The Search of Spinners

Moeen Ali took 19 wickets to finish as the second-highest wicket-taker in the Pataudi Trophy, which India lost 1-3 in England. Two years ago, it was Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar that spun the Indian batsmen into submission, their joint tally of 37 wickets helping England win a Test series in India for the first time in 28 years. In contrast, India’s best spin pair at the moment, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, managed an aggregate of 12 wickets in five Tests in England this year. Even during the home series in 2012-13, played on spinner-friendly pitches, Aswhin, thought to be Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh’s successor, took 17 wickets at an average of 52.64. India’s best spinner in that home series was left-armer Pragyan Ojha, who took 20 wickets. Today, Ojha has been relegated to the India A team and took just one wicket for 163 runs in his most recent first-class game, against Australia A.


After their capitulation in the final two Tests of the England tour, India will be worrying about pretty much every area of their side. That the spin department is also a weak link is both surprising and alarming, considering India’s historic dependence on spinners to win them Test matches.


A glance at the tables listing the top five wicket-takers in the Ranji Trophy over the past three years indicates the extent of the problem. Last year, no spinner was among the top five wicket-takers. In 2012-13, there was only Shahbaz Nadeem, a left-arm spinner from Jharkhand. This trend seems to have begun after India’s 0-4 Test series loss on their 2011 tour of England. In the domestic season preceding that, spinners thrived, with Baroda’s left-arm spinner Bhargav Bhatt finishing on top of the wicket charts with 47 wickets and Karnataka’s Sunil Joshi third on the list with 32 wickets at an average of less than 19. After the national side’s humiliation in England, the Board of Cricket Control for India (BCCI), wanting to prepare Indian batsmen for foreign conditions, asked the pitches and grounds committee to focus on creating pitches conducive to fast bowling. Consequently, in the Elite group, there was not one spinner in the top five bowlers at the end of the 2011-12 Ranji season.


In my conversations with experts Bishan Singh Bedi, Narendra Hirwani, Murali Kartik, Praveen Amre and Amol Muzumdar for this story, not one name emerged as a promising nominee to be India’s next lead spinner. The reasons for this dearth of young spinners are several: from the influence of Twenty20 cricket to seamer-friendly pitches to inappropriate coaching methods.


The BCCI has addressed the issue haphazardly. The board opened a spin wing at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore at which consultants are called to mentor young slow bowlers from around the country. Yet, invariably, when the youngster goes back to his state or franchise, he is influenced to implement a different action or strategy. Neither the senior Indian team nor the junior ones have a dedicated spin coach. There is no dedicated spin academy, on the lines of the MRF Pace Foundation, which can conduct workshops for not only players but also domestic coaches to inculcate knowledge on the specialised art that spin bowling is.


For years, India has moaned about their lack of fast bowlers, with reasons ranging from a lack of idols to vegetarianism given to explain why India just can’t produce a genuine quick. However, now, for perhaps the first time, India has a new problem. They can’t seem to find a lead spinner. That Jadeja, who initially got into the Test team as a batting all rounder, is MS Dhoni’s first choice in overseas Tests is an indicator of just how dry the pool of spinners in Indian cricket is.


The perils of T20


“Where is the next Indian spinner coming from?” Bishan Singh Bedi, the former India left-arm spinner and captain, asks. Bedi has no answer to his own question. The root of the problem he believes is that young spinners want success overnight. “We are at a very strange crossroads, where everybody and anybody wants to get into the national team quickly. That does not happen when it comes to spin bowling. Spin bowling is all about learning your craft over a period of time. You can’t learn spin bowling by just delivering four overs in Twenty20,” a visibly worked-up Bedi says.


According to Murali Kartik, who played just eight Tests for India but earned a reputation as one of the best spinners in domestic cricket through his performances for Railways, there is no emerging talent only because youngsters have switched their attention to Twenty20 cricket. He says that nowadays before learning what their action is, before learning the conventional form of spin, because of the lure of money, the youngsters want to play the shorter formats.


