India’s famed spin quartet – the gold standard for hunting in packs
Great bowlers almost always hunt in pairs. When great hunting pairs are talked about in cricket, we generally remember the fearsome West Indian fast bowlers Malcolm Marshall, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding or Joel Garner. We remember the Sultans of Swing – Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. We remember the epitome of consistency – the pair of Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose.
Very rarely do we remember or eulogise spin pairings that hunted together. India was never a land famed for its fast bowlers although Kapil Dev did change that beginning in the late 70s.
Yet, India managed to etch some memorable victories against powerful teams like England, West Indies, Australia and New Zealand both home and away thanks to some legendary spinners. And no period has been more eulogized in the spin history of the world than the 60s and 70s when Indian bowling largely rested on the colossal shoulders of four sublime spinners – BS Chandrasekhar, Bishan Singh Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and S Venkataraghavan.
While the rest of the contemporary world watched in envy, India’s spinning riches won it many a game on all types of tracks – at home and abroad – from seaming conditions in England to hard, bouncy surfaces in Australia.
India could endlessly benefit from the spin quartet thanks largely to their contrasting styles. Bedi was the classical left-arm spinner with an action so clean you could breathe it in. Chandrasekhar was the leg-spinner known for his fast leg-spin, sometimes almost unplayable. He was also the most lethal of the four.
While Prasanna and Venkataraghavan were both off-spinners, the former was more penetrative through his guile and craft while the latter was inexorable with his impeccable line and length used to hold one end up.
So, every Indian captain during the decade of these spinners, with Ajit Wadekar benefiting a lot, had at his disposal tweakers who could turn the ball away or bring it in, with varying actions. That variety filled the massive affliction India suffered through the absence of genuine pace bowlers.
During a 12-year period between 1966 and 1978, India had three of the top four wicket-takers in spin in the world and 4 of the top 8.
Three of the four
Interestingly, all four spinners played together only in one Test. In most other cases, one of the spinners was left out. Chandrasekhar, Bedi and Prasanna played 24 Tests together between 1967 and 1978.
Chandrasekhar and Bedi were neck and neck with 103 and 102 wickets respectively at averages of 27.81 and 28.34 respectively with Prasanna supporting them well, with 61 wickets, although his average did suffer, crossing 40. In those 24 Tests, Chandrasekhar had 8 five wicket hauls to Bedi’s 5.
Also, the three were at their devastating best against England, having played 11 Tests together. Chandrasekhar, Bedi and Prasanna picked up 52, 50 and 39 wickets respectively in those 11 matches, with the first clearly outshining the rest with an average of 23.84 and a strike-rate of 58.9, way ahead of the other two.
In 5 Tests that they played together against West Indies, Bedi was the leader with 22 wickets, followed by Chandrasekhar who had 16 and Prasanna who had 14.
What is interesting is also the number of balls delivered by the three spinners in these 24 Tests. Chandrasekhar and Prasanna bowled 6200 and 6213 deliveries each, identical, but Bedi bowled 7321 runs giving away not many more than the other two spinners, showing how he was a class apart when it came to attacking spin bowling without giving away too many runs.
In many ways, Bedi who bowled in 67 Tests for 266 wickets at a beautiful average of 28.71 was the lynchpin of the spin quartet, capable of stifling the opposition and also picking wickets, helping the much more versatile, exotic Chandrasekhar to go about his business unabashedly.
Chandrasekhar, unfortunately, played just 58 Tests where he picked up 242 wickets at 29.74. His average was higher than that of Bedi but like in all phases, he boasted of a better strike-rate. Also, he was instrumental in most of India’s wins at home and away with 12 four-wicket hauls and 16 five-wicket hauls.
There were 18 matches that featured the three spinners – Bedi, Chandrasekhar and S Venkataraghavan. Bedi and Chandrasekhar, as is always the pattern were neck and neck with 85 and 84 wickets respectively. Bedi was phenomenal in those 18 Tests with an average of 24.96 but Chandrasekhar’s strike-rate continued to be 10 balls fewer than that of Bedi.
In these 18 Tests, Venkataraghavan, the least successful of the quartet, picked up 39 wickets at 43.82 but with an economy rate of just 2.21. He was used primarily to bottle one end up and increase the pressure for the other bowlers to take advantage, given Chandrasekhar was quite an attacking leg-spinner.
Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan played three Tests together without Bedi, where the first two picked up 20 wickets each and the last picked up 8. Prasanna was the pick of the three in those Tests. Similarly, Bedi, Venkataraghavan and Prasanna featured in 13 Tests together without BS Chandrasekhar.
Prasanna was clearly the best with 61 wickets at 27.86 supported well by Venkataraghavan who picked up 41 at 27.19 and Bedi who took 43 at an uncharacteristically high 34.11. That also highlights the point as to how Bedi benefited from the presence of Chandrasekhar.
Two of the four
In matches that featured Bedi and Chandrasekhar, 42 of them in total, they have exactly the same number of wickets – 184. Bedi’s average and economy were more impressive but Chandrasekhar had a strike-rate 11 balls fewer than that of Bedi. Chandrasekhar also had 14 five-wicket hauls to Bedi’s 10.
The stats particularly show how much these two bowlers hunted together given the next highest wicket-taker for India was Prasanna who played 24 of those 42 Tests and had 61 wickets, a third of what the top two wicket-takers had. Bedi and Prasanna featured together in 43 Tests off which Chandrasekhar featured in 24.
Bedi and Prasanna once again had similar numbers. The former had 169 wickets at 29.04 while the latter had 162 at 31. Their strike-rates and number of five-wicket hauls were comparable too, with Bedi picking up 9 five-wicket hauls to Prasanna’s 8.
There were 28 matches that featured Chandrasekhar and Prasanna together in which the former picked up 118 wickets and the latter picked up 84 wickets at a much higher average. 24 of those matches also featured Bedi who sneaked in between these two wicket-takers with 102 wickets at 28.34.
While the spin quartet gave India many a victory, the individual brilliance of Bedi and Chandrasekhar shone through quite often. Together they were a force anywhere in the world. For example, Chandrasekhar picked up 28 wickets and Bedi 31 in five Tests against Australia in Australia in 1978, in what was probably India’s best performance down under.
India had taken a lead in the series at 2-1 after 3 Tests including a victory by an innings before losing the last two Tests and therefore, the series. In the same series, Prasanna managed 6 wickets in 4 Tests, a mediocre performance considering his 25 wickets in 4 Tests when India toured Australia in 1967/68.
Prasanna’s moment under the sun had come in 1968 in India’s 3-1 series victory against New Zealand in New Zealand. Prasanna picked 24 wickets in 4 Tests at 18.79, supported by Bedi who picked up 16 in 4 at 23.18.
S Venkataraghavan too had his share of fame, when he was the highest wicket-taker on either side in India’s famous 1-0 series victory against West Indies in West Indies in 1971 against Garry Sobers’ men. Venkataraghavan picked up 22 wickets in 5 Tests at 33.81, ably supported by Bedi and Prasanna who picked up 15 and 11 wickets respectively.
Just like fast bowlers, spinners hunt in pairs too. But, India was fortunate to have a triumvirate of spinners across the greater part of one and a half decades. That gave them a distinctive edge over most of the teams, which were strangers to high-quality spin that involved, drift, turn, wrong ‘uns and most importantly, dip and guile.
Even though India has continued that rich legacy with bowlers like Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh recreating that magic in pairs during the first decade of 2000, having a quartet like that or even three, such pure artists with actions clean as a whistle, relying on guile more than the pitch, are hard to come by!Published 20 Sep 2016, 13:43 IST