September 6, 2012

Where have Bangladesh's leggies and offies gone?

Bangladesh's traditional surfeit of slow left-armers has had a negative effect on other kinds of spin bowling in the country

That there are just two specialist legspinners in the 105-man list of BCB-contracted first-class cricketers doesn't offend anyone in Bangladesh cricket. That the grand total stands at five, including two who are slowly drifting into batting allrounder roles and another who is considered a batsman despite his 148 first-class wickets, is hardly greeted with outrage.

Chittagong division has both specialist leggies - Noor Hossain and Raihanuddin Arafat. Sabbir Rahman (Rajshahi) and Tanveer Haider (Rangpur) are the ones who began their careers as legspinners but are now mostly picked for their batting. Alok Kapali is the most successful legspinner in the country but he never really established himself as a top-level bowler, despite having a Test hat-trick to his name.

It is a similarly dire outlook in terms of specialist offspinners, who are under threat of being driven out of business by the selectors' proclivity for promoting batsmen who can provide offspin support. For the record, there are just two specialist offspinners - Sohag Gazi and Yasin Arafat - as against 21 recognised left-arm spinners, 15 of whom play as specialists in the eight regional teams.

The numbers are a fair reflection of the general approach of decision-makers in Dhaka club cricket, which is the main source of income for cricketers in the country. Since the four-tiered structure (Premier League and first, second and third divisions) has a ruthless league format of one-day matches, officials are not willing to invest in bowling options they consider risky. There is a lot of love for "safe cricket", and left-arm spin, which provides thrift if not wickets, fits the bill. Three, and even four, left-armers are often picked in playing XIs in the Dhaka First Division League, the only competition outside the Dhaka Premier League that is played on natural wickets.

This lack of imagination among officials, perceptible over the last decade, has had an effect all along the food chain. The low demand for leggies and offies means that feeders such as academies and age-group teams across the country have no option but to nurture left-arm spinners, and so the supply of left-arm spinners outweighs those of the other varieties.

"One has to understand that the young generation follows whoever is playing at the top level," Habibul Bashar, now a national selector, tells ESPNcricinfo. "Imran Khan inspired so many kids to become fast bowlers in Pakistan. It is quite the same here; kids want to bowl left-arm spin because this is all they have in front of them.

"There is a tradition of left-arm spinners in Bangladesh, and it is our forte. But I would have been happier if there were six or seven legspinners, at least, along with the large number of left-armers. We have told age-group coaches to find legspinners, keep an eye on them and let us know," he said.

The former Bangladesh captain said he used to be frustrated by the one-dimensional nature of bowling attacks at his disposal at every level. "I felt a little helpless when I had to put together a bowling combination. There were no offspinners, only left-arm spin."

He thinks the lack has also to do with the fact that it takes years to master legspin. "Legspin is a difficult art, compared to left-arm spin or offspin. I don't know if there's a mentality thing, where people don't want to work hard.

"A leg-spinner has a lot of advantages. He can get into the team quite easily, because I think winning games is easier with a good legspinner. But I'm not sure whether the new generation is interested in bowling legspin."

Just as one-dimensional, left-arm-heavy bowling is hurting budding bowlers, it is also having an adverse effect on batsmen who are picked in the representative sides. They now take years to properly read offspin and legspin

The deficit has been hard on the existing legspinners. Hossain has been worn thin, shunted between representative teams like the Under-19s (in the recent World Cup) or Bangladesh A. The constant shifting about has not afforded him the opportunity to bowl lots of overs in matches in the NCL. The new contracts system, under which players will be pinned to a team for a year, could help in theory, but there is no guarantee that Hossain won't be pulled out at short notice to play for the A team.

Arafat's stop-start career too says a lot about attitudes towards legspin. After taking 11 wickets in four games in his debut season (2003-04), he played two first-class games in 2005-06, one in 2006-07, three each in 2008-09 and 2009-10, two in 2010-11, and bowled just nine overs in the 2011-12 season. He was the token legspinner before Hossain, and toured South Africa with the National Cricket Academy in 2008.

There is also a thin pack of offspinners - most of them batsmen who are part-time spinners than specialists. Gazi, the Barisal youngster, has played consistently for the last two seasons, mainly due to the bowling combination used by his team, as well as his ability with the bat (BCB lists him as an allrounder). "I really think that without the Barisal team, I wouldn't get this far. They gave me enough opportunities to bowl and use as many variations as I please. I got the wickets too, which helped the team," he said.

The BCB contracts list is a fair reflection of the current status of offspin in the country - a far cry from the 1990s, when the skill was much used.

Just as one-dimensional, left-arm-heavy bowling is hurting budding bowlers, it is also having an adverse effect on batsmen who are picked in the representative sides. Even those playing international cricket now take years to properly read offspin and legspin, and with the proliferation of left-hand batsmen in Bangladesh, at a time when the stocks of offspin are rising in several international teams, these problems are set to remain for the next few years.

The Bangladesh selectors' quest for legspinners or offspinners will be futile unless there is a change in the attitudes of those who are in charge of competitive cricket in the country. Not too many seem keen on the need for balancing the three formats in the domestic calendar. Introducing two-day or three-day tournaments in age-group cricket would seem to be the most viable option at this stage.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Bangladesh