Ghulam Ahmed    Getty Images
“Flowing effortlessly to the wicket with that delightful little hop prior to delivery, the arm coming over classically straight with palm and fingers cutting across the face of the ball, he was a model of poise and accuracy.” Sujit Mukherjee on Ghulam Ahmed Getty Images

Ghulam Ahmed, born July 4, 1922, was the first great off-spinner of India. Arunabha Sengupta and Abhishek Mukherjee look back at the life and legacy of the first specialist bowler to lead India and a third of the first great trinity of Indian spin bowling.

The impact

The first story, though repeated with variations of different levels of magnitudes, is probably apocryphal; but even if it is, it is a testimony to the quality of the bowler.

In the match in question, Ghulam Ahmed, master of metronomic precision, was unable to find his rhythm on a matting-wicket. One short ball followed another as Ghulam kept staring at the mat, first in frustration, then in disbelief, then with conviction.

He challenged the umpires and the authorities, insisting the length of the pitch be measured. Indeed, it was a foot (some versions say two feet) longer than what it should have been.

How else could Ghulam have been guilty of bowling short?

The second story involves off-spinner Venatappa Muddiah of Indian Air Force, who played for Services before turning up for a season apiece for Mysore and Hyderabad. His career coincided with Ghulam s, which meant he could not break into he Indian side; even for Hyderabad he had to be content with being the second off-spinner.

That did not stop Muddiah from referring to Ghulam as the world s greatest bowler. He had his reasons, having watched the great man bowl from close quarters. An incident from the 1970s reconfirmed his impression of Ghulam.

Muddiah was touring Hyderabad with a Bangalore club. The two sides were relaxing after a hard day s toil at Fateh Maidan when Muddiah saw his hero making his way towards them.

At Muddiah s insistence, Ghulam, then in his fifties, bowled three deliveries in plain clothes, hitting off-, middle-, and leg-stump in that order.

The bowler

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 3 hundreds in as many innings behind him, he followed it with 2 more in the third Test against India in Calcutta.

Yet, at this stratospheric height of his powers, Weekes was lured into drives in both innings, misreading the flight in each case and lobbing return catches to a debutant off-spinner that were gleefully latched on to.

Ghulam Ahmed spun a refreshing web in his first Test, picking up 6 wickets in all. It was a delayed entrance, after he had been toiling under the sun for almost a decade.

He could still have made up for lost time, but for the Indian international itinerary over the 1950s. Vinoo Mankad already loomed large when he made his debut, which meant Ghulam had to be content with the role of playing the foil; with Subhash Gupte also making his advent, Ghulam was left with the unenviable task of holding batsmen down with pinpoint accuracy.

He went about his job without a fuss. On the rare occasions when he had to play the role of the lead spinner, he rose to the task, as he did with Weekes in Calcutta, or throughout the England tour of 1952.

Ghulam Ahmed played only 22 Tests. His 68 wickets came at 30.17 apiece. The numbers, while not extraordinary, compared favourably when pitted against his more celebrated successors EAS Prasanna (189 wickets at 30.38), Srinivas Venkataraghavan (156 at 36.11), and Harbhajan Singh (417 at 32.46).

The numbers look even more impressive if one considers only overseas matches: Ghulam played only 8 Tests away from home, taking 24 wickets at 29.41, better than his home record of 44 wickets at 30.59. Pit this against the overseas numbers of Prasanna (94 wickets at 33.85), Venkat (62 at 44.40!), and Harbhajan (152 at 38.90), and you may have an idea of what India had missed out on. It also gives an idea of how romantic recollection of particular eras hype performers into demi-gods while in other eras even better performers all but fade into oblivion.

The numbers are even more incredible if one takes into factor that Ghulam was seldom backed-up by a phalanx of world-class close-in fielders. Indian spinners of the 1970s have been vocal in the role played by the slips and short-legs, Eknath Solkar in particular, behind their success.

