By Boria Majumdar
To modern fans of Indian cricket, Anil Kumble's 10 for 74 at Delhi in 1999 might well be the earliest memory of Indian triumphs engineered by its spinners. But it was merely a tradition that Kumble kept alive, and handed down to the modern generation of tweakers like Ravichandran Ashwin.
It is the origin of this tradition and the part that spin played on cricketing fields, and off it, over a period of 120 years from the late 19th century till today that Anindya Dutta's book Wizards - The Story of Indian Spin Bowling traces with deep research and evocative storytelling.
The story of Indian spin begins with the rise of India's first spin bowler, Palwankar Baloo, a left-arm orthodox exponent of the art that the nation had not seen until then. Born an untouchable, Baloo would go on to spend almost two decades playing for the Hindus in the Bombay Quadrangular, and be their outstanding bowler. And for one glorious afternoon in 1919, Baloo, an untouchable, would captain the team composed primarily of upper caste players, 13 years before Mahatma Gandhi launched his campaign against untouchability.
Dutta then continues with the story of the first spinner to play Test cricket, Jamshedji of the Parsis - the oldest debutant of Indian cricket, at the age of 41, on to CS Nayudu, the first leg spinner, and Amir Elahi, who played for India and Pakistan.
The chapter on India's first great all-rounder Vinoo Mankad is a fascinating one. In 1946, Mankad became the first Indian to achieve the double of 1,000-runs and 100 wickets on the tour of England, and, a year later, during the tour of Australia, his name would achieve cricketing notoriety, with the manner of his run out of Bill Brown at Sydney to be thereafter called Mankading. However, it is important to state here that Mankad did warn Bill Brown in the previous first class game and it was only after multiple warnings was Brown run out.
One of the most enjoyable chapters is that on Subhash Gupte, a man whose exploits had been largely forgotten before Wizards revived them with love and attention. From Garry Sobers' assertion that Gupte was a better spinner than Shane Warne, to interviews with EAS Prasanna and Abbas Ali Baig that bring out lovely anecdotes about Gupte's bowling, and the poignant story of how his career was ended at its prime by the callousness and random decisions of India's cricket administrators, Dutta is in his elements as a storyteller. Gupte clearly was a darling of the Indian crowds and his contests with Rohan Kanhai, for example, have an element of folk to it. Spinning a web around the West Indians, it is only fate how Gupte ended up setting down in Trinidad after giving up on his cricket.
The section on the Quartet starts with Dutta analysing Tiger Pataudi's motives in filling his team with spinners, and concluding that it might well have been the first instance of someone using the management principle called Blue Ocean Strategy, years before it was espoused. The description of Chandra's 6 for 38'at the Oval in 1971, the technical discussion on the art of flight with EAS Prasanna, and some wonderful stories from Bishan Bedi make this a lovely read, both for readers of a generation that saw these geniuses play their craft, and for the more modern who were deprived that privilege. That Chandra was under pressure at the Oval has been stated multiple times by the legend himself. And it may be said that with that spell of 6-38, Indian cricket well and truly came of age. Be it the elephant that came to the Oval from the nearby Chessington Zoo or the auspicious occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi, Chandra did have the blessings of the cricket gods when he bowled that afternoon against England at the Oval.
The last section begins with the story of a 32-year old, Dilip Doshi, making a remarkable debut and going on to take over a 100 wickets in barely four years in the team. Worth a special mention is the reminder of the bravery of the injured trio - Doshi, Yadav and Kapil Dev - that won India an oft-forgotten magnificent victory at Melbourne in 1981. Of course, there is the story of Narendra Hirwani and his 16 wickets on debut, the emergence and dominance of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, and an interview-rich analysis of what cut short the careers of the phenomenally talented Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Maninder Singh.
Wizards is special in the space it accords and the poignancy with which it deals with the stories of men like Padmakar Shivalkar, who should have played for India but didn't get the opportunity, and men like Murali Kartik, who should have had far more chances than they did.
After discussing the future of Indian spin and whether its safe in the hands of the likes of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, Dutta adds a chapter on captaincy crafted from a wide ranging series of interviews with players, journalists and cricket writers and full of anecdotes, dwelling on the spinners who led India and exploring why more spinners are not given the job.
Wizards is certainly the first comprehensive look at the story of Indian spin, and a very entertaining read. The research, the evocative storytelling and the anecdotal approach to a history of the game make this a book that will appeal equally to connoisseurs of the sport as well as the casual reader looking for an enjoyable few hours on the armchair.
The author is a sports historian and commentator