Fearsome forgotten pearls of Indian pace bowling come alive a century after they roamed crickets’ hallowed precincts

Book Review: Speed Merchants—the story of Indian pace bowling

Fearsome forgotten pearls of Indian pace bowling come alive a century after they roamed crickets’ hallowed precincts


Authors:  Gulu Ezekiel and Vijay Lokapally

Publisher: Bloomsbury 

Price: Rs 499

Pages: 285

My fascination with cricket began as a fourth-grader living in a non-descript area of Ayodhya ganj in Agra. Every open space was our playing ground. Though it was batting that fascinated me most, bowling came later.

Those days in 1980’s what caught my fancy was one-page comic strip-cum advt of BSA cycle on the inside last page of Tinkle magazine I picked up from the railway station. The comic strip showed that Kapil Dev was rushing to the stadium to take part in a match but his vehicle broke down.

In comes a youngster who offers him his BSA cycle and Kapil Dev cycles and reaches the stadium on time. He bats and bowls well to steer India to victory. Wow!—what an impact the comic strip had on a nine-year-old. It was Kapil and his exploits both with the ball and the bat which became my reference point to follow cricket. Those were the days of radio. TV came much later in my life. Adjusting the shortwave frequency on the small Phillips radio to catch the AIR commentary became a passion. As I followed Kapil’s exploits, it was his bowling that caught my fancy first and we friends graduated from hollow rubber ball to solid heavy rubber ball.

Cork ball came much later—the leather ball was just a fancy—the stitching would break on our gravel-ridden pitches in just two days and the leather cup would come off. I never knew it was called season ball till I became a sportswriter.

Those days Kapil and the fearsome Caribbean trio comprising Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and Andy Roberts were the bowlers I revered. Kapil specifically because he was one of us,  an Indian. The magazines I got to read hardly had any references to the other Indian fast bowlers of that time. One of the attractions of going to school those days was meeting friends and the chance to buy tangy toffees from a seller, who would park his cycle just outside the school gate.

My memory defeats me about the brand though, with that tangy toffee he used to give a card, on one side would be a photo of a cricketer and the other side basic info about him. That became a collector’s item, and I began building up my collection of cards. Marshall, holding and Joel Garner thus became household names. That little bit of information was gospel for us.

 So when I got this book in my hand my curiosity grew. Both Gulu and Vijay have painstakingly put together research on the Indian pace bowling and came up with names I had never read about.

I am not sure if any other book documents the exploits of Mohammed Nassir and Ladhabhai Amar Singh Nakum and his elder brother, Ladhabhai Ramji Nakum, aka the Kathiawar terror was perhaps the most fearsome in terms of pace and intimidation of his era and had experienced foreign batsmen running for cover. MJ Gopalan SarobinduNath (ShuteBanerjee, Mubarak M Salahuddin Syed Nazir Ali (the first Indian bowler to capture the wicket of Don Bradman, playing for the Club Cricket Conference at Lord’s against the touring Australians in September 1930 and Dev Raj Puri—who played a small but historic part in Indian Cricket—all these bowlers would surely have made a name for themselves on the World stage if India’s Test debut had come in the 1920s rather than 1932. 

This makes me wonder –if India had such a pace bowling foundation that early in history why this piece of expertise took so long to catch the imagination of the budding bowlers.? I am sure it will happen in the near future.

Rahul Dravid in his foreword says so in as many words. Today I am glad to see a horde of young fast bowlers competing for a place in the team. The One-Day format has seen many new faces in the Indian team and I am sure in the coming season or two India is going to be enriched with the services of a couple of impactful young fast bowlers.    

As a schoolboy cricketer myself, it took a long time for me to set the bat aside and take to bowling as expertise. As a teenager, I transformed into a pace bowler by choice because everyone else wanted to bat. But then the game must go on so bowling was the only option. Spin bowling was not an attractive option. Fortunately, Kapil Dev was still playing and was still a huge impression. 

Gulu has deservedly managed to get David frith, the leading cricket historian and author of over 30 books, to write an introduction to this book, a two-page gem in the 285 pages of excellent narration of Indian cricket’s pace bowling history.

Kapil wasn’t a tearaway bowler, he was for some years the best that India had. I’ve studied films of the Lord’s Test played by Inda in 1932 when Mohammed Nissar and Amar Singh opened the bowling effectively in their country’s maiden Test match and again in 1936 (before I was born, I hasten to point out, if not by much: indeed I must have been conceived around that time). Precious footage shows Nissar and Amar bowling England out for 134 (13 runs behind India’s opening innings). Alas for India, as four years earlier on that same famous ground, their batsmen failed to back up that smart bowling and defeat followed.

Zoom forward 47 years and that World Cup victory over the West Indies at the same Lord’s ground brought thrills and unbridled delight to the Indian spectators in attendance and to the countless numbers at home in front of their TV screens. 

Whether it’s something to do with improved diet, or modern fitness training India has not of late been short of quality fast bowlers, which for long had been the missing link.

 Meanwhile, the reader can enjoy reliving some of the special times when the pacemen did their stuff for their country. The contents tempt me to become an honorary Indian—if I’m not already, is how Frith ends the introduction.

I have known Gulu for years. He has a habit of digging deep into the subject he is writing on. He always does encyclopaedic work.  SPEED is no different. In most chapters, the narration is so detailed and specific that one tends to make a photographic image of the description of matches and bowling that happened in the early 1900s.

Midway through the book, after the chapter, Kapil arrives, and a new dawn happens for the Indian pace bowling as the young brigade takes over a nostalgia took me over. It was in 1987 that TV arrived home for the first time, a colour set at that while neighbours had black and white, on which I had watched 1986 FIFA world Cup that Diego Maradona made his own. watching late-night matches beamed from Mexico much to the chagrin of my mother. Next year India was hosting cricket World Cup and my growing interest in sports helped fast forward my parents’ plans of buying a TV for our home.

And, when it finally arrived and the antenna adjusted, I cannot forget the first thing that got beamed onto our BushTV. India was hosting Pakistan in a full series. The first picture is still vivid.  I still remember it was Imran khan taking his run-up and bowling to Sunil Gavaskar. My stage was set for the Reliance World Cup which no doubt was dominated by pace bowlers – Craig Mc Dermott and Simon Odonnell taking down the top two English batsmen—Graham  Gooch and Tim Robinson and setting up the stage for Allan border’s Australia to lift the World Cup for the first time.