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Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, born May 17 1945, was afflicted by poliomyelitis as a child and his right-arm remained withered as he grew into manhood. Yet, it became the most potent match-winning weapon for India for fourteen years. Arunabha Sengupta remembers his extraordinary career.
It is one of the curious paradoxes of cricket that the hand which was cursed into deformation by the deities of fate was later termed ‘Hand of God’ by the King himself.
After all, the great Viv Richards would know best about the unpredictable perils of playing the top spinners and googlies that were propelled out of Bhagwath Chandrasekhar’s withered arm. It was the winter of 1974, and the young Richards was all at sea against the freakish Indian leg-spinner. On his Test debut in the first Test at Bangalore, Richards was twice caught off Chandra, for four and three. In the second Test, for some curious reason, the Indian selectors decided to play three finger spinners. Had Chandra played, the Antiguan’s rise to the batting throne of the world might have delayed, or even possibly derailed. But, as it transpired, Chandra was left out and Bishan Singh Bedi came in to join Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Erapalli Prasanna. Richards struck 20 fours and six sixes in his 192.
Chandra returned for the next Test and played the rest of the series. Richards managed just 161 runs in the four Tests in which he featured, scoring at an average of 23.00, with just one fifty to show for his efforts. Chandra got him three times, and even when the others accounted for him, those freakishly fast erratic spinners were the balls that perturbed the great man.
In 1979 when India toured England, they faced Somerset at Taunton. The hosts were 115 for four when Viv Richards, now the best batsman of the world, walked out with his characteristic swagger. Chandra was nearing the end of his career. Yet, when acting captain Gundappa Viswanath brought him on, Richards is supposed to have turned to wicketkeeper Surinder Khanna asking, “What has he been brought on for?” Soon, the West Indian was caught off Chandra’s bowling. Legend has it that when Richards had walked in to bat that day. Chandra had welcomed him with the words, “Here is my bunny.” The tale is perhaps apocryphal, but no other bowler in the world could even have such assertions fictitiously attributed to him.
Liability becomes asset
But then, the tale of Chandra is one of such impossibilities. As a five year old, he suffered an attack of poliomyelitis. Three long months were spent lying in the hospital, and it was soon discovered that his right arm would remain withered and emaciated.
The world of sports does not lack examples of champion athletes overcoming physical challenges. American tennis player Doris Hart was so badly afflicted as a child with infection in the knees, that it was feared that she would never walk again. She won the Wimbledon singles in 1951. American Wilma Rudolph contracted infantile paralysis at the age of four, but overcame her debilitating illness to win three sprint gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics. American Bethany Hamilton emerged as a champion surfer after losing an arm to a shark attack.
In cricket, Len Hutton enjoyed years of sustained brilliance after having his arm shortened due to a gym accident during the Second World War and Denis Compton returned to Test cricket after having his knee cap removed. And Fred Titmus bowled for England after losing three toes in a boat accident.
Yet, Chandrasekhar was unique. He was perhaps the only one to turn his deformity into his lethal weapon. The thinness of his arm resulted in unique flexibility, helping him produce extra bite in his top-spinner. With time, he developed a near classical loop, and started turning his leg-breaks more often. However, for most of his career, he sent down top-spinners and googlies, at close to medium pace, often unplayable off the pitch.
Bounding in off a longish run-up, his defective arm propelled by a high action, Chandra bowled surprisingly quick, beating the batsmen as much with pace as with guile. At The Oval in 1971, he famously dismissed John Edrich with a faster one — christened “Mill Riff” after the Derby winner of that summer. Edrich’s bat was still in the air when the ball hit the stumps.
Ray Illingworth observed that Chandra bowled a quicker one that was a genuine bouncer. In fact, Chandra was cheeky enough to bowl one such to the fearsome Charlie Griffith, and it struck the big man on his body. But, there was a method in Chandra’s madness. That was the last innings of the final Test of the 1966-67 series. Griffith did not have the chance to return the compliment to the Indians.