Alas, there was no such luxury for Ghulam, for he bowled in an era before dives and slides, or even spectacular running catches. Fielders who did not drop catches were held in high esteem.

This meant that Ghulam had to be a one-man show, especially for Hyderabad. Not only did he have to pin down batmen, not allowing them to get away, he also had to get them out. He was stock and shock bowler rolled into one.

In First-Class cricket Ghulam claimed 407 wickets from 98 matches at 22.57. For Hyderabad the numbers were even better, 187 from 36 matches at 19.55 with 20 five-fors and 6 ten-fors.

Let us take a moment before moving on. For Hyderabad Ghulam took more than 5 wickets a match. He took a five-wicket haul at a frequency more than the alternate match; and one-sixth of the matches ended with him taking a ten-for. As if this was not enough, he sent down 44.3 overs for them every match on an average.

KN Prabhu once wrote that Ghulam combined the best of Prasanna and Venkataraghavan. Despite the fact that he was KN Prabhu, probably this time he was not exaggerating. Ghulam was the perfect blend of the guile of the former and the stamina of the latter.

ML Jaisimha, who has played alongside both Prasanna and Venkat, rated Ghulam as the best of the three. This was almost incredible, for Jaisimha was a known admirer of Prasanna. You could hear the ball fizz out of his hand as you prepared to face him, Jaisimha later told Venkatraman Ramnarayan. An off-spinner himself, Ramnarayan marked out first Ghulam Ahmed and then Jim Laker as his inspirations.

Of course, Ramnarayan did not see as much of Laker as he did of Ghulam. Cricket s folklore is like that, driven by time and space. However, in the same way, if only Ian Chappell had seen Ghulam in his prime, the opinions of a generation of followers of the game about the best off-spinner ever could have been very different.

The rise

The son of a Government officer, a 17-year old Ghulam shot into fame with 5 for 95 and 4 for 62 on First-Class debut against Madras. There was a two-year gap during his graduation years, but he roared back with 23 wickets at 14.95 in his second full season.

At this stage he kept alternating between Ranji Trophy and Rohinton Baria, playing the latter for Madras University. One of his greatest performances came in the 1943-44 final against Punjab University.

Punjab won by 268 runs, riding on the performances of two boys called Abdul Hafeez (later Kardar) and Fazal Mahmood but not before the Madras captain put up a lion-hearted effort. He sent down 102.1 overs in the match for match figures of 11 for 114; mortals would have given up given up after that, but Ghulam, walking out at No. 9, was left stranded on 78 in a team total of 175.

The Servicemen

At this stage he was good enough to make the cut for South Zone. When they played Keith Miller s Australian Servicemen in 1945-46, Ghulam found himself taking field alongside luminaries CP Johnstone, Ram Singh, Pheroze Palia, MJ Gopalan, and Commandur Rangachari.

Miller had probably underestimated his oppositions, for he bowled only 3 overs, and let his left-arm spinners Reg Ellis and Charlie Price to bowl out the opposition for 159. He was probably a bit complacent as well after a 65-run opening stand.

Miller had probably heard of Ram Singh, left-arm spinner and patriarch of one of the most famous families of Madras cricket. He did not account for the 23-year old unknown off-spinner.

Ghulam took the first three wickets, two of them bowled, including Miller for a duck. Ram Singh got the next three. Some resistance came from James Workman, who justified his surname by grinding it out for 74. Ghulam finished with 4 for 56 as the tourists managed a 36-run lead.

At this stage Miller probably realised that the pressure was Messerschmitt-up-your-arse material. He gave himself 9.3 overs, took 3 for 19, taking his revenge by bowling young Ghulam for a duck.

Miller s men needed 198. Johnstone needed an encore from his men. But there was no fairytale, for there was no one to lend support to Ghulam. He reduced the tourists to 100 for 4, taking all 4 wickets for 59 (Johnstone caught three of these at slip), including Miller for 8. But that was all South Zone could manage.

