December 13, 2012

Why England's spinners are better

A look at why Panesar and Swann have outbowled Ojha and Ashwin in India

There were times in India when the sight of a spinner running in to the crease was intimidating for the batsman. The close-in fielders hovered, standing by to take the catches that would inevitably be produced. Back then Indian spinners sent out strong signals - that they were as lethal as the Caribbean quick bowlers, and no second fiddles. Invariably India's spinners were superior to those from other countries, and the land of Bedi, Chandrashekhar and Prasanna kept producing quality spinners, so much so that some of them didn't even play for India - for these three kept going for years.

Today, though, even on wilting, dusty turners, Indian spinners don't hold the same threat. For the longest time, dishing out a dustbowl guaranteed success, for India's batsmen would score a mountain of runs and the spinners would bowl the opposition out twice, double quick. But since the retirement of Anil Kumble, things have changed.

The signs of the downward spiral have been there for everyone to see. The lowest ebb has been reached in the ongoing series against England - probably the first time in Indian cricket's history that a visiting team from outside the subcontinent has had the services of better spinners, and the decision to dish out a rank turner has been more likely to backfire on India than guarantee success - as happened in Mumbai.

Why is it that Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann are extracting a lot more out of the tracks than their Indian counterparts? (Remember also that they're bowling against a batting line-up that is known for its proficiency against the turning ball.)

Panesar has been the most impressive bowler in the series, operating at a pace ideally suited to the tracks provided thus far. He bowls at least 10kph quicker than is usually recommended for spinners. While that extra pace goes against him on good batting surfaces - because he doesn't keep the ball in the air long enough to create deception - it's working absolutely fine on slow Indian pitches. The extra pace in the air doesn't allow the batsman the luxury of stepping out or of waiting on the back foot. It is this extra pace that made Panesar unplayable at times in Mumbai, because handling a viciously turning ball at high speeds is extremely difficult.

If it was only about the pace, then why didn't India's spinners crack the code and bowl quicker too? After all, how difficult could it be to increase your pace as a spinner?

That's where the basics are important, for speed can work in your favour only if the ball comes out of the hand properly, with enough revolutions on it. That's precisely where Panesar has scored over Pragyan Ojha.

Panesar's action is that of a classical left-arm spinner, with the bowling arm very close to the ear, which enables him to not only get the wrist position slightly tilted (about 45 degrees) at the point of release but also to extract more bounce off the surface with the higher point of release.

He delivers from the middle of the box, which allows him to bowl a lot straighter. Bowling closer to the stumps makes his arm ball a lot more effective, for it is always pitching and finishing in line with the stumps. Also, his follow-through takes him towards the batsman, which means the body momentum is heading in the direction of the ball; that translates into him getting a fair bit of zip off the surface.

In contrast, Ojha releases the ball from the corner of the box, and his bowling arm is further away from the ear than in Panesar's case. Ojha's position on the crease creates an acute angle, which might give a false impression of the ball drifting in. It also means he needs a lot of assistance from the pitch to generate spin off the surface to compensate for that angle. His wrist position is slightly more tilted than Panesar's at the point of release, which negatively affects not just bounce off the surface but also his chances of turning the ball. Finally, there's no follow-through whatsoever: Ojha stops as soon as he delivers the ball, which indicates that his bowling is a lot about wrist and shoulder instead of being about hips and torso as well.

Swann is technically superior to R Ashwin too. His bowling is all about using every limb to impart more revolutions on the ball. Since he plays most of his cricket on unresponsive English pitches, he has learnt the importance of putting revs on the ball every single time, which creates deception in the air by making the ball dip on the batsman, and also produces bite off the surface.

In Test cricket there needs to be a stock ball that one should bowl, ball after ball. You need to create deception in the air by varying the lines and speeds ever so slightly

Swann doesn't have too many variations; in fact he has got only two deliveries - the one that spins in to the right-hander and the arm ball that goes straight on. Having fewer variations has led him to become more patient, and made him rely on changing the point of release, speed and flight without compromising on length. He has struck a fine balance between being aggressive and being patient.

His lines of operation to right-handed batsmen are slightly outside off, challenging the batsman to play against the spin. Against the left-handers, he bowls a lot closer, cramping them for room. Like with Panesar, Swann's body momentum too takes him towards the batsman.

Ashwin, on the other hand, has a lot of tricks in his bag. He can bowl the traditional offspinner, a doosra and a carrom ball at will, and with a reasonable amount of control. His high-arm action gets him bounce off the surface too. But while having so many options works wonders in the shorter formats, where the batsmen can't line him up, it works against him in Test cricket.

Wickets in Test matches are a result of setting up a dismissal, and for that you need to be patient, almost bordering on being boring and predictable. There needs to be a stock ball that one should bowl, ball after ball. You need to create deception in the air by varying the lines and speeds ever so slightly. The longer you keep the batsman occupied with one kind of delivery, the better your chances of the variation catching him off guard. Ashwin, with all the weapons in his armoury, feels obliged to bring them out at regular intervals. This hampers his consistency with line and length, and results in him offering up boundary balls often.

Technically, while his wrist and arm position are good, like Ojha he too doesn't put his body behind the ball as much as he should; he falls towards the left after delivering the ball, instead of taking the momentum towards the batsman.

The quality of India's spinners was one of the reasons the team became a force to reckon with in Test cricket. The remarkable records at home were all courtesy spin. India may have had a pantheon of quality spinners but the current crop does not seem to have been able to master the craft. There are plenty of former players around who were masters of the skill. Time India got these veterans to guide the youngsters on how to spin a web around teams again.

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