This winter India play 13 Test matches at home. The last time they played so many was back in 1979-80, when two in three Indians now alive were unborn. This welcome superabundance of Test cricket has sparked many conversations about what, the popularity of T20 notwithstanding, remains the highest and most satisfying form of the game. In one such conversation, a cricket fan in his thirties asked me: “Who was the best cricketer never to play for India?” He himself thought it must be Amol Muzumdar, the fine Mumbai batsman who was coached by Ramkant Achrekar, as were Sachin Tendulkar, Vinod Kambli, Pravin Amre and Anil Agarkar, all of whom were capped often for India. However, despite an outstanding Ranji Trophy record, Muzumdar never played for the country himself.
While conceding that Muzumdar was unlucky, I told my questioner that his preference betrayed a twin bias: on behalf of his own generation and on behalf of batsmen. I have now been watching first-class cricket for close to 50 years. Based on this experience, my own candidate for the best player never to play for India would be a bowler. Among the cricketers I have myself watched, I would pick either Rajinder Goel or Padmakar Shivalkar.
Both Goel and Shivalkar were left-arm spinners. Goel played for Patiala, Southern Punjab, Delhi and Haryana in the Ranji Trophy. Shivalkar played for only one team, Bombay as it was then known. Both had extremely long careers, extending over twenty-seven years in the case of Goel and as many as thirty-three in the case of Shivalkar. Both were bowlers through and through. Although Goel (remarkably) began as an opening batsman he soon slid rapidly down the order. Shivalkar never batted higher than number ten. Neither could field particularly well.
Yet both were magnificent bowlers. Both had superb control, sharp turn, and a deadly armer. They never gave anything away and were absolutely devastating on a turning wicket. Think of them of being, as it were, as accurate as Ravindra Jadeja but with more bite off the wicket (though Jadeja of course has the edge when it comes to other departments of the game). Their first-class records tell the story adequately: Goel had 750 wickets at 18.58 apiece, Shivalkar 589 wickets at 19.89 apiece. Both had an economy rate of just over two runs per over. The reason neither man played for India was the same. This was Bishan Singh Bedi. Bedi was an even better slow arm spinner than Goel or Shivalkar. Moreover, he was their contemporary which meant that so long as he was around and playing for India, they never could play for India too.
Although he bowled slow left arm, in fact Bedi was a different type of bowler than either Goel or Shivalkar. He relied far more on flight and dip. They were flatter and faster. Goel and Bedi were as distinct in style as Venkatraghavan and Prasanna, but while the latter pair played together for India, the former duo never did.
This was a shame. Long before those two dissimilar off-spinners, Venkat and Prasanna, played for India, two great leg-spinners, Grimmett and O’Reilly, won Test series for Australia in the 1930s. Grimmett relied on flight and guile; O’Reilly more on turn and bounce. But except for a few Tests in the 1970s when Phil Edmonds and Derek Underwood played together for England, one can’t recall two left-arm spinners bowling in tandem in Tests. There is a global selectorial prejudice against the idea. It applied in India too, hence Goel and Shivalkar never played for the country.
Long before Goel and Shivalkar, there was A G Ram Singh of Madras. He too was a superb slow left-arm spinner and a handy batsman too. His first-class record is outstanding; 265 wickets at 18.56 apiece and more than 3000 runs to go with it, at a healthy average of 35. He was not picked for India in part because his career overlapped with Vinoo Mankad’s. But in one respect Ram Singh was luckier than Goel or Shivalkar; two of his sons went on to play for India.
The question that this column poses has been asked in every cricketing nation. Who was the best player never to play for England? Or Australia? This question generates passionate argument, much light and occasionally some heat. When, decades ago, English cricket writer A A Thomson asked a friend the question, he answered: “The best cricketer never to play for England? Why, Don Bradman, of course.” That was back in the 1950s, now, the comparably cynical answer to the question, who was the best cricketer never to play for India, would be less unequivocal. It must be either Don Bradman or Garfield Sobers, unless it is Shane Warne or Jacques Kallis.