March 11, 2011

Spin is in

The World Cup pitches are going to get slower and lower as summer sneaks in. Dhoni will need a regular spinner to bowl in the Powerplays

Winter, or what we had of it, is saying goodbye and the World Cup is scrubbing itself clean of its influence. The second half will be quite different and teams will have to gear up to the new challenges on the way. Pitches will start getting drier, outfields quicker, and players will discover that their intake of fluids has increased steadily.

It probably means that spin will have a greater role to play, even more than it currently has. Already throwing the ball to a slow bowler in the Powerplays, once considered a surprise, a fad, is becoming normal. It is a strange game: the spinners are bowling the new ball and the quicks are waiting for the shine to go off a bit. It's all happening, Bill Lawry might say.

We saw first signs of that with MS Dhoni giving Ashish Nehra only one over with the new ball against Netherlands. Zaheer Khan got three, and by the sixth over there was spin at both ends. Being able to cut and pull and stand up to pace are no longer qualities you need from an opening batsman. More interestingly, around the 30th over both Nehra and Zaheer were back, this time to get the ball to swing the other way (by the way, which is the right way now?) before it was changed after the 34th over.

Indeed, as pitches get drier and the surfaces more abrasive, the ball will swing the other way quicker. Already the slow-motion cameras are showing little bits of leather coming off the ball within 10 overs and I won't be surprised if we start seeing more of that. It means teams will need more bowlers who can take the pace off the ball.

Already teams are adapting. The mighty South Africans, they of the muscular hit-the-deck variety of bowling, have played three spinners. In one of their games they had Johan Botha, Robin Peterson and Imran Tahir, plus Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy and Graeme Smith himself to turn to. Old warhorses must be spluttering into their Castles at the sight.

Only Australia, among all the teams at the World Cup, are sticking to their guns, and they have some big cannons. It is not a contrarian view but one that they have thoughtfully opted for. When bowlers can bowl fast in the air, it doesn't really matter how slow the tracks are, and they have picked genuinely fast bowlers. It helps them overcome the drought they are facing with spin bowlers. They could have come to the World Cup with more reliable but slower bowlers, but that would have been fraught with danger. This is not a medium-pacer's tournament.

The heat will affect them but the team that has the most questions to answer with the bowling is India. In a couple of matches, significantly against weaker teams, Yuvraj Singh has been able to gloss over the shortcomings but on flat decks against strong batting sides India's bowling will look very inadequate. I won't be surprised if the track at the Chinnaswamy was the last batting paradise India will play on. Expect slow, low surfaces where the ball will grip a bit.

The need to have slow bowlers using the new ball in the Powerplays will impact India's selection policy too. Yusuf Pathan cannot be a regular in the early overs, and Dhoni would dearly like Harbhajan Singh to play as a wicket-taker in the middle overs. You don't need to be too intelligent to deduce that it means R Ashwin, happy to use the new ball, must play. It also means that Piyush Chawla must make way, and that is where Dhoni's selections have baffled many.

I wonder sometimes if the fact that he wanted Chawla in the first place is causing him to try and prove a point. That can happen if the captain goes out on a limb and insists on a player and keeps playing him to justify the selection. I can't help thinking, though, that Dhoni is too clever a captain to do that and maybe he wants to keep Ashwin away from the other teams and throw him in as a surprise. We'll know soon, but Chawla cannot complain he didn't have the captain's faith.

It is going to be a week of jostling for positions and once the two points are in the bag, it will be a question of getting that net run rate up.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here