Kartik successfully transformed himself from a seam bowler to a spinner by rigorously practising the basics of spin. “I am somebody who used to dart the ball. I was a seamer who turned spinner. So, I had to go back to the drawing board and learnt the basics f rom scratch. I was lucky to be under the guidance of Bishan Bedi and Maninder Singh [former India spinner]. What they taught me, I just worked and worked and worked on that.”


Twenty20, Kartik points out, is harmful even to a senior spinner. “Take the case of Pragyan Ojha. He went at a rate of nearly five runs an over for a solitary wicket in 35 overs in the one match he played on the India A tour of Australia, in July. This is a spinner who has taken more than 100 Test wickets. He is confused after he has come back from the Indian Premier League. So, you can imagine the sate of a young bowler who does not know his game inside out and is bowling just four overs in Twenty20 matches.”


The onset of the defensive mindset


“There was a time when the level of spinners at Ranji Trophy and Test level was virtually the same. That divide has become very big now,” says Narendra Hirwani, the former India legspinner and ex-national selector. “The main reason behind that is the mentality that runs must be stopped. If I try to minimise the runs I give away, then I need to reduce the spin on the ball. If you spin the ball less, you could concede less runs, but you also reduce your chances of taking a wicket.


“Even Harbhajan Singh slid in the latter half of his career because he started to focus more on checking the runs. His line shifted to middle stump, and that reduced his chances of taking wickets. An attacking line for an off spinner is on the fifth stump.”


Hirwani reckons spinners should practise on pitches that are not turning and assisting them too much. “That way, you will need to put in effort, spin the ball more and think more to get your wickets.”


Underbowling and overcoaching


At his coaching academy at the Cricket Club of Indore, Hirwani is disappointed when he hears young spinners telling him how many balls they have delivered in the nets during the day. “They tell me: ‘Sir, I have bowled 60 balls. Sir, I have bowled 50 balls today.’ I tell them, if you want to make cream, Raja, you have to condense it and that only happens after boiling for a period of time. A good rabri is only made when the cream is rich. For quality, you need quanity.”


Whe he was young, Hirwani would bowl at the Cricket Club of India for about two or three hours at one stump. Then, he would move to the main nets. “In all, I would bowl a minimum of five hours a day. If you are bowling at one stump, you end up bowling about 30 overs in an hour. This kind of training, bowling at one stump, is equivalent to classical vocalists doing riyaaz. Bowling for such a long time builds your muscle memory.”


Bedi says he had the ‘junoon’ required to be a successful spinner. “You have to just bowl, bowl and bowl,” he says. “I would bowl at least seven to eight hours every day. I was obsessed.”


Amol Muzumdar, former Mumbai batsman and captain, cannot understand why coaches these days fiddle with young spinners’ bowling actions. “Earlier, there were spinners with different actions. In the 1980s, when I was growing up, there were Maninder Singh, Ravi Shastri, Venkatpathy Raju and so many others, all of whom had different actions. The essence of spin bowling  is to keep your action natural. Now, we are over-coaching youngsters. That has to be stopped.”


Praveen Amre, a long-established and successful domestic coach, agrees with Muzumdar. Both men cite the example of the Mumbai left-arm spinner Harmeet Singh, whose growth was stunted by over-coaching. “When Harmeet was 17, he showed a lot of promise. In 2012, he played the Under-19 World Cup and impressed the likes of Ian Chappell. He also did well in his first Ranji season. But, he lost his way subsequently,” Amre says. Muzumdar says this is because Harmeet changed his action. “When I saw him a few years ago in the indoor nets in Mumbai, Harmeet had a unique action. His front foot would land with a heavy thrust on the ground. That was his skill and helped him deliver the ball nicely. But, now, he delivers from a much lower height, and that is because he has changed his action. I fear we have lost one more good spinner to over-coaching.”


