Manoj Prabhakar © Getty Images
Manoj Prabhakar © Getty Images

Manoj Prabhakar, born April 15, 1963, was a gutsy batsman anywhere in the order and a bowler who swung the ball prodigiously. He is part of many trivia questions like: Who was Allan Lamb’s only Test victim? Who was the first Indian to open batting and bowling on Test debut? He was a cunning bowler who made defined the face of Indian bowling in the nineties.However, in spite of some commendable achievements in his career; he continues to be remembered for the wrong reasons. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the career of the man who opened both the batting and bowling for India in a record 21 Tests.

Genuine all-rounder

There were plenty of achievements which should have secured him in the fond recesses of cricketing memories. But, whenever his name is recalled, it is accompanied by the shady, murky associations, the ugly underbelly of cricket involving match-fixing and bookmakers.

Manoj Prabhakar played 39 Tests for India. In 21 of them he opened both the batting and the bowling. In spite of the cricket world being graced time and again by the likes of Mudassar Nazar and Trevor Bailey, it remains an all-time record for such versatility.

Prabhakar also happens to be the first Indian to perform the feat on his debut. At Delhi in 1984-85, after he had put in a gutsy effort from the lower order in the first innings, regular opener Anshuman Gaekwad suffered an ankle injury during the England innings. So, Prabhakar accompanied skipper Sunil Gavaskar to the middle when India batted a second time. Iqbal Siddiqui is the only other Indian player to have started proceedings with the bat and the ball on debut — in what turned out to be his only Test.

In that innings, Prabhakar nicked Norman Cowans after scoring just 5, and picked up only one wicket in the match. Yet, he managed to keep his place in the side when Kapil Dev was controversially dropped because of irresponsible batting.

As the match at the Eden Gardens limped to a draw, curtailed by rain and a curiously delayed declaration, Gavaskar sent him in again at the start of the second innings to bat out a few inconsequential overs.

Prabhakar struck the ball quite attractively, especially when viewed in contrast to the infuriatingly inert Ravi Shastri at the other end. And then he became the only Test wicket of Allan Lamb. The colourful middle-order batsman had entertained the Eden crowd through the drab last session with his antics on the cover boundary. He now trapped Prabhakar leg before and went through some of the most exuberant celebrations ever witnessed on the cricket field.

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Manoj Prabhakar… prodigious swinger of the ball © Getty Images

In that Eden Test, Chetan Sharma picked up 4 wickets in England’s only innings. Hence, when Kapil came back to the side for the fourth Test at Madras, it was Prabhakar who had to make way for the legend.

He did not play Test cricket again until 1989. But in the interim period he did produce some more than useful performances with the ball in ODIs.

At Sharjah, he kept a strong Australian line-up in shackles during a stingy spell of 1 for 18 from 10 overs. And back home, in the Reliance World Cup, he bowled well throughout the tournament along with a Man of the Match effort of 4 for 19 against Zimbabwe.

Back with a vengeance

During his period of omission from the Test side Prabhakar responded with strong performances in domestic cricket. For Delhi he scored heavily at the top of the order or in the middle, and became more and more potent with the new ball. In 1988-89, he scored 581 runs at 64.55 with a highest of 229 not out and took 41 wickets at 15.36.

Hence, when Chetan Sharma’s performances fell away, and the numerous other partners tried out for Kapil did not click, Prabhakar was back in the Indian side for the tour to Pakistan in 1989-90. For the next several years he remained a regular member of the side.

In Pakistan, Prabhakar batted superbly against Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, averaging 56 in the series. After the tour Krishnamachari Srikkanth lost his place in the side, and the Delhi all-rounder was pushed up the order and used as a regular opener in New Zealand. Prabhakar responded with scores of 40, 95 and 63* against an attack spearheaded by Richard Hadlee.

Manoj Prabhkar... gutsy batsman © Getty Images
Manoj Prabhakar… gutsy batsman © Getty Images

By 1990, his bowling had improved by leaps and bounds. The young bowler who, in his initial days, had tossed the ball from his left hand to right at the start of his run up now concentrated hard on the position of his fingers on the seam. He swung the ball prodigiously both into the batsman and away, mixing things up with deceptive slower balls in between.

When India toured Australia in 1991-92 and was hammered 4-0, Prabhakar batted with spunk and bowled with purpose, often taking the fight to the home team. In the Benson & Hedges tri-series and the subsequent World Cup in Australia, he was more than a handful with the white ball.

India’s next assignment was the historic voyage to South Africa. During the difficult tour, Prabhakar became the only bowler to dismiss skipper Kepler Wessels for a duck during the latter’s Protean period. He got the adamant opener twice, in consecutive Tests at Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.

Following this started India’s dream sequence of wins at home. Right through this period, Prabhakar opened the batting with Navjot Sidhu and the bowling with Kapil, and when the great man retired, with Javagal Srinath.

His bowling form fell away by the time West Indies visited in 1994-95, but he batted in his usual stubborn manner to score 120 — his only Test century — against Courtney Walsh and Kenny Benjamin on a lively Mohali pitch. In the second innings of the same match, he was struck on the face by a Walsh snorter and had to retire hurt.

