Remembering Ghulam Ahmed, India's first Test offpinner
For a decade and a half following their Test debut, India didn't think much of offspin as a weapon of attack. Legspin was king, and for one tour, to England in 1946, India packed three legspinners while a quality offspinner, Ghulam Ahmed, was available.
Part of the bias against offspin might have stemmed from the belief that it was the type of bowling the right-hander could cart around the legside since he could swing his bat with the break. Left-arm spinners could tie him down by focusing on his blind spot while the legspinner could take unexpected wickets even in the middle of an onslaught.
Perhaps I am imposing later biases on an earlier generation, when the real explanation could be anything from selectorial politics to improper labeling. Ghulam Ahmed probably suffered both kinds of misfortune. For one, Hyderabad was not a fashionable cricketing state then, and the selectors probably had to satisfy too many demands from other quarters. Also, Ghulam was labeled a matting-wicket bowler which was unfair.
Whatever the reason, India's first major offspinner was 26 - Ghulam would have turned 90 on July 4 - when he made his international debut, although he had made his first-class debut at 17. That was against West Indies in Kolkata in 1948-49, after having missed the inaugural tours to both England and Australia despite his impressive domestic record. Ghulam had Everton Weekes caught and bowled twice in that Test after the batsman had made a century each time and was en route to making five of them in a row.
Ghulam was to have good series against both England and Australia, claiming 15 wickets on the 1952 tour of England and then 7 for 49 against Australia at Chepauk, which was topped by Richie Benaud in his side's victory.
For a country that has produced some of the finest offspinners in the game - Erapally Prasanna, Venkatraghavan, Harbhajan Singh - Ghulam's late entry and his restricted record (he played just 22 Tests in a decade) might be an anomaly.
Not only was he a bowler in the front rank, inviting comparison with Jim Laker, he had one-third share in the first great Indian spin combination. With Vinoo Mankad (left-arm) and Subhash Gupte (legspin), he formed a triumvirate that may have played together in only eight Tests, but was the first to suggest that spin would be India's weapon of choice. That trio paved the way for the more successful and more feted one of Bedi-Chandrasekhar-Prasanna who played together in 24 Tests.
The tall and studious Ghulam Ahmed was the original gentleman cricketer from India, a man of culture and refinement. I first met him in the 1980s for a radio interview and was struck by his concern for a fresher who had to ad lib having misplaced his carefully written notes en route to the studio. Ghulam saab (as he was called) put me at ease that day, with the same touch he brought to his stints as cricket board secretary and manager of the national team.
It wasn't Weekes or Len Hutton or Dennis Compton or even Gary Sobers, whom he considered the best batsman he had bowled to, he told me. His choice was M Sathasivam, the Sri Lankan who, old-timers say, played the finest knock at Chepauk in the annual Presidency match.
Ghulam's four second-innings wickets - including those of Tom Graveney and skipper Donald Carr - supplemented Vinoo Mankad's four in India's first Test win, against England. His accuracy was legendary, as was his stamina; he briefly held the world record for sending down the most deliveries in a first-class match, as he toiled for 92.3 overs in a Ranji Trophy match against Holkar.
Indian cricket was probably at its worst in the 1950s; the scheming Maharajahs of the earlier generation had gone, to be replaced by politicking players and officials, and watching their own backs became a player imperative. It also led to some of the most boring Test matches India have played as safety-first became the motto of captains with no job security.
By the time Ghulam retired, in the middle of the series which saw four men (including himself) captain in five Tests against West Indies, he had played the vital role in erasing a cricketing bias and paving the way for offspin in Indian cricket. Karnataka's VM Muddiah went on the England tour that followed, and a couple of seasons later, a young engineer from Bangalore, Prasanna, made his debut and took the romance with offspin to a higher level.
More about Suresh MenonSuresh Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack, and author, most recently, of Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer.
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