Erapalli Prasanna, the off-spinner non-pareil who played international cricket on his own terms

R Kaushik

Erapalli Prasanna played international cricket on his own terms. That's hardly surprising, because he has lived his entire life on his own terms, too.

The fifth of nine children to a doctor-by-qualification father and a home-maker mother, his is a story of the road less travelled. From the time he can remember, he was obsessed with and driven by the desire to play cricket. Or, as he says, 'to turn the ball, and hit the batsman on the gloves, on the chest'. It didn't matter to the off-spinner non-pareil if he was playing for India, or tormenting batsmen while turning out for City Cricketers in the local league. His passion for the sport overrode any other consideration.

After first spotting him as a 21-year-old, the legendary Vijay Manjrekar proclaimed, "There won't be another off-spinner like him for the next hundred years, at least." And, long after he had set stall as the leading practitioner of his era of the art of finger spin, Ian Chappell said of Prasanna, "He is the greatest off-spinner I have faced." Statistics bear testimony; Prasanna picked up 189 wickets from just 49 Tests, and finished his first-class career with a whopping 957 victims from 235 matches. What those impressive numbers don't reveal are the class, quality and impact of his thoughtful, crafty bowling buttressed by an already sharp mind further honed while graduating with a degree in engineering.

Armed with an action easy on the eye and with a bagful of tricks to die for, Prasanna mesmerised batsmen with his brilliance, slipping seamlessly from playing on the dusty fields of Bangalore to lusher grounds in other parts of the world. Among the torch-bearers of the golden generation of Indian spin bowling, he was part of the mystical, legendary quartet of the 1960s and '70s alongside Bhagwat Chandrashekar, S Venkataraghavan and Bishan Singh Bedi, with whom he is constantly in touch even today. Prasanna's 24 wickets in four Tests helped set up India's first ever overseas series win, under Tiger Pataudi in New Zealand, while unusually for a finger spinner, he thrived in Australia as he fed off the bounce and relished embarrassing and dismissing batsmen of all ilk.

Using innate intelligence and his engineering background to great effect, Prasanna was unsurprisingly an astute captain too, leading Karnataka with great distinction in the Ranji Trophy. It was under him that Bombay's hegemony in domestic cricket received its first challenge. The western India powerhouse had won 15 titles in a row straddling the 1960s and 1970s when Prasanna's Karnataka rudely halted their charge by annexing their maiden crown, in the 1973-74 season. Late in his career, he orchestrated another title-winning campaign in 1977-78, before calling it quits after the tour of Pakistan in late 1978.

His great, great grandfather might have moved from Hindupur in Andhra Pradesh to Bangalore more than 250 years back, but Prasanna is a true son of the soil. He was born in Shimoga on 22 May, 1940 amidst much drama and excitement. "My parents were very keen to have a son, and they believed that it was because of their prayers that I was born," he says, with that mischievous twinkle had transfixed Mike Brearley during their playing days. "I am told my mother had some sort of a vision. When she was about to deliver, someone in the form of a midwife appeared and assured her that it would be a son who would go on to embrace success."

During his early years, Prasanna was enveloped in the warmth and love of an extended joint family. Apart from his eight siblings, he had numerous cousins and uncles around him €" 'We were so many that we could easily form two cricket teams!' €" as he embarked on his cricketing journey as a seven-year-old lad. From the time he picked up a tennis ball and let it rip, he was a giant turner of the ball. Self-made in every sense of the term, good bowling habits came naturally to him. It helped that he hailed from a sports-loving family, though even they were unwilling to make any compromises when it came to education.

Prasanna's father, Dr Anant Rao, was a top officer in the Department of Public Health and served under Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, the 25th maharaja of the Kingdom of Mysore, apart from being a representative to the World Health Organisation. He was also an all-round sportsperson who played football and hockey in college, and later took a shine to golf. EK Swamy, one of his uncles, played representative cricket for the Services in the 1930s. "At a time when sport was used as a tool to have a healthy mind and a healthy body, my family didn't think it could be a profession as such," Prasanna admits.

When his ancestors moved to Bangalore, they settled down in Basavanagudi. Their house was on the 'Nine-yard Street', the house number was nine. Its proximity to National High School meant Prasanna automatically was enrolled there. That's where the first seeds that were to germinate into the legend of Erapalli Prasanna the off-spinning genius were sowed.

Cricket was clearly the preferred sport, but Prasanna excelled in other disciplines too €" football, softball and, quixotically, basketball even though he was a relatively short boy. Studies came a distant second to sports, much to his parents' disappointment. "I could have been a good student too, given my pedigreed background, with a little bit of focus but my concentration was on sports. I didn't really give them the confidence that if I continue to play sports, I would be a known sportsperson eventually," he says, self-deprecatingly. "All the time, they were digging into me about studies. My family, including my brilliant cousins, were all 99-plus (marks-wise), whereas I was a 39-plus!"

