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The Best Leg Spinner Of Them All?

Fergie

In September 2010, cleverly timed to coincide with a period when there wasn’t a great deal of cricket being played, Garry Sobers created a few headlines in the cricket world. In a foreword to a new book he expressed reservations about the abilities of Shane Warne, and declared Subhash ‘Fergie’ Gupte to be the finest leg spinner he had seen. Sobers had written the same in 1988 and, more importantly given that by then Warne had been around for a decade, in 2002, so contrary to the thoughts of a few cynics the comment wasn’t just a device to sell a few more books.

Another West Indian great, Sir Everton Weekes, who faced rather more of Gupte than Sobers did echoed the sentiments Sobers expressed. Others to rate Gupte extremely highly are fellow spinners Sonny Ramadhin and Erapalli Prasanna. In common with those two great names Gupte shone only as a bowler. He was not the worst batsman the game has seen, but he never managed a fifty and was a confirmed tail ender. He was no great shakes in the field either, not uncommon amongst the Indian sides of his time. As a bowler however Gupte worked very hard, playing for hours on the crowded playing fields of 1940s Bombay. He made his First Class debut whilst still a few weeks short of his eighteenth birthday, although he was by no means an overnight success.

It is difficult from this distance in time, and in the absence of any film of Gupte bowling, to discern exactly what he did with the ball. He was only around 5’6’’ in height and of slight build so would have had the classic loop that many fine leg spinners have had. He was also a genuine slow bowler, rather than the medium pace that characterised his well-known successors, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Anil Kumble. There was a short quick run up with a chest on delivery stride. There was one particular idiosyncracy as Gupte dragged his right foot as he released the ball. He believed that anchoring his front foot in that way gave him greater control.

As to what he did with the ball there again seems to be general agreement that a particular feature of Gupte’s bowling was that he had two googlies, but what does that mean? There unfortunately the consensus ends. One Indian cricket writer, KR Wadhawaney, talks of one easy to pick, with a deliberate dip of the left shoulder, and one where that particular clue to the googly was disguised.  Long-time teammate Polly Umrigar spoke of one googly where the arm passed very close to the ear and the other away from it. I suppose he may have been making the same point. One who wasn’t was fellow leg spinner VV Kumar, who distinguished the two googlies on the basis that one was quicker than the other. Kumar is also quoted as saying that Gupte also had a lethal flipper, although he seems to be alone in that. Wadhawaney for one wrote specifically that the flipper was the one delivery missing from Gupte’s armoury.

In 1951/52 an MCC side led by the Lancashire captain Nigel Howard toured India for a five match series. Gupte’s progress in the First Class game since his debut four years before had been steady but unspectacular, but he had impressed enough to be given his first cap in the third Test. He was given an early opportunity to bowl, but in his first over a chance offered by Tom Graveney to gully went down. He didn’t look like taking another wicket until towards the end of England’s 160 over occupation of the crease when tailender Fred Ridgway lofted him into the outfield. Sadly for Gupte the result was that another chance went down. In fact Gupte had been so disappointing that he had been given only 13 of those overs, and he bowled five more wicketless overs in England’s second innings as the match meandered towards a draw. To compound his frustration when he got his chance to bat, never his strong suit, he was dismissed without scoring, although he did at least stay at the crease long enough to allow Datta Phadkar to complete his century.

India toured England in 1952 where their batsmen were badly mauled by a young Fred Trueman. There was nothing Gupte could have done about that but, had the selectors been willing to take a chance, he might have added an extra dimension to an attack that lacked a cutting edge. As it was his next Test cap was again at home during Pakistan’s inaugural series in 1952/53. The match was the third of a five Test series and this time there was success for Gupte in a ten wicket victory. His first wickets were a couple of tailenders in the visitors’ disappointing first innings of 186. They did better second time round, at one point reaching 166-1, but after that Vinoo Mankad and Gupte, who took 3-77, spun them out for 242.

