Ranji Trophy Champions Mumbai, 1961-62. Sitting (from left): HD Amroliwala, Naren Tamhane, Gulabrai Ramchand, Madhav Apte (captain), Manohar Hardikar and Baloo Gupte. Standing (from left): Padmakar Shivalkar, Vasu Paranjpe, Sharad Diwadkar, KN Pai, Arvind Apte, AP Varde, Ajit Wadekar and Sudhakar Adhikari. Picture courtesy: H Natarajan.
Ranji Trophy Champions Mumbai, 1961-62. Sitting (from left): HD Amroliwala, Naren Tamhane, Gulabrai Ramchand, Madhav Apte (c), Manohar Hardikar, Baloo Gupte. Standing (from left): Padmakar Shivalkar, Vasu Paranjpe, Sharad Diwadkar, Karkulu Pai, Arvind Apte, Arun Varde, Ajit Wadekar, Sudhakar Adhikari. Picture courtesy: H Natarajan.

Baloo Gupte, the ubiquitous workhorse of Bombay and India, was born August 30, 1934. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a champion of Indian domestic cricket.

By choosing to bowl leg-breaks one opts for arguably the most difficult trade of the sport. Almost no team fields two leg-spinners (unless you have Bill O’Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett), which meant a budding candidate has no chance at the top level if there is already a quality performer.

It is often more difficult if you grow up in the shadow of the same champion at regional, state, and club levels, and even at home. This was the biggest problem Balkrishna Pandharinath Gupte had grown up with: at every stage he had to face undue comparisons with his elder brother, the legendary Subhash.

The brothers had contrasting styles: both were leg-spinners in the classical mould; while Baloo managed to get more turn than his illustrious brother, Subhash was obviously the master of control, variations, and guile. Even then, Baloo managed to create a niche of his own, especially at domestic level.

In 99 First-Class matches, Baloo Gupte picked up 417 wickets at 24.88 with 26 five-fors and 5 ten-fors. Once again, there was little to choose between the two brothers in First-Class cricket: Subhash had picked up 530 wickets from 115 matches at 23.71.

Baloo could not do anything of note, however, in his three Tests, picking up 3 wickets at 116.33 and a strike rate of 226. Both numbers are worst for any Indian specialist bowler with 3 or more Test wickets.

Early days

Baloo had modelled himself on Subhash growing up. “He has influenced me in the sense that he told me how to bowl leg-breaks and googlies,” said Baloo. By his own admission he never played school cricket, but rose in stature in college cricket and eventually made it to the Bombay University team, going wicketless against Osmania University in the Rohinton Baria Trophy final.

In the first match next season Gupte picked up 6 for 27 to rout Gujarat University for 114. In the next innings he picked up 5 for 42 and 2 for 30 against Mysore University to bowl them out for 167, and earned a Ranji Trophy call-up almost immediately.

Baloo Gupte
Baloo Gupte

Ranji debut and the Baroda marathon

Gupte made his debut against Maharashtra and picked up 3 for 57 in the second innings. In his second match, in the 1953-54 Ranji Trophy Final, Gupte bowled for a long stretch in tandem with Vinoo Mankad and helped Bombay lift the Trophy.

He won a spot for West Zone against the touring New Zealandersin 1955-56. Mankad bowled only 9 overs in the match, which meant that Gupte, along with Bapu Nadkarni, had to bear the burden of the bowling. Gupte picked up the first 3 Kiwi wickets and eventually finished with 4 for 63 to help win the match. Up against the tourists again, this time for Indian Universities, Gupte picked up 6 for 105 with his leg-breaks.

His first five-for came in the Ranji Trophy final when he picked up 5 for 80 to help Bombay win another Trophy, this time. In his first match of the next season, against Gujarat, he bettered this effort with 7 for 109.

Back to University Cricket, Gupte produced what was definitely one of the greatest examples of endurance in the Rohinton Baria Final of 1956-57 at Baroda. Bombay University scored 343 in the timeless match; Gupte then bowled a marathon spell of 43.3-11-100-8 to obtain a valuable 72-run lead for his side.

Bombay University declared their second innings closed at 625 for 9, setting a target of 698 for Delhi University. Then Baloo Gupte began his marathon. He toiled on and on, picking up the wickets, waiting patiently, and eventually forcing the batsmen to make errors.

Baloo returned figures of 116-36-202-7 in the innings, eventually finishing with 159.3-47-302-15 as Bombay University won by 116 runs. There has seldom been a better example of stamina and persistence on a track that offered virtually nothing to the bowlers, spin or pace (19 bowlers were used in the match).

Baloo later said: “The match was played on a matting wicket which had no dust or particles. It was a good batting wicket, but I still managed to get 15 wickets. That was my best match.”

With the Bombay side boasting of the likes of Subhash Gupte, Mankad, Sharad Diwadkar, and Nadkarni, Baloo Gupte realised that his opportunities would at best be sporadic. In 1957 he took up a contract with Nelson, and played quite successfully for two seasons.

