EAS Prasanna © AFP
EAS Prasanna © AFP

EAS Prasanna, born May 22, 1940, was arguably the greatest Indian off-spinner. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of one of an aggressive bowler whose career was truncated for multiple reasons.

Erapalli Anantharao Srinivas Prasanna, known to the cricketing world by his initials, was not what you think of when you come across the word ‘off-spinner’ in 2013. He was certainly not a robot bowling a flat trajectory to contain a batsman, often playing a support role to the other bowlers. Not ‘Pras.’ The diminutive frame, the short, stubby hands, the small fingers — nothing seemed to be a handicap to the Master of Off-Spin, who was perhaps peerless in his era in terms of flight, loop, aggression and, above all, guile.

He flighted the ball uninhibitedly, without any fear whatsoever of getting hit out of the park; the ball whirred in the air, often audibly, and the gullible batsman, who perceived with glee that it was a juicy full-toss or an innocuous over-pitched delivery, found out that it turned out to be a short of good length — one the hapless batsman made a feeble attempt at reaching out for the delivery, and ended up spooning the ball to a fielder or bowled through the gate.

The jubilant Prasanna (if the word can be used at all while referring to Prasanna) then ran towards his partner-in-crime Bishan Bedi with a wily fox’s smirk on his face — a man who believed in an identical philosophy.

Ashley Mallett, an off-spinner himself, while writing on the three great off-spinners, mentioned: “Technically I rate the little Indian off-spinner Prasanna a better bowler than Gibbs. I’ve seen Laker in Australia and I’ve seen Gibbs. Gibbs, I rate above Laker, but below Prasanna. I place Prasanna, if not above, at least at par with another genius off-spinner, the Sri Lankan wizard Muttiah Muralitharan.”

In his first book Rowdy,  Mallett had included Prasanna in his World XI. To justify Prasanna’s inclusion alongside a few all-time greats, Mallett wrote: “As an off spinner, he has no peer in world cricket. Prasanna, small in stature but giant in heart, bowls with an almost captivating curl of flight. He is not a big spinner of the ball but his flight is so good he always seems to drop the ball in front and just out of reach of the fastest moving batsman. When batsmen fancy the Indian master spinner, they must each feel like a donkey with a carrot dangling in front but just out of reach of their nose. He is the only spin bowler I have seen able to reduce Ian Chappell’s footwork to mediocrity. Prasanna bowled well in India in 1969, but his greatest effort was undoubtedly against Australia in the 1967-68 season. Here he took 25 wickets in four Tests in a side that lost the series four nil!”

Ian Chappell, of nimble footwork and one of the greatest players of spin of his era, has also rated Prasanna as the best off-spinner he has ever seen.

R Mohan, cricket correspondent of The Hindu, wrote: “Much as Bradman rated Bill O’Reilly the best bowler he saw, Ian Chappell, who batted in an era rich with spin bowling talent, held a similar opinion of Pras, who had that wonderful wrist that gave him his great range in air.”

When Shane Warne was practicing at Jaipur during the 1996 World Cup, a short, middle-aged man had walked up to him, shook his hands, and uttered the words “Son, you have a great talent. I hope you keep bowling for years to come.” A perplexed Warne was then educated by Ian Chappell, who was present at the spot: “Shane, you are speaking to Erapalli Prasanna, the greatest slow-bowler of my generation.”

Pataudi brought out the best in Pras

Prasanna formed a great combination with his captain, ‘Tiger’ Pataudi who gave him all the freedom, never placed a point for him even when the batsmen found the boundary, square-cutting him against the turn, and had almost always left a vast gap between extra-cover and gully. He would provide Prasanna with as many close-in fielders as the off-spinner ideally wanted, which resulted in further success, even at the cost of runs. It is not a coincidence that Prasanna had picked up 116 wickets from 23 Tests under Pataudi at 27.42, and a mere 73 from 26 Tests at 35.08 under others. If one excludes the one Test under Gavaskar, the number comes down to 62 from 25 Tests at 39.04.

