June 6, 2012

Flatter, faster, weaker

Most Indian spinners today are content to bowl wicket to wicket rather than attack batsmen with turn and bounce. The IPL is to blame to a large extent

When Chris Gayle hit Rahul Sharma for five consecutive sixes in an IPL match in April, I found myself wondering not about Gayle's brute strength or his ability to hit sixes at will but the spinner's response to the onslaught. Would he slow it down, bowl a googly or try a big spinner?

Sharma changed his lines and lengths, but didn't significantly change his pace or variations. If anything, he bowled a bit quicker. Since he is believed to have modelled his action on the great Anil Kumble, it's worth deliberating how Kumble would have responded to such a situation. My educated guess tells me Kumble may have bowled a couple of googlies, taken the pace off another two, or tried a flipper, bowling it faster and pitching it short of a good length, so it skidded off the surface and forced Gayle to pull. All this may or may not have changed the outcome but the use of spinner's most potent weapon, deception, would definitely have made a contest of it.

Since Sharma is still cutting his teeth at international cricket, it's unfair to compare him to a man who has taken 600 Test wickets. But I like to believe that Kumble got to that milestone because of his desire to try something new each time, and not that he experimented only because he had a pile of wickets to support him. After all, records don't make men great; great men make records.

Let's take a look at how other spinners who have a realistic chance of playing for India in the next few years have responded in similar situations.

In the IPL, every time a left-hand batsman went after his bowling, Pragyan Ojha responded with yorkers aimed at the batsman's toes. Some missed their mark by a few inches, some were deposited into the stands by the likes of Gayle, and others went wide down the leg side.

Even Harbhajan Singh, despite his considerable experience, was guilty of bowling flat or fast yorkers under pressure.

Would Muttiah Muralitharan and Daniel Vettori have responded differently? Having watched them play in the IPL for the last five years, it's fair to say that both have enough tricks in the bag to not have to resort to bowling flat in these situations. Murali rarely bowls a yorker, for his strength lies in extracting spin off the surface and disguising his doosra. Vettori slows it down, keeps the ball hanging in the air for a fraction longer and changes his line to counter the onslaught.

R Ashwin is perhaps the only Indian fingerspinner willing to flight the ball, but unfortunately he too seems to be falling into the trap of bowling only doosras and carrom balls. He has compromised on a spinner's biggest strength, the ability to turn the ball, and his performance in Test cricket is getting affected by it.

Few try to get drift in the air or put enough revolutions on the ball to extract spin and bounce off the surface. Most spinners are just slow bowlers who break the monotony of seam bowling

Not surprisingly, legspinners Piyush Chawla and Amit Mishra refrained from bowling yorkers, because leggies struggle to find the blockhole at will. Mishra bowled variations in the latter part of the tournament, but Chawla wasn't too inclined to turn the ball away from the right-handers.

While it's a given that the best fast bowlers in the IPL will be overseas players, it's a worry if the best spinners are not Indian. But it's not just the IPL; there are no good spinners on India's domestic circuit either. Few try to get drift in the air or put enough revolutions on the ball to extract spin and bounce off the surface. Most spinners are just slow bowlers who break the monotony of seam bowling.

As young batsmen we were told to spend quality time honing our skills to defend against the turning ball. It was imperative to transfer the weight at just the right time, keep the bottom hand loose always, and play close to the body. To succeed in first-class cricket you had to have a solid defence and the ability to hit the turning ball along the ground.

We practised these by playing with a tennis ball from a short distance. Even then, hours of training weren't enough every time, because spinners like Bharati Vij, Venkatapathy Raju, Sunil Joshi, Kanwaljit Singh and others would use the SG Test ball to their advantage and extract both drift and spin. They would rarely bowl flat and fast, because even a batsman's fiercest assault could be countered by deception.

Turning the ball a bit more than expected to get bat-pad dismissals, beating the batsman in the drift and forcing him to edge it to slip, or exploiting poor weight transfer by getting the batsman caught at short cover or midwicket were regular modes of dismissals. As a batsman, it was imperative to look for the shiny side even when facing spinners, for that helped you read the direction of the drift and the arm balls.

Today, even talking about all this makes me feel nostalgic because I can't name a single spinner in the domestic circuit who uses these skills. I also don't see batsmen spending hours to get their forward defence watertight against spin. The only thing a modern batsman does is place the bat in front of the front pad to avoid lbw decisions. Most spinners, not looking to extract any turn, try to bowl wicket to wicket, expecting to get leg-before decisions in case the batsman misses the line. Fielders at short leg and silly point are of ornamental value, except on rank turners. This is a sorry state of affairs for a country that boasted many fine spinners.

The deterioration in the quality of spin started about a decade ago, but the IPL has aggravated it. Anyone willing to practise the traditional craft of spin bowling is routinely overlooked by the IPL talent scouts. The temptation of making it into an IPL team is so huge that compromising flight and spin for accuracy and flatter trajectories seems a small price to pay.

