August 22, 2008

Spin kills

Never before Mendis has a spinner dominated Indian batsmen so comprehensively and collectively

The ball of the 21st century: Dravid squared up and stunned, his off stump disturbed, was more significant than Gatting's dismissal by Warne © AFP

I had followed India's Test fortunes for 45 years, and never once in that time had I seen the Indian batsmen devastated by a slow bowler through a whole series. Just before the Indian tour of Sri Lanka began, India were beaten by Sri Lanka in the final of the Asia Cup. Mahendra Singh Dhoni confessed that his batsmen couldn't read Ajantha Mendis at all. I was intrigued by the prospect of Tendulkar and Co. - who hadn't taken part in the ODI tournament - playing this latter-day John Gleeson over a Test rubber, but not especially worried because of India's record against spin bowlers.

They had played some good ones. The first Test series I followed was the MCC's tour of 1963-64, and England's main strike-bowler was that fine offspinner, Fred Titmus, who took 27 wickets in five Tests. Every one of those Tests, though, was drawn. In the last Test in Kanpur, India followed on, thanks to a marathon spell of fine slow bowling by Titmus, whose bowling analysis in the first innings read: 60-37-73-6. But he made no headway in the second innings, managing one wicket in 34 overs as India saved the match comfortably.

This set the tone for India's encounters with opposing spinners: the good ones like Titmus, Lance Gibbs, Derek Underwood, Ashley Mallett, Abdul Qadir, Saqlain Mushtaq, Shane Warne and Muthiah Muralitharan got wickets, but not consistently enough to instill fear. Underwood claimed one five-wicket haul in 20 matches. Warne, the greatest legspinner in the history of the game, averaged some 47 runs per wicket against India, and like Underwood managed five wickets in an innings once.

There was something purposeful about the way in which Indian batsmen set about spinners. I remember Tendulkar going after Warne in a first-class game in Mumbai in 1998-99, when the legspinner arrived, riding the crest of his reputation as the greatest spinner in the world. Tendulkar hit a double century, and Warne went for more than 100 for no wickets. Then Navjot Singh Sidhu decided Warne had to go in the Test series, and we were treated to the rare spectacle of convergence in cricket: a spinner walking up to the stumps to bowl and a batsman running down the wicket to hit him. VVS Laxman and Tendulkar, in the 2000-01 home series, nearly ended Warne's career; by the time India won the last Test in Chennai, Warne was reduced to bowling bouncers.

Murali has a better record against India than Warne: 88 wickets at a little over 30 runs per wicket, and more significantly he has bagged six five-fors. I remember a sensational spell of bowling by Murali at the Feroz Shah Kotla, where he went round the wicket, and for half an hour had the Indians groping as his doosras spat off the pitch and jagged away and his offspinners straightened. But for all his genius, Murali was never feared by Indian batsmen in the way that men like Fred Trueman, Wes Hall, Alan Donald and Glenn McGrath were.

Till the helmet arrived, most Indian batsmen were so vulnerable to quick bowling, that spinners, regardless of quality, were seen as light relief. After the helmet, they improved against the fast men, but retained the traditional view of opposing spinners as extras, men who made up the numbers. Occasionally, when the stars were strangely aligned, India lost a Test to spinners, as in Bangalore when Tauseef Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim caught India on a breaking pitch in 1986-87, but it was a happening rare enough to be remembered and brooded over.

Indians were excellent players of spin because the quality of spin bowling in domestic cricket was exceptional. In that Kanpur Test against England in 1963-64, India played three legspinners and two left-arm orthodox slow bowlers: BS Chandrasekhar, Baloo Gupte, Chandu Borde, Salim Durani and Bapu Nadkarni. The bowling was opened by the fearsome tearaway, ML Jaisimha, along with Durani. The proliferation of first-rate spinners meant that any successful batsman in domestic cricket played slow bowling very, very well.

Till the helmet arrived, most Indian batsmen were so vulnerable to quick bowling, that spinners, regardless of quality, were seen as light relief. After the helmet, they improved against the fast men, but retained the traditional view of opposing spinners as extras
This basically meant that even the average Indian batsman read turn from the bowler's hand, not off the pitch, and used his feet to get to the pitch of the ball to minimise spin. Gundappa Viswanath, Sunil Gavaskar, Mohinder Amarnath, Mohammad Azharuddin, Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Laxman, Rahul Dravid, all played slow bowlers in this way. Even Indian batsmen of the second rank, like Ravi Shastri and Sidhu, treated decent spin bowlers with nimble-footed contempt.