Bedi is not so quick to shift the blame from pupil to teacher. According to him, the player has to learn about his art himself, with experience. “I keep hearing about pitching in the right areas. The right area is between your ears, in your  mind. I also had an outstanding coach. He gave me a lot of cricket sense. Cricket ability and cricket sense are two different things,” Bedi says.


Led in the wrong direction


The captain plays a crucial role in the impact a spinner has in a match. Erapalli Prasanna says Tiger Pataudi was a genius. Standing in the slips, Pataudi would watch and dissect the batsman’s technique closely. He would then pass on the information to Prasanna, and both of them would collectively set a field to trap the victim.


Kartik says a captain plays a massive role in a spinner’s development. He was lucky to play under VB Chandrasekar when he started playing first-class cricket for Tamil Nadu. “A captain can make or break a spinner. He should understand what spinners go through, how they function and how they can be turned into matchwinners.”


Muzumdar says captains are no longer cast in the Pataudi mould. “As a captain, you have to be patient.  You need to relax even if a four or six is hit off a spinner. Nowadays, batsmen go after slow bowlers, especially ones that do not impart too much spin on the ball, as soon as they come into the attack. The captain immediately asks the spinner to keep it tight while his fast bowlers rest,” he says.


He gives the example of former Mumbai and India legspinner Sairaj Bahutule to illustrate how captains can groom a spinner. Bahutule did not make headlines during his early years in the Mumbai dressing-room. Yet, his captains, Sanjay Manjrekar, Ravi Shastri and Sachin Tendulkar, did not lose their patience. “After four years, I guess, Sairaj became Mumbai’s lead spinner. I saw the development in his bowling after about four years. Once, we were playing Delhi in a Ranji Trophy match. Batsman Ajay Sharma was taking control of the match, but Manjrkear persisted with Sairaj and left-arm spinner Nilesh Kulkarni despite Sharma playing aggressively against them. In the end, Mumbai won that match.”


Kartik says Ranji Trophy cricket has become glorified one-day cricket. “Even there, when a spinner comes on to bowl, the captain wants you to give away as few runs as possible. So, you are not giving the spinner any confidence.”


In first-class cricket, Kartik has observed, captains now place a long-on, long-off and deep point for a spinner, who runs up and darts the ball in. “To dart, you do not need to know the fundamentals of spin bowling. To bowl with flight, to beat the batsman in the air, to spin the ball, for those things you need the basics to be very strong,” Kartik says.


Bedi is not impressed at all with the pool of young spinners in domestic cricket. Akshar Patel, the Gujarat left-arm spinner, who hit the headlines with his performances for Kings XI Punjab during the last IPL, was included in the India A team that won the recent Quadrangular A team ODI series in Australia. Patel took nine wickets in six matches at an average of 28. But, in Bedi’s eyes, Patel has to grow a lot and bowls “far too flat” for his liking. “There is no imagination. You are only playing a waiting game. So, the batsman will always be on top. You have to make a batsman do what you want him to do.


“Spin bowling is a philosophy. You have to outwit your opponent. It can be compared to playing chess. It is not bowling flat like young Indian bowlers, and even Jadeja, is doing.”


The death of dustbowls


In 2011, after India’s 0-4 Test series loss in England, then BCCI secretary Sanjay Jagdale asked the pitch and grounds committee to prepare pitches more conducive to fast bowling. “That was a knee-jerk reaction,” says Kartik. “The diktat from the BCCI was to keep a minimum of 4mm of grass on the pitch.”


In England’s County Championship, the heavy roller is usually used only on the first day of a match, Kartik says. “In India, however, the heavy roller is used throughout a four-day game. So, by the time the match is into the third day, when the wicket should be naturally disintegrating, it is instead a flat deck. Because the grass cover has been rolled again and again, there are no natural variations in bounce; there are no footmarks. Even on the fourth day there is nothing for  a spinner.”