While there were many young left-arm spinners on show this IPL season, not one of them bowled with a high-arm action or looked suitable for the longer version of the game. The moment you bowl with a round-arm action and lower your arm, you cease to get bounce off the surface. It also doesn't allow you to put enough revolutions on the ball to get spin off the surface, which is why such bowlers rely heavily on dusty pitches to spin the ball.

It is a lovely sight to watch batsmen struggling to dig out accurate yorkers, but only if the practitioner operating 22 yards away is a fast bowler, not a spinner.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • OnlyKaps on June 9, 2012, 1:20 GMT

    Aakash, I like your choice of topics and the way you write. A lot of research, insightful and honest behind the scene info, and engaging without being know-all. You are fast becoming one of my favourite sport scribes. Keep it up!

  • Nampally on June 8, 2012, 20:59 GMT

    Lack of support in all formats of the game has killed the art of spinning. There once was the great Vinoo Mankad who could bowl LH spinners at the same spot with variations in flight, direction & amount of spin as well as the speed. He was the King of spin bowling & would have easily got rid of Gayle with his guile.Rohit Sharma is one dimensional spinner.In fact India does not have a true spinner at all. Harbhajan is a poor example of an off spinner.India had Ghulam Ahmad, Jasu Patel who could turn the off spinners like a top. India also had Subash Gupte whose leg spin turned > a foot on a reponsive wkts & who was deadly accurate. Bapu Nadkarni, Salim Durrani & Chandu Borde were great. Prasanna, Venkat, Chandra, Raju & Kumble were the last greats. But after them there has been total eclipse of good spinners in India.How can you develop them when Dhoni consistently benches spinners like Ojha, Rahul Sharma & prefers an all rounder instead.India needs visionary Captain & Selectors!.

  • ad2810 on June 8, 2012, 16:58 GMT

    it does highlight some of the reasons behind bhaji and ojha s failures and tells u how rahul sharma really got hit out for 31 runs. but i doubt it can be blamed on ipl. but it does give us an insight into what the bowlers would be thinking. As ojha had real promise 1or 2 years ago with deccan but with mumbai he was very inconsistent. i think chopra shud stop blaming ipl as it does also depend on other forms of the game as well. a good side is that the legspinners arent trying anything out of order

  • dummy4fb on June 7, 2012, 14:44 GMT

    I can't understand what is the problem of indian spinners.They comes like thunder storm and fade away in a few months.

  • rare2823 on June 7, 2012, 11:11 GMT

    all you guys, please stop bashing IPL for everything.... I dont think india was excellent touerers before IPL... it just hasnt changed in IPL era.... none of the Indian heros from IPL have played tests... its tsill the same Dravid, Laxman, Sachin... Ashwin came from IPL... he has played just 2 series (one huge success and another failure)... his failure also is coz of poor batting performance... what do you expet poor guy to do wen his capatin doesnt setup feild for wickets and his batsman bundle out for 150s.... Kohli came from IPL and he is already prooved his worth...

  • praful_cric on June 7, 2012, 9:52 GMT

    Excellent article... good to see somebody in cric info has heart to say the truth against IPL... Not even the spin bowling but overall Indian cricket is suffering. Just by winning world cup at home wont make any champion. Look at our overseas performance.

  • rare2823 on June 7, 2012, 7:04 GMT

    how true... superb article... I wont say we dont have enough spinners in domestic circit. its the mindset that has changed...even in IPL you saw captain of the best team in early stages, leave out a genuine let arm spinner in place of another who is OK but can bat better... Swan probably is the only spinner who flights... but then again would he if he doesnt have the cushion of James, Broad and the lethal fast ones in his team... he hardly made an inpact when england toured for ODI... Ashwin was fligting his, but if your team has 190 on board no one will have the heart to flight... even ones from the famous four of indian spin wont...

  • super_kings123 on June 7, 2012, 4:33 GMT

    IPL destroys bowlers simply because it makes fast bowlers bowl slow bouncers and spinners are bowling fast yorkers..... game is being destroyed...

  • johnathonjosephs on June 7, 2012, 2:36 GMT

    True, true. For this you need to blame T20 cricket for which bowlers will not dare to flight up the ball and spin (unless you have someone like Murali/Warne/Vettori). And for that, yes you must blame the IPL (T20's biggest supporter)

  • AvidCricFan on June 7, 2012, 0:27 GMT

    Chopra's assessment of declining spin quality is totally off. I would say ODI killed it not T20. India hasn't had quality spinners since long except for brief period of Harbhajan's performance in early part of last decade. Kumble was not the classical spinner. He was never a big turner of the ball nor a fligther. He was more on pace and subtle variations and top spinner. India has not produced the quality spinner after the famous spinner quartet of Bedi, Chandra, Prasanna, and Venkat. The real demise for this skill is shorter format of the game and flat wickets that started with ODIs not T20.

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