Erapalli Prasanna, a champion off-spinner

At his best legendary boxer Muhammad Ali was a sight to behold in the ring. “Floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee”, he beat his opponents to a pulp. Much the same could be said of Erapalli Prasanna, too, who had formed a deadly triumvirate with Bishen Singh Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and engineered some of India’s memorable triumphs in the heavyweight division of cricket.

A true artist with neat, high arm action and superb control of flight, length and loop, Prasanna’s bowling was sheer poetry in motion. He spun the ball prodigiously and at times dangerously, much to the chagrin of the batsman. His deceptive flight and sharp turn made a lethal combination. He had bamboozled the best of willow-wielders in the air as well as with his vicious off-break, many of them becoming his easy preys.

Prasanna had a remarkable ability to maintain length and spin over a longer period. But he could also turn a match in a short time even on a good batting pitch.

He usually bowled exceptionally well in tandem with his friend Bedi. There was a close affinity between the two. So much spite of his brilliance and consistently impressive performances.

It is never easy even for the most talented and strongest of men to keep performing almost invariably under some sort of psychological  pressure. Prasanna would not admit but the fear of losing his place from the side in the next match always hung over him like the sword of Damocles.Yet, he always grabbed his opportunities, bowled beautifully and often ended up leading the wickets tally, whether playing in India or abroad.

He did not play a single Test following his maiden overseas tour, to the West Indies, in 1962 as he wanted to complete his studies and obtain an engineering degree in electronics. But even then he was such a gifted offie that he deserved to play more Tests than just 49 during his long and eventful career. And to think Prasanna had reached his 100 wickets in  only 21 Tests.

Of course, supporters of Venkat might say Prasanna was lucky enough to play as many Tests. Maybe this is what happens when you are an illustrious contemporary of someone who practises a similar craft, hails from your own country and harbours the same ambition as you do. Though comparisons are odious, it must be said Prasanna was a more versatile offspinner than Venkat, period.

Ian Chappell, no less, proclaimed in no uncertain terms that Prasanna was the finest off-spinner of his era. Chappell’s opinion was based on Prasanna’s stupendous performance against the mighty Aussies in the late 1960s – first in Australia (25 wickets) and then in India (26 wickets). He was not less successful against the Kiwis, both in New Zealand (24 wickets) and in India (20 wickets), in between.

It was, of course, under Pataudi that Prasanna really put up the performance of his life. Pataudi seemed to inspire Prasanna to greater deeds in much the same way Michael Brearley would inspire Ian Botham in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In those four away and home series against the Kangaroos and the Kiwis, Prasanna hardly or never disappointed Pataudi whenever he was brought on the firing line.

But Prasanna’s career was never the same again after Wadekar was appointed captain and Venkat his deputy for the 1970- 71 tour to the Caribbean. While Prasanna had a mixed bag (11 wickets in 3 Tests), Venkat finished with 22 wickets at 33.81 in five Tests. Besides this, Venkat’s better batting and superior fielding were good reasons for the selectors not to include Prasanna in the team for the 1971 tour to England.

This was the beginning of a long struggle for Prasanna, who did not return to the national side until against England at home in 1972-73. The collective disastrous performance of the Indian team on the 1974 tour to England forced Wadekar to step down and announce his retirement. Faced with emergency, the selectors fell back on the tried and trusted hands of Pataudi in the following home series against the West Indies.

With Pataudi back at the helm, Prasanna was again a transformed performer. He forged a formidable trio with Bedi and Chandrasekhar and they dealt crushing, vital blows to the Caribbeans from time to time and shared most of the wickets among themselves in what was an exciting, thrilling series. At Chennai, he took 5 for 70 and 4 for 41 as India won by 100 runs.

This was the same, vintage Prasanna, flummoxing the batsmen with flight, turn, quicker ones and all the tricks of a champion off-spinner up his sleeve. He had another memorable series in New Zealand in 1975-76. Bowling at his best on a slightly slower Auckland wicket conducive to medium-pacers, he bagged 3 for 64 in the first essay and 8 for 76 (his best ever Test performance) in the second.

Although he claimed 18 wickets at 21.61 in four of the five Tests he played against England at home in 1976-77, including a marathon spell of 57.4-16-93-4 at Kolkata, it was obvious that age was catching up with him and he was now starting to fade. After a very poor series down under and a nightmarish one in Pakistan in 1977-78, even Prasanna’s avid admirers were in no doubt that his days  were numbered.

If you know the art, science and subtleties of true off-spin bowling, you will probably realise that Prasanna had only a few peers and no superiors in the history of the game. And they include the likes of Jim Laker, Ghulam Ahmed, Lance Gibbs, Ashley Mallett and Saqlain Mushtaq. Unlike many of today’s offies, Prasanna’s action or style was never ever questioned or suspected.

Prasanna was a classic example of what a perfect off-spinner should be like. He was such a master of his art and craft that he would have scaled dizzier heights of success if he had played regularly for India. But even in his 49-Test career he did more than enough to tempt many to regard him as the greatest off-spinner in the history of cricket.

 


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