By Suresh Menon
For a decade and a half following their Test debut, India didn't think much of off-spin as a weapon of attack. Leg-spin was king, and for one tour, to England in 1946, India packed three leg-spinners while a quality off-spinner, Ghulam Ahmed, was available.
Part of the bias against off-spin might have stemmed from the belief that it was the type of bowling the right-hander could cart around the leg-side since he could swing his bat with the break. Left-arm spinners could tie him down by focussing on his blind spot while the leg-spinner 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 labelling. 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 labelled a matting wicket bowler which was unfair.
Whatever the reason, India's first major off-spinner 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 the 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 seven 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 off spinners 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 (leg-spin), 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, 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.
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.
By the time Ghulam retired, in the middle of the series which saw four men (including him) captain in five Tests against the West Indies, he had played the vital role in erasing a cricketing bias and paving the way for off spin 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 off-spin to a higher level.
By Suresh Menon