It is surprising that despite his superlative pedigree, Prasanna played only 49 Tests, in which he picked up 189 wickets at 30.38 — which, though good by Indian standards, can hardly be called spectacular. However, he remains the quickest Indian to reach the 100-wicket mark — in only 20 Tests. At that stage his numbers read 103 wickets at 26.86. In his last 29 Tests (which were mostly after Pataudi’s dismissal from the helm) Prasanna picked up only 86 wickets at 34.49.

In all First-Class Cricket, Prasanna had a tally of 957 wickets at 23.45, and his shrewdness got him the Karnataka and South Zone captain’s slot ahead of a few other greats. His aggressive style of bowling meant that he did not get a chance to play ODIs for India, while his rival and contemporary off-spinner Srinivas Venkataraghavan got to lead India in the first two World Cups.

Early days

Before this turns into a fanboy article (with quotes from a few other fans of various stature), let us quickly turn to his career. Prasanna made his debut for Mysore against Hyderabad at Secunderabad in 1961-62; he picked up 5 for 80 in that match and 7 for 90 in the next match against Madras, and was immediately selected for the Duleep Trophy match against West Zone.

He bowled so well in that season that he was selected thrice to play against the touring MCC side — for Indian Universities, for Indian board President’s XI, and for South Zone. In the last match he was brought on as the fifth bowler; MCC, comfortably placed at 148 for 4, were bowled out for 193. Prasanna’s figures, 12.3-3-56-6, probably reflect the aggression with which he bowled.

The selectors did not have an option but to pick him for the fifth Test of the ongoing series at Madras. He was also picked for the fourth Test at Calcutta, and though he did not play, it was the first time he saw a Test, and even fielded as a substitute for a few minutes.

Picked as one of five spinners in the side (along with Polly Umrigar, Bapu Nadkarni, Chandu Borde, and Salim Durani) Prasanna returned figures of 20-5-39-1 from the Test — which was only his seventh First-Class match. India won the Test, and with it the series with a convincing 2-0 margin. Geoff Millman, caught by Nari Contractor at backward short-leg, turned out to be Prasanna’s first Test wicket.

Family feud, and the West Indies tour

The performance was good enough for the selectors to pick Prasanna for the West Indies tour that followed. When the news was announced at the Board President MA Chidambaram’s place, Prasanna went through contrasting emotions. In his own words, “I did put up a big smile at the party, but inside I was shaken up”.

Prasanna Senior was not impressed. He even refused to talk to his son for placing sport before education. M Chinnaswamy, Secretary of BCCI, came to know of the situation: he somehow managed to coax Maharaja Sri Sir Jaya Chamarajendra Wodeyar Bahadur, the last Maharaja of Mysore, to convince Prasanna Senior to let his son go to West Indies. His son was, after all, the first true Mysorean to play for India (given that Phiroze Palia wasn’t a native of Mysore). His father agreed on the condition that his son would have to finish his engineering degree once he was back.

The tour was marred by Nari Contractor’s infamous injury, the appointment of young Pataudi, and an embarrassing 0-5 defeat by the Indians. He played only four matches on the tour and took 20 wickets at 26.93 — including 9 for 103 against a Combined Windward and Leeward Islands side. He bowled a marathon 50 overs at Sabina Park, picking up 3 for 122 in the only Test that he played on that tour, but West Indies won by an innings.

The guidance by Ghulam Ahmed, the Indian manager and former Test captain and off-spinner, really helped Prasanna during the tour. During the Sabina Park Test, Garry Sobers was dropped twice off Prasanna, and he commented that the off-spinner bowled ‘exceedingly well’. In Prasanna’s own words, on that day, “I had Sobers under control”.

The break and the comeback

When Prasanna came back to India after the tour, he had to keep his promise (more so because his father had passed away) — and he spent close to five years in oblivion, while finishing his degree from the National Institute of Engineering, Mysore. He got a job at ITI for a salary of Rs 300, which he had to accept it, being the only earning member of his family. He got excellent support from his employer, though, and was back on track soon.

He played Ranji, Duleep, and Irani Trophies sporadically, and the big break came when he was selected for South Zone to play Sobers’ touring West Indians. Prasanna bowled out the tourists for 224 on Day One, picking up 8 for 87, and running through a side that included batsmen like Rohan Kanhai, Basil Butcher, Seymour Nurse, and Conrad Hunte.

