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'T20 has improved the spinner's ability to anticipate what batsmen will do'

The former New Zealand left-armer on how the art of slow bowling has evolved in the age of 20-over cricket

Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi
"The ability to put four or five balls in the same spot is the thing that challenges batsmen the most"  •  Caribbean Premier League

"The ability to put four or five balls in the same spot is the thing that challenges batsmen the most"  •  Caribbean Premier League

Does T20 cricket benefit or harm spinners? While the debate rages on, Daniel Vettori, the former New Zealand left-arm spinner and captain, believes the format has helped spinners evolve in the long run. It is hard to ignore the opinion of Vettori, a spinner who was often one step ahead of the batsman over the years, especially in limited-overs cricket.
Having announced his retirement following the 2015 World Cup final, Vettori is now the coach of two franchises: Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL and Brisbane Heat in the Big Bash League.
Spinners have played a crucial role in T20. How has their role evolved?
There have been different stages. You look at the dominance that a number of spin bowlers had through the last five or six years - that has changed a lot because of the crackdown on illegal actions. Now you see a lot of traditional spinners come back to the fore. They have been able to do that because they have had to basically find a way to compete in such a batting-dominant era. That and the ability to anticipate what a batsman is trying to do has only improved.
And that is down to T20 cricket a lot, because you spend the whole time trying to guess what a batsman is trying to do. Because they are being so aggressive towards to you, the good spinners have had to find ways to deal with that, and mainly that is through anticipation.
What qualities does a good spinner need in T20?
The good spinners identify when they can attack and defend. You don't get too many opportunities in a T20 game to attack, but the really good ones, they know when it is the right time to bowl what ball, they know when it is the right to try and chase a wicket, and they also know when the right time is to try and get three or four dot balls or three or four singles. And all that builds into a complete package. I don't think you can be an all-out attacking spinner in T20 because obviously [while] we have good days, you won't put enough consistent performances together.
There is a lot of focus on variations. Is that one of the most important things for success in T20?
You have to keep a batsman guessing a little bit. [But] that ability to put four or five balls in the same spot is the thing that challenges batsmen the most. So that consistency of accuracy, as well as being able have the variations, gives you a chance to succeed.
"Sometimes when bowlers have success, they think they need to go up a level, they need a new ball. Your skill set has been good enough for you, there is no reason why it can't continue to be successful "
What are the key variations for you?
Change of pace is the key. For a fingerspinner, that ability to just put a batsman either off his shot or through his shot early. The change of pace is very subtle - it may be just three or four kph, but that can make a huge difference. It can be little things like bowling a cross-seam ball and arm ball - those things just change what a batsman is trying do. We all know at times it is not going to work: you can bowl a good ball and that can go for a six, but if a batsman is unsure what the next ball is, even if he can play it well, at least you are putting some doubt in his head.
"In terms of variation of pace, you need a lot of guts." R Ashwin said that during the World T20 in 2014. Do you agree?
Absolutely. You can go into a game with a mindset of "I'm just going to be defensive and try and bowl 24 yorkers, or 24 faster balls." But straightway that counters what I was saying before: putting doubt in a batsman's head. So the batsman, while there may be difficult balls to hit, might be able to set himself up to eventually get on top of you and get the better of you. So even if it's a case of bowling four faster balls and two slower balls and mixing it up, that variation can be the difference between taking a wicket or going for eight, nine, ten runs an over. So to turn up and say to yourself that I'm going to have that courage is something you wrestle with in your mind every single ball you bowl.
Is that difficult to teach a young spinner, to have guts?
That is an experience thing. But the thing about cricketers in T20 cricket nowadays is that they are confronted with that instantly. If I go back to when I started, batsmen were aggressive but weren't playing this form of the game and therefore we probably got a chance to work our way into a session, into an over or a spell, whereas now it is straight from ball one. So while it is difficult, a lot of young spinners are learning quite quickly what they need to do to survive.
Jayant Yadav, the Haryana and Delhi Daredevils offspinner, has a question for you: having had a good IPL, he wants to know how to stay consistent in this form of the game.
