May 30, 2011

A tale of three legspinners

Piyush Chawla, Amit Mishra and Rahul Sharma have the skills to be successful for India. But their actions still need some work

We may have well seen the last of Shane Warne in a competitive game, but we haven't seen the last of his art yet. He may no longer roll his arm and spin magic, but he continues to make a strong case for his clan. Warne's legacy will be an effective blueprint for generations of aspiring spinners, who will now have a look at videos of him to pick up a lesson or two. Legspin is one of the toughest crafts to perfect, but once you've mastered it, like Warne clearly had, you can aim to win matches in all formats.

Warne had an almost perfect legspinner's action: side-on, bowled with a slightly round arm but with the wrist cocked. He drifted the ball in the air and got spin off the surface - usually only enough to get the edge. He also varied the pace and trajectory with consummate ease. But above all he was shrewd enough to decipher the batsman, formulate the right plan and execute it with precision.

It might be interesting to take a look at three young Indian practitioners of the same art: Piyush Chawla, part of India's World Cup-winning campaign, Amit Mishra, who replaced Chawla in the team for the West Indies, and Rahul Sharma, arguably the most impressive bowler in this IPL.

Unlike Warne, Piyush Chawla has an open bowling action. With such an action, you see the batsman from inside the non-bowling arm, while with a side-on action, you see the batsman from over or through the leading arm. Most legspinners prefer a side-on action because it not only allows them to bowl with a slightly rounder arm, which is essential to impart side spin, but also allows them to rotate the hip by pivoting on the front toe, and thus putting the weight of the body behind the ball. When you look from inside the non-bowling arm, you bowl with a high-arm action and have an insignificant pivot. It's much like with fast bowlers, where outswing bowlers prefer the closed action and inswing bowlers an open action.

Since spinning the ball across the right-hand batsman isn't his forte, Chawla bowls from the corner of the crease to make his wrong 'un more effective. His open action allows him to bowl a googly a lot more efficiently than most legspinners. A traditional spinner will have to make significant change in his action (from round-arm to high-arm) and go to the corner of the crease, so the trajectory starts from outside off stump. These changes are often a giveaway but not with Chawla. However, his high-arm action and delivery from the corner of the crease impair his ability to bowl a more orthodox legspinner's line, i.e. on middle and leg stump. Unless he gets some serious drift in the air, he has to really push the ball towards leg to change the line. And that's when he ends up slipping it down the leg side - the lack of spin doesn't allow the ball to spin back towards the off stump.

Playing Chawla As a batsman you must keep a close eye on his googly. Since it turns a lot more and is a lot quicker in the air and off the surface - a rarity - don't go back or play a horizontal shot. Even though he isn't a big turner of the ball, his point of delivery dictates that his line is mostly outside off, so you must go close to the ball while stepping out, else you run the risk of not getting close enough. Since he bowls fairly quick, you can also use that pace to pinch singles.

Sharma is the tallest of the three, and so he gets the most bounce. His high-arm open action ensures he makes the most of his height, but it also means he compromises on spin off the surface

Amit Mishra has an ideal legspinner's action, being fairly side-on, and he also bowls with a slightly round arm. He tries to get close to the stumps and imparts a lot of side spin on the ball. But he has a long bowling stride, with the front leg bent at the point of delivery, which effectively reduces his height during delivery, and hence the bounce he could potentially extract. Mishra started out as a big turner of the ball, which worked fine at the domestic level, but after a year or so of international cricket, he realised he had to stop turning it too much, lest he miss the edge. He was bowling the right lines, turning the ball, but wickets eluded him. So he learnt to cock his wrist, not only to control the spin but to get a bit more bounce. While he's fairly accurate with his line and length and banks on beating the batsman in the air, the lack of pace off the surface works against him: even when the batsman makes an error he can often adjust because of the lack of pace.

Playing Mishra You should always be wary of his spin and completely sure before going down the track; if you stay slightly away from the ball, it might mean you miss it entirely. Also it's necessary to play in the second line and cover the spin. Play with the spin and not against it, otherwise there's a good chance of edging the ball. For instance, unless you get to the pitch of the ball, don't hit straight; instead, target the gap over extra cover. Since his deliveries don't hurry on to you, it's best to stay on the back foot.

Rahul Sharma is the tallest of the three and so he gets the most bounce. He is possibly the most accurate legspinner on the Indian circuit, and his height has something to do with it. The taller the bowler, the better his chances of hitting the same spot more often and with accuracy. Sharma's high-arm open action ensures he makes the most of his height, but it also means he compromises on spin off the surface. He does not get too close to the stumps, nor does he go to the corner of the crease; he mostly stays in the middle of the box. He tries to bowl as straight as possible, with the length slightly on the shorter side to make the most of the steep bounce he generates. But while the bounce works in his favour, the lack of side spin works against him. He does impart a lot of overspin on the ball, which complements the bounce, but the position of his feet and the direction his toes are pointing in at the crease don't allow him to get much spin. His leading toes point towards third man instead of fine leg, which means he doesn't pivot a lot while delivering the ball. He must develop a googly to go with his topspinners or he runs the risk of becoming a one-trick pony.

Playing Sharma Back yourself to play him through the line and on the up, but keep your hands slightly higher up the handle than with other spinners. If you don't take the bounce into account while putting bat to ball, you'll find the ball eluding the sweet spot and hitting higher on the bat. Since he bowls quicker and flatter, avoid going down the track, for you won't have enough time for a successful advance. But that also means you can use the bounce to get under the ball while staying inside the crease.

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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