April 23, 2014

Fizz, flight and loop

Erapalli Prasanna was a masterful conjurer and perhaps the shrewdest of India's great spin quartet

Prasanna was forever trying to improve as a bowler, even in his last match © PA Photos

The last time I saw him in action was during the V Sivaramakrishnan benefit match between two teams of veteran cricketers at Chepauk in April 1993. The match got off to an electrifying start with Sunil Gavaskar, by then in his mid-40s, playing some pluperfect drives off the medium-pacers. When spin was introduced and EAS Prasanna came on, the "Little Master" greeted him with more of the same.

The two maestros had turned the clock back and those fortunate to be there that morning were witness to a vintage duel between tantalising flight and dancing feet. Then came the delivery of the day, with Gavaskar forward, aiming a push to the on side, and the ball clipping the off bail. Prasanna was nearly 53 years old.

He had never been an athletic figure on a cricket field, but I believe he was as fit for his job as any top-rung cricketer of his time. In his senior years, nothing much had changed in his bounding run-up and classical side-on finish, and the ball continued to fizz after it left his hand and travelled towards the batsman in an enticing arc, even though he was tubbier than he had been in his playing days.

This was almost 15 years after I had last met him on a cricket field as an opponent - when I was playing for Hyderabad and he for Karnataka. It was one of his last Ranji Trophy matches, if not the very last one, if memory serves me right. In the course of a seven-wicket haul, he bowled splendidly, even applauding my pull to the boundary off him, and having me caught at bat-pad next ball while I was aiming an extra-cover drive.

What caught the attention of some of us during the match even more than Prasanna's brilliant spell was his bowling in the nets. With little change in his regular offspin action, he repeatedly made the ball go the other way off the pitch, visibly enjoying the addition of a new weapon to his arsenal. This was a veritable legbreak, not the floater with which he had fooled many a batsman, including Gavaskar in the Ranji Trophy semi-final in March 1974 - a dismissal almost identical to the one I watched in the veterans match two decades later.

When one of us ventured to ask him if he had tried the variation in a match yet, he said, "No. I am not ready. I haven't mastered it."

In hindsight, Prasanna had stumbled upon the doosra long before Saqlain Mushtaq - and I can swear he delivered it with a perfectly straight arm - and retired without trying it in a match situation. The fact that he was still trying to grow as a bowler in his last match and yet held back a new trick (like a classical musician of the old school, averse to presenting a song on stage before practising it hundreds of times) only underlined his greatness.

Young cricketers and cricket enthusiasts often wonder if spinners of Prasanna's vintage could survive the assault of contemporary batsmen and bats, especially as they were said to flight the ball way more than today's bowlers. The answer would of course be that those flighted deliveries were no gentle lobs but sharply spun balls that tended to dip in front of the batsman and spit; at any rate great spinners of any era adapt to the conditions of the day, and flight is not some one-arc-for-all standard fare.

True, a Prasanna today would perhaps go for more sixes - including mishit ones - than he did in his day, but he would still fool batsmen with his deceptive loop. He never represented India in an ODI, but was very effective in the few matches he played in the Deodhar Trophy, the zonal one-day championship.

Would Prasanna have been an effective bowler in T20 cricket? I like to believe, especially after watching the successful exploits of Sunil Narine, R Ashwin and Praveen Tambe, that he would. Prasanna was perhaps the shrewdest of the quartet of spinners India produced in the 1960s, and I believe he would have adapted beautifully to the shortest form of the game. He would have offered his captain an attacking bowling option, especially against left-hand batsmen. At any rate, a more confident bowler would be hard to find.

V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ramesh on April 28, 2014, 14:07 GMT

    As a high school student I remember watching the test match against Bill Lawry's Australian team at Chennai(then Madras) in 1970.We had reduced them to 25 for 6, with Pras bowling a magical spell. The way he got Paul Sheahan is still vivid in my memory. The first two balls he faced, Sheahan came down the wicket and lofted him for fours ,over mid on.The 3rd ball was similar, well flighted, but just held back a bit- Sheahan came down the wicket,tried a similar lofted shot,but was beaten in the flight and easily stumped by Engineer! A master craftsman at work! Unfortunately we still managed to lose that match,and the series.

