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Sharp eyes, soft hands, quick feet

A few key skills and attributes needed to be succesful against spin bowling

Aakash Chopra
Aakash Chopra
Clarke: twinkle toes  •  Hamish Blair/Getty Images

Clarke: twinkle toes  •  Hamish Blair/Getty Images

Haven't we heard a zillion times that batsmen from the subcontinent are not comfortable against quick bowlers on bouncy tracks? A lot of Indian batsmen received flak in the recently concluded World Twenty20 in the Caribbean for their ineptness against bounce. But are the same experts and critics equally harsh on overseas players who are found wanting while handling spin on the subcontinent? Isn't playing the turning ball as difficult an art to acquire as handling short-pitched stuff? I think it is and if you don't believe me, ask Ricky Ponting about his horror series in India in 2001.
Playing the turning ball on a spiteful pitch needs not only technical prowess but also a certain amount of decisiveness in terms of foot movement, and courage in shot selection. Not that the slow bowler can hurt you physically, but the mental scars, at times, are more difficult to heal.
This is an attempt to outline the basics of playing spin bowling effectively.
Reading it from the hand
The reason most English batsmen struggled against spin for the longest time was that they were told to play the spin off the surface. Instead of trying to read the spin from the hand, they waited for the ball to pitch before setting themselves up, which was obviously way too late - though they managed if the ball spun in the expected orthodox manner, i.e. from leg to off for a legspinner and off to leg for an offspinner. But the moment the bowler bowled a doosra or a googly, they were at sea.
On the contrary, batsmen from the subcontinent are taught to read the ball right at the time of the release. A bowler needs to deliver a doosra or googly in a completely different manner to his stock ball, and if picked at the point of delivery, the batsman is always better equipped to handle it.
It doesn't end there. The seam position after release tells a story too. The direction in which the seam is tilted gives you a fair indication of which way the ball will spin after pitching. The shine on the ball informs you a bit about which way the ball will drift and also if the bowler has bowled an arm ball. An offspinner keeps the shiny side facing his palm for an arm-ball.
These may not be foolproof methods of reading spin, but isn't batting a lot about educated guesswork? Of course, all of this goes for a toss if you're playing a spinner like Muralitharan, who likes bowling with a scrambled seam; in which case you have to completely rely on your judgement at the point of release.
Playing late and using your feet
Your job doesn't end with managing to read the spin from the hand and drift in the flight. On the contrary it starts there. Just like while playing fast bowlers, you must allow the ball to come close to you and play as late as possible. Your foot movement needs to be decisive and distinct if you are to be a good player of the turning ball. Since the deviation off the pitch is far greater for a spinner than for a fast bowler, it's mandatory to get to the pitch of the ball to smother that movement. While getting to the pitch of the ball is always advisable, it is more practical against a spinner rather than a quick bowler.
Good players of the spin also use the depth of the crease to good effect. Michael Clarke is one of the best players when it comes to using the feet. I watched him from close quarters (standing at short leg) when he scored a century on his Test debut, in Bangalore. Gautam Gambhir is equally competent when it comes to using his feet.
The golden rule while stepping out is to wait for the bowler to release the ball, so that he can't alter his length or line. Another rule of thumb to use is to advance against balls that go higher than the eye level.
Body-weight transfer
Correct transference of body weight is absolutely crucial while playing the slower bowlers. Since there isn't any pace to work with, it's the transfer of body weight at the time of impact that generates power and timing. Playing on the up is rarely an option against spin bowling and hence the weight must go forward in the direction in which you intend to play the shot. Good body-weight transfer also ensures that you hit the ball along the ground and not in the air.
The importance of the hands
Contrary to popular belief, keeping the bat and pad together while defending isn't the best method. Yes, there shouldn't be any gap between the bat and pad, but the bat must always stay slightly in front of the pad for a proper impact. Keeping the bat beside the pad occasionally results in the bat being hidden behind the pad, and it also gives the impression that you didn't offer a shot.
The golden rule while stepping out is to wait for the bowler to release the ball, so that the bowler can't alter his length or line. Another rule of thumb to use is to advance against balls that go higher than the eye level
Another thing one must keep in mind while playing spinners, especially in the longer formats, is to keep the hands very soft. The top hand should hold the bat firmly, while the bottom hand should be there just to support. Soft hands will ensure that the ball doesn't carry to close-in fielders.
Hands and wrists play a bigger role in manoeuvring spinners and putting the ball into gaps, as compared to while playing the quick bowler. Watching VVS Laxman or Mohammad Azharuddin play slower bowlers was like watching a painter working his magic on a canvas. Obviously the lack of pace allows you to work it around, but it's still an art.
Pushing the fielder back and sweeping
Being aggressive on rank turners is extremely important, because regardless of how solid your technique is, pushing and prodding won't be enough to survive. Vikram Rathour, a brilliant player of spin at the domestic level, told me that you must take the aerial route to push the fielders back. Once the bowler employs a long-on and long-off, batting becomes a lot easier.
A lot of non-Indian players are taught to sweep spinners as much as they can. While sweeping is a good option to disrupt the rhythm of the bowler, you must have other tricks in your bag. Matthew Hayden was one of the most ferocious sweepers of the cricket ball, but what made him dangerous was that he didn't shy away from using his feet. If the bowler knows that you only sweep, he varies his length and speed to make it tough. But once you start using your feet, along with sweeping, even good bowlers find it tough to negotiate. Brian Lara's epic series in Sri Lanka comes to mind straightaway.
Playing the ball from the rough outside leg
Negotiating balls pitched in the rough is extremely tough for a couple of reasons. One, since the ball pitches outside the leg stump, there's a blind spot to deal with. Two, you can never be sure of the amount of spin when it pitches in the footmarks.
Virender Sehwag has a unique way of handling it. He stands in his stance with both his feet in the crease. He reckons that this allows him to make the length shorter and play the pull shot. Laxman, on the other hand, has a completely different method. He steps down the track frequently and gets to the pitch of the ball, and he doesn't hesitate to play against the spin. But the majority of batsmen like to pad it away for as long as possible before trying an occasional sweep - normal or reverse.
A player is, more often than not, a product of his environment. If you're exposed to quick and bouncy tracks early, you'll automatically become comfortable against pace. Similarly, if you play your entire cricket on dirt-bowls, you'll be at home against spin. But like Clarke, Hayden and Lara, you could also work your way towards mastering this craft.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here