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September 11, 2013

How do bowlers adapt to different wickets?

V Ramnarayan
In the 1987 Bangalore Test, India's spinners struggled on a very helpful pitch because they didn't change their length and direction to make Pakistan's batsmen play often enough  © Getty Images
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The broad-shouldered, weather-beaten man in his fifties was holding forth in the Indian Express sports editor's cabin, where I was summoned in my capacity as resident cricketer even if I was the baby of the editorial team.

"He murdered his wife," the visitor guffawed when the editor inquired after a certain princely contemporary of his. "She's an alcoholic," he declared with characteristic relish about a movie star.

He was Lala Amarnath, the larger-than-life allrounder and former India captain. In the city to coach the local Railways team, he had dropped in on his old friends at the Express.

The year was 1967. India had just made a disastrous tour of England, with few of their batsmen acquitting themselves well. In an interview to our sports correspondent, Lala predictably put the blame on our wickets, but not so predictable was the solution he offered. Though it applied less to English playing conditions than those India would soon encounter on their forthcoming tour of Australia, Lala's advice on how to prepare for Test cricket abroad was to play more domestic cricket on matting wickets. This would improve the Indian batsmen's back-foot play and their ability to cut, hook and pull with felicity and confidence.

I was nonplussed. I was sure Amarnath, with his vast experience and keen cricket brain, knew what he was talking about, but his views differed considerably from the prevailing local wisdom. We were constantly told that Tamil Nadu's matting-bred batsmen were found deficient in technique on turf wickets because of their tendency to play across the line and their lack of footwork against spin. I tended to agree with that school of thought, though I learnt over the years that exposure to matting wickets could help batsmen cope with pace and bounce, so long as they did not forsake the fundamentals of batting on turf.

I believe this ideal is best achieved if you learn your basics on turf and get to bat on matting in preparation for the bouncy tracks abroad, unlike batsmen of my generation, who cut their teeth on coir and found the transition to grass a challenge. Here again, the examples of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman are periodically trotted out, as players for whom being brought up on matting proved an advantage. This is something that needs to be examined closely before such a course is prescribed universally.

As if to prove that cricket is a batsman's game, there is hardly any writing or discussion on how a bowler can learn to adapt to different surfaces - such as matting, the pata wickets so common in India, slow turners, green tops, or vicious minefields.

Increasingly, with considerable investments being made in infrastructure across the country, young bowlers transit from matting to turf rather early in their careers, and probably adapt a lot quicker than we did in the 1960s, albeit, in the case of spinners, with undue haste to achieve accuracy rather than sharp ability.

The right line and length to bowl on slow or raging turners can pose quite a few questions to even experienced bowlers. A classic example was the Bangalore Test in 1987, when Pakistan's Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed fared much better than Shivlal Yadav and Maninder Singh. The Indians did not make the batsmen play often enough, to do which they would have had to change their length and direction from their usual repertoire.

I remember my first experience on a drying pitch, during the era of uncovered wickets, in a league match in Calcutta, for Rajasthan Club under the captaincy of the inimitable Swaranjit Singh. The pitch was well-nigh unplayable but the batsmen hardly had to play me despite my alarming turn and bounce. For me, raised on Chennai's matting wickets, bowling on turf was a rare foray, even without the complication of the aftermath of rain. It never occurred to me to try to change the angle to force the batsman to play - by going round the wicket, for instance. As a result, an experienced pair of batsmen survived a torrid hour of batting to eventually build a sizeable partnership.

I am not familiar with the bowling drills at the National Cricket Academy, but I know that fast bowlers get to bowl on a variety of wickets at the MRF Pace Foundation. Where do the slow men learn the nuances of spin bowling in varying conditions? Barring a couple of exceptions - even at the international level - they tend not only not to "bowl in the right areas", but also to try so many variations within a single over that they rarely repeat deliveries that have the batsman in a spot of bother. Is there a case for fine-tuning the methods of coaching spinners to systematically facilitate their learning to bowl on a wide range of playing surfaces?

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V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by jimbond on (September 12, 2013, 4:11 GMT)

@Yobro: Statistics do lie- a bit. And are we talking about the same match? In the Pakistan first innings (remember it is the first day of a test match and the pace bowlers have to at least take the shine off the ball), Indian pacers bowled a total of 17 overs only, and on this first day itself, Indian spinners bowled more than 30. And on this first day, Maninder Singh was virtually unplayable especially with the kind of spin that he was getting. In the second innings though he was far less effective, which is what I guess Mr Ramnarayan is talking about. Of the other spinners in the team, Yadav was virtually useless by this time, and Shastri at his best was not a good spinner and even in this innings he got wickets more due to his bounce and the fact that the Pak batsmen were trying to score runs off him. Yes, Pakistan had the benefit of bowling on the fifth day on this pitch- which probably proved to be the difference, but like India, they too used just one paceman in the second inning

Posted by TRAM on (September 12, 2013, 3:48 GMT)

Absolutely. Seems simple straight forward approach to improve spin department. But then it is BCCI. Hope there is some one at the BCCI top with willingness to improve. And hope that some one reads Ramnarayan's point in good spirit.

Posted by YoBro on (September 11, 2013, 23:06 GMT)

In the first innings of the said Test (Bangalore 1987), Singh, Yadav, and Shastri bagged 8 wickets bowling a combined total of 34 overs compared to Qasim and Ahmed who tallied 10 wickets bowling a total of 57 overs - almost double the overs bowled of the Indian spinners for almost the same result. I would argue that the Indian spinners bowled better and Kapil who was captaining the Indian side missed a trick by not bowling them enough. Again, in the second innings, the Indian spinners bagged 9 wickets bowling 82 overs combined, while the Pak spinners bagged 8 wickets bowling exactly the same number of overs. Again, I would argue the Indian spinners did a better job. Granted the Pak spinners gave fewer runs in the last innings but that had more to do with the fact that it was a fifth day wicket and the nerves of a chase in the last innings.

The stats don't lie. Kapil blew it in the first innings of the match for us by underbowling the spinners.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

V Ramnarayan
A Chennai-born offspinner who represented Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s, V Ramnarayan is an intermittent columnist / blogger on cricket and other subjects. He is a translator and author, with books on cricket and the arts to his credit, a teacher of language and style at a premier journalism school, and editor-in-chief of Sruti, a leading Indian monthly on the performing arts. His works include histories of Tamil Nadu cricket and the Madras Cricket Club, and biographies.

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