As a result , the next match Prasanna played was his third Test — against West Indies at Madras. He returned figures of 2 for 118 and 3 for 106, but India could not win the Test from a situation when West Indies were 193 for 7 chasing 322: Sobers and Charlie Griffith could not be separated for an hour-and-a-half. However, this was the first Test where Prasanna played a Test alongside Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar. At this stage Prasanna’s career read nine wickets from three Tests over a period spanning five years at 42.77, and things really did not look very good.

Things went further downhill in the England tour that followed. He picked up a wicket in each of the Tests at Headingley and Lord’s, and went for plenty, and England took an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-Test series. With 11 wickets from 5 Tests at 64, Prasanna’s career was as good as over — more so with the ominous shadows of Venkat lurking around the corner.

The Edgbaston Test

The Edgbaston Test turned out to be a watershed moment in Prasanna’s career. It was also a historic moment for Indian cricket, since it was the only time when the famous quartet — Prasanna, Bedi, Chandra, and Venkat — played in the same Test.

He took 3 for 51 and 4 for 60 in the Test, dismissing the likes of Dennis Amiss, Ken Barrington, Tom Graveney, Brian Close, and Ray Illingworth in the process. Despite England’s 132-victory (which resulted in a whitewash), Prasanna was given the Horlicks Best Bowler (?) for the Test. He finished the tour with 45 wickets at 23.91.

The Golden Period

The four back-to-back series against Australia and New Zealand – both away and at home — can easily be termed as the Golden Period of Prasanna’s career. In the 16 Tests spanning over the four series, Prasanna picked up 95 wickets at an incredible 23.60 in 16 Tests, dominating the Indian attack by the proverbial mile. To put things into perspective, the only other Indian to have picked up more than 25 wickets during this period was Bedi (56 wickets).

In fact, the only one in the world to have come anywhere to him was Graham McKenzie, who had picked up 77 wickets at 27.35 from 17 Tests. Even if the span is stretched by another year (including the whole of 1970, when Prasanna did not play a single Test), Prasanna was still ahead, with Alan Connolly (88 wickets from 22 Tests at 27.34) coming second.

India were whitewashed Down Under, but Prasanna emerged a hero, as Mallett had mentioned. Prasanna took 25 wickets at 27.44 in the series — the next highest from either team being Rusi Surti with 15 scalps. He kept on improving with every passing Test: he picked up his first 5-for — 6 for 141 in the second Test at Melbourne; bettered it with 6 for 104 in the third Test at Brisbane (reaching a new match best of 8 for 218); and picked up 7 more wickets at Sydney.

However, it was in the first Test of the series that he made Ian Chappell his fan with a well thought-out wicket. Borde was leading in place of the injured Pataudi; Chappell stepped out to counter Prasanna’s spin, which made the backward short-leg redundant. Prasanna convinced Borde to bring the backward short-leg to mid-on. What followed was magical. In Prasanna’s own words, “I sent down a delivery that tempted Chappell to cover-drive, the ball had a lot of spin. He tried to drive, and was caught by Borde at short mid-on! Borde couldn’t believe his eyes that I had set a trap and it had worked. He came over and asked me, ‘How did you do it?’”

The New Zealand tour that followed was India’s first overseas series victory (and included the first Test victory as well). When India managed a slender nine-run lead in the first Test at Dunedin, Prasanna ran through the Kiwi batting line-up, picking up 6 for 94 — a new career-best — and ensured the first overseas Test victory for India.

He went from strength to strength in that series. In the third Test at Wellington Prasanna took 5 for 32 and 3 for 56, giving him new best match figures of 8 for 88 as he gave India a 2-1 lead. And then, in the decider at Auckland, he picked up 4 for 44 and 4 for 40 (bettering his best match figures again), and India won the series 3-1. Once again Prasanna led the bowling chart for either side — he picked up 24 wickets (the next from either side was Bedi with 16) at 18.79.

New Zealand toured India next, and somehow to level the three-Test series 1-1. For the third time in a row Prasanna was the best bowler from either side, picking up 20 wickets (Bedi was the next on the list) at 21.65.

