March 7, 2013

In praise of the offspinner

They have had it stacked against them but props to them for evolving and keeping their art valid

Playing two offspinners, or three slow bowlers, or even four, wasn't unheard of in Indian cricket when the superior spin quartet of Erapalli Prasanna, BS Chandrasekhar, Bishan Bedi and Srinivas Venkataraghavan ruled the roost. Spin bowling back then wasn't just a skill, it was an art. That seems to be a thing of the past, though, for just about every bowling attack, not just in India but all around the world, has started to focus on bolstering their fast bowling.

If one were to ask ten lower-order batsmen (read bowlers) about the kind of bowling they'd prefer to play, nine would instinctively say offspin. This helps explain why most playing XIs have just one offspinner - if they have any, that is. When in November last year MS Dhoni decided to bring into play a two-pronged offspin attack, R Ashwin and Harbhajan Singh, against England, it was the first time in a decade or so that such a thing was being done.

Technically offspin has traditionally been the easiest form of bowling for a right-hand batsman to counter: the ball comes in after pitching, and even if you were to miss it in the flight or off the surface, you likely won't face the ignominy of getting stumped. You could be bowled if the ball sneaks through, but the option to use the body as a second line of defence gives most batsmen a sense of calm.

The first "shot" that most kids learn to play is the slog in the direction of midwicket. This is ideally suited to offspinning deliveries, since one is hitting with the spin, reducing risk. Playing the away-going ball in the air with the spin requires a lot of skill, but even a No. 11 can slog with the spin effectively: a little bit of luck, bravado, strength, and some skill, and the ball will sail into the vast vacant areas on the on side or into the stands.

With boundaries getting shorter, bats bigger, and pitches flatter, offspinners have had to reinvent themselves more than any of their other counterparts. Fast bowlers can bowl faster deliveries or radically reduce speed, and thus create deception. Legspinners and left-arm spinners - the ones taking the ball away from right-hand batsmen - haven't had to invent new tricks to stay relevant because their existence hasn't been challenged as much as that of offspinners has been.

Offspinners have had to keep trying new things all the time in order to be counted. They have, by default or design, become one of the most forward-looking classes in cricket, always looking for options and defying batsmen, and it has done them good, for at one point it looked like they might become extinct. For instance, they are usually the first to go around the wicket to make sure the batsman has less room available to free his arms. While bowling around the wicket is widely considered a defensive option, offspinners have managed to use it as a form of attack, maintaining an aggressive line by continuing to pitch it around the off stump. The easy option would be to pack the on-side field and finish on the batsman's legs, but they've mostly chosen to finish within the stumps to increase the leg-before possibilities.

It doesn't come as a surprise that in the ongoing India-Australia Test series, four offspinners have been employed - and effectively - by both sides. In fact, over the last six months, the leading offspinners in the game today - Graeme Swann, Saeed Ajmal, Nathan Lyon, Glenn Maxwell, Mohammad Hafeez and James Tredwell - have all been called on to show their craft against India.

No longer fingerspinners
Muttiah Muralitharan changed the very description of an offspinner. He wasn't your conventional fingerspinner who bowled as if turning a doorknob; he used his supple wrists, and as a result started turning the ball more than any other fingerspinner. In fact, he would turn the ball as much as the best legspinners did, if not more.

The first "shot" that most kids learn is the slog in the direction of midwicket. This is ideally suited to offspinning deliveries, since one is hitting with the spin, reducing risk

Murali's style of bowling forced batsmen out of their comfort zone, for stepping down the track wasn't an easy option anymore. In the past, batsmen could, using the body as a second line of defence, come down the track against offspin, for they only had to worry about the slider eluding them. Muralitharan's vicious turners started beating them on the other side too - the ball would spin across their bodies to offer stumpings down the leg side. Even if the sweep and the slog sweep were plausible options, the extra spin off the surface would invariably take the ball a lot squarer than intended off these shots. Many batsmen were dismissed holing out at deep midwicket, targeting the vacant area between long-on and deep midwicket.

The doosra
If Muralitharan's variety created confusion, Saqlain Mushtaq's ability to take the ball away from right-hand batsmen made them look like puppets. Saqlain took a leaf out of Muralitharan's book and, instead of bowling offspinners with the seam slightly tilted, bowled with a scrambled seam. While the flip side of not bowling with the seam tilted is a lack of consistency in the bite off the surface and the drift in the air, the positive is that batsmen are mostly unable to pick the spin in the air. Had Saqlain presented the seam to the batsmen, it would have been a lot easier for them to decipher the away-going ball just by looking at the seam position; not so with a scrambled seam.

Now the ball pitched within the stumps was no longer guaranteed to always head towards the batsman's legs. Saqlain's doosra, later employed by most offspinners in the world, including Muralitharan, didn't just hold its line and go straight on but went the other way markedly, just like a legspinner's stock delivery would. This innovation made offspinners a dangerous wicket-taking proposition.

The carrom ball
The latest trick in the offspinner's bag is the carrom ball, bowled by flicking the fingers and propelling the ball out of the front of the hand. The ball follows a flat trajectory and goes away off the pitch, like a legcutter. Since much spin isn't imparted to the ball, it skids off the surface. Also, the flat trajectory means less bounce, and this in turn means it is difficult for the batsman to get under and find elevation. Additionally, the away movement makes on-side play even tougher.

Special mention must be made of Graeme Swann, who has managed to become one of the best spinners in the world without using the doosra and the carrom ball. Swann uses his long fingers and solid body action to generate spin off the surface, and has mastered the slider, which holds its path instead of spinning into the batsman.

Offspin, whether orthodox or avant garde, by the fact that it has continued to evolve and be effective and enchanting while fighting a battle for survival, deserves to be lauded.

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