July 5, 2012

India's bare spin cupboard

Kumble's successor, Harbhajan, has faded, and the likes of Ashwin and Mishra aren't quite up to scratch yet

MS Dhoni's decision to field a four-pronged seam attack in the Perth Test earlier this year took many by surprise. It was the first time in two decades that India went into a Test with an all-pace attack. As much as Dhoni's radical decision was about the seamer-friendly conditions in Perth, it was equally about the lack of penetration displayed by R Ashwin in the first two Test matches of the series. While the pros and cons of that decision could be debated, it certainly wasn't thoughtless. Even though Pragyan Ojha was in the side, like in the past, he failed to catch Dhoni's fancy. And India's best bet, Ashwin, played second fiddle to Australia's Nathan Lyon, even on a subcontinental track in Adelaide. By contrast, in 2008, on India's previous tour of Australia, Anil Kumble, the Indian captain, was spoilt for choice. He fielded two spinners in the four-bowler attack in three of the four Test matches.

It's common knowledge that fast bowlers hunt in pairs, but so do spinners. For over a decade, Kumble and Harbhajan Singh worked brilliantly together for India, for they complemented each other's style of bowling and sustained pressure on the opposition. These two players deserve as much credit for India's assent in Test cricket as the famous four pillars of Indian batting. After all, batsmen can only set up matches by putting runs on the board; it's the bowlers who win them by taking 20 wickets.

The downside of having quality performers at the top for a long time is that since there isn't an immediate need to replace them, one seldom looks for new and upcoming talent - so much so that you might completely ignore that particular skill set in domestic cricket. That's what happened with spinners in India too. Since Kumble and Harbhajan were doing a fine job, finding new spinners wasn't a priority, and the focus was always on finding fast bowlers - which paid off to some extent. It was convenient to believe that India being the land of quality spinners, there would never be a real dearth of them.

No matter what, every skill needs constant nurturing, without which it could die a slow death. Unfortunately, not many noticed that things were changing drastically on the Indian first-class circuit, where most state associations reckoned that an average medium-pace bowler was yielding more returns than an above-average spinner. This had largely to do with the SG Test balls used in domestic cricket, which were more conducive to swing bowling throughout the day. Also, the ease with which Indian batsmen have traditionally played spin played a role in prompting associations to focus more on fast bowlers. Nowadays the job of most spinners is to give medium-pacers a breather. I wrote last month about the radical decline of spin in the country.

The fact is, India is grasping at straws when it comes to spin-bowling resources. There is an urgent need to identify and empower key spinners to keep the legacy of spin in the country alive.

R Ashwin
Ashwin is one of the few Indian spinners who flights the ball even in the face of an assault. He also possesses enough varieties to keep batsmen guessing. His high-arm action and correct release of the ball coupled with his height give him bounce off the pitch too. While having a lot of options can liberate a player, it could in some cases have a detrimental effect, like in the case of Ashwin. With so much to choose from, it is almost as if he almost feels obliged to bowl a doosra, a slider and a carrom ball every over. Just that it isn't working in his case, for he is compromising on consistency to showcase all his wares. He would do well to take a leaf out of Graeme Swann's book and stick to bowling regular offspinners a lot more, using spin as the main weapon.

Pragyan Ojha
While there seems to be a lot going for Ojha on the cricket field - he has looked impressive in every outing for India - there's definitely something going against him off the field, for both the selectors and the captain seem to look through him on most occasions.

Like most left-arm spinners, he's extremely accurate, and he has the ability to turn the ball off the surface. He has a reasonably good arm ball, and on days when it comes out of hand perfectly, it drifts and dips on the batsman too.

Most spinners are captain's bowlers and Ojha is no different. Considering the obvious shortage of quality spinners in the country, it's imperative for the captain to show faith in him. On Ojha's part, he needs to understand that throwing darts isn't the only resort to counter an assault.

Rahul Sharma, Amit Mishra and Piyush Chawla
With 30 wickets in 14 first-class matches, it's anybody's guess how Sharma made it to the Indian Test team. To his credit, he did well in the fourth season of the IPL, but to consider Twenty20 performances when picking a Test team is quite astonishing. He has had a rather forgettable India A tour to the West Indies and it will be tough for him to find favour again soon.

Since Kumble and Harbhajan were doing a fine job, finding new spinners wasn't a priority, and the focus was always on finding fast bowlers. It was convenient to believe that India being the land of quality spinners, there would never be a real dearth of them

Mishra, a conventional legspinner, started his Test career with a bang. He relies on deceiving the batsman in the flight and with spin off the surface. While he has the ingredients to succeed at the highest level, his lack of pace off the surface led to him losing accuracy in the last few Tests he played and cost him his place in the side. If he can find ways to get zip off the surface (a very tough skill to acquire), he could be the ideal man to partner Ashwin.

Chawla, like Mishra, impressed everyone in his first few outings but soon found the going tough because of his inability to turn the legspinner. His googly, which turns a fair bit, is his main weapon, but that can only be effective if the orthodox legspin turns away from the right-hand batsman. If Mishra is too slow off the surface, Chawla is a shade too quick and doesn't allow the ball to drift, dip or bite the surface.

Harbhajan Singh
After Kumble's departure, it was a given that Harbhajan would assume the role of the lead spinner and ensure a seamless transition. Unfortunately it hasn't panned out that way. Harbhajan went on to lose his spot in the Test and ODI sides, and his return isn't on the horizon either, unless Ashwin does poorly.

The only fathomable reason for Harbhajan's decline is a radical change in mindset. More than the ability to turn the ball in to the right-hander or to take the doosra away, it was Harbhajan's attacking mindset that set him apart. When younger, he would constantly find ways to take a wicket without worrying too much about how many runs he conceded in the bargain. Video footage of Harbhajan's dream series against Australia in 2001 shows that he was flighting the ball back then, got drift in the air, spun the ball, and got many bat-pad catches; he also got bounce after pitching, bringing the backward short-leg fielder into play.

I wish that Harbhajan could turn the clock back somehow, for he's still the most talented spinner in the country. His stint with Essex can help only if the endeavour is to rediscover his old self, because with him it's not the number of overs he bowls but how he bowls them.

Then there's Jalaj Saxena, who was picked as an offspinner for India A's tour to the West Indies. He may have bowled well and taken wickets in one innings, but to wager your money on someone who has taken just 58 wickets in 41 first-class matches is rather ambitious.

Akshay Darekar, Vikas Mishra and Harmeet Singh are three young left-arm spinners who, if mentored and nurtured well, can form a supply line for the Indian team. The BCCI needs to find ways to ensure that these spinners don't lower their arms and sacrifice flight. They must be encouraged to spin the ball off the surface, and perhaps kept away from the IPL till their fundamentals are firmly in place.

Spinners must be taught to think and act like fast bowlers, which is to be aggressive and look for wickets, not bowl flat and fast and get reduced to being stopgaps.

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