His skills and tactical acumen catapulted him to the captain of his High School team, and a chance spell of bowling against the National College team during practice hastened his progress to competitive cricket. "KV Ananthaswamy was the college captain, he had already played for the state juniors. I was 16, he was around 20, and he couldn't believe that I could have him in so much trouble. He wanted me to join City Cricketers and play in the local league. I made by debut for City Cricketers against Central College by accident when one of the players didn't turn up, and I took six wickets. Central College had some top players, including V Subramanya who had already played for the Mysore state side. I clean bowled him, I got several other batsmen out bowled. Those six wickets stood by me, and I went on to pick a lot more wickets in the remaining seven matches that season."

These performances earned him a call-up for the state junior selection trials alongside close friend KR Rajagopal, a wicket-keeper and opening batsman, but both were summarily jettisoned without even taking to the nets. The reason €" their height. Both were around four feet eight, and were considered too short to even warrant an opportunity to showcase their skills.

That first rejection was taken in the stride as Prasanna moved on to National College for his Inter Science. His father insisted that he focus on his studies in his final year in Inter because it would pave the way for admission to a professional course. Prasanna obliged his father, missed getting a first class by 0.1 percent, and settled for a seat at the National Institute of Engineering in Mysore, an institution in whose establishment his father too had played a role.

The first year out of the way, he was selected to the State B side and made an instant impact with 11 wickets on debut. Two more good outings later, he was picked in the Mysore Ranji Trophy team, under G Kasturirangan, to play Hyderabad in August 1961. The latter was a formidable outfit led by the charismatic ML Jaisimha, but Prasanna would not have played the game had it not been for the large-heartedness of Ramprasad and KS Vishwanath, who rooted for the youngster ahead of them. Prasanna picked up three for 15 in the first innings, justifying his inclusion, and followed it up with seven wickets in the next match against Mysore, impressing AG Kripal Singh enough for the South Zone captain to insist on his inclusion in the Duleep Trophy side for the outing against West Zone in Mumbai.

Three more wickets in that game, against a team that contained Nari Contractor, Chandu Borde, Polly Umrigar, Ghulab Ramchand, Dilip Sardesai, Bapu Nadkarni and Farokh Engineer, fast-tracked his graduation. After just three more matches, he was squaring off against Ted Dexter's Englishmen in his maiden Test match, at the Corporation Ground in Madras (then) in January 1962. The whirlwind romance with international cricket had commenced.

Two months later, Prasanna was on his way to the Caribbean for his first overseas tour. He was at the University College of Engineering in Bangalore working on practical applications €" the NIE in Mysore didn't have the tools at the time €" when he received a note from M Chinnaswamy asking him to report to the state association office. Gundu Rao, the lecturer, wouldn't allow him to leave immediately, and Prasanna received a mild dressing-down when he eventually met Chinnaswamy, who then softened the blow by breaking the news of his being selected for his maiden away tour.

Prasanna had no passport but the influential Chinnaswamy fixed that glitch effortlessly. Chinnaswamy also embarked on the more arduous task of convincing Prasanna's father to allow his son to continue to play international cricket. Between them, Chinnaswamy and the Maharaja of Mysore managed to get the go-ahead from a still reluctant and concerned father, who was certain that unless his offspring had a degree, life beyond cricket would be anything but a bed of roses.

Before leaving for the Caribbean, Prasanna promised his father that he wouldn't ever drop out of the engineering course. He played only one Test, at Sabina Park where he dismissed Dudley McMorris, Rohan Kanhai and William Rodriguez. The high point was when Sir Garfield Sobers walked up to Ghulam Ahmed, the Indian team manager and a former off-spinner himself, and told him, 'You have a fantastic off-spinner, make sure you preserve and protect him'.

The euphoria of Sobers' praise dissipated not long after his return to Bangalore when his father passed away suddenly, soon after his older brother's wedding. "That was a big setback because he was the sole bread-winner. Everything became zero," Prasanna recalls. "But God has his own plans. Today if I am sitting here, enjoying my life with no attachment to money, it's because I always think back to what it used to be like. My conviction has revolved around my father's philosophy that the one who has planted the plant is the one who is going to water it also. I had to keep up my word to my father and finish my education, so I didn't play for India for five years, I just played Ranji Trophy for Mysore."

Prasanna didn't miss the international stage, because his obsession was just bowling, no matter for and against whom. He did get a call to attend the nets ahead of Bobby Simpson's Australians' tour of India in 1964, but he sought a day's permission so he could wind up his practical exams. That request was shot down; Prasanna then plunged himself into his studies and playing for his state, only returning to international action in January 1967 against West Indies, nearly five years after his previous Test appearance.