In those days Mankad was, as well as one of the main batsmen, India’s premier spinner with his orthodox slow left arm. In that third Test a third slow bowler was also picked, off spinner Ghulam Ahmed. As Ahmed did not pick up a single wicket it was he who missed out on selection for the fourth Test, but then Gupte failed to take a wicket in the rain ruined fourth Test. Only the Pakistan first innings was completed and they were dismissed for 344 in 110.5 overs. The scorecard suggests that Gupte must have been invisible to his captain Lala Amarnath as he was called on to bowl only five wicketless overs. He must have been disappointed when Ahmed replaced him for the final Test.

Despite missing that final Test Gupte had already been picked for the side that would make India’s first trip to the Caribbean a few weeks later. It was here that he made his name, the West Indian wickets clearly suiting him. It was on this tour that he picked up his soubriquet ‘Fergie’, as a result of comparisons with the former West Indies leggie Wilf Ferguson. In the five Tests Gupte took 27 wickets at 29.22, and on the tour as a whole 50 at 23.64, only seven wickets fewer than the rest of the bowlers combined.

Given that the West Indians had won convincingly in England in 1950, and England had crushed India at home in 1952 the contest looked like it may be an uneven one. In the event the West Indies won the second Test comfortably enough, but the Indians thoroughly merited the draws they achieved in the other four Tests. Of Gupte Wisden reported that he flighted and spun the ball so cleverly that few of the West Indies batsmen faced him confidently.

By the time Gupte got home he had been recognised as a world class bowler and must have gone about his cricket with a new confidence. There was no Test series for India in 1953/54 but a Commonwealth XI did tour. There had been two previous such tours, the bulk of the visitors on those being professionals in the Lancashire Leagues. The 1953/54 combination were neither as strong or as well led, but still contained sixteen men who had or would play Test cricket. India won the series 2-1 with two matches drawn. Gupte took 27 wickets at 25.03. In the absence of Mankad it was Ghulam, with 23 wickets at 14.30, who helped spin India to victory.

India’s next Tests came in 1954/55 when they were the first country to send a team to Pakistan.  Before that a Pakistan Combined Services XI had toured India. It was a strong side containing six men who would represent Pakistan in the forthcoming series, including the top five in the batting order. When the Services XI played Bombay Gupte recorded the best analysis of his career, all ten for 78. He was the first Indian to achieve that particular landmark. In the Test series that followed both sides were much more interested in avoiding defeat than trying to force a victory and each of the five Tests were drawn. Scheduled for only four days per match there was never any prospect of a result. Pakistan scored their runs at less than two runs per over, and India were not much quicker. Again Gupte was India’s most successful bowler with 21 wickets at 22.61. Mankad, by now skipper, was a distance back in second with 12 wickets at 33.75. On the tour as a whole Gupte took 55 wickets at 16.21.

There were greater glories to come for Gupte in 1955/56 when New Zealand visited India for a five Test series. The result was a 2-0 win for the home side and for Gupte there were as many as 34 wickets at 19.67. He was 26 and, unusually early for a leg spinner, at the peak of his powers. It is sometimes argued that those wickets against a side that had been bowled out for 26 at home only twelve months before should be disregarded, but that is unfair. The New Zealanders put up a decent performance in India and their two world class batsmen, Bert Sutcliffe and John Reid, prospered and averaged 87 and 70 respectively. Sutcliffe was dismissed six times in the series, four times by Gupte. It must be the case that without Gupte, home conditions or not, the result of the series may well have been closer, if not different altogether. India’s next highest wicket taker in the series was Mankad with 12, and he and the others in combination could take no more than Gupte did, further underlying how crucial the leg spinner was.

After their ‘Lakering’ in England in 1956 Australia stopped off in India and Pakistan for a first visit to the sub-continent. After Pakistan’s seamers beat the Australians on the mat India must have believed that their tired and dispirited visitors might struggle as much against their spinners in unfamiliar conditions as they had against England’s. Unfortunately the converse proved to be true. The Australians picked themselves up and won the first and last of the three Tests and were on top throughout in the drawn second Test. Gupte was the least successful of India’s three main spinners. He took just 8 wickets at 32.62. He bowled tidily enough in the first two Tests, but was strangely anonymous in the low scoring final Test in which, had he been able to exploit the spinning conditions more effectively, India might well have squared the series.