The first match-winner
Chandra confessed that sometimes he could not predict what the ball would do off the pitch once it left his hand. But, that did not deter him from becoming perhaps the first great match-winning bowler for India. His career figures show 242 wickets in 58 Tests at 29.74, with a strike rate of 65.9 balls per scalp. Impressive though the numbers are, his statistics in won matches prove staggering. Chandra picked up 98 wickets in 14 wins, at 19.27, with the strike rate down to 45.4. Exactly half of his 16 five-fors and two ten-wicket hauls were captured in those 14 victorious Tests. Remarkably, five of these 14 wins were brought about on foreign tracks, almost unimaginable in those days of Indian cricket.
All these tales of triumphs abroad have become part of Indian cricket’s folklore. The six for 38 scripting India’s first win in England at Oval in 1971, with the adrenaline surging moment of dismissing John Edrich and Keith Fletcher in the space of two balls; the eight wickets against the New Zealand batsmen and umpires at Auckland in 1975-76; six in the first innings of that immortal Port-of-Spain Test of 1976 or the 18 in the two wins at Melbourne and Sydney during the Packer affected 1977-78 — all those success stories had Chandra’s polio afflicted arm weaving the magical yarn, occasionally on his own and often in tandem with the other three incredible spinners of that era.
His exploits on the home turf are also remembered fondly, often with wistful sighs. Who can forget the thunderous roars at Eden on that January morning of 1973! As England chased 192 to win, Bedi reduced them to 17 for four on the fourth evening. Tony Greig proceeded to take the bowling by the scruff of the neck. Early on the fifth morning, he had already added 97 with Mike Denness, and England were cruising towards victory. At this juncture, Chandra got Greig with a stock-in-trade top-spinner and the stadium erupted. With every step he took as he ran in to bowl, Eden crowd started chanting “Chandra .. Chandra” in a deafening cheer which culminated in an ear-splitting crescendo as the ball reached the batsman. And Alan Knott pulled into the hands of Salim Durani at mid-wicket. Soon Denness was done in by a googly. The spell of 4.3-2-5-3 turned the match on its head. Finally, just after lunch, Chandra trapped Bob Cottam leg-before and England were all out for 163. The echoes of ecstatic jubilation reverberated around the City of Joy.
And the other glorious Eden morning two years later, when West Indies needed less than 150, seven wickets in hand, with Clive Lloyd and Alvin Kallicharran going great guns. So far in the match Chandra had been the evil twin of his wicket-taking self, a profligate wastrel who gifted runs by the bucket. Yes, he could be criminally expensive on occasions, when his line and length deserted him. On that morning, Lloyd had collared him even as the spectators were settling down in their seats, forcing him to be taken off. Yet, Mansur Ali Khan, the erstwhile Nawab of Pataudi, knew that there was only one man who could hand him the miracle. The ball was tossed to Chandra, and Lloyd was done in by a beauty that hit his pads and ricocheted on to the stumps. An alarmed Kallicharran lashed out and Viswanath held the catch at slip. India won by 85 runs amidst a joyous bugles and kettledrums.
Chandra bowled India to victory for the first time in his fourth Test match, at the Brabourne Stadium against Bobby Simpson’s Australians in 1964-65. He took four in each innings, hitting Simpson’s stumps on the first morning, helped by a track newly re-laid on a foundation of bricks. India chased down the 254 run target with eight wickets down and the nervous Chandra padded up in the dressing room.
The final victory came in 1977-78, at Sydney, and in one of those strange coincidences of cricket, Bobby Simpson’s Australians were at the receiving end yet again. True, this Bobby Simpson had been hastened back from retirement to lead the second Australian string side as the stars had taken their shine and glitter to the pastures of World Series Cricket. And yet again, Chandra picked four in the first innings including the wicket of Simpson. In the second he picked up two more, as Prasanna, Bedi and Karsan Ghavri did the rest. In the previous match at Melbourne, he had picked up six in each innings in another win.
After 14 years and 14 triumphs, unusual frequency for India in those days, the wizardry was intact, enriched by experience. The balls often travelled slower through the air, snaring the opponent into a web of deception, mixed with his trademark offerings that streaked through at uncanny rates with unexpected turn or the lack of it.
