No clue against the spinning ball

Several Indian batsmen appear to lose the battle in the mind when they come up against spinners on pitches conducive to spin. They see a couple of deliveries spin past the bat or turn into them sharply and then let that impact their approach mentally.

Ajinkya Rahane (left) and Murali Vijay are the best players of spin in the Indian line-up.   -  AP

Left-arm spinner Rangana Herath exposed India's weakness against spin in the recent series in Sri Lanka.   -  REUTERS

There was a period when spinners from visiting sides would be easy meat for Indian batsmen. But, that was a long time ago.

These are days when the Indian batting line-up has appeared increasingly vulnerable against spin. Matches have been lost and series decided on the tentative footwork of the Indian batsmen while coping with the turning ball.

Off-spinner Graeme Swann and left-armer Monty Panesar combined to spin England to a famous series victory in India. In England, it was Moeen Ali, not a full-fledged offie according to many, who sent India on a tail-spin.

When the West Indies toured India, off-spinner Shane Shillingford found himself among big wickets. When India visited Australia last season, off-spinner Nathan Lyon donned a significant role as India hurtled to a defeat in the last session of the first Test in Adelaide.

And when India journeyed to Sri Lanka more recently, left-arm spinner Rangana Herath and off-spinner Tharindu Kaushal teamed up to bowl the hosts to a sensational victory in the first Test in Galle.

What really are the reasons for the deteriorating standards of Indian batting against spin? Let us dissect the causes for India’s woes while dealing with the spinning ball.

Given the hectic schedule, the Indian batsmen hardly feature in domestic cricket these days. It is by playing regularly against spin in the sub-continental tracks that batsmen sharpen their skills. That is not happening now, with several international cricketers seldom figuring in a Ranji Trophy game during the entire season. Apart from technique, this hurts their mental make-up against spin.

Too much of ODI and Twenty20 cricket has led to a deterioration of innings-building skills, so vital for Test cricket. Batsmen lack patience in Test cricket and the art of milking the spinners by playing straighter to long-off and long-on and waiting for the loose delivery to strike is all but lost. Too many batsmen want to dominate spinners too early and consequently pay the price. Batsmen need to settle down against spinners and read them before unleashing the big strokes. The habits of Twenty20 and ODIs are carried into the Test arena.

The use of the feet is the biggest casualty because of the amount of shorter duration matches. If you look at the great Indian batsmen from the past, most of them were nimble-footed. They would dance down the pitch to get to the pitch of the ball, go forward in a decisive way, or go back to use the depth of the crease and shorten the length for the cut and the pull. Batsmen, then, created room, and when they went back they gave themselves extra time to gauge the extent of turn and come up with an appropriate response. Picking the length early and playing the ball late leaves the spinners frustrated. So do the singles that are so crucial in rotating the strike.

Several Indian batsmen — Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane are relative exceptions — appear to lose the battle in the mind when they come up against spinners on pitches conducive to spin. They see a couple of deliveries spin past the bat or turn into them sharply and then let that impact their approach mentally. More often than not they get out to an ill-advised stroke.

This also reveals a lack of belief in their own technique, that they can survive against the spinners on a pitch offering appreciable turn by employing the right methods. Batsmen need to use their feet to get to the ball or rely on the time-tested ploy of going right back into the crease and be in a position to leave the spinning deliveries or essay the right stroke against it. To succeed on turning wickets, the batsmen need to back themselves with correct footwork than being undone mentally and resorting to destructive, and often fatal, measures.

The quality of spin has also declined in domestic cricket. There was an era when most of the State teams had two or even three good spinners in the XI. Some of them such as Padmakar Shivalkar, Rajinder Goel, Rajinder Singh Hans or S. Vasudevan, who never figured in Tests, posed searching questions to line-ups in domestic games.

Then there were giants such as Erapalli Prasanna, Bishan Singh Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekar, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, V. V. Kumar, Dilip Doshi and many others who participated with all their intensity in domestic matches elevating the levels of contest. When batsmen take on such high-quality bowling in domestic cricket they are bound to breeze past the spin threat in the international arena.

Now the opposite is happening. The quality of spin in the Ranji Trophy is largely mediocre at best, with several teams struggling to find even one decent spinner. And when young batsmen are brought up against these spin attacks in domestic cricket, they are up against it in the international arena.

All the above reasons are precisely why South African leg-spinner Imran Tahir could be a threat for India in the upcoming four-Test series at home. Batting legend Sachin Tendulkar is right in warning the Indian camp about Tahir’s capabilities ahead of the series.

Tahir is an attacking bowler with variety who is operating with greater control these days. Decisive footwork holds the key against this influential South African.