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Anindya Dutta's 'Wizards: The Story Of Indian Spin Bowling'.
Anindya Dutta's 'Wizards: The Story Of Indian Spin Bowling'.

Stories of forgotten spin kings

  • Anindya Dutta’s book looks at the history of Indian spin bowling, including some of the names that never made it to the big time
  • Dutta goes back in time to narrate the remarkable story of the first great Indian spinner, Palwankar Baloo, born in Dharwad

As a young cricket fan who grew up close to one of India’s iconic stadiums, it was a privilege to have seen live one of the greatest spells of bowling by an Indian spinner in Test cricket—Anil Kumble against Pakistan at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi in February 1999.

The stadium, now named after late politician Arun Jaitley, may have hosted many tantalizing Twenty20 spectacles since then but on that afternoon in Delhi, “Jumbo" bowled a “Perfect Ten" to become the first Indian bowler to claim 10 wickets in the same innings in a Test. The Kotla was much smaller then, nowhere close to its current 40,000 capacity, but it was still a packed house that watched Kumble’s wizardry.

In his latest book, Wizards: The Story Of Indian Spin Bowling, Anindya Dutta compares Kumble’s feat to that of England’s Jim Laker—the first bowler to take 10 wickets in a Test match, against Australia in 1956. Dutta writes that Kumble’s rare feat was all the more memorable since it had been achieved in one spell.

Kumble’s record at the Kotla is one of the many stories in the book, which traces the history of Indian spin bowling.

Most of the book is based on Dutta’s interactions with cricketers and cricket writers. He also reached out to cricketers and writers from other nations “who had played against Indian spinners and observed and reported on their craft over the decades".

The early sections of the book make for a riveting read. Dutta goes back in time to narrate the remarkable story of the first great Indian spinner, Palwankar Baloo, born in Dharwad in 1876. He describes Baloo, born to a family of leather workers, as the most effective Indian spin bowler of the pre-independence era.

Baloo is credited with laying the foundation of left-arm spin in Indian cricket. In his first-class career from 1905-21, he took 179 wickets in 33 matches at an average of 15.21. But Baloo’s influence went beyond the cricket field. Dutta highlights the key role he played in the Dalit movement and his long friendship with politician and social reformer B.R Ambedkar, notwithstanding the “political disagreements that would crop up between the two in later years".

Cottari Subbanna Nayudu, the younger brother of India’s first Test captain, C.K. Nayudu, is hailed by Dutta as the country’s first real all-rounder, before the imperious Vinoo Mankad arrived on the scene. He started making news in 1930 along with fellow teenage prodigy Mushtaq Ali. While Ali made his India debut against England at Kolkata in the 1933-34 series, Nayudu continued to impress on the domestic circuit. In his first-class cricket career, C. S. Nayudu took 647 wickets at an average of 26.54, scoring an impressive 5,786 runs with the bat.

But he failed to replicate his form on the international stage. He played just 11 Tests. While a return of just two wickets at an average of just 179.50 doesn’t do justice to his impressive attributes as a player, Dutta explains how Nayudu and Amir Elahi, another impressive leg spinner who played for both India and Pakistan, raised the profile of leg-spin bowling in India. “He paved the way for later Indian bowlers who enjoyed greater success in the art at an international level."

Perhaps the most intriguing spinner in the book is Subhash Gupte, a master flighter of the ball hailed by many of his compatriots as the greatest leg-spinner of all time. As Dutta writes, “Over the course of his decade-long career, Gupte picked up fans of his bowling in a manner his social-media-age descendants would envy." His beautifully disguised googly was a trademark. Sir Garry Sobers, who faced Gupte as a player, wrote in his 2002 autobiography that “(Australia’s) Shane Warne is a great turner of the ball…but in my estimation Subhash Gupte was a better leg-spinner".

In a conversation with Dutta in October 2018, former Indian spinner Erapalli Prasanna , part of the famed Indian spin quartet under “Tiger" Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi in the 1960s, spoke about Gupte’s unfulfilled talent. “If Subhash Gupte had received the fielding and catching support available to modern players, and if his career had not ended the way it did, getting to 800-1,000 Test wickets for him would have been par for the course."

His cricketing career, however, came to an abrupt end when England toured India in 1961-62. While staying at the Imperial hotel in Delhi, Gupte shared his room with off-spinning all-rounder A.G. Kripal Singh. “Having taken a fancy to the receptionist on his way up to his room, Singh called the reception and asked her out for a drink," writes Dutta. The girl, perhaps under a mistaken impression, complained to her boss, who then spoke to the Indian team manager, Dutta writes. Both Singh and Gupte were suspended, pending an enquiry. The then president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, M.A Chidambaram, asked the selectors to drop Gupte from a forthcoming tour of the West Indies. Disappointed by the nature of his dismissal, Gupte emigrated to the West Indies, living in Trinidad with his wife and daughter till his death in 2002.

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