The spell was finally undone by quick-footed young batsmen of Pakistan, on wickets designed to blunt the spin of the Indian greats. Chandra fared the best amongst the trio. But his eight wickets at 48 apiece, although the best among the regular bowlers and way better than Bedi (six at 74.83) and Prasanna (two at 125.50), practically announced the end of his career. He did pick up a laboured five-for against Kallicharran’s men as they piled 494 in Bombay, but could not trouble the depleted West Indian batting line-up.
He travelled to England one last time, and although he won his duel against Viv Richards at Taunton, he went for 113 without a wicket at Birmingham as Geoff Boycott hit 155 and David Gower 200. He did not play the remaining Tests of the series. In fact he never played for India again.
Fast-tracked to the top
The path to Test cricket had been unconventional. Chandra was 17 when he was included in the Mysore side and played his first Test just three months after that. Those were three months full of fizzing top-spinners and googlies which foxed many a good batsman. In four Ranji Trophy games he picked up 25 wickets and was selected for the Board President’s XI to play against the visiting MCC team.
Chandra got just one wicket in the match — Phil Sharpe leg before, and finished with figures of one for 54. But the selectors had seen enough. Perhaps a snick induced off Ken Barrington, atrociously floored at slip following the tradition of Indian fielding of that era, tilted the balance in his favour. In the second Test at the Brabourne Stadium, Chandra made his debut and picked up four wickets in the first innings.
He was not very successful as the series wore on, mainly because of the arrival of that famous stumbling block for spinners — Colin Cowdrey. But, by the time the Australians visited in the next season, Chandra had arrived.
The first few years saw his bowling suffer because of some deplorable fielding — especially close to the wicket. In 1967, he travelled to England, picking up 57 wickets in all, 16 in the Tests, in spite of catches frequently slipping through fingers.
However, he suffered a leg injury during the next season. And when he was progressing towards recovery he fell off his scooter along his commute to work. The accident led to his missing the home seasons and the tours that followed, before the rousing comeback of 1971. By then the close-in cordon had now been reinforced with a special group of catchers, led by Eknath Solkar at short-leg. Ajit Wadekar used him smartly, and Chandra never looked back.
The Gray-Nicolls with holes
Many have detected similarities between Chandra and Anil Kumble. Both were fighters, both match-winners, both leg-spinners who bowled at near medium-pace and seldom turned a leg-break. Kumble won more matches for India, but he played a lot more as well and did so when India were established as a world power in cricket. Kumble was more accurate, while Chandra the more unpredictable. Where the parallels fall apart is that Kumble scored a hundred in Test cricket.
Throughout his career, Chandra was almost as popular for his match-turning bowling spells as for his remarkable ineptitude with the bat. He somehow managed to squeeze in front of the extras in the line-up, and retired with the then world record of 24 ducks and a batting average of 4.67. His collection of Test runs — 167 — remains 75 less than his number of wickets! It’s quite ironical, as his boyhood idol was leg-spinning all-rounder Richie Benaud.
Yet, it was this image of the eternal rabbit that not only endeared him to fans, but also ensured that the man at the other end strived to take much of the strike. Hence, he did feature in some good partnerships, standing most often at the safety of the other end. He started with a signature first ball duck on debut, but put on 51 with Bapu Nadkarni in his second Test. One of his not-so-proud possessions is the Gray-Nicolls bat with a scooped centre, presented to him during the Australian tour of 1977-78, to commemorate his four ducks in the series, including a king pair at Melbourne.
Shy and retiring by disposition, loved by teammates, Chandra nevertheless was a fierce competitor. One is pleasantly amazed by his famous words to the Kiwi umpire after a typical day of umpiring howlers, “I know he is bowled, but is he out?”
After retirement, his relationship with accidents and physical disabilities continued unabated. He had just come back to Bangalore after a season of club cricket in Adelaide in 1991, and was set to return for a professional summer in Melbourne, when he was knocked down by a truck. Yet again, as had been the case as a five-year old, he had to spend three tedious months in a hospital bed. Since then, he walks with crutches and is plagued by leg ulcer.
Yet, he has refused to say no to life. In 2011, he travelled all the way to Perth to attend Day One of the third Test between India and Australia. It was to celebrate the first full year without a reported case of polio in India. There could have been no better person to mark the occasion.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix
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