Cricket: The Sultan of swing who has his seamier side: Simon Hughes reports from Calcutta on the finesse and fortitude of India's versatile opener

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IF A cricketer opens the batting and the bowling for his team, he usually owns the bat, ball and stumps as well. Maybe even the ground. Manoj Prabhakar has no such influence to speak of, in fact he was not allowed any cricket equipment at all as a child, but now he has been entrusted with the dual role of fending off the new ball for India, then a few hours later, propelling it.

On the first day of the first Test here, he thwarted the England attack adeptly for one and a half sessions, then 24 hours later sent back Alec Stewart for a duck and observed India's progress from first slip.

That, of course, is exceptional versatility, especially when you consider the Indian selectors have almost 420 million men at their disposal, most with a semblance of cricketing ability if the multitude of impromptu games on commons and fields is anything to go by. It was on one such open space, in the industrial town of Ghaziabad, an hour west of Delhi, that the boy Prabhakar learned his skills, although totally in defiance of his father. Prabhakar Senior would cane his son if any plans to play cricket were uncovered, believing the sport to be nothing more than a triviality. It was only backhanders from his mother that allowed Manoj to afford the bus fare to matches and he had to hide his kit at a neighbour's house.

Perhaps these clandestine arrangements were the forerunner to Prabhakar's craft as a bowler, which is based on cunning and deceit. He is not fast - indeed he began his career as an off-spinner - but he uses sleight of hand, change of pace and he swings the ball both ways by using unusual grips, which he will never divulge.

Well, almost never. When Kapil Dev's staple out-swinger suddenly deserted him in 1989, he sought Prabhakar's advice. And after a graphic conversation in a corner of the dressing-room and one or two sessions in the nets, it returned. So, after 10 years in the first-class game, Prabhakar is gradually winning a reputation as a swing guru, considerably impressing the South Africans on India's recent tour. 'He must be the finest swing bowler in the world today,' Kepler Wessels said.

He hardly registers in the annals of cricketers who win Test matches - batting and bowling averages of 33 and 44 respectively underline that - but he is fearless and aggressive, a team manager's dream, the sort of selfless competitor you would always rather have in your side than against you.

Which is illustrated by his batting in this match. After losing the toss, England needed to make early inroads to stand a chance on a suspicious pitch. Mohammad Azharuddin knew this and with only an hour to go, asked Prabhakar to open the innings.

True to his Hindu doctrine, he accepted his lot gratefully and shuffled out to do his duty without fuss. The bowlers tore in but he weaved and swayed, fiddling runs off his hip, contributing a compact 46 and creating a platform for Azharuddin to excel on later. After almost three hours of resistance, Prabhakar allowed himself one liberty - a waft at Ian Salisbury's wide leg-break - and perished.

During the Bedi-Chandrasekhar era, it was common for the Indians to give a regular opening batsman like Sunil Gavaskar or Mohinder Armanath the new ball for a few overs before setting their spinners to work. Prabhakar has reversed that trend, for he is essentially a bowler who bats - ever since his Test debut back in 1984 he has yo-yoed up and down the order.

In fact it is in one-day international cricket that he has really distinguished himself, passing the 100-wicket mark this month taken at around 25 apiece. Because he varies his bowling so much - jumping out to sling an out-swinger from wide of the crease, delivering an 'inner' from close to the stumps, throwing in looping spinners for good measure - batsmen cannot set themselves for any line of attack, and when eventually they do, find they continually have to dig the ball out of the blockhole.

England managed to scramble the six runs required for victory off his last over at Jaipur only by dint of two leg-byes and an overthrow, and the way he was left with two overs unbowled in the Chandigarh international, while Kapil's last 12 deliveries were savaged for 25, speaks of misguided captaincy.

Prabhakar has his seamier side. Never averse to airing verbal deterrents to batsmen, he has also developed a blatant stare-and-double-teapot pout when things are going awry. One such gesture at a South African umpire after being adjudged leg before landed a 100 rand (pounds 22) fine.

Prabhakar consumes considerable amounts of western food and even the odd pint of Tetley's, a by-product of six years spent playing league cricket in Burnley, Oldham and Edinburgh. 'I learned to bat properly in Britain,' he admitted. For that he will be paid about pounds 8,000 a season, but appearing for his club side in Delhi, Sonnet CC, which he does whenever possible, earns him nothing. Such is his loyalty he even turns up for local 40-over tournaments in summer, played from 7.30am to 2pm when the temperature commonly reaches 45C.

Clearly he will endure anything for his country which is why he is universally popular in the team, and very much a linchpin of this series: taking the shine off the new ball when England bowl, prolonging it when they bat.

(Photograph omitted)