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From Vinoo Mankad to Jadeja, Axar: Why so many left arm-spinners from Gujarat?

The state has a long and rich history of producing quality left-arm spin, from Vinoo Mankad to present-day Jadeja & Axar.

Axar Patel celebrates during the third Test against England (Source: BCCI)

After left-arm spinner Axar Patel, a like-for-like replacement for Ravindra Jadeja, helped India nose ahead in this tense series against England, Virat Kohli seemed amused by a certain coincidence. The Indian skipper was intrigued by the Gujarat churning out left-arm spinners in abundance. Axar, born in Nadiad, plays for Gujarat. As for Jadeja, he turns up for Saurashtra and has roots in Jamnagar. “I don’t know what it is with Gujarat and producing so many left-arm spinners. Jadeja goes and there comes Axar,” Kohli said, in a semi-amused, half-serious tone.

Inadvertently, the Indian captain dusted up an old, forgotten cricketing legacy — left-arm spinners of Gujarat (the state and not the cricketing entity) and Indian cricket. A chapter unto itself. A book unto itself. From arguably the first poster-boy of Indian cricket, undoubtedly the first Indian cricketer who had the world in awe, Vinoo Mankad, to the latest inheritor of the lineage, Axar, seven left-arm spinners from the region have accounted for 637 Test wickets. A stretch of 300 kilometres from Jamnagar to Rajkot and Nadiad. Erstwhile princely states, but more everyman in their cricketing achievements, literally and figuratively inhabiting a corner of the domestic field.

In the post-independence era, Gujarat waited for 60 years to hold aloft its maiden Ranji Trophy title. Saurashtra had to won their first three years later. But only Karnataka could claim of a particular breed of spinners accumulating more Test wickets than them (leg-spinners Anil Kumble and BS Chandrasekhar alone have snaffled a combined haul of 861 Test scalps). It’s a bigger coincidence that their birthplaces —Jamnagar to Rajkot to Nadiad – come within 300km. Like a parish in Kingston producing a crew of world-class sprinters. Or a lane in Cuba throwing up boxers. Or twinkle-toed forwards popping up from a decrepit favela in Rio de Janeiro.

Axar Patel is a like-for-like replacement for Ravindra Jadeja

No dearth in numbers

There is left-handedness peeping from every column of a scoresheet of games involving Gujarat and Saurashtra. Ravindra Jadeja missed most of the Saurashtra’s ascent to the Ranji peak last year, but another left-arm spinner Dharmendrasinh Jadeja filled the void. If Axar is not around for Gujarat, there is Siddharth Desai, who has picked 71 wickets in 17 games. In most games, Gujarat accommodated both. “Any first-class game involving Gujarat or Saurashtra, you see at least one left-arm spinner, often two. Often, the first person a coach picks in the team is a left-arm spinner,” says veteran Saurashtra Cricket Association administrator Niranjan Shah, who in his first-class playing days batted left-handed and occasionally bowled, what else – left-arm spin.

Not just in the spin department. Two of Saurashtra’s regular seamers are left-armers — Jaydev Unadkat and Chetan Sakariya. Gujarat had two left-arm seamers sharing the new ball, Arzan Nagaswalla and Rush Kalaria.

The reason often offered is that there are more left-handers in Gujarat than any other state, that it’s less stigmatic to left-handedness than most parts of the country, though it’s an anecdotal than scientific rationale, more theory than data. But southpaws have streamed into every other realm as well. “I think it’s part of the DNA, a lot of Gujaratis are left-handed. I am a left-hander, my father was one, and so is my son,” says former India left-arm spinner Dilip Doshi. His son Nayan, though born in Nottingham, continued the family tradition and played for Derbyshire, Surrey and even Saurashtra.

The most famous Gujarati — Mahatma Gandhi — too was left-handed, and if he indeed played cricket, chances are that he would have bowled left-arm spin, with his thin frame and large digits.