The retributions

At this stage there was little doubt that Ghulam was the best off-spinner, if not the best spinner, in the country. Over four seasons he had taken 80 wickets at 16.64. And yet, when the squad for the England tour of 1946 was chosen, he was overlooked despite Johnstone s insistence.

For some reason the selectors crammed the side with two leg-spinners (CS Nayudu and Sadu Shinde) along with the left-arm spin of Mankad and the mixed bag of Chandu Sarwate. Ghulam, bred on the matting wickets of Hyderabad, was not considered suitable for the English turf. In retrospect, looking at what he managed in 1952, this was one of the most pathetic decisions taken by the Indian selectors.

If the omission had hurt Ghulam, he certainly did not let the world know. His focus lay in domestic cricket, especially on a match between India to England Touring Team (of 1946) and Rest of India.

Ghulam spun his side to a victory against the favourites. In the first innings he got 3 for 31 to secure a 101-run lead, but the big guns were making small task of the 370-run target. They all got runs, Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare, and Rusi Modi. At the same time, Ghulam kept bowling on a pitch that looked better with time, eventually taking 5 for 94 in a 13-run win.

They still left him out of India s maiden tour of Australia, in 1947-48. This time Madras faced the wrath as he ran through them with 5 for 28 and 9 for 53, adding a second-innings 78 for good measure. Madras were skittled out for 88 and 92.

The debut

On came the West Indians of 1948-49. Ghulam was curiously under-bowled (he got 10 overs) in the Western India States match, but CK Nayudu gave him his due for Central Province Governor s XI. The tourists won by 6 wickets, but Ghulam took 8 of the 14 wickets they lost.

Ghulam Ahmed (profile picture). Courtesy: H Nataraja
Ghulam Ahmed. Photo Courtesy: H Natarajan

By the time the Calcutta Test against West Indies was to be played, his claims could not be ignored any more. The matting-wicket expert captured 4 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 No. 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.

He was named an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year.

Three years down the line, however, he etched his name as one of the architects of the first Indian Test win. Vinoo Mankad and Ghulam picked up 4 wickets apiece as they spun the Englishmen out in the second innings at Madras, ending the agonising two-decade wait with an innings victory, no less.

Earlier that series Ghulam had paired Mankad, at Kanpur, this time taking 5 for 70 to his senior partner s 4 for 54. The Englishmen had been bowled out for 203, but the Indians had not risen to the task, scoring 121 and 157.

Before all this he pulled off a bizarre feat in the Ranji Trophy semi-final against Holkar. The opposition piled up 757 in their only innings. Things had looked somewhat human at 442 for 7 before No. 8 Khandu Rangnekar (217) and No. 9 Jamshed Bhaya (123) decided to add 219.

Ghulam wheeled along through the run-feast, sending down over after over, from the first afternoon to the fourth morning. His figures read 92.3-21-245-4; the 555 balls he sent down beat Alf Valentine s world record by 3, and would stand till Valentine s partner-in-crime Sonny Ramadhin would send down 588 at Edgbaston in 1957.

The golden tour

His success against England earned Ghulam a spot in India s fourth tour of England, in 1952. India were blown away by a debutant Fred Trueman: after being reduced to 0 for 4 they managed to save the innings defeat, but lost comfortably.

The reason they managed to save the innings defeat was a probing first-innings spell from Ghulam, who had restricted the hosts to a 41-run lead. He sent down 63 overs, taking 5 for 100, every single wicket being a batsman from 1 to 6: the names included Len Hutton, Denis Compton, and Tom Graveney.

England needed a mere 125, but there was time for Ghulam to take out Reg Simpson and Peter May. If India lost the match, it was certainly not due to lack of an effort from Ghulam, who had sent down 85 overs in the match.

The selectors sent an SOS call to Haslingden to summon Mankad for Lord s, where the champion pulled off arguably the greatest show of his career. Ghulam, reduced to a support act, nevertheless got 4 wickets in the match.

