Column | Underwood & Bedi - master craftsmen

 Derek Underwood
Derek Underwood picked up 297 wickets from 86 Tests. File photo: X@ICC

Derek Underwood, the left-arm spin bowler who played for England between 1968 and 1982, died in the week that went by after battling dementia during his last years. Underwood was a permanent fixture in the England squad from the time he made his debut, till he was contracted by Kerry Packer to play World Series Cricket in 1977. He returned to the national side in 1979 and continued playing till 1982, when he decided to tour South Africa, who were at that point banned from international cricket, with a rebel side. Underwood was not considered by England selectors after his period of suspension for this misdemeanour. For the record, he picked up 297 wickets in the 86 Tests he played and came very close to touching the 2,500-wicket mark in first-class cricket.

Incidentally, Bishan Singh Bedi, another exponent of the art of left-arm spin bowling had departed to meet the Maker in October, 2023. Bedi was a contemporary of Underwood and played international cricket between 1966 and 1979 claiming 266 scalps. Bedi also led India in 22 Tests during this period and later served the game in various capacities, including as coach and selector.

The demise of these two bowlers brought back memories of international cricket during the 1970s, when they dominated it. Though they were both left-arm orthodox spin bowlers, they were as different a chalk and cheese. Underwood had a long run up to the wicket, bowled at close to medium pace and seldom flighted the ball. Bedi, on the other hand, had a short three step run to the crease, followed by a smooth action and he believed in giving the ball plenty of air. Underwood was deadly on rain damaged and drying wickets where he ran through batting line-ups, while Bedi relied less on the pitch for picking up wickets. Bedi possessed a lovely armer and mastered the art of holding the ball back a fraction to fool the batsman into playing early. Underwood was not one given to subtleties but he could bowl a mean in-swinger, which invariably brought him wickets. Bedi was a colourful character, an extrovert who wore bright parkas on the field and was largehearted to a fault. Underwood was a professional in every sense of the word and seldom spoke on the field, letting his bowling do all the talking!

Incidentally the 1970s was a period when India was blessed with a surfeit of talent in left-arm spin bowling department. Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar were two brilliant bowlers who were unfortunate to languish in the  shadow of Bedi and had to be content with playing first-class cricket. Goel played for Haryana in Ranji Trophy and picked up 750 wickets in a career spanning 157 first-class matches. He was also selected to the national squad for the first Test of the series against West Indies in 1974-75, when Bedi was dropped for discipline related issues. But he did not get an opportunity to play the match and was dropped when Bedi returned to the side for the next game. Goel’s principal asset was his pinpoint accuracy and he could expose even the smallest of chinks in the armour of opposing batsmen with lethal effect.

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Bishan Singh Bedi. File photo: PTI

Shivalkar, on the other hand, played for Mumbai, which was the strongest sides in domestic circuit during the 1960s and most part of 1970s. This gave him an automatic advantage as he usually bowled with plenty of runs behind him. But he could come into his own when confronted with a challenge as happened in the Ranji Trophy final at Chennai in 1973, when Tamil Nadu prepared a turning track to help their spin bowling duo of S Venkataraghavan and Vaman Kumar. The hosts succeeded in restricting Mumbai to scores of 151 and 113 in the two innings’, but themselves crumbled to 80 and 61 as Shivalkar ran through their batting to pick up 13/33. Shivalkar finished with a tally of 589 wickets from 124 first class match and continued to play for Mumbai till the age of 48!

Dilip Doshi came into the national side in September, 1979, during the series against Australia. Doshi was 32 years old by the time he got an opportunity to play for India but he made the most of it by picking up 115 wickets in a career that spanned four years, during which he played 33 Tests. He had played county cricket during the years prior to his entry to the national side and the experience he gained there helped him to fill the big shoes left behind by Bedi to a great extent. Doshi had excellent control over line and length and was a workhorse who could keep bowling for hours on end, patiently waiting for the batsman to make a mistake. 

