April 14, 2011

Spin and the art of attack

Being an aggressive spinner is not about bowling flat and fast. Quite the opposite, and you only have to look at veteran bowlers operate in Twenty20 to see that

Grounds are getting smaller, wickets flatter, bats thicker. And just to make it tougher for bowlers, the format of the game has got shorter. As if the rule book doesn't already favour batsmen, these "innovations" have stacked the odds against bowlers higher still. But while it has ostensibly become tougher for bowlers to succeed, good ones will always have their say.

Who are these "good bowlers", though? In the pre-Twenty20 era these were men who could simply bowl quick, for a batsman needed special skills to get on top of someone bowling at 145kph. It was widely believed that the shorter the format, the smaller the role of a spinner. In fact, the only way for a spinner to survive in Twenty20 was to bowl quick and flat, or so it was believed for the longest time.

But a look at the spinners in action in the current IPL is enough to tell you an entirely different story. Spinners who're bowling slower in the air are ruling the roost.

Is it only about bowling slow or it there more to it? Let's take a look at what's making these bowlers ever so successful.

A big heart
While fast bowlers are the stingy kind, who hate runs being scored off them, spinners are more often than not advised to be generous and to always be prepared to get hit. Bishan Bedi would tell his wards that a straight six is always hit off a good ball and one should never feel bad about it. Having a big heart doesn't mean that you should stop caring about getting hit; rather that you shouldn't chicken out and start bowling flatter.

Suraj Randiv could easily have bowled flatter when he was hit for two consecutive sixes by Manoj Tiwary in the first match, but he showed the heart to flight another delivery, and got the better of his opponent. You rarely see Daniel Vettori or Shane Warne take a step back whenever they come under the hammer. Instead of thinking of ways to restrict damage, they try to plot a dismissal.

Slow down the pace
Most young spinners don't realise that the quicker one bowls, the easier it gets for the batsman, who doesn't have to move his feet to get to the pitch of the ball and smother the spin. You can do fairly well while staying inside the crease, and small errors of judgement aren't fatal either, as long as you're playing straight.

The slower the delivery, the tougher it is to generate power to clear the fence, but there are no such issues if the bowler is sending down darts. In fact, even rotating the strike is a lot easier if the bowler is bowling quicker, for you need great hands to manoeuvre the slower delivery.

Yes, it is perhaps easier to find the blockhole if you're bowling quick, but you're not really going to get under the bat and bowl the batsman, since you don't have that sort of pace.

Also, if you bowl quick, the chances of getting turn off the surface (unless it is really abrasive) are minimal. You must flight the ball and bowl slow to allow the ball to grip the pitch and get purchase.

Attack the batsman
Mushtaq Ahmed tells young spinners that they need to have the attitude of fast bowlers to attack batsmen.

Attacking the batsman is often misinterpreted as bowling quick. That's what the fast men do; you hit them for a six and you're almost guaranteed a bouncer next ball. For a spinner, attacking has a different meaning - going slower and enticing the batsman.

Bowling slow must not be confused with giving the ball more air. The trajectory can still remain flat while bowling slow. Some batsmen are quick to put on their dancing shoes the moment the ball goes above eye level while standing in the stance, so it's important to keep the ball below their eye level and yet not bowl quick. Vettori does it with consummate ease and reaps rewards. He rarely bowls quick; he relies on changing the pace and length to deceive the batsman. And if the batsman is rooted to the crease and is reluctant to use his feet, you can flight the ball.

Add variety
The best way to not just survive but thrive as a spinner is to keep evolving.

Anil Kumble not only slowed down his pace but also added a googly to his armoury in the latter half of his career. Muttiah Muralitharan added another dimension to his bowling when he started bowling the doosra. Suraj Randiv stands tall at the crease and extracts a bit of extra bounce. Ravi Ashwin has mastered the carrom ball.

Instead of learning to undercut the ball (which is obviously a lot easier to develop), it's worth developing a doosra, a carrom ball or some other variety.

Young kids must understand that when you bowl flatter-faster deliveries, the ball behaves somewhat like a hard ball does on a concrete surface, skidding off the pitch. Slower balls, on the other hand, act like tennis balls, with far more bounce.

Up and coming spinners need to set their priorities right. They can either bend the front knee to reduce height while taking the arm away from the ear to bowl darts, or learn from the likes of Warne, Vettori, Murali and the like to succeed in all formats, provided the basics are right.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

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