India is known as a land of great spin bowlers, from Vinoo Mankad and Subhash Gupte via Bedi, Chandrasekhar and Prasanna on to Anil Kumble. It was not always so. When we played our first Test, at Lord’s in June 1932, our strike bowlers were the fast bowler Mohammad Nissar and that master of swing and seam, L Amar Singh. The back-up was provided by the medium-pacers Jehangir Khan and CK Nayudu.
In the 1930s, quality Indian spinners were thin on the ground. When asked why this was so, the Maharaja of Patiala — a great patron of cricket and a decent batsman himself — replied that it was because Indians “hate being laughed at. They say slow bowling means sixers, and fast or fast-medium stuff is seldom hit for six. So they won’t practice slow bowling”.
Patiala had played against Nissar and Amar Singh. And perhaps the Sikh boys he knew were — in deference to their martial traditions — all budding fast bowlers. But soon things began to change. In 1937-38, the slow left-arm spinner Mankad was first capped for India (in a series of ‘unofficial’ Tests against a side led by Lord Tennyson). Fifteen years later, Mankad took 12 wickets in India’s first win in an official Test, against England in Madras.
From the 1940s to the 1970s, India’s best bowlers were all spinners. Of the new-ball bowlers in this period, Dattu Phadkar, Ramakant Desai, R Surendranath and Karsan Ghavri deserve an honourable mention, for providing the occasional breakthrough early on. But the matches were won by slow bowlers, by Mankad, Gupte and Ghulam Ahmed; by Borde and Durrani; by Bedi, Prasanna, Chandrasekhar and Venkatraghavan.
The great Kapil Dev Nikhanj changed all this. In his autobiography, Kapil recalls how a famous coach dismissed his early efforts, saying, “No one in India can be a fast bowler.” Fifty years earlier, the Maharaja of Patiala had said no Indian would take to spin bowling. Now, the conventional wisdom had turned one hundred and eighty degrees.
Kapil Dev disregarded the advice. I shall carry to my grave a score of memories of Kapil bowling: that smooth, silky run-up; that magnificent high action; that late outswinger shaping away towards the slips; that wicked off-cutter that got so many batsmen lbw. Kapil won us Tests in England and in Australia, and on the extremely unhelpful Indian wickets too.
The loud-speaking man from the Punjab was followed by a shy engineering student from the South. After Kapil’s world-beating feats, no one could say to Javagal Srinath that fast bowling was an unIndian profession. His coaches merely told him; if you want to bowl quick, stop being a vegetarian and start eating meat.
Unlike Kapil, Srinath relied principally on the ball coming in. Later, he developed an outswinger, which he necessarily used sparingly. Off a short run he generated sharp pace and bounce. On his first tour to Australia, he troubled the great Alan Border himself. Brian Lara also looked vulnerable against him; as did that fine opening batsman Michael Atherton.
Srinath came into the Indian side as Kapil’s career was winding down. In turn, the Mysore man was joined towards the end by Zaheer Khan, from Baroda via Srirampur, and the first top-class left-arm fast bowler to play for India. Zaheer made his debut in the Champions Trophy in Kenya in 2000, where he made us all sit up by beating Steve Waugh for pace and uprooting his off stump.
Zaheer Khan was genuinely quick when he first played for India. A series of injuries made him re-think his approach. He modified his action — cutting out a spectacular late leap — and focused more on swing and cut. He became a highly intelligent bowler, in part because he was willing to learn. In October 2009, I was sitting in the pavilion at Centurion, watching India play Pakistan. Zaheer, then recovering from injury, was also in the same stand, in mufti. I saw him suddenly leap from his seat and rush to the entrance. Looking back, I saw why — Wasim Akram had come down from the commentary box, and Zaheer wanted merely to be in the presence of the greatest left-armer born (or unborn).
From Wasim — and by himself — Zaheer learnt to husband his strength, bowling the occasional quick one amidst a series of probing deliveries at just over medium pace. He became adept at bowling round the wicket, and at reverse swing. Like Kapil and Srinath, he had the Indian sign over some great batsmen — in his case, Graeme Smith, whom he so often had bowled or lbw.
Zaheer played a major role in our 2011 World Cup win, bowling economically and taking key wickets throughout the tournament. Now that he has not been selected for this summer’s tour of England, I think his career is effectively over. However, he remains a strong contender for an All Time Indian Eleven, where either he or Srinath would share the new ball with Kapil.
Mohammad Nissar’s own motto was: “Ek mooh par doonga, phir bhish karoonga” (I’ll bounce one near his face, then shatter his stumps). The fast men who came later have followed a more subtle approach. They have taken some wickets with bouncers and yorkers, but, more often, with late movement in the air and off the pitch, and through changes of pace. Although I am a partisan of slow bowling myself, I remain deeply grateful to Kapil, Srinath and Zaheer for the pleasure they have given me down the years.
(Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi Before India. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram-Guha. The views expressed by the author are personal.)