It is about having the ability to continuously do what he has done already. Sometimes when bowlers have that initial success, they think they need to go up a level, they need to bowl a new ball, something has to change. But that courage to be able to do what have you been doing the whole time, what's made you successful, and just try to be slightly better at that rather than thinking you have to do anything different [is what counts]. I have seen that happen a number of times: spinners have had a good IPL season or have had a good start to their international career, and then all of a sudden they are trying to bowl different balls or are slightly different bowlers and their performance drops off. Your skill set has been good enough for you to achieve, there is no reason why it can't continue to be successful for you.
At the other end of the spectrum is the older spinner. There is a trend where bowlers change as they get older. In your case you did not spin the ball as much. Was it difficult?
There is a perception I was a big spinner of the ball. People have probably seen the highlights of the Test match against Australia at Eden Park when that wicket used to turn a long, long way, and so they just always think maybe I was a big spinner. Look, there has never really been a huge, turning fingerspinner. It is about the variations, and occasionally you get a wicket that will turn a bit and assist you.
For me the change was minimal. It was coming through playing all three formats of the game and changing what I need to do between those formats to remain successful. That is probably the biggest challenge: there is not a huge number of spinners who perform in all formats at the moment. Ashwin is probably the exception to the rule. That is the main challenge for a spinner as he becomes more and more settled in the team.
You did not have many variations. Were you not tempted, or did you always believe in keeping things simple?
I went through a stage of trying to bowl the doosra. At one point it was coming out reasonably well, but I felt like it was affecting the other aspects of my bowling. And like I said I before, the aspects that had made me successful were starting to deteriorate for the sake of a ball that spun a little bit back in. Obviously there was merit to it, but once I realised that I was bowling poorly, I needed to put it on the backburner.
All spinners are constantly looking to get better and always viewing other spinners, what they are doing, intrigued by it all. So I don't think there is ever a time where you sit back and feel comfortable at what you are doing, but you just have to realise what actually suits your game. If you go to most training sessions, most spinners have got all the balls there. It is just about going into the middle and having the courage to stick to ones you know best, or having the courage to try something different.
At what stage of your career was this when - you tried the doosra?
I think it was about when I was 23 or 24 years old. A good time ago.
"Sometimes you have that aggressive batsman and you try and be attacking to them, but with Hayden that never really worked. The more defensive I was, I felt the more success I had against him"
Was it you who noticed, or a coach or team-mate who pointed out that it was affecting your bowling?
No, it was myself. Every spinner has tried it out. And it came into vogue with, initially, Saqlain [Mushtaq], and the likes of [Saeed] Ajmal, [Muttiah] Muralitharan, Harbhajan [Singh] being able to perfect it. I mean, aesthetically it is an amazing ball - you watch a ball pitch and go the other way and deceive batsman. Everyone wants to be able do that. I was no different.
In limited-overs cricket you always seemed to be one step ahead of the batsmen. What were the cues that helped you read them?
Through experience I understood what a batsman was attempting to do and knew when you could get away with a slower ball or a more attacking ball. And you knew when you had to be a touch more defensive because a batsman was trying to get after you.
Was there a batsman who caused you a lot of distress initially but you felt comfortable against subsequently?
Someone like a Matthew Hayden, maybe. I remember every first ball I bowled to him seemed to disappear back over my head. In the latter part of my bowling career I had a bit more success. I am not sure whether I had worked him out, but I was probably a lot more defensive to him then. Because sometimes you have that aggressive batsman and you try and be attacking to them, but being attacking to him never really worked. The more defensive I was, I felt the more success I had against him. And that flies in the face, I suppose, of how people talk about the game - that you have got to be as aggressive as possible. Sometimes you have to realise what your personal strength is. And in this situation it was being a lot more defensive.
Critics say T20 makes the spinner more defensive.
I don't think it is so much the game of T20 cricket. Sometimes when you are coming up against those Eden Park-style boundaries, that is the thing that can possibly lead to a defensive mindset for a spinner. Because once you are mis-hit and it goes for a six, it can be demoralising and tough to bounce back. The game of T20 cricket is fantastic for spinners, but the thing that sometimes works against them is the size of the grounds.
Daniel Vettori will be playing for Jamaica Tallawahs in the Hero Caribbean Premier League. "The biggest party in sport" runs from June 20 to July 26.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo