Interview with EAS Prasanna: "Ravichandran Ashwin is the best spinner in the world"
The ability to loop and turn the ball and the vision to out-think a batsman make a spinner a potent threat to any batsman. Yet, with broad bats and shorter boundaries, the spinners are trading flight for a flatter, faster trajectory with the intent of limiting the flow of runs.
The Indian spin-quartet was one of the deadliest combination of spin bowlers in the history of the game, comprising of BS Chandrasekhar, EAS Prasanna, Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Bishan Singh Bedi. They played a combined 231 Tests and took 853 wickets between 1962 and 1983, playing a big role in away wins in New Zealand, West Indies and England.
Erapalli Prasanna, part of the spin-quartet, was one of the greatest off-spinners of the game, and was described by Ian Chappell as the greatest slow bowler he had ever faced. He played 49 Tests, picking up 189 wickets, taking a five year gap midway in his career from 1962 to 1967 to complete his engineering. In an exclusive conversation with Sportskeeda, the legend talks about Ravichandran Ashwin’s evolution as India’s frontline spinner, Virat Kohli as captain and Anil Kumble as coach, and the nuances of spin-bowling.
How do you think off-spin has changed from your time to now?
The basics haven’t changed, but the attitude has. Exception to the rule is Ravichandran Ashwin; he’s different. Off-spinners by and large are an attacking lot. There is no way you can defend. However, today they have lost the insight to that kind of bowling. Bowlers tend to bowl off break because that is the easiest way to bowl, that is the natural action for a right-armer, but the shorter version has made their approach to bowling negative. They think they can bowl fast or flat, but whatever break they have, they lose it. They don’t even realise they are not turning the ball. They think they are off-break bowlers. A bowler bowls to take a wicket. You don't bowl to stop the rate of scoring. You might appear as if you are constraining the flow of runs, but after 10 overs, if you concede 50-55 runs without taking a wicket, then your captain will be scratching his head.
Who according to you was the best spinner of your time?
Subhash Gupte was the greatest spinner India has ever produced. Even though a lot of adjectives have been added to Bedi, Chandrasekhar and myself, the one and only bowler India can ever be proud of is Gupte.
The spin-quartet was one of the deadliest combination of bowlers in world cricket in the 60s and 70s. How did it take shape?
The quartet of spin bowlers was formed by Nawab Pataudi. He had a dual advantage. Playing for Hyderabad, he got to bat against all three of us in the South, except for Bishen. But, before coming down, he had played Bishen in the North. He must have seen a glimpse of his greatness there. Being a good student of the game, and as a person who played and learned his game in England (Pataudi played for Essex), and backing that with his experience, he realised his life was not easy facing us.
That made him realise that he can make a combination of spinners that can be threatening. Being a genius and an excellent student of the game, he must have compared the cricketers from other nations, and their strengths and weaknesses, and must have come to the conclusion that everyone had their own strengths in bowling. The West Indian bowlers had four pacers who could scare you out, whether you were good or bad. Even Australians believed in that. Pakistan had a great pace attack as well.
He deciphered that we must have a bowling strength to tackle a side. For his exposure in south, it gave him this inroad in forming a combination.
Who, according to you, is currently the best spinner in the world?
Ravichandran Ashwin is currently the best spinner in the world. Not just that, he is a batsman-cum-bowler. He is doing excellently, and I can promise you one thing, I admire him for his capabilities and the way he is conducting himself, for when required, he can bat as well. But more importantly, he is bowling well and is the sheet anchor for the Indian attack. I have a lot of respect for his batting. I would rather club him as one of the best all-rounders available in this game.
Yet, he struggles outside the sub-continent. What do you think are the reasons for that?
There are many reasons for that. Unfortunately, his success rate has been on the domestic soil. He has enjoyed success in India and whenever he has done well, there has always been a result in India. Let me be honest, he has been lucky that these days, they are providing turning tracks for spinners overseas.
When I visited the West Indies, the wicket was like marble floor. If you drop a cricket ball, it would bounce up to your chest like a golf ball. Once he has faced wickets like those, he has been a question mark for many people. His action and type of deliveries do not permit him to use the height and flight for deception. He can bowl flatter with his height. But I still think he is the best. That is one of the reasons why his strike rate is not that good overseas. Although it is wrong to compare, but people have pointed out that we (Bishen Singh Bedi and Prasanna) had an average of 49-51 in India and outside. That way, Ashwin has failed. There are many contributory factors. With the kind of batting these days, he has to adjust himself, but he is trying out too many things.
How difficult was it to leave the game for five years in the middle and then come back?
