The off spinner to catch my fancy after Jim Laker was Ghulam Ahmed. If my memory serves me right, the Hyderabad and India off-spinner had a slightly round-arm action but spun the ball viciously from a height. Because he went bald early in life, he always seemed like a veteran to my young eyes, as I watched him in action against New Zealand and Australia at the Nehru Stadium. Much of my knowledge of his bowling however came from reading about him and my captain ML Jaisimha’s descriptions. According to Jai, Ghulam was an even bigger spinner than Prasanna: “you could hear the buzz of the ball as it left his hand and travelled towards the batsman in a sharp trajectory.”
The first time I saw EAS Prasanna in action was in the final Test of the 3-Test series between India and West Indies at Madras in January 1967. Test cricket was coming back to Chepauk after its banishment to the Corporation Stadium 15 years earlier. The Garfield Sobers-led visitors had won the first two Tests at Bombay and Calcutta, where Prasanna’s rival Venkataraghavan had bowled well—without great success, if you did not count Gary Sobers’s scalp, which he captured in Bombay.
The Chepauk Test, made memorable by Farrokh Engineer’s near-hundred before lunch on the first day and some second innings aggression by Ajit Wadekar and V Subramanyam which served to book their berths to England in the following summer, was the first time the trio of Chandrasekhar-Bedi-Prasanna came together.
Prasanna was impressive in that game, though not incisive enough to cause a collapse in either innings. In the first innings, he accounted for the wickets of Butcher and Hall, while in the second he fared better getting Hunte, Butcher and Hendricks out. The bouncing run-up and tempting were very much in evidence, and so was a happy optimism as if he expected a wicket every ball in his approach to bowling. For someone who was making his comeback to Test cricket after a hiatus of five years, he looked comfortable in his shoes, as though he never doubted he belonged in the company of his seniors in the side. A lot of it must have been the result of the confidence he enjoyed from his captain and South Zone teammate Pataudi as well as South Zone captain and Test teammate ML Jaisimha, on the reserve bench for the match.
That Test match which ended in a draw thanks to dogged post-tea resistance on the last day by Garry Sobers and Charlie Griffith had raised hopes of a resurgent Indian team, with some exciting batsmen in Ajit Wadekar, Pataudi, and Borde and a brand new spin combination promising much. The tour of England that followed soon afterwards proved a great disappointment, with India receiving a massive drubbing despite some isolated instances of defiance. The spinners did nothing of great note, and we had to wait till the third and final Test for Prasanna to run into some form. He took 3 for 51 and 4 for 60 in the best of his outings in the series. In fact, Prasanna never did spectacularly well in England, the weather in the first half of the summer perhaps preventing him from bowling at his best, with the ball retaining its shine for long periods and the grassy wickets inimical to turn.
Prasanna was at his best on the 1968 Australia-New Zealand tours when he took as many as 49 wickets in eight Test matches. Like thousands of other Indians, I was glued to the radio every morning during that wonderful tour when India were gallant losers in Australia and deserving winners in New Zealand. Prasanna was hailed as a world-class spinner by the Australian critics and even some of the Australian batsmen.
The real moment of magic was to come soon. It was in the Chepauk Test in January 1970 that Prasanna almost single-handedly landed India at victory’s doorstep—only for a missed stumping chance and fighting batting by Ian Redpath and the tail took Australia to a total which proved way beyond India’s fourth innings capability. In their second innings, Australia were tottering at 24 for 6 before their miraculous recovery. Prasanna’s share of victims up to that point had been four, to Mohinder Amarnath’s two—incredibly, Keith Stackpole and Ian Chappell, both for duck. Prasanna finished with six wickets in the innings, and I was permanently hooked on his bowling, though I was away in Dharwar playing university cricket and only heard the match!
I remained his fan throughout the rest of his career, and had the pleasure of playing against him in the Ranji Trophy. He had a lean patch after that wonderful spell against Australia, when Ajit Wadekar took over the captaincy and led India to historic victories in the West Indies and England in 1971. India’s maiden triumphs in the two continents meant that Prasanna’s relegation to the background was hardly noticed. His bowling against England in the 1972-73 season and again in the 1976-77 season was outstanding, though against Tony Greig’s men his spin seemed to have lost some of its sting. Jaisimha and Pataudi, my seniors, however believed he was still as good as ever, when I suggested to them that he was past his best. In between, in the 1975-76 season, he had a successful tour of New Zealand and a less successful tour of the West Indies, where he lost his Test place to Venkataraghavan after the first match.
I realised that Jaisimha and Pataudi were probably right about the continued high quality of Prasanna’s off-spin when I played against him in the Ranji Trophy, which featured some outstanding spells by him. In what was perhaps his last Ranji game, he took seven wickets against Hyderabad, in a match at Bangalore. I was one of his victims, caught at short-leg while trying to drive on the offside. The ball was a perfect beauty, flight, dip, turn, bounce and all. I had hit him the previous ball for a four to square-leg, a shot he actually applauded. How he had me fooled! Around the same time, I remember the way pressmen waxed lyrical over the way he dismissed Sunil Gavaskar with a perfect straight delivery in an Irani Cup match. I had to wait for some 15 years to witness a repeat of that scene, when he bowled Gavaskar after he hit a flurry of boundaries with a similar delivery that clipped the off bail during my brother Sivaramakrishnan’s benefit match (in April 1993) at Chepauk, between two teams of veterans. Prasanna was all of 53 then—and Gavaskar 40-plus.
Prasanna was perhaps the most confident bowler I have seen, certainly the most aggressive off-spinner. Short of stature, and generously built, even plump at times, he had a springy run-up to the wicket, whose momentum he used to great effect. At his best, he was perfectly side-on, and brought his right arm down quickly to maximize the spin he imparted to the ball. His variations were subtle—including intelligent use of the crease, changes of grip ranging from fingers loose and far apart to tight and close together to control the amount of turn. He could bowl a flatter, quicker ball with fingers close together or a floater angling away from the bat by rolling his fingers over the seam. All these variations were marked by the invariable magic of the ball dropping short of the length the batsman anticipated.
I was fortunate to play alongside the great spinners of the time. Prasanna may not remember it, but he came over to watch me in action at the State Bank of India nets in Hyderabad (where he had moved for about a year from Bangalore), at the request of my teammate P Krishnamurti. When Murti told me Prasanna had been impressed, it did my morale a world of good, as I was not yet the first choice off-spinner in the bank’s team. (Syed Abid Ali was another “guest” Murti invited to assess my bowling. In a cricketer’s life, these are unforgettable gestures of kindness).
My subsequent encounters with Prasanna were as a rival player, and those are not quite the same. Once, when we were playing at the Chinnaswami Stadium, the umpire ruled AV Jayaprakash not out caught behind off my bowling, and Prasanna shouted from the pavilion: “That was off the middle of the bat, not an edge.”
Yes, Prasanna was an outspoken man. He proved it again that day, as I returned to the pavilion at lunchtime, with a couple of wickets in my bag, by telling me I was bowling too fast, I should give the ball more air. I didn’t take too kindly to that unsolicited piece of advice. (Well, you can talk, you have a batting line-up that gives you runs to bowl with, I thought).
It was only in hindsight that I realised he was absolutely right, though there was precious little I could have done, as I was only playing the role my team expected of me.
Naturally, as a competitive sportsman, one tried to be as good as one’s rival, even if he was the world’s best off-spinner, as it happened to be in this case. It was indeed a tall order, as in addition to his formidable bag of tricks, Prasanna had one advantage over taller off-spinners—the extra height to which he could flight the ball.
It was an honour to merely try to compete with him.