India had a similar experience in their next series, at home against West Indies in 1958/59. The men from the Caribbean had been humbled by England in 1957, but re grouped under a new captain, Gerry Alexander, and had two supremely effective pace bowlers, the silky smooth and lightning quick Wes Hall, and the menacing and equally swift Roy Gilchrist. With men like Rohan Kanhai, Garry Sobers and Conrad Hunte to replace the fabled Weekes, Worrell and Walcott the tourists romped home 3-0 in the five match series. Only one Indian bowler managed to take more than five wickets in the entire series. Unsurprisingly that was Gupte, but his 22 wickets cost 42.13 runs each.

In the second Test Gupte returned his best figures in Test cricket. On a jute mat he was unplayable and took all six wickets as the visitors slumped to 88-6. There followed a recovery as Alexander and Joe Solomon dug in but after that pair added exactly 100 the innings closed on 221. Gupte ended up with 9-102. He might have had all ten had wicketkeeper Naren Tamhane not put Lance Gibbs down from his bowling minutes before seamer Vasant Ranjane bowled him.

From that series Rohan Kanhai tells an interesting story about Gupte, who he described as a man with enough mystic powers to perform the Indian rope trick. It is sometimes overlooked that professional cricketers engaging in psychological battles to help them unsettle opponents is nothing new, even if such tactics weren’t quite as explicit in days gone by. In 1958 Gupte was India’s only top class bowler, and Kanhai a young batsman of great promise. Gupte dismissed Kanhai in the first Test for 22 and then for a duck in the first innings of the second Test after which he made a great point of greeting Kanhai as his ‘rabbit’ in front of various teammates. The jibe was clearly taken by Kanhai as an attempt to undermine his confidence. If Kanhai’s judgment on Gupte’s motives was right, and given that the two became friends it must be assumed they did later speak of the incident, then Gupte failed, as in the next Test Kanhai made what remained his highest Test score, 256.

In 1959 Gupte was part of the Indian side that became the first tourists to lose a series 5-0 in England. At no time did the Indians test the home side. Much criticism was made of their captain, Dattu Datta Gaekwad, and his negative tactics with both bat and ball. As far as Gupte was concerned he was the leading wicket taker in both the Tests and the First Class matches on the tour, but 17 wickets in the Tests at 34.64 fell short of expectations. After his successes in the Lancashire League Gupte could not complain about an unfamiliarity with English conditions, and in a dry summer he had some hard wickets as well. Wisden suggested that he was used too much as a stock bowler rather than an attacking option, and that he quickly lost heart when, as they generally did, catches started to go down. It was always tempting for captains to overbowl Gupte. Unusually for a leg spinner he was very accurate, and could be relied upon to drop on a length straight away. In addition batsmen rarely took liberties with him, and those who did weren’t usually at the crease too long.

Although Gupte was still a few weeks short of his thirtieth birthday when the England tour ended his Test career was already drawing towards its close. His enthusiasm was not what it had been and in 1959/60, while his countrymen were playing a home series against Australia, he was taking a season off from cricket, in the West Indies. In 1960 he came back to England to play in the Northern League for Lancaster. He did not enjoy the same success he had for Rishton, and it was the last time he played in England.

Back in India for the 1960/61 season Gupte was recalled to the Indian side for the visit of Pakistan. Like the series between the countries six years previously fear of defeat ensured that all five Tests were drawn. In fact every single one of the fifteen tour matches was drawn. In the first Test Gupte bowled well on the second day, taking 4-43 as Pakistan collapsed from 301-1 to 350 all out, but he achieved little after that and for the fourth Test he was replaced by his younger brother.

Baloo was five years younger than Fergie. Another leg spinner he was the taller and stockier of the pair but, despite a First Class record only marginally inferior to Fergie’s he was not in the same class as a bowler. He went wicketless against Pakistan in the fourth Test and was not retained for the fifth. Twice more in home Tests, against England in 1963/64 and New Zealand in 1964/65, Baloo forced his way into the side again but there were just three wickets all told, and a Test average of 116.33 tells its own story.

