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The first great leg spinner of India

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Roar Guru
29th May, 2021
7

Subhas ‘Fergie’ Gupte was born in Bombay on December 11, 1929, and died in Trinidad on May 31, 2002.

He spent the last four decades of his life in the Caribbean island. The story if his time in the West Indies would come later. First I would like to look back at the Test career of this leg spinner.

In 36 Tests over ten years, Gupte took 149 wickets at an average of 29.55. The record seems more impressive if we consider the fact that India in the 1950s was still an emerging nation in the international cricket arena.

He certainly impressed Sir Gary Sobers, who (rightly or wrongly) rated him over Shane Warne. EAS Prasanna ranked him above Bhagwat Chandrasekhar.

His efforts were influenced a Sikh lad by the name of Bishan Bedi to concentrate on spin rather than pace, despite his rapidly growing height.

Although he took just five wickets in his first three Tests, he was still picked for the West Indies tour in early 1953. The tour proved to be a great success for Gupte in multiple fronts.

The high scoring five-match series ended with the home side wining 1-0, but throughout the series he commanded great respect from the Windies batters.

He took five or more wickets in an innings three times, and Sir Frank Worrell wrote in his book Cricket Punch that ‘Gupte is a bowler of the highest class’. The Windies crowd also loved him and they gave him his nickname ‘Fergie’ after their own leg spinner Wilfred Ferguson.

Generic cricket ball

(Steven Paston – EMPICS/Getty Images)

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After the success in the Caribbean, Gupte didn’t look back. His 5-18 in the second innings at Dacca, in the first ever home Test for Pakistan, should have resulted in an exciting finish, but it didn’t.

The Indians needed 268 runs in 80-plus overs in the four innings. Modern-day dashers like Virender Sehwag or Shikhar Dhawan would have given it a go, but at that time the safety-first approach dominated the mindset of both the teams.

India finished at 2-147 with unbeaten half centuries for both Pankaj Roy and Vijay Manjrekar.

In the 1955-56 season, he created a new Indian record by taking 34 wickets in the five-Test series against NZ. Quite appropriately, the record was bettered by another leggie, BS Chandrasekhar against Tony Lewis’ England in 1972-73.

In contrast, the three-match series against a very badly homesick Australian side in the autumn of 1956 proved a big disappointment for both the Indian side and for their main spinning weapon.

The Aussie team had their troubles against Jim Laker in England and against Fazal Mahmood in Pakistan. This was the first official tour to India by an Aussie side, and the Indians obviously pinned great hopes on Gupte.

But it was Richie Benaud, the NSW leggie, who stole the show with couple of match-winning spells as the Aussie team won 2-0.

Also, left hander Neil Harvey smashed 140 in just four hours in the second Test at Bombay. It was one of the rare occasions when a batsman showed complete mastery over Gupte’s guiles. After his retirement, Gupte mentioned Neil Harvey as the toughest batsman he had bowled to.

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Norm O’Neill and Neil Harvey.

Norm O’Neill (left) and Neil Harvey (right). (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The good thing for Gupte was that the next visitors were from the West Indies, and he always enjoyed bowling against them. And at Kanpur in the second Test, he became the first Indian bowler to take nine wickets in a Test innings.

The Windies won the Test by 203 runs, but the opening day of the Test belonged to Gupte as he bowled tirelessly to finish with 9-102. In the morning he bowled Rohan Kanhai for a duck to claim his 100th Test victim.

After taking the first seven wickets it appeared that he might take the all ten, but then Lance Gibbs was bowled by medium pacer Vasant Ranjane.

In fact, Gupte earlier had Gibbs dropped by normally reliable Naren Tamhane behind the stumps. Off spinner Jashu Patel improved the Indian record at the same venue the next year against Australia, but Gupte’s nine-for remained the best innings figures for a losing team player for more than a decade.

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In England, in the summer of 1959, he bowled well against the county teams but disappointed in the Test matches.

Given the unstable situation of the Indian Test team at the time, already there were people who were asking whether Gupte was past his best. There was a young talented leg spinner VV Kumar from Tamil Nadu who was challenging for a place in the Indian team.

But then in his favourite ground at Kanpur, during the 1961-62 series, Gupte answered his critics. He took 5-90 in the England first innings, picking up the wickets of the top five batsmen. At one stage he took four wickets for six runs to run through the England top order.

Chandu Borde, with his part-time leg spin, gave Gupte excellent support, as England was forced to follow on. But then centuries from Geoff Puller, Ken Barrington and skipper Ted Dexter saved the match for the English team.

At this stage, Gupte was approaching the 150-wicket mark in Tests. He was just 32 and with time on his side apparently it seemed that he would be first Indian bowler to the 200-wicket group. It’s hard to believe that the next Test at Delhi would be his last.

The Delhi Test was a forgettable one. With no play in the last two days, there was only one result possible. But most of the drama took place in the Imperial Hotel, where the home team stayed.

One of the female employees of the hotel accused all-rounder AG Kripal Singh of improper behaviour. As a result, both Singh and Gupte were suspended.

Gupte’s fault, according to the board, was that he was Singh’s roommate and despite being the senior player he failed to act properly. Actually, at the time of the incident, he was in skipper Nari Contractor’s room playing cards.

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India won the next two Tests to take the series with left-arm spinner Selim Durani taking nine wickets. There were some fine spinning talents around, thus making it easy for the board to drop the duo.

India flag

(Photo by Simon Cross/Getty Images)

Given his excellent record against the West Indies, Gupte was especially hurt to see his name missing from the team to tour the Windies later in the season. Kripal Singh did make a brief comeback in 1964, but Gupte never played for India. Soon, he was in the West Indies on a permanent basis.

During the 1953 tour to Windies, Gupte had met his future wife Carol in an official function. The couple married late in the decade.

Carol always wanted to settle in the Caribbean. Gupte perhaps was in a dilemma. But after being dumped by the selectors, his decision was easy. Also, a cricket-loving gentleman by the name of Frank Blackburn helped him settle in the island. In 1964, he played first class cricket for Trinidad and Tobago.

He stayed there until his death. Gupte, once the champion leggie of India, had little to do with Indian cricket after his retirement. But, interestingly, the Indian team was in Trinidad at the time of his death, preparing for the fourth ODI to be held on the next day, June 1.

My last article was on Charlie Davis, an easy name to remember. The same applies to Gupte. And just like the case of Davis, Gupte’s is an unfinished story.

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