In Kartik’s farwell Ranji Trophy season, last year, he bowled 71 overs in seven matches. “Out of that, 10 overs I ran in and bowled seam-up against Tamil Nadu at Jamia Millia ground in Delhi. At times, we have played on pitches that resembled the Wimbledon tennis courts.


“I have got photographs from a match against Rajasthan of the pitch at Sawai Mansingh stadium. Neither of the teams knew where the pitch ended and where the outfield started. Ramesh Powar was dropped by Rajasthan, who played four seamers.” Kartik, leading Railways, had to sit out his legspinner Karn Sharma. “I bowled only two overs in the match. In Baroda, the same thing happened. That is how it has been in the past few years.” In addition to the pitches, the SG ball being used in Ranji Trophy games also favours the seamers, swinging for 30 or 40 overs.


Kartik says he can bowl effectively despite the unhelpfulness of current Indian pitches, but he is not so sure the younger spinners can do the same. “I can still bowl on those wickets because I have bowled in the conventional four-day style. Harbhajan Singh has done that. Powar has done that. Sunil Joshi has done that. But, Ravindra Jadeja, Iqbal Abdulla, Vishal Dabholkar and the rest of the new crop have learnt only restrictive bowling. They bowl with a round arm and under-cut the ball. That is what is happening closer to the grassroots too.”


Making spin-friendly surfaces will not solve India’s spin woes, Kartik says. That gives bowlers a false sense of confidence. “The solution is only one: make the youngsters learn the right way right from the beginning.”


A dying craft


Spin is not just an art. It is a silk ribbon that floats in the air, drifts and dips before defeating the bat. So, it can be used as a weapon. According to Bedi, it can be used to instill not just doubt but even fear in the batsman. Muzumdar agrees. “Indian spinners are not a threat anymore,” he says. “A batsman feels threatened at the crease only when the ball begins to fizz. If you are darting the ball at me, I am happy, absolutely happy to face that. But, when the ball fizzes off the surface, when it has flight and spin, then batting is not easy. That is not seen anymore.” Muzumdar still recollects the doubt and fear Venkatpathy Raju put in his mind early on his career. “I remember facing Raju in Mumbai. I could hear the turn in the air. The ball went ‘farrrrrrr’. It was the same with Maninder Singh. That really put me on the back foot.”


Hirwani’s message to all young spin bowlers is that it is important to bowl your stock delivery 80 percent of the time in first-class cricket. The rest of the time, you can use your variations as a surprise.


So, are there young spinners on the horizon who the experts believe will be India’s next matchwinner? The verdict is not a happy one. Bedi, Kartik, Amre and Muzumdar struggle to think of a name. Hirwani has faith in 19-year-old Kuldeep Yadav, a chinaman bower from Uttar Prdesh, and Bengal offspinnerAamirGani, who just turned 18. Neither has played a first-class match yet though.


Praveen Amre insists that it is time for the BCCI to start a spin academy on the lines of the MRF Pace Foundation, which has been scouting, grooming and polishing fast bowlers for more than two decades. “The time has come to think of an academy. Spin is going to be important, and you need to have an orthodox spinner.”


Bedi thinks the most effective way of developing spin talent would be to appoint someone of repute to scout and decide which players have the skills and talent to play first-class cricket, and preserve them. Kartik approves that suggestion strongly. He also recommends stopping Under-20 cricketers from playing Twenty20 cricket. “Kids should play only three or four-day cricket. They should learn to flight the ball and learn to get hit.”


Is there a role for spin consultants, like the ones other countries employ? Amre is open to specialist spin coaches working on short-term assignments with state teams to help spinners create more impact. “A guy like Narendra Hirwani, who has taken 700-plus first-class wickets, is a good example as he can help the spinner work on specific issues a normal coach might not have time for.”


In the past, India has made up — partially, at least — for their failures abroad with strong home performances. To beat the top sides in India, though, they will need to find a world-class spinner. At the moment, none seem to be on the horizon.





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