In 1961/62, for the first time since Gupte had made his debut a decade earlier, an England side toured India. It was a stronger combination than Nigel Howard’s, but still some way short of the full strength of England. Gupte missed the first Test but was called back into the side for the second. He took 5-90 as India made England follow on. He was less penetrative in the second innings and in the third Test England were 256-3 in their first innings when the rains came. Gupte’s final Test victim was MJK Smith, dismissed for two. Gupte had taken Smith’s wicket twice in the second Test, for a duck each time. England’s next captain was doubtless relieved that he did not have to face Gupte again.

For that third Test the Indian team were staying at the Imperial Hotel in the heart of Delhi. Gupte was sharing Room 7 with off spinning all-rounder Kripal Singh. Kripal used the phone in the room to contact the hotel receptionist and try and arrange a date with her. The lady was not impressed and complained to the Indian team manager about what she considered to be conduct unbecoming of an international sportsman. The technology of the day, slightly surprisingly perhaps, allowed the call to be traced back to Room 7.

Rain ended the match after three days with England still some way short of matching India’s first innings and on the abandonment Kripal made his away to the airport to catch a flight to Madras (Chennai). Gupte went off to join Polly Umrigar, one of a number of Bombay (Mumbai) players who were due to travel home together. Umrigar told Gupte that the skipper, Nari Contractor, was looking for him.

Contractor told Gupte about the complaint. He knew nothing about it and immediately made his way to the airport to try and catch Kripal before he left. He succeeded and Kripal told him not to worry, and that he had admitted to the Board President earlier that morning that he was responsible for the call to the receptionist.

The Board decided to convene an enquiry and suspended both men. The meeting was supposed to be heard in Calcutta, the venue for the fourth Test, but in the end it was put off and took place in Madras, the fifth Test venue, just before the side to tour the Caribbean was due to be announced. Both Kripal and Gupte were suspended in the meantime.

Gupte cannot have been a happy man at the meeting. There was never any question but that Kripal was, to the extent that any misdemeanour had been committed, the culprit yet Gupte had already missed out on two caps. It was then suggested to him that he should have prevented Kripal from making the call. Gupte’s response was the obvious one, to ask how he could have stopped a grown man of 28 asking a woman out. The answer he got was a direction to the selectors not to pick him for the West Indies tour. Gupte was naturally bitterly disappointed to miss out on the trip, but more than that he was furious as well, and apparently contemplated legal action. The anger is understandable, but it is difficult to see any cause of action lying and, particularly with the speed at which the Indian legal system works, wise counsel clearly prevailed as the matter was never litigated.

His faith in India’s cricket administrators gone Gupte emigrated to Trinidad where his wife hailed from. He played one more season of domestic cricket before the move became permanent and after that, a few games for Trinidad apart, his cricket career ended. He rarely visited India after he left and, unsurprisingly, harboured considerable bitterness about the way he had been treated.

In his later years Gupte was also hampered by ill health. He suffered from diabetes and a few years before his death injured himself badly when his dog, no doubt in an attempt to show his master affection, knocked him over. He did not walk unaided again. Towards the end of his life there does however seem to have been something of a rapprochement between Gupte and India. In September 2001 it was announced by the BCCI that he was to be the recipient of a CK Nayudu award for lifetime achievement. In addition to a recognition of his undoubted quality as a player the award also carried with it the sum of 200,000 rupees. Whilst not a fortune, for a disabled 71 year old who was by then essentially bed-ridden it must have made the remaining months of his life a lot more comfortable.

A few months later, a matter of weeks before his death and with India 1-0 up after two Tests of a five match series in West Indies, Gupte was interviewed. He had a moan at the Indian selectors for having dropped Anil Kumble for the second match, but of the victory in the first Test he said it is always nice to hear about an Indian victory. People respect Indian cricketers here. So, when they win, Indian cricket receives more respect. And personally I feel more proud. Perhaps the greatest indicator that Gupte felt properly reconciled with his homeland came from a comment by his widow when, just a month after that interview and whilst the one day series was drawing to a close, she said to Indian skipper Sourav Ganguly, maybe Subhash’s spirit wanted to return to his home country along with the Indian team.

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