Rajan's Wrong 'Un: Mishra's struggles a bitter reminder of what India have lost

Chandrasekhar "could do things with the ball which were supernatural" said Richards
  • @amolrajan

Of all the dispiriting sights in this Test series, few should cause as much concern as Amit Mishra toiling away for 38 wicketless overs in England's first innings at the Oval, a pitch taking spin from day one. The ineffective leg-spinner's chief contribution to the series has been providing a linguistic quirk: when bowling alongside Ishant Sharma, the scoreboards have read "A Mishra" and "I Sharma", the first instance of anagrams bowling in tandem at Test level.

Mishra's labours confirm all is not well in India's spin department. This column noted a few weeks back that Harbhajan Singh has lost his fizz after flirting with the doosra, and though Pragyan Ojha should be India's finest left-arm spinner since Bishen Bedi, the selectors seem determined to let Mishra toil in vain. India are yet to come anywhere near replacing Anil Kumble, who was their best bowler for over a decade.

A reminder of how far India's twirlymen have fallen in grace came from my colleague Brian Viner's magisterial survey of The Oval history last week. Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest spells in the history of the game. B S Chandrasekhar's 6 for 38 in 18.1 overs at the Oval Test of 1971, which helped India win in England for the first time, had all the venom, spin, and guile that Mishra's paltry effort lacked. M S Dhoni, who must rue being captain of an Indian side rare in lacking top-class spin, would have dearly loved to call on Chandrasekhar in the current Test. He's not the only one.

Chandra, as he was universally known, was one of the most extraordinary players the game has produced. His method was similar to that of Tiger O'Reilly, the great Australian leg-spinner of the 1930s who bounded in, kangaroo-like, to deliver leg-spin at medium-pace. Like Kumble, he mostly bowled sliders and top-spinners, both of which go straight on, but responded to accusations that he couldn't turn his leg-break by mastering that delivery, eventually turning it twelve inches at will.

The extraordinary thing about him was that the brisk arm he brought over had been withered by polio when he was five years old, invaliding him for three months. In 1972 Wisden reported "the belief is that the thinness of his arm gives it the flexibility of a whipcord". He was ambidextrous, threw with his left-hand, and often bowled left-arm in the nets to provide variety. Even more remarkably, a missing bone in his right wrist meant that he sometimes involuntarily unfurled his wrist more than he wanted to, so producing a googly when he intended a leg-break.

He would have taken many more wickets had a scooter accident not curtailed his career and forced him to seek refuge in a bank. His best ball was a quick, straight one, which during the 1971 series was nicknamed the Mill Reef, after the Derby winner of that year. It was this ball that Chandra used to castle John Edrich at The Oval, having heard a demand from his fielders to bowl it, and deciding to follow their instruction halfway through his run-up.

Chandra is one of only two Test match players who scored fewer runs off his bat (167) than he took wickets (242) – the other being New Zealand's Chris Martin. During the 1977-8 tour of Australia his hosts gave him a Gray-Nicholls bat with a hole in the middle of it, in honour of his rabbit status. But when he came on to bowl, the joke was on the batsman. "He was the most teasing bowler I ever had to face," said Viv Richards. "His ability to lure opponents into a false sense of security was deadly... He could do things with the ball that were supernatural."

Would that the same could be said of poor Mishra. In the 40 years since Chandra's finest hour, Indian spin has gone from supernatural to soporific.