(First published on 12 June 2005 in The Sunday Express)
Anil Kumble has earned his place in the pantheon of the greats of the game by sheer perseverance and longevity—not to mention his superb qualities of head and heart which have enabled him to triumph over the trials and tribulations besetting him through his long and distinguished career. There is no doubt that in a different time and place, his exceptional intelligence and man-management capabilities would have won him the captaincy of his country. He is a man to be admired and respected, and not one for whom tears are easily shed, because he meets every adversity with courage and determination—and usually succeeds.
This preamble is necessary to explain the greater partiality many of the 70s generation have for the unorthodox Indian leg-spinner to have attained cricketing immortality—BS Chandrasekhar, who turned 60 a few weeks ago. If Kumble is the perfect professional, Chandra was in many ways the antithesis, a genius with nothing workmanlike about him. If Kumble is all intellect and mental toughness, Chandra was frail and vulnerable, in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. A polio-afflicted limb gave him the unusual arm-speed that enabled him to whip googlies, flippers and the occasional leg-break at ferocious velocities. There was the air of a tragic hero about him as time and time again misfortune struck him when least expected.
His physical attributes too contributed to this less-than-aggressive image that stayed with him through his career. He remained slim, almost thin, throughout his 15 years in top-flight cricket, his intermittent beard serving to heighten that impression of forlornness.
Of the celebrated quartet (or trio, to be truthful, as only once did all four play together in a Test) of Indian spinners, none was more spectacular than Chandrasekhar. Bishan Singh Bedi’s bowling action was deservedly described as poetry in motion, Erapalli Prasanna was a spinner’s spinner with his classical flight, sharp spin and delightful variations, and Srinivas Venkataraghavan was a probing wielder of a surgeon’s scalpel, but none of them could accelerate the pulse rate of excited spectators in the manner of a fast bowler as Chandra did.
As he measured his paces, marked the start of his bowling run, walked the first couple of steps cupping the ball in both hands, ran in with a purposeful stride, and then delivered in a perfectly side-on finish, left arm raised high, right arm coming down in a rapid whir, thudding on to his left thigh, the crowd exploded in a burst of feverish anticipation.
Slip fielders and short legs, not to mention wicket keepers belonging to any other generation would have dreaded the prospect of the fierce edges that Chandra’s fizz and bounce induced. But that high noon of Indian cricket was lit by some extraordinary close-in catching fireworks, ignited by such champions as Ajit Wadekar, Venkat, Abid Ali, and the incomparable Eknath Solkar. Despite that magic ring of fielders, streaky boundaries abounded when Chandra was on song, as the edges flew through the gaps at supersonic speeds towards the boundary.
Today the pundits mock Kumble for his lack of turn. Back in the 1960s, they called Chandra the fastest bowler in the Indian XI. It was like saying that Indira Gandhi was the only man in her cabinet—sometimes it was actually true. Some of Chandra’s hand grenades, which sent stumps cartwheeling, were no more than a blur to the spectator. Worse, from a batsman’s point of view, he did not see them much better either. What caught batsmen unprepared was that the lead-up to a sensational Chandra spell could consist entirely of full tosses and long hops. One moment, he would be muttering to himself and working himself into a nice temper to bowl better, and in the very next, he would be firing down an unplayable yorker or flipper. Like a man in a frenzy, he would wait impatiently for his next victim, chafing at the leash.
Unlike Kumble, Chandra was not a cerebral bowler, but it would be a fallacy to state, as many self-styled experts did, that he did not know what he was doing. If his general bowling style was fast and faster, he introduced subtle changes as he grew in age and stature as a bowler. When he held one back, it presented a much more difficult proposition to the unsuspecting batsman than the well-flighted delivery of an orthodox wrist spinner. There was only an imperceptible change of trajectory in this change of pace, which more often than not fooled batsmen into spooning return catches.
Yet another major difference between the two great leg-spinners of Karnataka is that the senior could not bat to save his life, while the younger man has on occasion shamed his frontline colleagues with his determination amidst the ruins of a collapse. Chandra is perhaps the only Test bowler in history with more wickets than runs to his credit. I believe he once made 22 in a Test innings and played two memorable supporting roles at No. 11—the first while V Subramanyam, his Karnataka captain, went from a hundred or thereabouts to 200 against Madras at Chepauk in 1967, and the second as an admiring spectator at the non-striker’s end while GR Viswanath raced to an electrifying unbeaten 97 against the fire of Andy Roberts & Co. at the same venue seven years later.
Everyone knows that Chandra’s greatest moment was the Oval Test of 1971, when he bowled India to an improbable first Test victory in England. Yet it would be folly to single that magical performance out in a glittering career, which included many acts of derring-do in India and abroad—against England, Australia, New Zealand and West Indies. In one memorable spell at Bombay, he took eight wickets in the first innings and four in the second. The Hindu’s PN Sundaresan, not known for flowery prose or sentimentality, wrote perhaps his most inspired prose describing the lump in his throat as he watched the frail young man soldiering on against a West Indian batting juggernaut led by Garfield Sobers.
Personally, though never a close friend, I, like other cricketers of my generation, was witness to Chandra’s tragedies and courage in adversity. We all knew of his weakness to Mukesh’s hauntingly nasal voice and his guru Saigal’s favourite beverage. I also had occasion to learn of his fondness for another brew—rasam, without which no south Indian meal is complete. In Chandra’s case, it could be the meal to the exclusion of the rest of the menu, I once found out.
I wonder if Kumble would have been possible without Chandrasekhar. Were it not for Chandra’s match-winning exploits in the 1960s and 70s, would any selector have dared to blood an unorthodox wrist spinner in the mould of Anil Kumble in the 90s? Would he have been dismissed as a freak bowler, unlikely to succeed on the world stage?