Unable to break through to the Bombay side, he moved to Bengal in 1957-58. In his first match for Bengal he routed Assam with a second-innings 7 for 70, and followed it with a match haul of 9 for 105 against Bihar. He also picked up 4 for 81 in the quarter-final against Hyderabad.

When the touring West Indians played a match against Cricket Club of India (CCI), Gupte managed to impress the selectors with three wickets in each innings. He found his spot back in the Bombay side next season, but after a dismal show he had to move to Railways.

The next season saw him winning a position back in Bombay yet again, where he picked up consecutive five-fors against Maharashtra and against Saurashtra. These spells won him a place for the West Zone side against the touring Pakistanis; he demolished them with figures of 5 for 56.

When Subhash was eventually dropped after three Tests against Pakistan in the 1960-61 series, Baloo, along with VV Kumar, were the two main candidates. Kumar, being the more prolific of the two at domestic level, was the first choice for the ‘Pongal Test’ at Madras, but he eventually opted out because of an injury, paving the path for Gupte to make his debut.

Test debut

“Baloo Gupte had the misfortune of making his Test debut on a placid pitch where the Pakistan batsmen were in full flow,” wrote Partab Ramchand in The Gentle Executioners: Story of Indian Spinners. It was a series played on placid wickets where all five Tests were drawn.

Pakistan crossed 300 with only two wickets down and the Indian bowlers pulled things back a bit before the tourists declared at 448 for 8. While batting, India were 476 for 9 when Gupte walked out to join Chandu Borde. The pair added an unbeaten 63 as Gupte remained unbeaten on 17, ensuring Borde got his hundred.

The Test petered out to a draw. Gupte finished with the rather unflattering figures of 30-9-97-0 and 5-0-19-0. He would not play another Test in three years.

Domestic heroics

Desperate to make a comeback, Gupte took his bowling a notch higher the next season. In the Ranji semi-final, he routed Delhi with figures of 2 for 45 and 8 for 111. In the final against Rajasthan he picked up 6 more wickets. Bombay won another title. He finished that season with 44 wickets at 20.52 with 2 five-fors and a ten-for.

The next season began in sensational manner with Gupte picking up 42 wickets in his first 9 innings — his worst figures in an innings being 3 for 40. The best, however, was to come.

He had already warmed himself up in the Duleep Trophy semi-final against North Zone, picking up 5 for 85 in the first innings. In the final at Calcutta, however, he lifted himself to another plane. After Charlie Stayers, the visiting West Indian fast bowler, removed Abid Ali, Gupte ran through the rest of innings picking up 9 for 55. Still not content, he returned figures of 3 for 72 in the second innings as West Zone won by an innings.

Both these performances remained Duleep Trophy records till 2000-01, when Debasis Mohanty picked up 10 for 46 and 4 for 45 against South Zone.

Gupte finished the season with 76 wickets at 19.18 with 8 five-fors and 3 ten-fors. He was named an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year and it was only a matter of time before he would break through to the national side again.

Test recall

Gupte was suddenly recalled for the fifth Test at Kanpur in the England series at home. He got to know about the inclusion two days before the Test and did not have a time to prepare. However, he mentioned later: “As long as one plays, one has to expect a call any time.”

Once again Gupte played on a bone-dry pitch and had to toil for hours as England declared at 559 for 8. Mike Smith, England’s captain on that tour, became Gupte’s first wicket when he was caught by Borde. Gupte eventually returned figures of 50-9-115-1.

On the same pitch, however, Fred Titmus picked up 6 for 73 and India had to follow-on, though they managed to avert an innings defeat. Once again Gupte was axed from the side.

Gupte continued to perform in domestic cricket, and in the Irani Trophy of 1963-64 he picked up 3 for 26 and 8 for 48 for Rest of India. He held both the innings (Murali Kartik currently holds the record with 9 for 70) and match (Anil Kumble currently holds the record with 13 for 138) records at that time.

Determined to make a comeback in the Test side, Gupte bowled West Zone to a Duleep Trophy win with 6 for 74 against East Zone and 5 for 67 against Central Zone. In the next month he got a Test-call up against New Zealand at Eden Gardens.

The wicket was conducive to spin and the opposition was weaker, but Gupte did nothing to prove his worth: he bowled Bryan Yuile in the first innings and had Graham Dowling caught-behind in the second, and finished with 16-3-54-1 and 22-7-64-1 in the Test. It would turn out to be his last, with Bhagwat Chandrasekhar having already appeared on the scene.

Final years

Gupte’s career ran into a slide thereafter as he picked up only one more five-for over the last five seasons of his career. His last Ranji Trophy match was the 1967-68 final, where Gupte played his role, picking up 3 for 59 and 3 for 128 as Bombay lifted yet another Trophy.

Gupte took up a job for State Bank of India. He played regularly for them alongside the likes of Diwadkar and Bishan Bedi. He died from cancer on July 5, 2005.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)