His philosophy to bowling was very simple. "How well you bowl in the nets is important. When I bowled, I wanted to hit the batsman on his chest and gloves, turn the ball and let him struggle. I was a sadist in that regard. I wanted the batsman to struggle against me. I wanted to torture him, let him feel the physical pain. Let him avoid me, in other words," he guffaws. "I had the aggression of a spin bowler which was maybe equivalent of a fast bowler. My bowling was the aggression. The eye of the batsman indicates his confidence level. I looked at him and saw if he looked back at me. If he avoided my eye, I'd say ok, he has already conceded one point."

Ruthless on the field, Prasanna is a romantic off it. It was love at first sight when he espied Sheima when he travelled to Calcutta with the South Zone team in 1969 for a Duleep Trophy game. There was no prolonged courtship; instead, they were married in 1970, within a few months of their first meeting. The challenges of an inter-cultural wedding €" Sheima is a true-blue Bengali €" were effortlessly overcome by his wife, who also learnt Kannada to integrate herself with her new family.

As he spun his web of magic globally, Prasanna led Karnataka to their first ever Ranji Trophy title in 1973-74, then masterminded their charge to the title four seasons later. "I was glad I brought Karnataka glory with two Ranji titles. I am happy that I have done something for the state," adds Prasanna, who had by then been conferred with the Padma Shri (in 1970). Later on, came the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, and a special award from the Board of Control for Cricket in India in 2012 for having represented the country in more than 50 Test matches.

Post-retirement, he hasn't been entirely lost to the game. Prasanna went as manager during India's triumphant run in the World Championship of Cricket in Australia in 1985, bowling in the nets with such guile and skill even seven years after retirement that he hustled the best batsmen in the team ball after ball. He was the coach of the Under-17 team that toured Sri Lanka in the mid-2000s, and oversaw the progress of future India internationals Piyush Chawla, Robin Uthappa and Ambati Rayudu, among others. He has also shared his experiences and wisdom with budding stars at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore, and served as a match referee at the now defunct 20-over Indian Cricket League.

An inveterate dog-lover, Prasanna confesses that his biggest weakness is sport. "Even today, sometimes when my wife restricts me from playing (golf), I feel very sad," he chuckles. "I missed playing cricket for the first two-three years post retirement, I missed bowling against a batsman of class and having him in serious trouble. But time is the greatest healer, no one has control over that. After my maiden trip to the West Indies and before he passed away, my father told me, 'You started off from Square A, you will come back to Square A. Wherever you are, stay the same'. It was a valuable lesson. I was in Square A when I was a nobody, and I remained in Square A even when people started recognising me. That's when you behave like a human being. I owed that to my father. I also respect his sentiments about me earning my engineering degree. Being a professional degree holder takes me to a different level as opposed to just an ordinary cricketer, with or without a degree."

Cricket, Prasanna adds, has made him what he is, teaching him valuable lessons that, combined with his father's wisdom, continue to stand him in excellent stead. "I am god-fearing, His grace is there, that's enough. When I lost my father, I was on the lowest curve. Then I remembered what he said, 'The one who has planted the plant is the one who is going to water it also. Otherwise he doesn't plant, simple'.

"Cricket has given me name, fame, popularity, identity, access. It has given me a most beautiful wife, a beautiful family. I was egoistic as well, as you know, so it wasn't difficult to deal with fame! People are scared of me, intimidated by me because I talk sense. I have never been a yes-man."

Bangalore has historically been one of the strongest nurseries of sport in the country, most certainly aided by salubrious climate and encouragement from various selfless quarters. Things have changed dramatically over the last couple of decades, with a concrete jungle replacing the one-time verdant landscape, but patronage for sport has now been fused with enhanced infrastructure and modern training and coaching methods. Cricket has seen the mushrooming of academies and evolved tremendously, both in terms of the facilities on offer for aspirants and the quality of living that was hitherto not an option.

Some of his peers, both in India and outside, expose a trace of bitterness as they reflect on the monetary benefits of being a representative cricketer these days which they didn't enjoy in their prime, but Prasanna is far classier. "Cricket has become definitely superior in terms of fielding etc. It has given a livelihood to many aspiring cricketers," he points out. "Cricketers who played with us, some of them have committed suicide because they were left in the lurch, without a degree and a job. At least with the IPL, I am happy people who are not blessed enough to play for the country can still have a livelihood."

The benefits of playing sport, at whatever level, are manifold. If one is willing to listen, the greatest message lies not in courting success, but in being able to bounce back from disappointment. It's not the falling down that is decisive, it is in how you react to the stumble. "When you are moving forward, you will trip and fall. Don't allow that to rule you. You get up, shake it off and keep going." How wonderfully typically Erapalli Prasanna.

This version had first appeared in the book PLAYBACK, Sports legends of Bangalore, published by ATC Publishers. 

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