So the Asia Cup defeat didn't worry me because the Fabulous Four - Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly, arguably the best players of spin bowling in the world over long and distinguished careers, hadn't figured in that team. I wasn't complacent, but it was reasonable to believe that they would figure Mendis out. The last freak spinner they had played, Paul Adams, hadn't puzzled them for a minute. While Mendis was clearly the better bowler, given his limited-overs performance and Bishan Bedi's testimonial, how dangerous could a Test debutant be, given the collective experience of the best batting line-up?

Very dangerous. It was Dravid's dismissal in the first Test that set the alarms off. Nobody in the world plays later off the back foot than Dravid did. The sight of him, crease-bound, stabbing down on Mendis down a middle-stump line, missing by a mile and the ball taking the off bail was a more significant moment in the history of Test cricket than the much-celebrated ball, which Warne ripped across Mike Gatting to bowl him. For two reasons: Dravid is by some distance the better batsman, and offspinners aren't meant to bowl fast legbreaks.

Everyone has a theory about how Mendis engineered this unprecedented, spin-prompted collapse. So do I. Before going there, though, it's useful to remember that he didn't do it alone. If he took 26 wickets, Murali took 21 and the Sri Lankan seamers chipped in whenever they were needed. Still, after allowing for these supporting roles, what Mendis did was extraordinary. In the six Test innings played in the series, he dismissed Laxman five times, Dravid four times, Gambhir three times and Tendulkar once.

The consensus seems to be that they couldn't read his mystery ball, but the real problem seemed to be that even when they did read it (and by the end of the series it looked as if Laxman and Dravid had begun to recognise the knuckle-ball from the hand, in that they could distinguish it from his offspinner and his googly), they couldn't tell if the ball was going to zip straight through or turn away. Since the knuckle-ball pitched in line, if the batsman played down the wrong line he was either lbw or bowled. It must have been a bit like playing Chandrasekhar, not knowing if the googly was going to turn or shoot through like a topspinner.

Sultans of Spin: Mendis and Murali are two of the few spinners who have done well against India © AFP

The problem was aggravated by the fact that it was hard to go down the wicket to Mendis because his knuckle-ball was faster and shorter in length than his normal delivery; there wasn't the time to get to the pitch. Tendulkar, Laxman, Ganguly and Dravid were slower and less confident than they had been in their prime, so they stretched down the pitch in defence, but this didn't work as it might have done once, because the review system being tried out in this series meant that the big stride forward no longer received the benefit of the doubt.

Why did Sehwag succeed when the others failed? His technique has always been fundamentally different from that of the others. His footwork is minimal, he plays alongside the ball without committing himself to a line till the last moment and he played Mendis off the pitch. It worked for him because his hand-eye coordination is exceptional, and his instinct is to attack: Mendis never got an opportunity to set him up as he did with the more defensive Dravid or Laxman.

So is Mendis a comet or a star? The latter, I think, because unlike with other mystery men, a batsman could teach himself to recognise the grip of his knuckle-ball without ever being sure that he could read its turn. Given his accuracy, temperament and variety (we shouldn't forget that he bowls a mean offbreak and a decent googly) his debut signals someone special. Unluckily, it also announces the end of something special. Thirty years ago, in a landmark three-Test series, Zaheer Abbas, helped by Javed Miandad, caned India's great spin trio into retirement. Ajantha Mendis, I suspect, has just rung the curtain down on another great foursome.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi. This article was first published in the Kolkata Telegraph

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Pankaj on August 27, 2008, 10:54 GMT

    Good Article.

    But I dont think it is fair to compare him with Warne and Murali. Mendis has just made his debut and once people start scoring runs off his bowling then one would see how is copes with the pressure.Warne and murali have been doing it for the last decade and with distinction. I think that Mendis would learn as he goes on and then we would be able to comment.

  • Shivaji on August 26, 2008, 17:09 GMT

    Excellent article by Mr. Kesavan. However, what about the Dhoni strategy in the last two tests? The One-Day captain has said that he would attack Mendis every time he could anticipate a bad ball from him, instead of playing defensively which is what the test batsmen did, all except Sehwag.

    Does the success of Dhoni's strategy have anything to with the fact that bowlers have only 10 overs to bowl, hold down runs and take wickets? Or is it that Dhoni, Badrinath, Raina have found a successful method against this lethal spinner.

    I was impressed as much by the mentality of Dhoni and company as their tactic: they took runs, singles and doubles, almost every ball while Mendis and Murali were doing their thing.

    Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly! Are you watching?

