90 years ago, the first great off-spinner of India came into the world. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and legacy of Ghulam Ahmed who played 22 Tests for India between 1948-49 and 1958-59.
In the winter of 1948-49, Everton Weekes was at that stage of his career when he could roll out of his bed and score a sparkling century while still in his pyjamas. Already three hundreds in as many innings behind him, he followed it with two more in the third Test against India in Calcutta.
Yet, at this stratospheric height of his powers, Weekes was snared into drives in both the innings, misreading the flight in each case and lobbing return catches to a debutant off-spinner that were gleefully latched on to.
Ghulam Ahmed, who would have turned 90 today, spun a refreshing web in his first Test match, picking up six wickets in all.
It was a delayed entrance. After match figures of eight for 115 against Australian Servicemen for South Zone at Chepauk in 1945, he had been overlooked for the English tour that had followed, as the selectors had decided to cram the side with three leg-spinners.
He was passed over again when the team to play against Don Bradman’s Australians was chosen in 1947-48. Ahmed had responded by bowling out Madras for 88 and 92 in the Ranji Trophy, with figures of 9 for 53 and 5 for 28.
By the time the Calcutta Test against West Indies was to be played, his claims could not be ignored any more. Ahmed captured four for 94 in the first innings including the wicket of Clyde Walcott as another big W scalp along with the return catch off Weekes.
Two Tests later, at the Brabourne Stadium, he came in to bat at number 10, and played resolutely, adding 34 unbeaten runs with Dattu Phadkar, bringing India within a stroke of what could have been their first victory in Test cricket. However, in the heat of the moment, umpire Bapu Joshi called stumps ahead of time.
Three years down the line, however, he etched his name as one of the architects of the first Indian Test win. Vinoo Mankad and Ahmed picked up four wickets apiece as they spun the Englishmen out in the second innings at Madras, ending the agonising two decade wait with an innings victory.
Ahmed thrived against England. When the Indian team visited the Blighty in the summer, and the rest of his team mates were being terrorised by Fred Trueman, he scalped 15 men in three Tests, more than a third of the English wickets to fall.
However, his destiny seemed linked to the West Indies in sun and shadows. Indeed, when he declined to tour the Caribbean immediately after his success in England, the selectors were not too amused. As a result, although he picked up four for 35 against Pakistan in another Test victory later that year, Ahmed managed to feature in just 22 of the 38 Tests played by India during the 10-year span of his career.
A bowler of metronomic accuracy, he was a master of flight, loop and length, considered to be at his best on matting wickets. What characterised him was the minimum effort in his action, that enabled him to go on and on and on ... once bowling the then record 92 overs and three balls for Hyderabad against Holkar while capturing four for 245.
Yet, even as guile and skill were never in doubt, what perhaps kept him from achieving international greatness was his singular lack of zeal. He was a confirmed amateur, who treated even the crown of captaincy as merely a memento of leisure.
Nevertheless, with Mankad and Subhash Gupte, he formed the first of the many high class spin trios of India.
His career came full circle at Eden Gardens in 1958-59, played uncannily on the same days as his debut Test exactly 10 years ago, against the same opposition. When Rohan Kanhai mercilessly slaughtered the Indian bowlers and West Indies routed the home team by an innings and 336 runs, the captain and the off-spinner in him decided that he had had enough.
Ahmed bid adieu from Test cricket with 68 wickets captured at 30.17, the average marginally better abroad than at home – a rare feat for an Indian spinner.
There have been Erapalli Prasanna, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Harbhajan Singh and the lesser luminaries like Shivlal Yadav, Arshad Ayub and Rajesh Chauhan. “The Indian mystics bowl spinners (as) Celtic poets drink pints,” noted Frank Keating. Yet among all the riches of classical off-spinners, Ghulam Ahmed’s name will remain at the very top as the tweaker who pried open the glittering store of splendour.
Ahmed passed away in 1998.
His legacy lives on not only in the Indian tradition of turning the ball from off to leg. He was also the uncle of former Pakistan captain Asif Iqbal. And, in a fascinating cross-discipline continuation of sporting heritage, the torch is now carried along by his grand-niece Sania Mirza.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)