April 27, 2012

Where did all the offspinners go?

There are more than a dozen left-arm spinners in the IPL, but hardly any traditional offies

Having watched relentless, frenetic Twenty20 cricket for three weeks, I thought I would watch some Test cricket, to allow its beautiful, lazy rhythm to lull me to sleep. I needed to, the incessant T20 action was keeping me awake. Instead, I came upon Shane Shillingford bowling some really eye-catching offspin. He was getting the ball to kick off the surface and had Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke, two good players of spin, caught high off the bat. It helped, too, that two of my favourite broadcasters, Tony Cozier and Michael Holding, were on air. But it got me thinking about what the game is doing to offspinners.

Nathan Lyon bowled an impressive spell later in Dominica, and Saeed Ajmal and Graeme Swann, in their own styles, are bowling beautifully, but in the IPL the offspinner is going extinct, fenced in as he is by medium-pacers who are forsaking their seam-up bowling style for slow offbreaks, and by left-arm spinners who have cropped up from nowhere.

One obvious reason is that modern bats deposit anything that is tossed up into the stands. For long I have worried about short boundaries, but I barely see any small sixes these days. More sixes have hit the concrete than the boundary rope. It could be, of course, that free of the worry of being caught in the deep (courtesy the boundary distances) batsmen are actually hitting the ball better. But it doesn't dilute the argument that T20 is best played with long boundaries.

The other factor is the preponderance of right-handers. There are a lot of left-handers around the world but in the IPL only three of the top ten run-getters bat left-handed - Chris Gayle, Jesse Ryder and Shaun Marsh. It gets a little better if you expand the base but still it is only nine out of the top 30. (Now this works on the assumption that offspinners cannot bowl to attacking right-hand batsmen, and I hope there are some young bowlers out there who want to vigorously contest that.)

Also worrisome is the fact that there are few classical offspinners around. Among those in the IPL, Muttiah Muralitharan, R Ashwin, Marlon Samuels and Sunil Narine don't fit that bill. Go further and you find Johan Botha and Harbhajan Singh, and then the part-timers. It would seem that if you want to watch offbreak bowling, you need to look beyond T20s.

On the other hand every team has a left-arm spinner, and some are willing to play two. And while there are some whose actions suggest they studied angles in high-school geometry rather than straight lines, there are others who are looking very acceptable and impressive. Why can't more spinners possess the beauty of Murali Kartik's bowling action?

But quality of actions apart, the left-arm spinner has become, like rice in a south Indian thali, an integral part of the offering. Compared to the drought of offspinners, we have Ravindra Jadeja and Shadab Jakati (Chennai), KP Appanna and Daniel Vettori (Bangalore), Pragyan Ojha (Mumbai), Shakib Al Hasan and Iqbal Abdulla (Kolkata), Ankeet Chavan and Brad Hogg (Rajasthan), Kartik (Pune), Shahbaz Nadeem, Roelof van der Merwe and Pawan Negi (Delhi), Ankit Sharma (Deccan), Bhargav Bhatt and Bipul Sharma (Punjab). Bafflingly, out of these only Hogg bowls the chinaman variety (speaking of which, not a player in the league has picked his wrong'un yet). Maybe someone can explain to me one day why more young men don't bowl left-arm wrist spin.

It must worry Indian selectors too that only three of the top ten wicket-takers and four of the top ten run-getters (and eight of the top 20) are Indians. It would be easy to explain that away by saying that the overseas players are among the world's best, but if the IPL has to develop local talent we should start seeing some new names soon. In earlier editions Ambati Rayudu, Saurabh Tiwary and Paul Valthaty forced us to look at them, but none of them is likely to break into the Indian limited-overs team in the immediate future.

There is another month to go. I hope I can see much more of Appanna and Nadeem, Rahul Sharma and Ashok Dinda, but I have given up looking for an offspinner, unless Harbhajan goes back to his roots.

Harsha Bhogle is contracted to the IPL. He also commentates on other cricket, and is a television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here