    Shivaji Sengupta, Ph.D. New York City

  • archisman on August 25, 2008, 7:41 GMT

    By no stretch of imagination [and I have plenty in the offering..] I am an expert of this game. But I must admit my single minded devotion and following of the same. With all that, I have to agree with Mukul. That in this short time, Ajantha has unleashed something that I have never witnessed before, such utter dominance of spin over collective Indian will and willow. The only exception to this rule being Shewag, but wait a minute... he is the exception to all rules, right? My question though, is twofold. First, can anyone care to shed some light as to how he really does the off and the leg break involving his two fingers and not his wrist? From that, can someone logically extend as to why it has been so hard to read him? Secondly, how you feel about his longevity? Aren't you prone to an early exit because of the undue stress on the fingers? Finally, one last thought. Mendis has been unstoppable in the turning pitches of Sri Lanka. How effective you think he is going to be abroad?

  • Narayan on August 25, 2008, 2:53 GMT

    I was at Galle and watched the Galle test from a vantage position right behind the bowlers arm.Except for Mendis's carrom ball, the others (off break,leg break,googly) are all pickable .With Mendis, you have to "play back or drive" as Ranjitsinji used to say.In other words, play him of the backfoot unless you can kill the ball going forward.Tendulkar did this with success, so did Sehwag. The ones who pushed forward, Dravid and Yuvraj (in the recent onedayers) were at sea.However, picking Mendis is one thing, playing him well thereafter is another. He is very accurate. He will pick up tons of wickets.

  • Sriram on August 24, 2008, 19:55 GMT

    Yes Mendis had a great series and caught India completely napping. But it is too early to compare him with the likes of Warne & Murali. His confidence is on a high and he is bwoling on tailor made pitches. Lets have this conversation after 1-2 years when he has had a chance to go to Australia and South Africa. How he handles the pressure after a couple of poor matches will tell us he is up with the greats. Lets see if Mendis is still in the team then!

    Cricket has seen enough people who started like a hare only to fade into oblivion within the time it takes for a bubble to burst.

  • Kushagra on August 24, 2008, 9:47 GMT

    I suppose India-SL series was a delight to watch! Some great batsmen against some freaky spinners, it was a perfect exhibition of test cricket. T20 is the future, One dayers will still be around but undoubtedly test match is the ultimate form of competition. One wouldn't have seen such intriguing display of spin bowling in limited overs. One wants a bowler to make an impact, to make batsmen life uncomfortable. There is no joy watching cricket on featherbeds where bowlers are treated with disdain. With pitches being helpful and in the backdrop of referral system, it was interesting to watch bowlers posed more questions to batsmen.

  • Jerry on August 24, 2008, 6:40 GMT

    I am really impressed with Mendis and i don't think he is a freak. He is a spin bowler who has devised his own technique and combines it with accuracy to deadly affect. I think we have to be fair to the Fab 4 as they were up against a quality spinner and playing after a very long gap. This certainly dosn't absolve them of their failure, but i would not write them off. Personally, i think Sachin played him quite well, although never dominated him and that is a testimony to the talent that Mendis posseses. So how to tackle this guy?, Maybe Sehwag knows the answer, but only he can apply the solution that he will propose.

  • vineel on August 24, 2008, 5:44 GMT

    I think it's pretty unfair to jump to conclusions too bad series does not break legends..however due credit to Mendis who was fantastic and had the fortune to have the right people to guide him, who else would you want other than Murali to be bowling in tandem. It is also very unfair like Kumble said to include Laxman in this, for years he has had the extra burden to protect the tail and get the runs. Batsmen up the order have had more freedom, perhaps this made him more defensive in his approach. It would have been interesting to see how he would have played when the top order got runs or if he batted one down. Here he had to hang on and get as many runs as possible because there was hardly any and again protect the tail. It is more against his natural style of play. He cut down the risks and perished. Whereas roll back to Laxman vs Warne, he did not have to worry about that he could jump out of the crease without the fear of having to protect the tail or making a total.

  • Kushagra on August 24, 2008, 1:57 GMT

    I suppose more appropriate it would be if we say the current crop of Indian batsmen play traditional leg spinners well. Shane Warne, Stuart McGill, Mushtaq Ahmed were orthodox leg break bowlers and none of these bowlers bothered Indian batsmen.

    However, off-spinners have generally troubled Indian batsmen. Even Sachin Tendulkar in his pomp in 1999, although handled Saqlain Mushtaq but did not dominate him in the manner as he dominated Shane Warne. Same goes for Muralitharan, Sachin has played some good innings against Muralitharan, but never really dominated him. Muralitharan has had some good bowling spells against India. In tests Mukul has already mentioned, but even in ODIs he once took 7 wickets on a Sharjah wicket. None of the contemparory spinners have the same record against India as Muralitharan's. With coming of Ajantha Mendis who is both off and leg spinner, it has taken them by complete surprise.

  • rony on August 23, 2008, 21:13 GMT

    Ganguly is a better player of spin than the other 3 put together n the way Ganguly plays his cricket is an inspiration to the nation...he is a flawed genius n thatswhy he is loved so much so layoff him

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