    I remember listening to the radio commentary of the 1st test against New Zealand in 1976 at Dunedin where Pras got 8 wickets in the 2nd innings,leading to an Indian win. The way the commentators praised his skill was music to our ears!

  • Dummy4 on April 27, 2014, 8:47 GMT

    Excellent article ! Made me feel nostalgic as it took me to the Golden Era of Indian Spin. Prasanna was one of the greatest off spin bowlers in the World.

  • Sameer on April 25, 2014, 13:09 GMT

    Few more memorable dismissals.Ranji match versus Hyderabad at Chinnaswamy Stadium Bangalore December 1973, Jayantilal bowled leg stump by one of the sharpest off breaks that I have seen which turned viciously almost at right angles. Previous delivery also had turned similarly but missed the leg stump by a narrow margin then beat Kirmani for four byes. So Prasanna corrected the lenght/turn to get the dissmissal.Another dissmissal is in Irani match against Bombay ( Mumbai) at Nagpur October 1976 against Sudhir Naik when he borught Bedi from deep mid on to a very strange position very close to non striker Gavaskar . Sudhir Naik promptly drove into Bedi's hands.Next day he got Vengsarkar who had hit a whirlwind 110 . He bowled a sharp ,fast off spinner which bounced and Vengsarkar tried to defend it from above waist . Ball grazed face of the bat and went to Vishwanath for a catch at backward short leg. Vishwanath was moved from slip to backward short leg for this delivery only.

  • Naresh on April 25, 2014, 7:31 GMT

    A great tribute to a very good spin bowler. India churned them out by the dozen in the old days. These days we dont have many coming out of the system. Already some fans have named quite a few of those great yester-year players. To me Kumble is the last we have had. There will be others who will eventually come out. India needs to nurture at least two good spin bowlers for its success in cricket. Where we used to rely on a 4 bowler policy we now need a 5bowler policy to win. Does this not show how weak our spin bowling has become? Pace bowling is also another of our weakness. This is the very reason we have become useless in TESTS.

  • ARUN on April 25, 2014, 5:24 GMT

    Thank You cricinfo for featuring my comment. I made a typo in an important line. Please read his all-time great spin tip as:

    Line is optional, length is mandatory

  • Dummy4 on April 24, 2014, 13:16 GMT

    As usual - good one from Ram. Always enjoy reading his articles.

  • Omar on April 24, 2014, 11:18 GMT

    Both Tony Greig and Ashley Mallet rated him as the best off-spinner they had seen or faced. Ashley Mallet's article that appeared on Cricinfo concluded that he was the best by a country mile!

  • GV on April 24, 2014, 6:24 GMT

    We had a pretty good attack in the 70s, thanks to the spinners. Pitches were not so lifeless as in the 80s either. We did well in 1 England tour, 2 WI tours, and 1 NZ tour in the 70s. Usually very well at home also. But England at home in 1976-77 and Pakistan tour the next year finished our spin quartet off. Pras's best years were also the Indian attack's best years. He says in his book that flighting above the line of the batsman's eyes is critical, and with him, Bedi and Venkat all being great flighters, we had a great team. But now the tradition is all but gone, and except for articles like these, all that we have to go by is Ashwin. Ashwin and the rest are elbow spinners, especially Ajmal, since they cannot bowl doosra without reaching or exceeding the 15% limit.

  • Mirza on April 23, 2014, 23:27 GMT

    Treat to watch Prasanna bowl with the looping flight and turn. That was real spin bowling, deceiving the batsman in air. Mohammad Nazir Junior of Pakistan was also a great bowler and command over flight and turn.