Rajinder Singh Hans was a left-arm spin bowler who shot into fame by being among the wickets regularly for Uttar Pradesh in Ranji Trophy. His best bowling effort came in the final of Ranji Trophy in 1978, when he picked up 9/52 runs against Karnataka. He and Doshi were included in the national squad for the first Test of the series against Australia in 1979 and skipper Gavaskar was given the option to choose between the two. Gavaskar chose Doshi, who picked up 5 wickets in his debut, with the result that Hans was dropped from the squad after two more Tests.

Ravi Shastri. File photo: Reuters

Ravi Shastri was fortunate in that he had the support of Gavaskar during the early part of his career, which allowed him to settle down in the national side. He was flown in as a substitute to New Zealand  during the tour in 1980-81, after many players, including Doshi, developed fitness related issues. Shastri’s batting too blossomed and he evolved into a top class all-rounder during the next three years. He adapted his game to the requirements of limited overs cricket, which became more popular in the 1980s, and  even won the “Champion of Champions” award during the World Championship of Cricket held in Australia in 1985. He also led India in one Test and served as coach of national side, besides being a popular commentator in the years since hanging up his boots.

Maninder Singh was a protege of Bedi, who styled his bowling in the manner of his mentor. He burst on the national scene, while still in his teens, with a string of good performances in the domestic circuit. Though he made his debut during the tour of Pakistan in 1982-83, it took him  couple of years more to cement his place in the side. But after being the leading spin bowler during the 1986-88 phase, he suddenly lost his form, rhythm and loop in a mysterious manner and soon found himself out of the side. His attempts to make a comeback with a changed action did not succeed and he ended up with a tally of only 88 wickets from 35 Tests.

W V Raman started out as a left-arm spinner who could bat a bit. But he cleverly focused on his batting once he found that he would have to compete with Shastri and Maninder for a place in the side. Despite positioning himself as an opening batsman, he was never able to make an impact at the international level and faded away after a few appearances. He has been more successful as a coach, besides earning reputation as a shrewd observer of the game.

Venkatapathy Raju was an integral of the national side for most part of the 1990s, till the selectors decided to experiment with Nilesh Kulkarni and Rahul Sanghvi. Raju played 28 Tests and picked up 93 wickets, while Kulkarni and Sanghvi played far fewer Tests with poorer returns. None of them were very effective on the pitches abroad and were more at home on the tailor-made surfaces within India. Murali Karthik too donned the national colours for a brief span of time, without too much luck or success.

Ravindra Jadeja
Ravindra Jadeja is a key player for India. File photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

By the turn of this century, the once inexhaustible reservoir of supply of left-arm orthodox spinners had started drying up. Ravindra Jadeja is the only world class left-arm orthodox spin bowler who has emerged from India in the last two decades. He has done well in all three formats of the game, with both bat and the ball, and is today one of the most valuable players in the national squad. Axar Patel is another other bowler of this type who has come into the reckoning at the national level. This duo aside, no other top quality left-arm orthodox  spin bowler exists on the horizon at present, which indicates that in the not too distant future, we may see an Indian side take the field without a left-arm orthodox spinner.

What could be the reasons for this state of affairs? The increased focus on developing fast bowlers since the 1980s and the glamour associated with speedsters can be cited as a probable reason for more youngsters opting to prefer this task than attempting to master the nuances of flight and turn. Another factor might be the absence of inspiring figures like Bedi and Shane Warne, who brought romance and charm to the job of spin bowling. The rise of T20 leagues all over the country, which has led to many new innovations like “carrom ball” and “soduku ball”, also contributed to the decline of orthodox bowling forms.

There is no sight on a cricket ground more alluring than a left-arm spin bowler approaching the wicket with a short run, gliding through the gap between the umpire and the  stumps, delivering the ball from the edge of the return crease and the ball moving in a gentle loop towards the batsman and luring him into doom. There is a timelessness about this art, like the work of great masters, which makes the connoisseur yearn to have more helpings of this visual feast. Sustenance of every sport requires not merely pots of money and tons of excitement but also ample doses of such romance and grace, without which the activity will remain incomplete. For this reason alone one hopes that this dip in the supply line of left-arm orthodox spin bowlers is only a temporary phenomenon and will be reversed soon. 

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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