Bill Lawry’s Australians were obviously a sterner outfit. But despite the fact that the Australians clinched the five-Test series 3-1, Prasanna toiled hard and shone alone against a dominant opposition. He went on bettering his records, too — picking up a career-best match tally of 9 for 153 at Delhi, and bettering it with his for 174 at Madras — his first 10-wicket haul. He also picked up 6 for 74 in the second innings at Madras, setting a new personal best. Overall, he had eventually come second with 26 wickets at 25.84 (Mallett took 28), but as Mallett had mentioned himself, there was no doubt regarding who was the better bowler.

The 95-wicket phase earned Prasanna a Padma Shri in 1970.

Tussle with Venkat

The selectors gave Pataudi the sack for the twin tours of West Indies and England, and with him went Prasanna’s form. He played the first Test at Sabina Park, and took 4 for 65 to make West Indies for the first time against India. He also played the next Test at Queen’s Park Oval, where he once again helped rout West Indies with figures of 4 for 54, resulting in the first ever victory against West Indies, home or away.

He was made to sit out in the next two Tests at Bourda and Kensington Oval due to an apparent injury, and Venkat was picked ahead of Prasanna.

Prasanna, however, later went on to say “There was no injury at all as far as I can think of but anyway it happened. I always believe that no one is indispensable, so I was dispensed with.” He took the issue rather sportingly.

Venkat was the better batsman, and being the fitter of the two, easily the better fielder, specialising in the close-in positions. He was also ideal to hold up one end and act as a perfect foil to Bedi and Chandra, as opposed to the classical, aggressive Prasanna, who always tried to win wickets at the cost of runs. The tussle was evident, especially under Wadekar’s reign. Whereas Prasanna played 23 Tests under Pataudi to Venkat’s 15, he played only 8 under Ajit Wadekar compared to Venkat’s 12.

He was back for the fifth Test at Port-of-Spain, did not find much success, and suddenly, after being the world’s leading bowler, he found himself out of the Tests in England, despite doing quite well in the tour matches. While commentating on television, Laker commented: “if India can afford to drop Prasanna, the Indian side must be very strong”.

This bizarre idiosyncrasy affected Prasanna to a serious extent: in his own words, “I do not know till today the reason. I couldn’t ever recover from that shock because at that point of time I was talking with the ball. Never mind who was playing against me, I could nominate them and take their wickets. That was the confidence level I had and the whole thing was destroyed straightaway.”

However, he later commented “Myself and Venkat knew exactly what was happening. We have shared rooms, shared thoughts. We respected each other, we knew our strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately we didn’t have the batting strength to play all four spinners. So we accepted it because after all it’s a team game.”

Resurgence

Prasanna found himself in and out of the side after that, with Venkat often being chosen along with Bedi and Chandra. He was sitting in the dressing room during the first Test at Delhi (that India lost) when a sports magazine was unearthed and read aloud by Prasanna’s colleagues. The magazine had Ian Chappell voicing his opinion that Prasanna was the greatest off-spinner the Australian had played.

The compliment was what Prasanna himself called “a shot in the arm”. Till then Prasanna “never put an effort to come back”. In his words, “I just wanted to play for my state, like how I started off, that was more important for me then.” Chappell’s article made the selectors sit back and take notice — and Prasanna was picked for the next three Tests. He took 3 for 52 at Calcutta where Chandra wrecked the English; 6 for 63 (including 4 for 16 in the second innings) at Madras to give India the series lead; and after a single failure at Kanpur, the selectors chose Venkat again.

Eliminating Bombay

Bombay was all set to pull off their 16th Ranji Trophy victory on the trot. Karnataka had scored 385 batting first, and after Ramnath Parkar was dismissed, Gavaskar and Wadekar, two domestic giants and excellent players of spin, took root, and the score built on – giving a sense of déjà vu to the Bangalore spectators.

Ramachandra Guha describes what followed next: “Gavaskar started well, and early on drove Prasanna past mid-on for four. He came down to drive another delivery tossed-up high, only this one swerved away late in the air and left him stranded. Syed Kirmani waited to effect the stumping, but the ball was intended instead for the off-stump. I can see now Sunil Gavaskar magnanimously nodding in appreciation to the bowler as he passed him on his way out.”

Gavaskar has always mentioned that it was one of the greatest balls he had ever faced. Soon afterwards, Wadekar slipped and was run out, and Prasanna, Karnataka captain now, was not willing to let go of this opportunity. He sent down 63 overs on that placid pitch picking up 5 for 117, eliminating Bombay.

In the final that followed at Jaipur, Prasanna took 4 for 56 and 5 for 46, and Rajasthan were trounced by a 185-run margin. The national championship for cricket in India finally found a new champion.

Post-Wadekar

After the ill-fated ‘Summer of 42’ in England next year, Wadekar was sacked, and Pataudi was recalled as captain for the home series against West Indies. Pataudi’s presence meant that Prasanna was given a full run, and despite not doing too well overall, he helped India level the series at Madras by taking a match-winning 9 for 111 after Gundappa Viswanath’s famous 97 not out. More importantly, this was the supremely confident Prasanna in his heydays: the flight, the loop, the guile, the courage were all back.

When India toured New Zealand in 1975-76, Bedi, the captain, had to opt out of the first Test at Auckland, which meant that Gavaskar led India for the first time. After taking 3 for 64 in the first innings, Prasanna routed the Kiwis with figures of 8 for 76, thereby returning figures of 11 for 140. Not only were these Prasanna’s career-best innings and match records, the 8 for 76 remain the best figures by an Indian in overseas Tests.

Final days

Even at 37 Prasanna’s hunger did not seem to wane. After being dropped at Delhi during the home series against England that followed, Prasanna played the four remaining Tests, and despite England’s 3-1 series victory, Prasanna finished at the top of the Indian averages with 18 wickets at 21.61.

He toured Australia for one final time — in the 1977-78 series — and got to play four of the five Tests. Australia clinched the series 3-2, but India’s victory at Sydney by an innings and two runs — the highest in their history overseas —was achieved by the spinners: Prasanna picked up 4 for 51 in Australia’s second innings, and it was evident that even at 38 he could still win Tests for India.

The death-knell

It was the 1978-79 Pakistan tour that eventually ended the career of Prasanna. On the flat tracks of Pakistan, he was treated with disdain by a strong Pakistan batting line-up. He picked two wickets at Faisalabad and none at Lahore (he was not even given a bowl in the second innings), and after the crushing defeat in the second Test, he was dropped for the third Test at Karachi, which India lost again. The man who was once a regular name at the top of the bowling charts now appeared at the bottom – with two wickets in the series at 125.50.

The tour also virtually ended Prasanna, Bedi, and Chandra’s career. The board found an immediate successor of Prasanna in Venkat, but they gave Bedi 6 more Tests and Chandra 5. Thus ended the careers of the trinity of Indian spinners of the 1960s and 1970s. Venkat, due to his supreme fitness (and maybe also owing to the fact that he did not play a single Test on that ill-fated tour of Pakistan) played on till as late as 1983 (competing with spinners who were born after he had started his careers).

He still continued to play First-Class cricket, turning up against the touring West Indians for South Zone, and then playing Tamil Nadu. In the next match Prasanna seemed to be coming back to his best for one final time — when he spun out Hyderabad with figures of 7 for 70 and making them follow-on.

This, however, turned out to be Prasanna’s last First-Class match. When it was announced that he had been dropped from India’s squad for the home series against West Indies, he promptly announced his retirement from First-Class cricket.

Post-retirement

Prasanna was a manager of the Indian team for the Benson & Hedges World Championship of Cricket in Australia — a tournament that was the most convincing in the One-Day International history of India. He was later made a spin-bowling coach at the National Cricket Academy, and is currently a coach at the MAC Spin Foundation in Chennai.

When the prestigious CK Nayudu Award was announced in 2004 (the 75th anniversary of BCCI), for the first time in history it went to a group of four — the famous spin quartet — though Venkat’s might also have had to do with being India’s most famous international umpire.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and can be followed @ovshake42)