Vinoo Mankad’s statue in Jamnagar

Rich legacy

Having an unceasing chain of icons helps. Though Shah claims that quality left-arm spinners were plentiful even before Mankad’s exploits, the latter’s dash and charm encouraged a generation of youngsters to embrace left-arm spin. “In my time, Salim Durani was everyone’s hero, and everyone wanted to be like him, everyone looked up to him. He didn’t do justice to his potential, but was a huge influence. So, having a larger-than-life idol helps in creating a legacy. It keeps passing from one generation to another,” observes Doshi. If Mankad was a left-arm pacer, who knows the region might have perhaps inspired a generation of left-arm speedsters. Or if he just focussed on his batting, which he plied with his right hand.

On such historical quirks hinge legacies. Sometimes, on chance too. The flamboyant Durani could have ended up as an off-break bowler had not Mankad saw him bowl when he was just nine. “I could bowl with both hands. Once Vinoobhai saw me and told my father that I should stick to the left hand. My father would make me bowl from a stationary position. With the right hand tied, I had to bowl with my left hand. That really made my left hand more powerful,” he once told this paper.

Durani never scaled the heights he was touted to, but remains one of the game’s most alluring characters, with his wit, roguish good looks, and story-telling. For domestic bowlers of his time, he was more like an elder brother. “He had immense knowledge about the game and youngsters like me would pick his brains. My bowling blossomed when playing alongside him. He would suggest small, practical tips that helped my bowling,” Doshi says.

It’s another benefit of legacy — that there is always an old hand to lean on, to feed off, and learn from. And the senior bowlers were willing to pass the knowledge and wisdom to their successors. “All of these legends were willing to help the youngsters out. A lot of them, after they retired, took up coaching and naturally left-arm spinners looked out for left-arm spinners. There used to be a kind of fraternal bonding, they took them under the wings and developed them,” opined Karsan Ghavri, who bowled both left-arm seam and spin.

Ghavri, inspired by Mankad and Durani, began as a left-arm spinner himself, before an ankle injury to his school captain, who was a left-arm seamer, made the coach throw the new ball to him. “Bowl from a longer run-up, you will get speed,” was the coach’s advice. He picked wickets for nothing and thereafter groomed himself into a left-arm seamer. In a sense, it helped him climb up the rungs faster. “There was less competition for seamers, unlike for left-arm spinners, so it in a way helped me even to break into the Indian team. But I truly enjoyed bowling spin,” Ghavri says.

Former India left-arm spinner Dilip Doshi

Only the best survive

Intense competition could be another reason behind the production line. “At any level, be it school, college or club, there always used to be some four-five good left-arm spinners. So only the best went on to play first-class cricket. That’s why they are so competitive,” says Shah.

One needn’t go further than the narrative arc of Ravindra Jadeja and Patel. Both were primarily stamped as white-ball cricketers who made their red-ball opportunities count, a testament to their survival instincts. Doshi, thus, has no doubts that Durani would have been a more successful cricketer in this day and age, as opposed to the more carefree 1960s and 70s.

Or maybe, it was Gujarat’s pragmatic way of countering the right-handedness of most batting line-ups. Leg-spinners tend to be expensive, off-spinners had few variations (though they produced one of the finest, Jasu Patel), and left-arm wrist spinners were rare. So left-arm spin struck the balance between economy and efficiency. If the pitch is turning, they are lethal. If it’s not, they are still lethal, as the left-arm-around angle gives the bowler a chance to beat batsmen on the inside as well as the outside edge. Besides, manoeuvring the crease comes naturally to them, they need not make any discernible change in their action or release. They could bowl long spells, tirelessly and dauntingly. No other stream of bowling embodies the fabled Gujarati business mind than left-arm spin bowling. Cunning, calculative and uncanny.

Like all legacies, there was a long pause after the days of Doshi. A time when the roles changed, when the outlook towards them altered, and rapidly evolving white-ball cricket taxed them with different sets of responsibilities and expectations. But Ravindra Jadeja’s emergence as a larger-than-life cricketer rekindled the old flame. The flame he has lit will keep the legacy burning, reckon Doshi, Shah and Ghavri. So much so that viewers can warm up to the rare sight of two left-spinners operating together in a Test match. The mystery still remains. As Kohli mused, “What is it with Gujarat and producing so many left-arm spinners?”

But like explaining true love, ascertaining a specific reason or a set of them to Gujarat’s love of left-arm spinners is difficult. Coincidence or genetics, nature or nurture, it could be a blend of all. Or it could something else.

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