For all the wrong reasons

Prabhakar’s cricketing achievements are quite commendable, often striking.

Apart from the overall tally of 1600 runs at 32.65 and 96 wickets at 37.30, there is the world record for highest number of Tests opening both batting and bowling, the feat of dismissing Wessels for two ducks, a hundred against the West Indian pace, courageous displays against bowlers of the calibre of Walsh, Imran, Hadlee, Allan Donald and Craig McDermott, and quite a few memories of prodigious swing rendering the ball virtually unplayable. Added to all this is the rather dubious distinction of registering in the record books as the only wicket of Lamb.

However, in spite of all this, Prabhakar continues to be remembered for the wrong reasons. There is the utter humiliation during the 1996 World Cup group match against Sri Lanka, when he was singled out by Sanath Jayasuriya for his merciless carnage. Prabhakar ended his spell with the ignominy of having to resort to off-spin, with figures of none for 47 from four overs. He was dropped from the next match following which he retired almost immediately.

The memory of his second and final century (he had scored 106 against Pakistan in 1986-87) in ODIs is also painful — a sheet anchor effort of 102 not out against West Indies. It did not help that he continued to play the sheet anchor even when 63 were required from the final 9 overs. At the other end Nayan Mongia stonewalled to score 4 from 21 deliveries. The last 9 overs brought forth 16 runs as the two played out time in an inexplicable performance.

Prabhakar’s reaction was nonchalant. When asked by the media about his approach, he retorted with a counter question, asking whether India had ever scored 63 from the final 9 overs. However, both Prabhakar and Mongia were dropped for the next match.

The sting in the tale

And finally there was the unsavoury tale of allegations and sting operations.

All hell broke loose when, in May 2000, Prabhakar alleged that Kapil had offered him INR 2,500,000 to underperform during an ODI tournament in Sri Lanka. Inderjit Singh Bindra, former President of BCCI, also revealed on a CNN programme that Prabhakar had intimated to him that the great all-rounder had tried to bribe him.

There was an obvious furore. The charges were vehemently denied and Prabhakar was asked whether he could furnish proof. Fast bowler Prashant Vaidya had been in the room next to Kapil’s when the supposed conversation had taken place. Prabhakar requested Vaidya to corroborate the story, but the latter was not too keen to get involved.

Meanwhile, Prabhakar went around with hidden cameras, teaming up with the sting operation specialists Tehelka (then Tahelka.com) to produce video tapes of his conversations with numerous cricketers. The tapes were publicised and later the transcripts were released in the form of a book — Fallen Heroes — the story that shook the nation.

The problem was that the evidence in the tapes could not be called direct. Perhaps the involvement of quite a few was hinted at, even openly discussed. There were finger pointing and abuses aplenty. But, the discussions were in no way conclusive enough be used in court.

At the same time, during an interview to the BBC, Kapil broke down, weeping bitterly when asked about the allegations. For some, Prabhakar’s ridiculous charges were washed away by the tears. For others, it was a media stunt arranged to garner sympathy for the icon.

CBI and the Income Tax department now joined forces to conduct one of the most sensational investigations into Indian cricket. Suddenly, Prabhakar’s various financial holdings were scrutinised with surprising zeal. Every loophole discovered was flashed in the papers. Somewhat strangely, Fallen Heroes disappeared from the market altogether.

The final verdict exonerated Kapil of all charges, and implicated Mohammad Azharuddin, Mongia, Ajay Jadeja, Ajay Sharma and Prabhakar himself, along with physio Dr Ali Irani.

The operation had backfired on Prabhakar, stinging him hard and painfully.

The Kapil fans rejoiced. The whole idea had seemed farcical to them anyway. Why would the greatest all-rounder of India bribe another much lesser cricketer to throw away matches? Kapil himself had a far greater hold of the fortunes of Indian cricket with the bat and the ball. Did it not make far more sense for the man to throw matches himself if he really wanted to? Why would he even approach Prabhakar?

Without attempting to jump to conclusions, I do have some uncomfortable statistics for this school of thought. It turns out that from the day Prabhakar return to the big league in 1989 till Kapil’s eventual retirement from the game, the lesser man had been a significantly greater force for India in ODIs. In this period, to Kapil’s 975 runs at 17.41 and 92 wickets at 28.60, Prabhakar had 1,106 runs at 20.86 and 120 wickets at 24.89.

Over the last two years, the gap had widened into a rather huge chasm. Kapil (297 runs at 13.50 and 27 wickets at 37.48) lagged way behind Prabhakar (780 runs at 26.89 and 41 wickets at 28.09).  So, the line of argument that Kapil had no reason to bribe Prabhakar because he could influence matches more directly himself does not really hold water.

Whether Kapil had wanted Prabhakar to throw matches definitely cannot in any way be concluded just from these figures, and we will perhaps never know the answer with absolute certainty. As ever so often happens in high profile investigations in India, doubts continue to linger. And regardless of whose fault it was, the most vigorous blow was dealt to Indian cricket.

What these figures do indicate is that for quite a significant phase of his career, Prabhakar had been a better performer than his more illustrious colleague in ODIs. With both bat and ball he was a force to reckon with in Tests as well.

That really says a lot about the contribution of the man during the first half of the 1990s.

(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)