December 5, 2012

What's going wrong with India's spin tradition?

The call for seamer-friendly wickets, and the spinners' own over-defensive mindsets may be to blame

What was supposed to have been a strategically planned relentless spin assault against England by India seems to have backfired. After the vociferous demand for rank turners, and a denial of any spin practice to the English during the warm-up games, the world expected India to spin a web around the visitors. But that was not to be.

Under normal circumstances a one-off loss at home for Dhoni's team (it was only his second loss in 22 Tests as captain at home) would have been easily shrugged off, but against the backdrop of India's 4-0 drubbing in England last summer, the Mumbai defeat was dissected threadbare. It was made more agonising because India were beaten on a raging turner by a team infamous for its lack of batting skills against the turning ball. On a pitch that offered vicious turn and disconcerting bounce for spinners from the first day, the onus was on the Indian spinners to deliver the goods; there were three of them, after all. Kevin Pietersen's brilliance and Alastair Cook's dogged approach must be acknowledged, but it would not do to turn a blind eye to how the Indian spinners performed. On a pitch where Monty Panesar was bowling spitting cobras, India's bowlers didn't spew much venom.

There were calls - if slightly unwarranted after a solitary poor showing - to find new faces to replace the existing ones. These demands were enough to get me thinking about the spinners in line to replace the ones playing for India at the moment, and also the ones who are likely to become lead spinners for India in the future in the long format.

When I looked at the list of the leading wicket-takers on the Indian domestic circuit for the last few seasons, it shocked me a little, for it was heavily dominated by medium pace. Even the most experienced spinners (some of whom have played for India in the past) had very ordinary figures.

These statistics are alarming for a country that has a tradition of producing world-class spinners. India should be churning out quality spinners by the dozen, but unfortunately isn't. In fact, medium-pacers are stealing a march over spinners almost every season - and on Indian domestic pitches at that. What has led to such a huge paradigm shift in the way cricket is played in this country?

There has been a loud chorus demanding "sporting" pitches in Indian domestic cricket for quite some time now. Docile Indian pitches, quite rightly, were blamed for the Indian batsmen's failure overseas. But while making sporting pitches is the right thing to do, the very meaning of the term has been lost in translation: whenever there's a demand for a sporting pitch, our curators dish out a greentop.

Yes, bounce, pace and lateral movement off the pitch will make Indian batsmen better players against fast bowlers, but it curtails the role of spinners drastically. Instead of regarding themselves as wicket-taking options and bowling accordingly, most spinners have developed the defensive mindset of keeping things tight. Their role in the new ecosystem seems to be to give the faster men a breather while ensuring that not many runs are scored in the interim.

It may sound bizarre but spinners don't cause concern anymore in the Ranji trophy - at least on most pitches. There are aberrations, like when the host association dishes out a dustbowl to ensure an outright victory and spinners end up with exaggerated figures. Karnail Singh Stadium (Railways' home ground till last season) used to regularly dish out these underprepared pitches over the years. No wonder the centre has been banned for a year for doling out dustbowls.

The poor performances of Indian spinners are also adversely impacting the ability of batsmen in the country to handle spin. We don't often find young Indian batsmen using their feet to get to the pitch of the ball and play along the ground

While the call for pitches with a lot of green, bounce and moisture is fine to an extent, we must not go overboard with it, for the spinners are feeling the pinch.

But pitches hostile to spin aren't the only culprits to be blamed for the deterioration of spin bowling in India. Spinners themselves are cutting down on flight more than ever before. Previously, even on pitches that didn't offer much assistance, good spinners managed to create deception in the air by putting plenty of revolutions on the ball. Such deception can only be achieved if the bowler is willing to flight the ball and take it over the batsman's eye-line.

The inevitable reason for spinners cutting down on flight is to bag IPL deals, for IPL scouts look past bowlers who flight the ball too much. T20 cricket prefers a lower trajectory over revolutions on the ball. It goes without saying that the easiest way of lowering the trajectory is to lower your arm and bowl with a slightly round-arm action. When a bowler stops taking the bowling arm close to his ear, the natural dip, and the bounce off the surface, suffer. While the development of one skill keeps the legacy of spin alive, the other brings monetary advantages for the players.

And if that's not all, the poor performances of Indian spinners are also adversely impacting the ability of batsmen in the country to handle spin. We don't often find young Indian batsmen using their feet to get to the pitch of the ball and play along the ground. The next generation of Indian batsmen prefers taking the aerial route while staying in the crease.

It's turning out to be a depressing downward spiral - in order to produce batsmen who can play fast bowlers better overseas, India started dishing out green pitches, which meant the spin department deteriorated. If that is not arrested in time, India's batsmen will cease to be the best players of spin in the world. After all, a player is a product of the environment he grows in.

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