I was left with no choice. I proudly represented the country with a lot of resistance from the family, my father knew if nothing works out for me, and if I don’t complete engineering, my life would be in jeopardy. It was predominantly an education based approach those days. All sports were just for pastime. Whichever game we played, it was just for passion.
And, there was no money in it. When I was playing Ranji, I was getting 5 rupees a day. Surprisingly, we didn’t take notice of that. For Test matches, we used to get 220 rupees for six days. That's around 30 rupees a day. Knowing all these things, my parents realised and they weren’t keen. In the truest possible sense, once your cricketing days are over, you are back to square one. I don’t expect the younger generation to look at me the same way as people from my age group. After Roger Federer’s tennis days are over, I don’t think he would be looked at the same way. That’s how it is. So, you have to be realistic. It was extremely hard. When I go to a shop today, people hardly know I played for India.
So, it was difficult to leave the game, and then come back.
How did you get interested in the game? Was there any idol or hero?
Not really. I started following the game like anyone else. Unfortunately, we did not have TV, there was just radio to listen to. And, as an eight-year-old, I didn’t know English that well to understand commentary. If an eight-year-old kid listens to Ian Chappell on radio today, will he follow cricket? TV was a naturally fancy for kids then. I used to play most sports while growing up, and did decently well in them too. However, I eventually stuck to cricket.
What are your views on Virat Kohli as Test captain?
I like his attitude. I have the same approach. I don't allow things to rule me, I try to rule them. That is one of the reasons why I am not in the cricketing circles at all because I am not a yes man. My conviction should say yes.
In that way, he is a positive thinker, a brilliant batsman and fielder. Things are good for him now; he has got a well-set team. Very likely, he has thought of five bowlers, and that is a very positive way of looking from a captain’s angle. He doesn’t say how many runs are to be scored, he always says we have to take 20 wickets, so his thinking is right.
And, Anil Kumble as the coach?
It will be definitely a value added because he was an aggressive player and his cricketing knowledge will help the Indian team. I think Kumble by and large was an extremely street smart cricketer of his generation. I admire Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly, Srinath and Kumble, as they weren’t just brilliant cricketers, they knew how to move with the time. We weren’t street smart.
Gavaskar, and later Kapil, were street smart as well. Gavaskar (1983 onwards) and Bedi changed the attitude of the players. Bedi had experience of playing county, and Gavaskar had already established himself as the greatest player, he knew his strengths and how to express himself. That is why I admire Kumble.
Who did you find as the most difficult batsman to bowl to?
Tom Graveney, because he was technically sound. There is a reason why I rate him. I played Gupte in his last game and that is how I assessed him and that is why I reiterate that he is the best spinner. It was the way in which he bowled. Likewise, there are certain parameters for a batsman too. On a sticky wicket, I always felt people who could play Chandra (BS Chandrasekhar) comfortably were very good batsmen, because he was a very good spinner and very unpredictable. On Chandrasekhar’s day, on a sticky wicket, he scored 150 odd at Lord’s (151 in the 2nd Test of the 1967 series) against us. The way he played told me he was a genius.
From India, there are many. Vijay Manjrekar, Sunil Gavaskar and GR Vishwanath are a few names.
Effect of IPL on a spinner’s mindset
Spinners have spoiled their own mindset. They don’t have confidence in themselves. I won't blame the game. Yet, statistics prove that many batsmen have got out to spinners. If you really look at it, the number of sixes scored against a spinner is much less than pacers. They have lost confidence.
This means that spinners have a big role to play. Must not be a chicken, must have some guts. Unless you have confidence in your bowling. If you don't have an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses then you are a useless bowler. And, that is the kind of bowlers who have been playing unfortunately. The role of a spinner is most important in the game, irrespective of the format.
Any spinner from the domestic scene who you have earmarked for the future?
I can see a couple of leg spinners coming in, but I am disappointed that there is no upcoming off-spinner. That is one of the reasons why Ashwin could get in. When we left, it became an open field, and he’s good. I hope people emulate Ashwin. Even the leg spinners coming up, even with all the coaching, I don’t think they have what it takes to go far ahead. Whenever there is a problem, they approach their coach. In our days, the concept of a coach wasn’t even there. Yet, we developed without any help.
Finally, do you think Harbhajan Singh can make a comeback? How would you sum up his career?
No. He started off really well. There are a few faults, which even Ashwin has. Both Ashwin and Bhajji don't have a side-on action. Instead, they have an open-chested one.That minimises certain things that one can do, as your flight and line are constrained. Ashwin’s strength is in the fact that he has a slower action. Harbhajan’s action is faster, and he cannot control his line. Ashwin is slower, and can bowl the desired line and length. Cricket is a side-on game in all aspects, be it batting or bowling.