theory

Test teams now follow the two-out-of-three theory in selection. This is borrowed from white ball cricket where a player is expected to contribute substantially in two of the three crafts — batting, bowling, fielding. The pure specialist (who might be a great bowler or the best wicket-keeper) thus misses out.

There was a time when Ashwin was fielded in the slips, and he responded by taking some fine catches. But it was felt that the threat of finger injury was not worth the risk (Shane Warne was an exception in that position). Jadeja fits into the scheme of things well. He has over two thousand runs and two hundred wickets in Tests and his limitations are his strength since he will not experiment too much. He knows his role, and is under no pressure bowling even on the fifth day of a Test, as he showed at Lord’s where he bowled just six overs. That was all he was needed to do.

Teams tend not to change a winning combination, and if India stay with the one that won at Lord’s, it will mean that Ashwin will have to wait a bit longer.

At Headingley, where they play next, India pulled off one of their great wins in 2002. Skipper Sourav Ganguly won the toss, and in overcast conditions on a wicket with a tinge of green favouring the seamers, he chose to bat.

It was a brave decision, and it paid off handsomely with the skipper himself, Sachin Tendulkar, and Rahul Dravid all making centuries. India went in with two spinners, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, and won by an innings. They followed the ‘best bowling attack’ theory then.

In sport, victory is the ultimate justification. Whether in 1971 or in 2021.

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