Despite being under-bowled at Old Trafford, his 9 overs fetched 3 for 43 as India became the first side to get bowled out twice in a day, for 58 and 98. A couple more wickets followed at The Oval.

Ghulam finished the series with 15 wickets at 24.73. It was an incredible effort, given that the other bowlers combined to take a mere 24. Barring Mankad (9 wickets at 42.88) nobody else got more than 4. To put things into perspective, only Gupte (17 wickets at 34.64 in 1959) and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (16 at 27.18 in 1967) have taken more wickets in a series among Indian spinners in England. In short, no Indian spinner, be it the lionised quartet of the 60s and 70s, or the great Anil Kumble and his partner Harbhajan Singh, ever had a better tour of England than Ghulam.

As if all that was not enough, Ghulam achieved this when Indian seamers failed miserably under conditions where Alec Bedser and Trueman combined to take 49 wickets.

With 80 wickets at 21.92 Ghulam led the tour averages as well, bowling long spells in conditions alien to him. In Playing for India, Sujit Mukherjee hailed this oft-forgotten success story: The fact that he had never bowled on wet or turning wickets before was seldom betrayed by the consummate manner in which he adjusted his spin and flight to every given condition. Flowing effortlessly to the wicket with that delightful little hop prior to delivery, the arm coming over classically straight with palm and fingers cutting across the face of the ball, he was a model of poise and accuracy through the long summer, fit to be ranked with the finest off-spinners who have ever visited England.

Wisden, as usual, was more economic in their choice of words: He had days when he looked in the highest world class but on other occasions he lacked bite. While Ghulam deserved a kinder report-card, it was a stigma he would have to bear throughout his career.

Indeed, as has often been the allegation, 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.

The afterthought

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 4 for 35 against Pakistan in a Test victory at Delhi later that year, Ghulam managed to feature in just 22 of the 38 Tests played by India during the 10-year span of his career. The Delhi Test also saw him score 50 from No. 11 and add 109 with Hemu Adhikari for the last wicket.

It did not matter that his 3 for 83 was India s best bowling performance in the innings defeat to Fazal on a matting wicket at Lucknow. Ghulam spent the rest of his career being selected almost as an afterthought.

He did go to Pakistan, but did not do well on the flat tracks. He started with 5 for 109 in the first innings, but got only 4 more wickets from 6 innings. He finished at the bottom of the averages chart, with 9 wickets at 37.22.

The captain

The Indian selection policies have often eluded logic. Ghulam s career would come to an end due to one of the more quixotic moves. After a miserable series Ghulam should probably have worried for his place in the side, with Mankad and Gupte both playing and Polly Umrigar and Kripal Singh ready to chip in with off-breaks.

Instead, he was appointed captain for India s next Test, against New Zealand at Hyderabad. It was the first Test in the city, and Ghulam became the first Indian to lead in the inaugural international match in his hometown.

He declared on 498 for 4, and though Gupte helped him enforce a follow-on, the wicket as too flat to induce a result. Umrigar led India in the next Test.

The ten-for

India turned out to be pushovers for Australians in 1955-56 at Madras. Richie Benaud took 7 wickets in the first innings and Ray Lindwall 7 more in the second to rout them by an innings. The teams met at Calcutta after India saved the Bombay Test.

It was a rank turner, but for some inexplicable reason, Umrigar put Australia in. The decision backfired as the match went on. Ghulam bowled with the new ball and the old, taking out the Australians one after the other, including 3 of the top 4. He finished with 7 for 49 as Gupte and Mankad shared the other 3.

The Australia were bowled out for a mere 177. Then it rained overnight, and the wicket turned into a nuisance once India batted. Benaud fought back with 6 for 52, and unlike India, Australia had Lindwall, who got 3 for 32. India conceded a 41-run lead. The fate was already sealed.

