Fortune Turners

Published: 2019
Pages: 218
Author: Bhushan, Adityan and Bajaj, Sachin
Publisher: Global Cricket School
Rating: 4 stars

As a cricket mad youngster in the late 1960s and early 1970s I was fascinated by spin bowling. But frustrated as well. There just wasn’t very much of it about in England. In those days nearly all of the cricket I got to watch was the old 40 overs a side John Player League which took up most of my summer Sunday afternoons. Back then no one saw much of a future for spin bowling in that format, and at Test level our number one spinner, the admittedly great Derek Underwood, didn’t strike me as a slow bowler at all.

Things changed in the 1971 season though. First of all the Pakistanis arrived in England, and so did my family’s first colour television. I enjoyed watching the Pakistanis, particularly because they had not just one, but two of that almost extinct breed, the leg spinner. Their captain, Intikhab Alam, was not particularly effective, and all-rounder Mushtaq Mohammad even less so, but I still recall enjoying the sight of the two of them wheeling away.

The second half of the summer brought us the Indians, and the sight of Bedi, Chandra and Venkat bowling over after over for three Tests was a compelling one. Unpatriotic as it made me feel at the time I still recall being absolutely delighted when Chandra bowled his side to victory in the third Test at the Oval to take the series.

My only disappointment in that far off summer was that another spinner, Prasanna, did not make the team. My father told me that he was the best of the four, but apparently the Indians’ batting was not sufficiently strong for them to be able to play all four of their spinners, even though Wisden informed me that on the one occasion they had done so, on their previous visit in 1967, the quartet had bowled England out twice.

All four of those great men are still with us. Years ago Prasanna published a slim autobiography in India, and there is a biography of Chandra from 1993. A couple of years ago Suresh Menon published a biography of Bedi, but of Venkat there is nothing, and certainly no extended look at the quartet as a whole.

In the circumstances Fortune Turners started off as the sort of book that I knew would appeal to me, but I have to say that I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I actually did. I thought it would probably be a fairly dry gathering together of previous writings about the four and their deeds on the field, perhaps spiced up with a few recent soundbites, particularly from Bedi, who I have learned over the years is without doubt one of the game’s more outspoken characters.

In fact what I read is a very good book indeed. There is a short list of sources at the end, but the key to the authors’ success with Fortune Turners is that they have been out and done the hard work and interviewed widely. They have clearly talked at length to their primary subjects, and also many of their contemporaries as well. Notable amongst the interviewees is Farokh Engineer. ‘Rookie’ is clearly the best man to judge the four as he had the tricky task of having to keep wicket tidily to them, something which he did with great aplomb. He provides a number of insights and an excellent foreword, although one criticism is that someone new to the subject might be misled into believing Rookie is an Indian, something all my fellow Lancastrians will confirm is not the case!

After a short introduction Fortune Turners begins with a chapter on each of the four. These chapters might have been culled from a variety of sources and put together without too much imagination and still done their job. They are however vibrant pieces of writing which draw heavily on information and opinions gleaned from others, not least from the four on each other. They highlight well their subjects’ personalities and backgrounds, and the reader is left in no doubt about how, despite having so much in common, the four were very different bowlers, and are and always have been very different men.

The narrative then goes on to deal with the matches in which the quartet excelled. Again this could have been tedious, passages being paraphrased from contemporary publications. But that is another trap that the authors comfortably avoid. They concentrate only on the highlights and the journey they take their reader on through the best moments of Indian cricket in the late 1960s and early 1970s is very much a celebration. That said perspective is retained, and there is also an acknowledgement of the decline that followed in the later 1970s.

Another fine idea was to spend some time looking at the close in fielders whose brilliance was instrumental in the quartet’s success. The legendary Ekki Solkar is given the recognition that he deserves, but some other fine fielders are profiled as well. The wicket-keepers, Engineer and Syed Kirmani are not overlooked, although in that respect once again the authors’ allow themselves to be influenced by the bizarre notion already referred to that Engineer is Indian!

The book closes, as is only to be expected, with a summary and a few conclusions about the men whose careers it showcases, although for this reviewer at any rate the most interesting chapter is just before that. Those Who Could Have looks beyond the four at those who may have taken their places had the quartet not been cricketers. Two of them, Salim Durani and Dilip Doshi, did enjoy a measure of success, the former largely before the time of the Fortune Turners. Doshi, who had to wait until he was almost 32 and Bedi’s decision to retire before making a Test debut achieved enough to publish an autobiography. What might he have accomplished if he had been permitted more than just four years at the top?

The names of Rajinder Goel, Vaman Kumar and Padmakar Shivalkar will be recognised by some Indian readers, but to this Englishman only that of Goel had been heard before. I knew he was a top class orthodox left arm spinner, as I now know was Shivalkar. Neither played even a single Test and Kumar, a leg spinner, managed just two. I much enjoyed learning something about each of the three.

Fortune Turners is well illustrated, and the photographic section is all the more interesting because many of the images are of its subjects in later life. A word too for the statistical section, into which a great deal of thought and work has gone. There are a few niggles with the editing and the production standards, but the book’s strengths far outweigh those, and Fortune Turners is recommended reading for all India, and anyone else with fond memories of Bishan Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Erapelli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan.

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