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Special features

'You have to read the batsman's mind'

Harbhajan Singh, among the most successful spin bowlers in one-day cricket, talks about the art of keeping the run-rate down

Nishant Arora

'I love the scenarios in a one-day game' © Getty Images
One-day cricket is thought to discriminate against spin bowlers, but you have been quite successful. What would you say is the secret?
There is no secret. It depends on your thought process. The batsman has a bat, we have a ball. Yes, ODIs are tough at times, with unsupportive wickets, but we get our chances. Spinners play a huge role, whether by taking wickets or containing runs. You have to constantly work, and out-think the batsman - whether in Tests or ODIs. That's what spin bowling is all about.
Do you genuinely enjoy bowling in ODIs?
It throws various kinds of challenges at you as a bowler and I love that - whether it is bowling with field restrictions, or in the middle overs, or in the slog overs, all of those situations require different adjustments in your bowling. You have to be alert and ready with various alternative plans, and you have to do it all on the field when things are moving fast. You have to be brave enough to back your ability, and you need to apply your mind all the time, even when you are not bowling.
Do you think the spinner's role in ODIs is mainly a restrictive one?
That's just a myth. The second-highest wicket-taker in ODIs is Muttiah Muralitharan - who knows, he might be the highest wicket-taker soon. People like Murali and Saqlain [Mushtaq] have given a new dimension to spin bowling in limited-overs cricket. Compare the strike-rate or economy-rate of spinners and fast bowlers in ODIs and you will find it is more or less the same. Your role depends on conditions and situations. For example, in South Africa, England or Australia, the conditions are suitable to fast bowling and the spinner helps keep the pressure on. But in India and Sri Lanka it is the spinners who play a huge role and the fast bowlers help them. The middle overs are extremely important in ODIs, and it is largely the spinners who operate around that time.
Every batsman has some pressure-releasing shot, and you have to make sure that you stop him from playing it
How big is the adjustment from Tests to ODIs? Does bowling a restrictive length in ODIs affect your bowling in Tests?
You have to make small adjustments. I have to alter my line while bowling in ODIs. In Tests it is a bit outside the off stump, but in ODIs I try to bowl a bit straighter, a wicket-to-wicket line. In Test cricket you take more chances but in ODIs there is little time to do that. In Test cricket you plan over by over, but in ODIs you have to plan ball by ball. You have to think like a batsman and imagine what he is looking to do in the circumstances.
Is there much scope for experimentation?
There is, but it's experimentation of a different kind. Like I said, you have to read the batsman's mind. For example, every batsman has some pressure-releasing shot, and you have to make sure that you stop him from playing it. That requires mental skill and cricketing skill. Like Inzy's [Inzamam-ul-Haq] pressure-releasing shot against spinners is jumping out and hitting them straight down the ground or over their head. Now you have to gauge when he will do that, and stop him from doing it in order to build the pressure. At the same time you have to make him play that shot when his team is not under pressure - looking for something like four runs per over, for example.
What's your reaction to the criticism that the modern spinner essentially has a negative mindset?
That's not true. In ODIs, stopping the run-flow is as important as taking wickets. If you don't give runs, then the batsman is under pressure to try something and that's your best chance to take wickets. Why is Glenn McGrath such a great bowler? He does the same thing. Will you say he has a negative mindset? Look at Shane Warne. I don't think he will play any form of cricket with a negative frame of mind.
Would you agree that one-day cricket discourages flight?
I don't agree with this either. What is flight? It's not necessary to throw the ball into the clouds. I feel the dip is more important, then flight. And dip only comes when you put revolutions on the ball, and that happens when you toss it a bit in the air. They all are inter-related. And apart from that, every bowler has his own style. People say that Anil Kumble doesn't turn or flight the ball. But you will often find batsmen struggling to read his length - either they lean forward or go on the back foot, and give catches to silly point, back to the bowler, or mid-on or mid-off. Why does this happen? It's because of the dip. Is that not deceiving in flight?

'It's not necessary to throw the ball into the clouds. I feel the dip is more important, then flight' © Getty Images
Your most common mode of dismissal in Tests is caught at short leg or silly point. But in ODIs you often have to bowl without close-in fielders.
In ODIs you use your close-in fielders differently. Like for me the slips and short midwicket and short cover are very important positions. I rarely bowl without those fielders. Close-in fielders have a different definition and role in ODIs.
Do you like bowling when the field restrictions are on?
I do. It is a great feeling when the opposition's batsmen have started well and your captain calls you to stop the runs. Every ball is important because you have to control the momentum of the run-scoring. Of course, at the end of the match if I have bowled an expensive spell, no one is going to be saying, "Oh, he bowled with the field up." But I love the whole scenario all the same.
Who do you prefer to bowl to - batsmen like Adam Gilchrist and Virender Sehwag or Rahul Dravid and Younis Khan?
Definitely Younis and Dravid. They can milk you for singles, but rarely do they cut your spell short. Batsmen like Gilchrist and Viru can destroy your spell in one over.
What would you rather take in an ODI: 1 for 30 or 3 for 50?
It depends on the match. In a high-scoring match I'll be happy with 1 for 35. In a match where I have bowled in the first 20 overs and then in the slog overs, I am happy with something for 40. But when I have bowled in the middle overs, I would like 3 for 50.
Nishant Arora is chief cricket correspondent of CNN-IBN This interview was was part of the cover story celebrating the tradition of Indian spin bowling in the September issue of Cricinfo Magazine
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