Ghulam took 3 for 81 as Australia decided to hit out, and Ian Johnson declared despite a target of only 231. Ghulam got his only 10-wicket haul, but it was scant consolation: from 94 for 2 India collapsed to 136 against Benaud (5 for 53), with Jim Burke taking 4 for 37 with his off-breaks.

The exit

Then came West Indies again, and with them came perhaps the most bizarre phase in the history of Indian cricket, when they appointed 6 captains in 7 Tests, including 4 in a 5-Test home series.

It started like this. Ghulam, leading Indian Board President s XI, bowled 10 overs before hobbling out with a leg injury. Even then, Chairman of Selectors Lala Amarnath wanted Ghulam to lead India in the first Test at Bombay. When LP Jai and Cotah Ramaswami voted for other nominations, Amarnath sealed the matter by using his casting-vote.

But there was more drama, for Ghulam pulled out of the Test, and Umrigar went out to toss. India saved the match thanks to a 444-minute epic from Pankaj Roy.

Ghulam was back for the second Test at Kanpur, and was immediately appointed captain despite Umrigar playing. This was in stark contrast with the attitude of the selectors towards him after he had turned down the offer to tour West Indies in 1952-53.

If the 203-run defeat at Kanpur was bad, it was nothing compared to the innings-and-336-runs margin at Calcutta. Ghulam went wicketless at Kanpur and got a solitary one at Calcutta, and stood down with immediate effect.

The Calcutta Test had ended on the fourth day, which gave the selectors time to cajole Ghulam out of retirement and lead in the fourth Test at Madras. He agreed, but the reluctance was obvious. Unable to step down as captain, he retired.

In a way life had turned a full circle for Ghulam. His last Test started on December 31, 1958, exactly a decade after his debut, against the same opposition on the same ground.

Amidst all this, hilarity continued, for India needed a new captain and a quality bowler to replace Ghulam. Things became worse once Vijay Manjrekar also pulled out citing an injury. Amarnath wanted Umrigar to lead and Jasu Patel to play; Ramaswami opted for Kripal along with Manohar Hardikar, but with Hardikar missing the flight, Apoorva Sengupta of Services made his debut.

Umrigar gave the captain s speech on the eve of the Test but resigned on the morning after, and actually burst into tears when asked to lead by the selectors. Mankad, who had been included after a two-year hiatus, was now almost dragged to the toilet behind the dressing-room and convinced to lead India just before the coin was tossed.

Adhikari was summoned from military duties to lead India in the fifth Test, while India had an entirely new captain and vice-captain on the England tour that followed.

No, the situation was not right for a man like Ghulam, who had retired from First-Class cricket, playing his last match a month after his final Test.

Wisden quoted an unnamed Indian cricketer, who said by his action he strengthened the belief of his critics that he was not a fighter. There was perhaps truth in that, for Ghulam s fights were restricted against batsmen, in tying them down, in luring them out one by one, even on the flattest of tracks.

He was clearly not a winner against selection policies that defied logic.

The legacy

The Mumbai school of batting has given India her greatest legacy, one that started with the 19th-century Parsees and carries on through Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma.

A few hundred miles away, Ghulam Ahmed started a legacy of off-spin. He was first joined by Muddiah, followed by M Jairam, then Naushir Mehta, then Ramnarayan, finally culminating in Shivlal Yadav, Arshad Ayub, and Kanwaljit Singh.

Some of them played for India; some disappeared into oblivion, for their careers clashed with some of the giants of Indian cricket. But there is no doubt that it was Ghulam who imbibed the least glamorous of all branches of bowling into his state side.

Ghulam later went on to become Joint Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh. He managed India on the twin tours of Australia and New Zealand in 1967-68, and served a stint as BCCI Secretary. He also became Chairman of Selectors, thus leading the team that selected the World Cup-winning squad of 1983.

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 niece Sania Mirza, who, incidentally, is married to Shoaib Malik, the third Test captain in the family.

Ghulam Ahmed passed away on October 22, 1998. He was 76.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)