Bowling June 28, 2012

Is spin bowling a dying art?

Aamod Desai
Who are the leading spinners in world cricket at the moment? Harbhajan? Vettori? Swann? Ajmal? Or somebody else?

It has been said time and again that subcontinent batsmen are the best players of spin; there would be only a few who wouldn't subscribe to that thought. Yet, about 70% wickets (out of 28) fell to spin during the first three days of the Test between Sri Lanka and Pakistan in Galle; either the track was a rank turner and the bowling exceptional, or the batting skills were inadequate. Quality bowling could be a reason, but this is only the half side of the story. Who are the leading spinners in world cricket at the moment? Harbhajan? Vettori? Swann? Ajmal? Or somebody else?

Harbhajan is out of the Indian side for almost a year now, Vettori has become more of an allrounder, Swann and Ajmal hold promise but would need to deliver something special to join the league of Murali, Warne, Kumble & Co. So is world cricket devoid of players to carry the legacy of Bedi, Chandrashekhar, Underwood, Benaud and Qadir forward? If that is indeed the case then it is a serious threat, for that implies the slow extinction of an important facet of the game. Twenty20 cricket and the Powerplay rule in ODI cricket could be looked upon as the turning point for the spinners' community.

It was speculated that spinners would find it difficult to adapt to the newest format. Seven years on from the first T20I, you find that the assumption is indeed true. Spinners had, have and will continue to have a role in limited-overs cricket, for more often than not it is the batsmen who make a move in pursuit of runs, thereby providing opportunities. But there is a downside when shorter games come into the equation. Test cricket is a completely different avatar altogether, where the bowlers have to be penetrative and matches are won only after the opponent has been dismissed twice. By featuring in coloured clothes more and more often, spinners across the globe have allowed their natural ability to be overtaken by demands of run rates.

The soft seam Kookabura and Dukes balls aren't helping the spinners either; the effects are visible and evident. Spinners are expected to be less effective during the first innings of a Test match, yet Murali, Warne and Kumble are among the top wicket-takers in the first innings.

The art of spin bowling isn't meant to be based on support from the track. Variety in arsenal shouldn't constitute alterations in pace and length only. A spinner shouldn't be the bowler to bowl you through the day, but somebody who can be your attacking option at any point in the day. Saqlain Mushtaq discovered the doosra but the game hasn't really seen any new spinning innovation thereafter. Spin bowling has to be about unpredictability, guile, forming a web, relentless persistence and not about bowling flat after a couple of hits, negative lines, good economy rates and bowling with the field spread.

Bowling quality in general has dropped a few notches from when the likes of Akram, Donald, Warne and Murali played, yet names like Steyn, Anderson, Philander, Zaheer reassure us that seam and swing bowling isn't disappearing altogether. Flatter decks, shorter formats, new-ish balls for a longer period, shorter boundaries, and defensive captaincy have become the trend after the advent of Twenty20 cricket. Today spin bowlers are meant to 'squeeze-in' economical overs and dry up the boundaries, rather than being the wicket-takers in the side.

For the generation that grew up watching likes of Murali, Warne, Kumble, the craft of spin bowling was an integral part of watching cricket. It could be that the change had to come at some point, yet you cannot forget Saqlain's deceptive doosra, long spells from Kumble, Murali's ability to run through a line-up and Warne's jaw-dropping deliveries. Five men around the bat when a spinner is bowling might soon become a rare sight, as almost every spinner today marks his run-up with an eye on the fielders on the boundary line. Maybe that's the way it shall continue to be.