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Master of flight and turn

ONE cool spring morning 15 years ago, I was riding my moped to work in Bangalore. I aimed to get in two hours early, for that afternoon I had been asked to join the nets of the Friends Union Cricket Club, to thus begin a playing career interrupted by five years of monastic study. The air was crisp, the sky cloudless, the jacarandas in bloom, the roads altogether less crowded and more shaded than they were to become after this city was elevated to a (silicon) valley. A line of the great physicist C. V. Raman came to mind: "My greatest discovery was the weather of Bangalore". The association was apt, for my destination was the place Raman had also worked for - the Indian Institute of Science. My mood of self-congratulation was interrupted by a Standard Herald that came briskly in from a side road. I braked, and so did the car driver. His windows were down, and I saw within the face of Erapalli Prasanna. I collected myself and hastily simulated a curving off-break and enquired, with uplifted palms, whether he still bowled them. He shook his head and sped on his way.

Although no words were spoken by either party, I read meanings into the meeting. For I bowled off-breaks myself. Surely this chance encounter with the master of the art augured well for my second cricketing career. However, when I left work for the F.U.C.C. nets, I found that the skill had deserted me completely. I could still turn the ball, but the control was abysmal. The muscles that accurately propel a cricket ball had been out of work too long. I now realised, shame-facedly, that the message intended by the God of Cricket was the opposite of what I had first taken it to be. If Prasanna accepted that he had bowled his last off-break, who was I to pretend I could still roll them along?

A few weeks ago I ran into Prasanna again, at the Bangalore airport. I went up and introduced myself, and while he waited for his wife, and I for mine, a few desultory words were indeed exchanged. We talked, of course, about the decline of spin bowling. I had no solutions, and nor, it seems, did he. He must despair at the quality and performance of the men who now bowl off-breaks for India. I am luckier, for I can at least console myself with memories of Prasanna at the bowling crease. And I have many. The first time I watched Prasanna bowl was in the summer of 1970. It was a club match, but at a time when club matches mattered and Test players appeared in them. Prasanna and B. S. Chandrasekhar both played for City Cricketers, who, on this occasion, were playing a match at the Y.M.C.A. grounds, abutting Cubbon Park. Their opponents, in this quarter-final of the Y.S. Ramaswami tournament, were the Indian Air Force, Jalahalli station, cricketers of quality and (even in those pre-Kargil days) officers of charisma. Several of the aircraftsmen had played for the Services, in those days one of the more competitive Ranji Trophy sides. Their captain had even played for North Zone and Central Zone. This was the opening batsman D. D. Deshpande, who, this day, was in cracking form, hitting four or five boundaries in the early overs. Prasanna brought himself on, and in each of his first two overs bowled an off-break three or four inches short of good length. On the mat, where balls sit up high, this marginal misdirection allowed Deshpande to pull them both with the turn to square leg for four. In his third over, Prasanna sent down another short one. The batsman made to pull, but the ball went straight through and caught him on the back foot, plumb leg before.

Years later I played against Dinu Desphande myself. At lunch I told him of where I had first seen him bat. "Ah yes, Pras," he answered, generously, "he made a fool of me that day." By then I had seen Prasanna make a fool of batsmen a good deal more gifted still. One being that maker of 34 Test hundreds, S. M. Gavaskar. In February 1974, Karnataka played Bombay, in Bangalore, in the quarter-final of the Ranji Trophy. The home side batted first, and with hundreds from G. R. Viswanath and Brijesh Patel posted a score in excess of 400. The match would now be decided on first innings, and Karnataka could call upon two of the greatest spinners who ever played - Pras and Chandra. Bombay had, however, two magnificent players of slow bowling, Gavaskar and Ajit Wadekar, batsmen who played with as much feeling for their city as for their country.

Gavaskar started well, and early on drove Prasanna past mid on for four. He came down to drive another delivery tossed-up high, only this one swerved away late in the air and left him stranded. Syed Kirmani waited to effect the stumping, but the ball was intended instead for the off stump. I can see now Sunil Gavaskar magnanimously nodding in appreciation to the bowler as he passed him on his way out. When Wadekar was run out soon afterwards, it became evident that Bombay would lose a Trophy that had laid 16 years in its possession.

I have spoken of a club match, and of a Ranji Trophy match. Perhaps I should complete the circle by remembering a batsman (or two) deceived by the off-spinner in Test cricket. In the Delhi Test of 1974, Prasanna took a fearful hammering from Vivian Richards - as Bedi and Venkatraghavan did too. But he did undo those vigorous attacking all-rounders, Keith Boyce and Bernard Julien. In each case, the tactic was to feed them on their most profitable stroke. To the cross-batted Boyce, Prasanna cannily placed Brijesh Patel (the finest fielder on the Indian team) at deep square leg, where the batsman finally holed out. Julien, a fine front foot player, was encouraged to drive against the spin. Two or three balls sped through the covers, but then one that dipped had the batsman hitting it in the air to wide mid-off.

Bishan Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna were, quite simply, the sovereign finger-spinners of their generation. To every Geoffrey Boycott or Tony Greig, who held Bedi to be the best, there was a Gary Sobers or Bill Lawry who awarded the accolade to Prasanna. There is a lovely story of the 1996 World Cup, when Shane Warne came to the sub-continent to prove, to himself as much as to others, that he was in all conditions, the best bowler in contemporary cricket. Certainly there were some Indians who greatly looked forward to seeing him bowl. One morning at Jaipur, when Warne warmed up before the match against the West Indies, a short, stocky, middle-aged man walked across the Sawai Man Singh Stadium to shake his hand and say, "Son, you have a great talent. I hope you keep bowling for years to come." Warne was foxed until Ian Chappell, who was standing alongside, introduced the new fan. "Shane, you are speaking to Erapalli Prasanna," said Chappell, "the greatest slow bowler of my generation."


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